My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
The more I pay attention to it, the more I begin to believe that one factor may be more important to producing quality work than any other: The ability to recognize it.
And taking it one step further, the ability to recognize its absence.
And finally, the ability/willingness to replace <non-quality work> with <quality work>.
The above posits two things:
1. We can produce quality work at times.
(This seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
2. We are imperfect, and don’t always produce quality work.
(This also seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
Therefore, we can do good work, yet we don’t always do good work. Why is this? I mean, wouldn’t we want everything we do to be “quality” work?
I believe it’s partially because we don’t always take the steps necessary to recognize when we’re not doing quality work. This takes time, effort, and an understanding of what constitutes good work*.
[*I realize this opens the huge can of wildly subjective worms known as: What is good writing? We’re certainly not going to solve that one here, and far be it from me to set the bar for this, regardless. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s loosely accept “Writing which you and agents and editors and publishers and especially readers believe does an effective job at conveying the story such that it feels like ‘lived experience’ to the reader. It doesn’t take the reader out of the story, or get in the way of the story, but instead presents it as an emotional experience that feels real – at least in the moment – to the reader. Regardless of the type of story.” Let’s go with that for now… ]
One could undertake a focused study specifically designed to help them recognize, understand, and—hopefully—produce quality work in fiction. (There are a number of MFA programs aimed at exactly this. Some of them are even genre-focused, such as a deep dive into kidlit, etc.) Some writers take this path, and some have good results with it. In my view, any educational experience that asks the student to look deeply into why something works or doesn’t work is likely to be beneficial on some level. (And aside from that, there are lots of other opportunities to study the craft both within and outside the traditional educational environment.)
On the opposite end, you could simply read with abandon – broadly, deeply, and at a high volume. This—although usually done without the knowledge at the time that it’s great training for being a writer—is how many of us learned the fundamentals of the craft. If we’ve spent a significant amount of time reading as described, it would be hard not to absorb and internalize at least some of the precepts of “good” writing*. (This assumes we’re reading “good” writing, but again simplifying for the sake of discussion: We’re very likely reading what we will later want to produce—publishable fiction that we like in a genre with which we’re familiar. Which is close enough for now.)
[*Synchronicity! I just read an interview in a separate-yet-still-creative field (audio mastering) which said, about the same concept, “There is something that comes from that level of immersion where the depth of what is absorbed cannot be fully articulated. It is the repetition, the problem solving, and the law of big numbers. Smaller samplings don’t reveal as much information…” I couldn’t agree more.]
This doesn’t automatically make us a good writer, any more than being a music lover automatically makes us a good musician. But at least it gives us a critical bar to aim for. In the hierarchy of self-knowledge, going from “unconsciously incompetent” to “consciously incompetent” is a massive step in the right direction. (Because once we know we need to improve—and where—we’re on your way. But until then, we’re sort of stuck.)
Taking the music analogy a little further, when young musicians first learn how to play, they almost universally work up a set of cover tunes—they learn to play popular (and generally good) songs, by popular (and generally good) bands. They’re not doing it as a conscious study of “what the greats of the field have done before us.” They’re not doing it as a study at all. They’re doing it because (1) it’s fun to play cool tunes, (2) they want to jam with friends, and it really helps to have some agreed-upon songs they can all play, and (3) they want to gig, which means they have to learn and play songs other people want to hear. Yet in this process they’re also unintentionally giving themselves an education that’s vital to continuing their musical journey. (And as a counterpoint, occasionally you’ll hear a competent musician try to play a song in a certain style—funk or country or blues or whatever—and it’s clear they haven’t ever really listened to that genre.)
You see this sometimes with writing. You’ll read something by someone with the ability to put together well-written sentences, yet when you read it, you might think: Have they ever even read a romance (or SF or mystery or YA or whatever)…? Because it’s written in a way that indicates unfamiliarity with the canon. (And consider the following: whoever reads your Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novel will likely have already read a ton of Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novels… even if you haven’t. And they’ll be comparing it to everything that’s gone before. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unique, but there’s a significant difference between “new & unique” and “misses the mark.”)
And finally, you’ll sometimes see a manuscript containing good writing (however we define it) followed by a patch of over-baked, cliched writing. And the question here might be: Can they not see the difference between this stuff right here and that stuff over there, only three pages away?
I’m going to suggest that maybe they actually can’t. At least, maybe not in the moment. And the reason for that may be that they spend a certain amount of their reading time perusing work that has the very issue described above. Which can have the opposite result as the “raising the bar” effect that can come from reading really good stuff. I’ve personally noticed a phenomenon where if I’ve recently read a fair amount of “not so good” work (however we define that), my own writing seems to suffer. I’m not sure exactly why, but the effect seems to be real. Maybe it sort of de-calibrates my “quality compass”…? (Imagine if you watched a whole bunch of subpar, student-made, cliché-ridden slasher films, then set out to make a moving, nuanced, coming-of-age film? I’m guessing you might be better off studying the masters, instead.)
Which is why I not only say ‘Read Good, Write Good,’ but also… perhaps… ‘Read Bad, Write Bad.’
Sometimes a producer, during the pre-production phase of making a record, will distribute a list of records for the bandmembers to listen to prior to going in to the studio. Maybe records that have a certain vibe or quirkiness or sophistication (or whatever aspect the producer wants to spotlight). This is not in an effort to tell them, “Let’s play music just like this!” It’s more to give them an overall bar to shoot for… often the records are in a completely different genre than the record they’re going to make. (Which is all the better, as copying it is completely off the table.)
So… perhaps we can do likewise if/when we find ourselves a little adrift regarding being able to self-critique our own work for whatever reason. Prior to starting a recent realistic/contemporary novel, in an effort to calibrate my “What does good look like?” meter, I read a book in a totally different field (magic realism, in this case). It was very different from my work in a lot of fundamental ways (character, voice, vibe, plot, etc.) but it was brilliantly written, it let me know what was possible, and it sort of put me in the frame of mind to try to “get out there and do good work.”
So… happy reading!
People often say, “Are you a process person or a results person?”
To which I usually answer, “Yes.”
Which is true in a couple of ways. Yes, I enjoy both the process and the results of creation pretty equally, with some obvious exceptions. (The process of original drafting is pretty damn magical, regardless of where it ends up… while the process of a structural rewrite can be painful but the results can be very rewarding.)
But beyond that, I’ve learned that the process can actually help determine the results.
I’ve also learned that process is specific to the individual, and it’s a mistake (and a little ego-centric) to say that because something worked for you, it will therefore be the best for someone else. Because writing (and music and dancing and filmmaking and…) is an art, not a science. And because we’re all a study of one.
However, there are still a few valid things we can say about process…
1. We can say, “This worked for me,” and explain why, followed by, “…so it might work for you, too. Or not. But it may be worth a try.”
2. We can say, “Here are several ways people have done this, successfully, so you might want to try them and see if any of them fits your workflow.”
3. And we can say, “Regardless of which one you use, recognize that process is important. So if the work isn’t working, before you bail out and think that you’re bad or your idea is bad or your writing is bad… maybe try a different process.”
That last one is important. Not all processes work for all people. Sure. But it’s also true that in most cases, no single process will work for all projects by the same writer. I have a process I’ve dialed in over years that works well for articles, but I used a very different process for my non-fiction books. For book length fiction, they’re all somewhat different.*
[*With my first novel (still in the trunk, thank God) I made a detailed outline. But with the next one—my first published novel—I had a character and a setting and a basic conflict and an idea about where it was going, and away I went. With an SF novel, I took a short story I’d written earlier and morphed it into the first chapter of a much longer story. With the novel I recently sold, I’d just finished work on another project and still had the bug to write, so I just jumped in the next day and started writing with no plot in mind whatsoever… just a character and a vibe. And with the one on deck after that, I imagined a funny scene (just a funny line, really), made that the inciting incident, and went from there. I knew the ending—sort of—but much of the middle was discovered en route.]
So again, when the muse is on strike, don’t automatically assume there’s something fundamentally wrong with you or your writing. In my experience—both with my own work and the work of others—most of these issues are process-oriented. You can’t change who you are (and you’re the only you, regardless, so revel in that) but you can change your approach to how you’re doing the work.
It may be something pretty big-picture, like…
Issue: You’re floundering and constantly backpedaling/deleting/rewriting.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re unclear about where you’re going.
Process change: Take off the “pants” and put on some “plot.” (Make an outline.)
Or more stylistic, such as…
Issue: The work doesn’t connect because it’s overwritten.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re consciously trying to write “writerly.”
Process change: Get out of the way of the story and tell it plainly.
Or maybe business oriented…
Issue: Striking out with multiple projects in quick succession.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re submitting too soon, before it’s ready.
Process change: Finish; let sit; tear into it like you didn’t write it; beta; revise; polish.
And so on.
The point isn’t to diagnose every possible process issue with our writing. The point is to recognize that when we’re not getting the results we want, the answer might not be to blindly follow the same process, like there’s only one way to do it. Instead, the answer might be to take a step back, appraise the situation objectively, and try to think of different ways to approach it.
Sometimes it’s as simple as how we think about the work itself:
Maybe my project’s not a YA book, it’s a middle grade book?
Or: Maybe it’s not a memoir, it’s an historical novel?
Or: Maybe I should dump the magic and go with the strongest part of the story, which is the contemporary/realistic aspect?
Or our marketing approach:
Maybe, since my work is an ‘amateur female detective’ mystery, I should read a bunch of amateur female detective mysteries, find the ones that are a good fit for mine, and make a targeted, personal query to the agents/editors who worked on those books?
Or: Maybe I should give the person at the other end of my query what they actually care about (a concise, compelling description of my story) instead of talking about me and my ‘brand’ and my ‘platform’…?
Or: Maybe I should shop the story that means the most to me, vs trying to catch the flavor of the month as it goes zipping by?
Or the nuts & bolts of how we actually write:
Maybe, since I’m not at my best when I get up an hour early every morning, I should forget all that ‘write every day’ advice and instead set aside a few hours each weekend when I feel motivated and productive?
Or: Maybe, instead of not putting on the editor hat until I’m done with the whole draft, I should try editing each chapter as I finish it, so I’m building on a stronger foundation?
Or: Maybe I should forget about the hypothetical reader and write a story that I, personally, would love to read?
OR… maybe… you could take some of the above options and use them as a jumping-off point and do something entirely different… different from what you’re currently doing, and different from these examples. Maybe the opposite of these examples.
That’s the whole point – there is no ‘one right way.’ But there is a way (probably several ways) that will work for you. You just won’t know which one it is until you try it.
First, some down-and-dirty definitions…
Memoir: A written chronicle of your memories of what happened to you (hence the name), either during a select period of your life or the entirety of it.
What makes it work: Delineation of the facts around your life—as best you can recall—filtered through your unique perspective… all hopefully bundled up in an interesting fashion.
Novel: A story constructed by you, with characters, settings, and events (and responses to them) chosen specifically to yield a compelling story. Ideally written in a way that makes it emotionally meaningful for the reader.
What makes it work: Connecting with the reader via your chosen characters and events, and hopefully crafted such that it gets at a bigger truth which will resonate with others.
I think we all know the fundamental difference between these—at least intellectually—yet we frequently see early writers negatively impacted by conflating them.*
[*I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an aspiring writer talking to a group about their WIP plot and someone says, “What if you…?” and the writer doesn’t respond with, “I like that” or “It doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to say,” but instead says, “But that’s not the way it happened!”]
I think some of this comes from confusing inspiration with source material. Many of us—especially with our early stories—are inspired by events that either happened to us or happened to others we know. This makes sense—we likely have an emotional connection to these events since they happened to us or people close to us—and we’re familiar with the specifics, so we can write those events with some verisimilitude.
This is all good—great, even—as far as it goes. Especially the part about the authenticity that comes from writing from personal experience.
The issue arises when the writer somehow thinks she needs to write it the way it happened. Either through (a) the belief that “the way it really happened” is somehow a stronger story than the one she could concoct, or (b) some sort of loyalty to the actual facts around the inspiring incident. Let’s deconstruct these…
(a) The problem here, of course, is that reality rarely follows a compelling, tightly-plotted story line. Simply because something “really happened” does not automatically make it more believable or real or compelling or resonant. These factors come from the value-added contributions of the writer, who makes the story more compelling, etc., through her story-telling, craft, and hard work.
(b) If you feel a sense of loyalty compelling you to tell the story as it happened, that’s great! Write a memoir (if it happened to you) or a non-fiction work (if you’re not personally involved in the events). Either of these will be stronger due to your fealty to the facts as they occurred. But I’d advise against writing a novel. Because a novel is creative truth-telling through lying. And “sticking to the facts” here can weaken—if not flat-out kill—the larger truth. (By robbing the novel of one of its special powers, as we’ll see below.)
So that might be what not to do. But what should we do? We can use the actual events to inspire a story, to give us a jumping-off point, to motivate us to write the wonderful/amazing/romantic ending that should have happened… or maybe to write the one that would have been terrifying had it actually occurred. Or let justice prevail… let the bad guy get his comeuppance in a poetically satisfying way. Or start with the bare beginning of the factual events and take it in a completely different direction. Or simply use your familiarity with the broad setting and events to add authenticity and detail to all those small little scenes in what is an otherwise wholly constructed tale.
Any of these will allow you to fold your personal experience and knowledge into your fictional story and up the “feels real” quotient without being boxed in by “how it really happened.”
Because at its heart I think one of the hidden powers of a novel is that it allows you to take some small fact about the human condition—whether funny or sad or scary or romantic or thrilling—and amplify it in a way that speaks to a larger truth. And being chained to the bare facts yanks the amplifier’s plug out of the wall, leaving your story without the power it could have had.
It’s a common belief among editors (because it’s largely true) that many early novels are autobiographical in some way. That’s fine. I’ve done it, most authors I know have done it, and you’ve probably done it (or will do it) too. All to the good… our experiences can be strong inspiration and make things feel more like actual lived experience to the reader, as discussed above. But we should use them as a springboard to take our story wherever it wants to go, not as gutters to keep it within a narrow lane.
Factual events can inspire your novel, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the source material. They’re not. The source material is what’s in your heart.
Happy lying... happy truth-telling!
At the time of this writing, in-store visits are still problematic in many locations. I hear some authors say they can’t wait until we can do them again (amen!) while some are doing virtual visits. (Good on them. Indies—and authors—can use all the help they can get these days.)
But I also hear some questioning the fundamental usefulness of book touring, per se.
Fair enough. Because I’ll be the first to admit that if you look at it strictly from a “return on investment” viewpoint, the answer’s not always crystal clear. So let’s step back a bit…
A few years ago my wife and I had books come out at the same time and decided it might be fun to do a joint book tour. Our plans started small but, as per usual, once we began brainstorming all common sense left the room and we ended up booking and doing what was probably the largest national book tour of that year.
Sixteen weeks on the road, covering almost 100 bookstores plus dozens of school visits, along with conferences, festivals, libraries, book fairs, etc. Done in two eight-week legs—one in the spring and one in the fall, with a break over summer because our kids were home—we covered much of the U.S., burning up 15,000 miles of highway in our trusty minivan.
It was a blast getting to visit all those bookstores… virtually all of which were indies. When we were booking the tour, we had a few criteria: If it was a mom & pop store*, if they had a store dog or cat, and if they had coffee, they were definitely in… assuming they were anywhere close to our planned route.
[*We also visited a lot of iconic indies that are well beyond “mom & pop”—Book People, Tattered Cover, Powell’s, Hicklebees, Changing Hands, Wild Rumpus, Anderson’s, The Bookworm, etc. But you get the vibe...]
We can talk about the logistics of touring later (as usual, I have thoughts) but today I want to address the question behind the question. The initial question is usually something like “How many books did you sell?” and/or “Did you make money?”
The answer to the first one is technically zero. We don’t sell books. (But we gave away hundreds, with our goofy-yet-fun “Booking” adventures, invented by my brilliant wife.) But the stores we visited definitely sold some books. I don’t know exactly how many, but certainly well into the thousands. (Which doesn’t mean we hit list. We presented at 100 stores, right?)
The answer to the second one is no. And yes, probably, eventually. And the real answer: Umm… that’s sort of missing the point.
The answer’s a little vague because it was kind of a hybrid tour, regarding support. When a publisher sends you on tour, they usually fly you to a big city where you present at a few stores and maybe a school, then to another city (where you do the same), and on to a few more cities. All very nice, and all on their dime. (This is 80/20 observational vs. experiential for me, but my wife has been fortunate enough to have been toured several times.) But we wanted something a little different. We wanted to visit the indies in flyover country, many of whom don’t get authors every day, if ever. And we wanted to visit a LOT of them. (Partly, my wife wanted to visit all those indies in the middle of the country as a “thank you” for hand-selling her books all these years. And we wanted to see America, beyond the left and right coasts.)
Booking the tour and being in contact with our respective publicists, it quickly became apparent that we were planning something far beyond their purview. Which was fine by us—we knew going in that this was above and beyond what we could expect any publisher to spring for. But it wasn’t entirely on us—the publisher generously supported a leg in the middle of it, where we flew from Seattle to Chicago, presented at a pair of conferences as well as some schools and stores, then back to Seattle where our book-wrapped van awaited. Also, some of the events have decent honorariums, and I recall after one particularly busy stretch of back-to-back-to-back presentations at bigger conferences and schools we were pretty worn out, but then I did the math and said, “Well, we just paid for our gas for the whole tour.” But on the other hand, over 100 nights in hotels can really add up, even if you’re not staying at the fanciest place in town.
So I really don’t know… maybe we made money, maybe not? Either way, it would be hard to make the case that we came home flush. (And the royalties from books sold at our in-store events wouldn’t show up for six months, regardless.) All of which leads to the question behind the question:
As we’ve seen, the reasons many people immediately think of (sell books, make money) may or may not apply. Yes, part of that equation depends on the level of support—if any—you get from your publisher. But there are longer term benefits that will apply regardless of where the financing comes from. Such as…
Building relationships with booksellers.
This is a biggie. In the Amazon age it’s easy to overlook the importance of word-of-mouth and—especially—hand selling, but this is still a very effective way for books to reach readers. And it carries the weight of authenticity: readers will take a trustworthy bookseller’s recommendation over an algorithm any day. But you have to do your part. If you just swoop in, basically say “Buy my book!” then sign and leave, you have become the sales algorithm. But if you do the work to bring some new potential customers to an indie store, offer the store and attendees something of value*, and interact with the customers and staff in a way that’s far removed from simply trying to sell your book, you may have the start of a real relationship. And—assuming they find you and your work to be genuine—the bookseller may be inclined to recommend your work long after you’ve gone.
Plus, writers don’t work in the typical office environment… most of it is just you, alone with your computer and the voices in your head. It’s nice to get out once in a while and commune with your ‘co-workers’… the booksellers and librarians and teachers who care about the written word as much as you do.
[*When it made logistical & scheduling sense, we would sometimes offer to do a pro bono author presentation at a nearby school of the store’s choosing. Sometimes the store would hold an associated book sale at the school and sometimes not, but regardless, we always made a point of telling the school (and the students) that their local indie bookstore could have picked any school to have us visit and they picked this one, so please return the favor and support them. And of course we’d also mention that we’d be at their local bookstore that evening, which often brought students and their families to the store. Helping connect stores with their local schools and community is a win-win situation for everyone.]
Interacting with your readers…
Let’s face it—meeting fans of your work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on book tour… in times when inspiration is running low, nothing quite picks you back up like someone telling you what your work meant to them. And if you give your time and attention freely and honestly to your readers, they’ll remember that going forward, also.
…and reaching new ones.
Everything I just said about interacting with fans applies to new readers, too. Even those who’ve never read a word you’ve written will leave with an impression of you… as a person, if not (yet) as a reader. And don’t think for a minute that the one doesn’t affect the other*.
[*My overall take on in-store presentations: If you swoosh in there and regurgitate a list of your various books with descriptions of each, etc., you come off like a walking version of your publisher’s catalog. Zzzz… Or worse, if you do the “Well, in my book…” thing (popular with non-fiction authors but not unheard of with novelists) you come across like an “As seen on TV” salesperson. But if you’re an honest, engaging, sincere, funny, and/or informative person (pick any of the above, as long as it includes honest), and you offer something of value to the attendees (vs. ego-boosting yourself) then—without even really talking about your books—their overall impression will likely be something along the lines of, “Wow. They were helpful and took the time to answer my question and they seemed nice and authentic… and funny, too. I bet I’d enjoy their books!”]
Presenting in front of potential advocates for your work.
This is one of those intangible things that can pay off in the long term, but it’s hard to know exactly when or how. However, presenting to educators or librarians or teachers or even teachers-of-teachers (NCTE, anyone?) can only be a good thing. There may be no immediate payoff from any specific conference (any potential honorarium or travel allowance aside) and there may never be. But that’s okay. Besides them learning about you and your work, there’s a lot you can learn from them… about what works and what doesn’t in an educational setting, about what interests their students, etc. It’s good karma. And you just never know*.
[*Example: I’ve presented in front of teachers at reading conferences in the Midwest, including during the tour described above. The following year, a teacher in L.A. contacted me and said she’d heard about my book from an educator at an English teachers’ workshop who used my book as an example during a presentation. She thought it was a good fit for something she was teaching, so she required all the school’s incoming freshmen to read it over the summer. It’s not possible to trace events back to where it started, but there’s a fairly decent possibility that someone heard me talking about the book somewhere and told someone else who told someone else (teachers talk!) and pretty soon… Bob’s your uncle.]
Showing your publisher that you’re willing to do your part.
Like the other points, this is sort of unquantifiable but very real, nevertheless. It’s no secret that at least part of the publicity for any upcoming publication depends on the author, and the more you can do—and the more you can let them know about what you’re doing—the more they appreciate it, and may be inclined to think favorably of you*. So another benefit of doing whatever you can—on whatever level is workable for you, whether that’s garnering local press or doing local signings or library presentations or schools or whatever—is that you’re demonstrating your willingness to pitch in and be a team player. Which can only be a good thing.
[*I remember dropping our editor off at the airport to fly back to NYC after she flew in to see a pair of special events we were doing in the Northwest in the middle of that crazy tour, and I thanked her for coming. She seemed genuinely surprised and said, “Oh no… thank you, for all you guys are doing!” That brought home to me the fact that yeah, along with promoting ourselves and our works—and books & reading in general—we were also promoting our publisher’s products, and this fact was not lost on them.]
So… does it make sense to tour?
Strictly in dollars and cents over the short term, it might not. (Like, if you were only going to put out one book and your only goal was to maximize immediate profits, touring beyond your local area would be counterproductive.)
But over the long haul, with multiple books over multiple years (which I’m guessing most of us want), then yes, you can make a strong case that building up bookseller loyalty… that meeting your readers in person… that helping create new readers… that presenting in front of people who value books the way we do… that helping your publisher get the word out… is absolutely beneficial over the long haul.
Because as I’ve said before, for virtually all of us this isn’t a get-rich-quick thing. It a long game. So we need to take the long view. And getting out there and doing all the things we’ve discussed is a great step toward building a solid foundation for a creative career.
Blurbing is considered a necessary evil in the industry. “Necessary” is debatable (most industry insiders say most blurbs don’t move the needle much… if at all) but the “evil” part is understandable, from both sides:
The author of the work in question basically has to approach her fellow authors—hat in hand—and beg for favors. And of course, the more desirable blurbs come from those higher on the food chain, so we’re generally asking more successful authors to spend some of their precious time reading our upcoming book—and then composing thoughtful-yet-hopefully-enticing commentary about it. All at no cost.
So it’s a tough ask. Which is why newer authors like to have others (read: editors and/or agents) do the asking for them. Another benefit of this is having a go-between insulates the asker from the askee, so the askee doesn’t feel quite so bad saying, “No, sorry, I’m too busy with my own career to read and gush over a stranger’s book at the moment. But thanks for asking!” And even worse is when the blurber reads said manuscript and thinks, “Holy heck! No way do I want my name associated with this burning pile of poop!” Much better to have editor #2 politely tell editor #1 that author #2 has decided that author #1’s project “…is wonderful, but isn’t quite right for her. But my author wishes your author all the success in the world.”
In a perfect world, the author’s editor will put out feelers to a number of potential blurb candidates and only tell her author about the ones who actually said yes, then actually read it and actually had something wonderful to say about it. With no mention of all the “Sorry, love to, but I’m too busy right now” (aka hell no!) responses. Less hurt feelings all the way around.
However, in the real world the author frequently has to at least draw up a list of people she might like to have blurb her book, avoiding the obvious no-go candidates. (Just like with comps: Your new book probably isn’t the next “Happy Potter meets The Hunger Games with a little Twilight thrown in,” nor should you ask your editor to try to bug JK or Suzanne or Stephenie for a blurb. Or Oprah.) But there are plenty of authors who write in the same general area as you and/or whose readers might like your work, and who are successful enough that their name will—in theory—add some cache to the back cover of your book. And you might be able to get your editor or publicist or agent to ask them, if it makes sense and if they have some sort of realistic connection to them.
But you may also end up doing some or all of this yourself, either because the others mentioned above don’t have any connection to your list of promising candidates, or because maybe you don’t have an editor/agent/publicist, because you’re an intrepid indie author.
So either way, hat-in-hand it is, for many of us. Which leads to the big question:
When do we query for a blurb?
You’d think this would be fairly obvious… when you have a complete manuscript, all ready to go (not just written but revised, rewritten, edited, copyedited, and polished… whether trad or indie) but before publication. In other words, basically at the ARC stage. But enough before pub date that your publisher can get those wonderful, gushy, blurby words onto the book’s jacket (or else why get them in the first place?) but hopefully late enough that the blurber will be reading something close to the final version.
All the above makes perfect sense, but then someone decided that if they got blurbs even earlier, they could put those words of praise on the jacket of the ARC itself. And then reviewers (and librarians and booksellers and other tastemakers of all stripes) might see it and think, “Well, so-and-so already loves this, so maybe I should, too.” Thus the “pre-blurb” was born. But—to its credit, I guess—it’s still editors/agents/authors asking other editors/agents/authors to have someone read and blurb an almost-ready-for-primetime, soon-to-be-published book.
And then some creative soul—who likely spends more time on ‘writer twitter’ than on actually writing—decided that if they got a famous (or at least well-published, or at least, well… published) author to read and blurb their un-agented, un-edited, un-contracted (maybe even unfinished) manuscript, then they, too, might be published soon.
Yup. They don’t want to use Mr. or Ms. Famous Author to tell the world how good they thought the book was. In reality they simply want to use his/her glowing words to try to land an agent. Who—in theory—will be so dazzled by this that they’ll sign said book right up and immediately start repping it to editors who will also fall into lockstep once they see the blurbiest blurb in the entire blurbdom attached to said manuscript… never mind whether the manuscript itself is great or good or even fair.
A few issues with the--ahem—“pre-pre-blurb”…
1. You’re asking a busy person (all people are busy) to spend a good chunk of their free time reading your manuscript and then composing comments intended for the back of a book which may never see the light of day. (Yes, blurbing authors are doing another—often newer—author a big favor by reading and blurbing their book, but there is also the intangible, theoretical perk for the blurber of getting their name on the back of every copy of the book they blurbed. Which—assuming the book is in fact really good and does really well—might actually be of some small benefit.)
2. You’re asking that busy person to read a manuscript which almost certainly hasn’t been through the editorial process published books go through. Yet they (in theory) are supposed to comment on it as though it were a fait accompli, already sitting on the shelves of their local bookstore next to all the published books it’s competing with.
3. You are attempting to leverage the good name of Mr. or Ms. Famous Author specifically to fuel the next step in your career by attracting the attention of an agent and/or editor. I realize all blurbing is about marketing to one degree or another, but this seems pretty blatantly one-sided, and de-centers the fundamental work of producing a strong, polished manuscript.
4. And finally, if the manuscript actually does get representation and then publication*, the book which finally gets published (complete with blurb on the back) will likely be a different book (sometimes wildly different) than the one which was originally blurbed. And Mr. or Ms. Famous Author’s name will be inextricably linked to something they may not have chosen to blurb in the first place, had they seen the final result. (Pig in a poke, anyone?)
[*Please note that none of this is to say you shouldn’t blurb an indie author. If the indie book is 95% polished and ready to go to pub (i.e. it’s at the ARC stage) and you read it and like it, then sure, why not? But if it’s as described above—basically an early draft that hasn’t been through the editorial process—then everything we said about a pre-pre-blurb still applies.]
So… when should an author ask for a blurb? IMO, when they’ve done all the hard work to get to the point where the book is ready to launch—writing, revising, polishing, querying, submitting, editing, copyediting—and ready to be read. (With the assumption that all that hard work has resulted in a work worthy of another author putting her stamp of approval on it.) But not before. Blurbing is supposed to be, “Would you mind reading this book which we’ve put so much time and energy into, and maybe give the public a sneak preview of what they can expect?” Not, “Would you attach your name to my early draft and launch* my book for me?”
[*See this post on the fallacy of thinking an author can help you fast-pass the line to publication.]
Happy blurb hunting!
I was listening to a writing podcast recently and someone was complaining that what he was doing “wasn’t working” (meaning he wasn’t getting published). Which is something we can all relate to at one point or another. Except this guy’s frustration was largely centered around the fact that he was doing everything “right” from a marketing standpoint—following all the latest trends/advice/buzz—and it still wasn’t working. More out of sympathy than anything else, I found myself saying to my phone, “Dude… if you really want to get published, you should try caring more about writing than publishing.”
This is not me being snarky or flip, or saying I have all the answers. (Are you kidding?) It’s simply me giving my best quick-hit advice based on observing the creation and acquisition of multiple books from multiple authors over multiple years…
Yes, there are a lot of formulaic manuals about how to write a novel. And maybe even more about how to get published. And even more “get rich quick” infomercials online about how to “be a successful author.” And blogs and vlogs and podcasts and videos and social posts galore about all of the above, each touting the latest FOMO-driven tips about what agents and editors want. We’ve discussed this before, here and here.*
[*TL;DR: (a) Most plot construction formulas come from screenplay writing. While there are some useful concepts there, a novel is a somewhat different beast. (b) Writing to trends is problematic for many reasons. If you start writing to a trend today and the writing, revising, polishing, querying, submission, acquisition, editing, and publishing processes all go without a hitch (ha!), your book will grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble in three years at best. By which time the universe may have moved on. (c) If the authors of those “Seven Easy Steps to Writing a Bestseller” e-books actually had the formula to writing a bestseller, they would probably be spending their time actually, um… writing bestsellers. (d) Almost all of the above “advice” assumes editors are just looking for a re-hash of whatever’s currently selling, like car salesmen or something, which is simply a false narrative. The reality with most editors at most imprints is something completely different. More on this later.]
And yet… even though the interwebs are abuzz with this stuff, no one I know who’s been published has followed anything remotely like the sort of trendy advice described above. And shoring this up is another observation, made by virtually every editor I’ve heard speak on the subject: The work which resonates best with readers is almost always the work which means the most to the writer.
Because, at best, what we do as writers is try and translate what’s in our heads into the heads of our readers. And if all that’s in your head is, “I hope I’ve found something trendy enough that someone’ll publish it,” that’s exactly what readers will get from it—that the motivation wasn’t passion but profit. And they’ll buy into your story about as much as they’ll buy the spiel from the used car salesman. (And of course, the first reader of any consequence will be an agent or editor, who are experts at detecting passion… or the lack thereof.)
So, submitted for your consideration: If you want to get published, try banishing all thoughts of publication from your mind while you’re conceiving, plotting, drafting, revising, and polishing your work. Do your best to write that which matters to you, which you have passion for, and which might even scare you a little. And don’t stop until it’s the best it can be. Because doing that gives you the greatest chance of reaching someone else… including an agent or editor.
Because… what if… just maybe… most agents and editors aren’t looking for someone who can replicate the flavor-of-the-month? What if they’re actually looking for writers who create well-crafted, interesting, emotionally engaging stories? Because maybe they know that’s largely what readers want to read… stories that get to some real truths about the human condition, about how we live, or maybe about how we should live?
We could do worse than attempt to create such a story.
And only then—when your heart is fully on the page and the story is crafted to the very best of your abilities—should you turn your complete attention to the process of finding an agent or editor who may respond to the story with as much emotion as you put into it.
But until then, the less you think about publishing, the more likely you are to craft a story someone will want to publish.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Many of us have certain things we like to do while writing, or maybe it’s a certain place or a favorite sweater or certain music or snacking on certain foods or… (Personally, I can’t write without some sort of beverage—usually caffeinated—sitting next to me.)
I suppose you could make the case that a writer should be able to write anywhere, at any time, while eating/drinking anything… or nothing, and while listening to anything… or nothing, and while wearing…. you get the point.
I humbly disagree. Or at least, I don’t think the best way to approach an act of creativity is to force it under unfamiliar circumstances.
I have a theory that humans enjoy having certain things or conditions around them while doing creative work because these familiar things—these rituals—prepare the mind for whatever comes next. They serve as reminders… they say to the brain, it’s time to write (or paint, or exercise, or eat, or sleep, etc.). Or maybe they simply give us the message, This is a safe place… it’s okay to relax. Like a child having their favorite stuffed animal when going to bed.
Or maybe just having the familiar is good because it’s, well… familiar*.
[*My wife used to have a watch which—for some inexplicable reason—always started beeping at 8:00 a.m. Even with the alarm mode off. Every time it happened, we’d look at each other and laugh. “It must be eight o’clock!” She finally replaced it… and immediately missed the friendly little “enjoy your morning!” reminder. So instead of getting used to a correctly functioning watch, she set her new watch to alarm each morning at 8:00. Just this morning, we were most of the way through our weekend long run and feeling a bit pooped, when it went off. We both laughed and said, “Must be eight o’clock!” and got a little lift from the friendly reminder. I mean, why wouldn’t you want that?]
So if there are certain things that make you feel creative or mindful or relaxed or just plain happy… don’t be afraid to incorporate them into your writing routine, regardless of the location or circumstances. We might have to get a little creative or be a little flexible, but there’s usually a way to make it work.
Example: my favorite thing to listen to when I write is… nothing at all. Not that I don’t love music. Actually it’s the opposite problem—I get involved in the music to the point of distraction. Same with nearby conversation… I find myself actively listening (as writers do), trying to make sense of it… trying to fit it into some sort of story line. But sometimes I like to leave the confines of the quiet office and venture out among the rest of the human race. Like at, say, a nearby coffee shop. So I bring my silence with me… in the form of earplugs. It really helps with concentration to be able to block out most of the outside noise.
(Some people use earbuds and leave them unplugged, which both blocks some sound and gives the impression you probably don’t want to be interrupted. And of course, if you can’t write without your death metal blazing away, crank it up and crank out those words!)
I also like those coffee shop paper cups, and I used to take them home and drink coffee in them during writing sessions until they fell apart (usually within a few days). I finally broke down and bought the reusable plastic version. So now—assuming I don’t come too far out of my writing-induced trance and actually look around the room—I can sort of maintain that coffee shop vibe when I’m chained to my office desk*.
[*Speaking of coffee, my wife isn’t the coffee hound I am, but I’ll occasionally make her what I call a “sidewalk latte” as a mid-day pick-me-up. Just a really small straight latte, maybe with a biscuit. The first time I did it I put a tiny spoon next to the small cup just for fun—like at a sidewalk café—even though she doesn’t take sugar. But from then on, I have to include that demitasse spoon. Because it gives her a certain vibe. Which I guess is the whole point of this post…]
So whatever it is that gives you that “I’m in my comfy place, ready to create” vibe, I encourage you to lean into it. Being creative is hard enough (especially this year) and anything we can do to help send an engraved invitation to the muse is definitely worth doing.
Once upon a time I managed to land an agent with my OBFN* and he dutifully shopped it around. After it had made the rounds at most of the bigger houses (some nibbles and close calls, but no solid “yes”), I asked him how I’d know when it was time to pull the plug. He said, “You’ll know it’s time when you just don’t want to do it anymore.”
[*Obligatory Bad First Novel]
At the time I thought that was sort of a glib answer, but I eventually came to realize the absolute wisdom of it.
In theory we can agonize over it indefinitely, but in reality it’s a self-solving problem. As long as you have the belief, desire, and energy to continue shopping the project, you’ll keep shopping it. At some point, the desire fades and/or you direct your energy elsewhere, and you eventually stop shopping it. In many cases (including mine) you end up writing something new, and you focus your energy there instead. Which may be a good strategy regardless, since it’s likely to be a stronger manuscript due to you having the experience of writing the previous book. (Again, in my case, it was. I put the painful lessons I’d learned from that first failed manuscript to good use with my second one, and ended up placing it.)
All of that’s fine, and in retrospect finally quitting on that first book and trying to write something better was the right choice for me (although it sure felt crappy at the time). In fact, I’d venture to say we all have projects, either whole or in pieces, sitting abandoned on a hard drive somewhere. Or maybe stripped and sold for parts (which is another post). Bailing on those projects is painful, but part of the bigger process. Sometimes we have to let things go so that we might move forward.
I think we can all understand that. But sometimes, we might reach a point where we just want to stop writing entirely. Which—while being a different thing—is also understandable. Sometimes a break is the best thing for us, especially if we’re using it to recharge and not as avoidance. (I used to work with a coach who, in the middle of leading an intensive group workout, would sometimes call out, “Take a break if you have to, but not a vacation!”)
Stopping is not quitting. Stopping with the intention of never re-starting is quitting. There’s a qualitative difference*.
[*While in NYC a dozen years ago to run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read (a charity my wife and I started to help raise money for school libraries and to buy books for underprivileged children) we were also able to catch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which happened the day before on a course that consisted of several laps around Central Park. That was both an inspiring and tragic race, with many takeaways. One of the most instructive things I saw was late in the race, when one of the runners near the front of the chase pack pulled over and grabbed the chain link fence next to the path. “Oh man, he’s done,” I thought. I mean, why else would you stop running late in a closely contested race? But he wasn’t done. He clung to the fence, took a few deep breaths and stretched his leg, then pushed off and got back in the race. And finished in the money—somewhere in the top ten.]
But maybe you’re not talking about bailing on a particular project, or even taking a break from writing. Maybe you’re contemplating quitting altogether.
First things first: If you want to quit, you’re absolutely free to do so*. At any time. And you owe no one any sort of explanation or apology.
[*Assuming nothing under contract, of course.]
I could say lots of encouraging things, all of which I fully believe. I could tell you that “failure” is what “success” looks like from the middle of the process (which I’ve experienced firsthand more than once), and that virtually every published author I know swam through a lot of mud before finding clear water, and that collecting rejections is absolutely part of the game. (I’ve got quite the collection myself, and my wife faced rejection for almost ten years before a single “Yes!” wiped out all those “No!” responses and she went on to publish thirty-plus books—and counting—with a major publisher.)
I could also tell you that your sticking point is likely either a process issue or a writing issue, and either way, it’s likely fixable. (Which is pretty much the entire reason I host this blog.) You might consider getting some help… some coaching… some outside input… to give you the “second set of eyes” that can be so critical in finding areas for improvement with either your writing or your shopping process.
I could say all that, and more. But I also know that feeling like you’re beating your head against a stone wall without even a glimmer of a crack can be daunting. Maybe to the point of wanting to stop. Maybe forever. And if so, I’d be the last person to judge you for it.
But maybe the thought of officially “quitting” depresses you, leaving you stuck between two bad choices.
So maybe don’t look at it that way.
Maybe look at it as a trial separation.
Maybe try it for a while, and see how you feel.
If you try it and you’re still good with not writing after several months, then you probably have your answer. If the relief—or the feeling of freedom or just the extra time for other pursuits—from not writing is worth more than the value you get from writing, then you may have made the right choice. If so, good for you, and best of luck at whatever’s next.
But if not… if after a while you find yourself unexpectedly mulling over plot points and thinking of settings and—most especially—creating characters that you care about… that feel real to you, then there’s no law that says you can’t go back to writing.
Remember: Home is the place where—when you knock on the door—they have to let you in.
You can stop with a project that’s not working for you.
You can take a break from writing if you need to.
You can quit altogether if that’s what’s best for you.
And you can always go home again.
But it should be your choice, for your reasons.
I think there are two fundamental truisms regarding writing:
1. You should never write because you feel like you have to, and…
2. You should only write because you feel like you have to.
These may seem self-contradictory, but writers will understand...
The old joke is that these two items are all you need to fix anything...
If it moves and you don’t want it to, use duct tape.
If it doesn’t move and you want it to, use WD-40.
I look at “Writing & Running” as the “Duct Tape & WD-40” of creative work: The answer to almost any creative dilemma can usually be summed up as either Write! or Run!
At least, as long as we understand the metaphorical meaning of these terms as they relate to any art form…
Writing = Capturing an idea and fixing it in time and space by doing creative, authorial work in our chosen field. Other examples of “writing” might include: painting, playwriting, sculpting, screen writing, songwriting, etc.*
Running = Unsticking our creative processes by doing a repetitive, relaxing, typically non-thinking activity. Other examples: Hiking, cycling, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, showering, driving, etc.*
[*Please note that none of these is prescriptive. Someone’s “writing” could just as easily be designing a house or creating a lesson plan for an upcoming class. And their “running” could well be shooting hoops, or maybe puttering in the yard. Or any other version of the “creation” mindset and the “recreation” mindset.]
In an ideal world we would have adequate amounts of time for both, as they tend to feed into each other: Doing work can make us feel like we deserve some play, and playing can help us generate creative ideas for our work. Although I don’t think of them as “work” and “play.” I tend to view them as simply two different methods of thinking—one more conscious than the other—but equally valuable, and usually synergistic.
And on the flip side…
[*BTW, NFW do I think anyone’s actually required to write half a million words be a writer. You write? You’re a writer. Period. Same with the 10,000 hr. rule. But the concept exists for a fundamental reason: We get better at that which we spend time doing. You’d think this would be obvious, but we still see people who spend a lot of time talking about the book they’re going to write… maybe even more time than they actually spend writing. Unless one is a Mozart-level savant, one is unlikely to create great works right off the bat, regardless of age, education, or chosen art form. Everyone seems to grasp this concept with music—no one thinks buying an instrument automatically makes them a good musician without practice—but maybe because we can virtually all “write” to some degree, some people seem to expect that the first things they write will be on par with the work that results from significant practice. This may not always be the case.]
There’s a master music educator named Mike Johnston who will sometimes challenge his audience at clinics and workshops to ask him a question which cannot be answered with the word practice. (“How do I get better at double paradiddles?” “Practice!” “How do I incorporate more jazz phrasing into my improvisation?” “Practice!” “How do I play with intensity at lower volumes?” “Practice!”)
Same thing with writing. Want to improve some aspect of your craft? Write. Need to remind yourself that you’re a writer? Write. Want to have a completed manuscript to shop around? Write.
Need to refill the well with creative ideas to help you accomplish all the above?
The “Three E’s” of novel writing—as I see them—are Events, Engagement, and Execution. They form the three-legged stool on which a strong manuscript depends, and we can get in trouble if we’re leaning too hard on one while ignoring the others.
Let’s break this down a bit…
Events = The storyline aspect of your novel. The concept, the pitch, the premise, the plot. This can include the setting and time of the story—if important to the concept—but overall it can be thought of as “What happens to whom, and when.”
Engagement = The aspect of the story that allows you as the author to become connected to it, and which also acts as the emotional point of entry the reader needs if the story is to resonate with them. Various aspects of a story can provide this connection, but humans are hardwired to care about humans so the most visceral connection is usually through your characters.
Execution = Not only how you write it (style) but how well you write it (craft). Is the story told in such a way that it not only conveys the concepts in your head, but gets them across to the reader in a way that carries emotional weight? (It’s sort of like 1 + 2 = 3. How do you get events to affect a reader? Usually by focusing on how they affect a character with whom the reader has identified.)
Clearly these aspects are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes overlap. (Style and craft are often blurred together for me, and both can certainly affect the engagement of the reader, hopefully in an intentional way.) But to one degree or another they all need to be in the mix.
However, it seems like lately we might be putting more emphasis on the “Events” leg of the stool. Which can be great—I mean, who doesn’t like a well-plotted novel?—except it seems to be to the exclusion of the other two legs. Which can be a problem, as we’ll see.
But first, why is this happening? I think it’s a sign of the times, a byproduct of the information age. We’ve gotten used to answers at our fingertips—the quicker and soundbitier, the better. And we like things laid out in easy-to-follow listicle fashion: Do A, then B, then C… then arrive at Success!
This “just add water” approach doesn’t work well with the “Engagement” aspect of fiction. This is a subjective, emotional component to our writing, really nuanced and usually requiring multiple iterations to arrive at something that will actually move our readers in an emotional fashion to the point where they care deeply for our characters and are willing to follow them anywhere.
There’s no paint-by-numbers approach to “Execution,” either. Take everything we just said about characterization and expand it to include every aspect of the manuscript: voice, description, setting, theme, dialog, action, interior monolog, vibe, etc. There is a TON of finesse and nuance here, requiring a lot of time and energy to make it as good as it can be. Sounds like a long, hard process, I know, but (in my most humble opinion) this is the shit, right here, that will set your work apart from the myriad of other works cranked out without the care and attention the written word deserves.
So what’s left? “Events.” They dovetail nicely with the Boolean how-to concept of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And a dizzying number of guidelines are available, varying in granularity from “Have some events… and maybe a beginning, middle, and ending” to “Here are the five… or seven… or nine… or twelve (up to fifteen in some cases) essential plot events for your story!” Because I spend a certain amount of time reading online about publishing and writing, my social media feed is full of ads promising to help you “Write your novel!” A quick perusal shows that most of these teach almost nothing about the craft of writing, but are mainly a fill-in-the-blanks template meant to give you a perfectly plotted plot-ish plot (from which you magically create a meaningful work of art almost as an afterthought). One I checked out just this morning had a timeline for creating an 80,000 word novel via their method. After filling out the plot creation template, the calendar allotted you something like three weeks to draft it. (“It’s simple! You just follow the plot we’ve created, so it’ll flow from your fingertips!”)
Okay, it’s way too easy to burn that straw man to the ground, so moving on…
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing exactly where you’re going ahead of the journey, including all the little way-points along the path--if that works best for you and your creative mind—but thinking a story-beat template automatically makes for a well-crafted novel is like thinking that having a cookbook automatically makes for a great meal… there might be a little more to it than that.
The potential problem is, if you don’t apply equal attention to the actual crafting of the thing, you’re likely to end up with a book that reads like a litany of ideas, concepts, and plot events, as opposed to creating an emotional experience within the reader’s mind that has the depth, complexity, and nuance of actual lived experience.
Because that last part—having the feel of actual lived experience—is what ultimately grabs the reader. And if it’s not there, having all your story-ducks in a row isn’t likely to keep the reader turning pages if they don’t care about the people involved.
But interestingly, the opposite can often be true: you’ll rarely see a really well written book with engaging characters fail simply due to a lack of approved story-beats. When NYT bestselling & Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead was asked about the plot of his novel Sag Harbor, he said, “Well, nothing much really happens.” Which is true. Yet the critics fell all over themselves praising it, using words like: Carefully observed and beautifully written. Delicious. Enchanting. Lyrical. Hilarious. And, perhaps most telling, He can write sentences like nobody’s business (“Execution”) and, Stokes our emotions and intellect at once (“Engagement”).
(Oh yeah… and people bought it. And read it. And loved it. Lots of people.)
I need to stop here and reiterate that I’m not saying plot is secondary or unimportant or anything of that nature. Plot is fundamental—it’s the framework upon which we build our work.
So why am I bringing all this up? Simply because more and more I see aspiring writers mistakenly thinking that plotting is it. That writing fiction consists of knowing where the beats lie, and nothing more. And I understand why—we’re inundated with the concept these days, because it’s far easier to sell a “system” than to engage in a nuanced discussion around the art and craft of writing. (Although there are some great books that discuss the nuances of the art form. Three of my favorites are On Writing, Bird by Bird, and Hope in the Mail.)
And when one of these aspirational efforts fails (for whatever value of fail has significance to you—commercially or artistically or fails to land an agent or editor) it’s usually not due to a lack of Events, but to issues with Engagement and Execution.
It’s pretty rare for a rejection letter to say, “The writing was wonderful and I was so invested in your character, but… I just wish more stuff happened!” (Partly because this is eminently fixable, and may result in a request to R&R… “Revise and Resubmit.”) On the other hand, “I just didn’t feel connected to the main character” (Engagement) and “I just didn’t love the writing” (Execution) are probably the two most common reasons agents and editors give for passing.
So… by all means, do all the event-planning and story-boarding you need to do to be able to write your book. But if things aren’t working out, don’t automatically default to thinking you somehow need a newer/bigger/better system to follow. There’s a good chance the fix may lie in giving the second and third “E” at least as much attention as the first.
Much—if not all, in some cases—of the writing required of students in school is on-demand writing*. (Meaning the assignment is prescribed: write on this topic, at this length, due at this time.)
I understand why this might be desirable. Among other things, one instructor can assign a whole class at once, and then read & grade the assignments to a common standard (apples to apples). Sort of like having the class all read the same novel. And no one—least of all me—thinks teachers are underworked. Especially language arts teachers, where grading writing assignments is way more labor intensive than grading, say, math tests.
[*Full disclosure: I use on-demand writing exercises in some of my workshops, for specific reasons. I give a brief—100 word or so—writing assignment based on a given scenario, using a specific POV. Then I have them turn around and write the same scene again, using a different tense and POV, and then again. Then students read their different versions aloud and we compare & discuss the differences regarding immediacy, voice, emotional effect, etc. I’ve found that instead of just showing them the difference with examples—i.e. from the outside—it’s much more instructive for them to experience the difference for themselves, from the inside.]
But I think there are a couple of fundamental issues with this (similar to issues with whole-class novels), especially if used exclusively:
The first issue is similar to using writing prompts when trying to inspire writers…
Because unless designed with care to be purposely broad and vague, it hands the students the one thing they need to learn to create for themselves if they want to be writers beyond school. Which is the concept of idea generation…
Because in actual writing (i.e. “writing meant for reading,” whether published or not—as opposed to writing done strictly to fulfill a given assignment) the first hurdle is deciding what to write about…
Because in the real world outside school, most writing, for most writers, will be self-assigned. The writer decides the subject matter, the voice, the plot (if fiction), the form (if nonfiction), and how to go about saying the thing they need to say. (And not incidentally, they also have to decide when it’s “due,” which is even more important when there’s no one waiting for it. As discussed in our very first blog post.)
The second issue is similar to that of assigned reading. (For a deep dive into the problems with assigned reading—and how to migrate from it to a more productive reading paradigm—read Book Love, by Penny Kittle.) The first rule of having an engaged reader or an engaged writer is that they’re interested in the subject before them. And of course the best way to insure that is to let them choose the subject. So many kids are turned off by being forced to read "the classics" that it’s become a cliché about everything wrong with most English classes.
The same thing applies with writing assignments. When I was in 5th grade or so, we were given the assignment to write about ourselves in an autobiographical way. Then the teacher would read them aloud in class, without naming the student. (Oh my god, just kill me now.) I sort of shrugged to myself and started writing. “I was born on Mars,” I began. (I was a big science fiction reader at the time.) The point isn’t that I made the work into a “student’s choice” assignment, it’s that out of all the writing we did in elementary school, it’s virtually the only thing I can remember writing. Because I wrote something I wanted to write instead of the boring assignment I had no interest in. Everything else came and went like the peanut butter sandwiches we had for lunch.
Sometimes on-demand assignments are used with younger students who may not have a specific topic they feel drawn toward. We still want these students to get practice expressing themselves via writing, so we give them a topic with all good intentions. Hence the ubiquitous and painful “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” essays on the first day of school. (I once saw a younger student frustrated to tears when given the first-day assignment, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?” I asked him why he was so upset, and he said he didn’t want to be a tree… of any kind! The more I considered it, the more I agreed with him. Actually sort of terrifying, when you think about it…)
A few mitigation strategies:
1. One easy thing we can do is give a range of options. (If you were a tree, or an animal, or a motor vehicle, or…) This might help students get unstuck when feeling boxed in by a narrowly prescribed prompt.
2. If for some reason it’s deemed necessary for all the students to write on a single topic, have a discussion/poll with the students beforehand, arising at a number of topics they actually have interest in writing about, then work through them (still allowing the broadest interpretation of each).
3. Even better, after making a large and varied list (as above), allow each student to select their individual topic from it for each assignment. Yes, the instructor will have to switch gears while reviewing and/or grading, but the autonomy of choice for the students should outweigh this.
4. And finally, consider the practice of having a list (for the ones who can benefit from a prompt), but with one of the options always being: Or any other subject that interests you. (This is analogous to ELA teachers who have recommended lists of books, with the student always having the option of choosing one of their own.) With the goal being that—as the students get older and more advanced—they are encouraged to develop and use their idea generation skills more and more.
Always keep in mind the question: What is the ultimate objective of the assignment… or of the class itself? If we think the objective is something like “The student is able to expound upon a pre-determined topic in written form” (or, for that matter, “The student reads, comprehends, and is able to parse the minutia within A Tale of Two Cities”) instead of something like “The student learns to enjoy writing creatively and gains skill at it” (or, “The student develops a love of—and skill at—reading”), then maybe we’re missing the broader point.
Because when you boil it all down, we’re teaching creativity. So maybe we should let the students practice being creative…by choosing topics and doing work that has some actual connection to them.
Maybe “luck” isn’t the perfect word here. But it’s way less clunky than, “The strategic optimization of your odds of success.”
Yes, there is an element of random chance at play in almost anything we aspire to. But in my experience, it’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
In other words, there are odds, but there are also ways to increase the odds. How…?
First off, you not only need to be willing to work long and hard, but smart. (And of the three, smart may be the most important. Imagine some dude who spends years on his manuscript, then simply shotguns the whole thing to every single agent he can find in Writer’s Market—literally hundreds of them—no matter their requirements or list. And each with the same cover letter, which probably starts with, “Dear Agent…” No matter what, this guy isn’t likely to ever have “good luck.”)
Awareness of your field will greatly increase your “luck.” Study the market—not because you’re going to write to it, but because you’re going to sell what you’ve written into it—and figure out who’s buying what. Then target the best “who” with your best “what” as intelligently and professionally as you can.
In other words, pay attention.
To agents. To editors. To publishers. To art directors (if you’re an illustrator). To School & Library marketing personnel (if you’re a kidlit author). All these people are industry gurus who work in the field every day, and have the straight info. And pay attention to authors. Including those who are repped by agents you’d like to be repped by, selling to editors you’d like to sell to, published by houses you’d like to be published by, and—especially—writing the types of books you’d like to write. (The way you pay attention to these is to read those books, of course. It’s a subject for another post, but I can’t imagine anyone succeeding in a specific genre without reading pretty widely in that genre. Yet I see the opposite of this all the time… not exactly the definition of “working smarter,” is it?)
Industry personnel are people. With literary likes and dislikes. And they sometimes discuss these on social media. Follow them. Pay attention to who’s repping what. PW regularly puts out roundup reports of recent book deals, including editor/author/agent/house/etc. Editors (and agents) frequently post their "manuscript wish list" desires using #MSWL. (Some may say “agented submissions only.” That’s fine. If you have a manuscript that really fits what a legit editor is looking for, this is definitely worth a mention in your query to an agent. Just get on it—these things all have a “use by” date…)
I had a writer describe his completed manuscript to me—a political thriller—and ask for advice on next steps. I said it sounded a lot like a certain popular TV series. He agreed it was in the same ballpark. I said, “Well, agent so-and-so’s favorite TV series happens to be that show. She tweets about it regularly. I would read three or four books she’s repped which you think are in a similar genre, then polish the heck out of your manuscript, write a brief, compelling, complimentary-yet-professional query letter, and submit to her. Then go through the same process with at least a dozen more good agent candidates. That might be a good first step…”
I guess the takeaway here is, there is so much useful, actionable information available these days about the workings of the publishing industry that you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you don’t do a little research before trying to place your hard-won manuscript.
4.1 (bonus) Talent…
This comes up a lot: But what about talent? Yes, talent is absolutely a factor, and I think we can all agree that at least a modicum of it is required in order to commit successful writing.
But what is it?
That’s an age-old question. My personal answer is that it resides somewhere at the intersection of Heart and Craft, honed with desire over time (Persistence)… and the more you apply these factors, the more likely you are to have “Luck.”
Some regard talent as inborn, some as a mysterious proclivity toward certain art forms, some as a gift from on high, visited upon the lucky. So instead of those vague definitions, let’s talk about other words. Facility. Skill. Mastery. And perhaps the most important… Affinity.
Because really, it’s largely about desire and effort, over time. You rarely hear someone say, “I don’t care at all about playing the violin and I’ve never really put any time or effort into it, yet for some reason I’m a virtuoso.”
I think it’s largely a circular self-fulfilling prophecy… you think you might like something so you try it, you find you enjoy it so you continue doing it, the practice helps you get better at it, which makes you like it even more, so you do it even more, so you get even better, and… Voila! You’ve acquired a certain amount of skill at it, and if you truly enjoy it (and we tend to enjoy things we excel at), you’re likely to continue the practice until you’ve gained a level of mastery at it.
Yes, people’s minds all work differently, and may be drawn toward different things… perhaps language, or music, or visual arts, or physical expression. And this can add to the early “you find you enjoy it” factor, making it more likely that not only do you practice it, but you also tend to think about it when not practicing it. Which adds not only to the enjoyment of it, but the facility at it.
Because through this you’ve developed an affinity for your chosen art form, which is a definite advantage in acquiring mastery. (People rarely get really good at something they don’t truly enjoy, which is why people who take up something as a route to fame and fortune—as opposed to having a love of the art form itself—rarely achieve success. Because the “Heart” factor is missing.)
So, that sums up our four attributes of successful writing. This is obviously experiential opinion, not concrete fact. Because writing is art, not science. And these attributes are not always separate, discreet steps—they combine to form a unified mindset which will help you get to wherever it is you want to go. They feed into each other…
Without Heart, you won’t have enough emotional investment to spend the time to fully invest your Craft into the story, and without Persistence, you won’t give Luck a fighting chance to come through for you.
Best of luck!
Okay, maybe there is a formula to this after all. My personal equation for it…
P = ET, where…
P = Persistence
E = Effort
T = Time
In other words, persistence is how hard you’re willing to work for something times how long you’re willing to work for it.
Success—even so-called overnight success—almost always comes from regular, incremental steps forward over time. Without getting discouraged to the point of permanently quitting. My take on it is that “failure” is simply what “success” looks like from the middle of the process.
Accept that there are going to be more strikeouts than homeruns by a large margin… that’s the nature of the game. The answer is to keep working, keep improving, and keep swinging.
This applies to every step along the pathway… You will likely have to query multiple times to get a partial request. Perhaps several partials to get a full. Probably more than one full to get an offer of representation. Then your agent may not land a deal with the very first editor she submits to… and maybe not with her first sublist. And maybe not with that particular manuscript at all.
You have to be okay with that. It’s not always fun (tell me about it) but the challenge is to reject rejection of a manuscript as rejection of you—or of your writing in general—and get back in the ring.
You are selling into a buyer’s market. Always have been, always will be. This doesn’t mean you won’t eventually sell. This just means the buyers will be picky… you need to find the right buyer at the right time who’s in the market for what you’re currently selling. But keep your head up, because new books are being acquired every day. And a fair number of them from debut authors.
Persistence also comes into play during the writing itself. Yes, you need to keep writing if you want to make it to the end, but I’m talking about after you’ve finished drafting it. We’ve already touched on revision, so I’ll just say that this is what often separates the women from the girls: the ability to roll up your sleeves (after celebrating completing your first draft!) and do the less glamorous work of making your story so strong (compelling, engaging, unique, emotional, entertaining, resonant…) that someone can’t say no to it. Not everyone will be unable to resist it, of course, but it only takes one. Our job is to keep it in the market until it finds that kindred person.
In other words, be persistent enough that you eventually get lucky.
“…the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.”
~ Sophy Burnham
I believe the single most important factor in publishing success is having a strong manuscript. (There are other factors—mostly (a) rolling up your sleeves and doing some serious, organized, thorough research, (b) querying in an intelligent, friendly-yet-business-like, non-sociopathic manner, and (c) the willingness to work with your agent and/or editor to further improve the story, once they’ve taken you on. Most of these are covered in Parts 3 & 4, coming up soon.)
But having a strong manuscript is by far the biggest part of it, and without it, it won’t matter how much you network and schmooze and spam. You can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript—you can only write them into liking it, by doing a great job of crafting it. However, you can easily talk someone out of wanting to read it, so pay attention to (b) above.
“Writing craft” can be an endless topic—and there are a lot of good books on the subject, as discussed here—so I’m only going to touch on two fundamentals: story creation and revision. In other words, the beginning and end of the novel writing process.
Story Creation: Many writing books, podcasts, blogs, etc. focus on the process of plot outlining, some to the point of methodically laying out prescribed beats and when to hit them. Yet many writers are self-proclaimed pantsers to one degree or another. Stephen King famously “doesn’t plot,” and I recall hearing a million-selling British thriller writer say he rarely knows where he’s going beyond the next five pages.
So what’s up with these seemingly conflicting paradigms? Is one method better and the other a waste of time? I don’t think so. They both clearly work well for different writers, and many (most?) of us are actually somewhere in between, sometimes going from plotting to pantsing on the same project.
But here’s another angle on the ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ issue:
They’re actually the same thing.
With both of them, your brain creates a plot and follows it to the end of the story. The difference being simply when the major plot points are decided upon.
Consider two cooks, baking the same dessert in different kitchens. (Let’s say bread pudding, because…bread pudding.) One gets out the recipe card, lays out the ingredients, follows the instructions—maybe varying them slightly according to her taste—and gets a tasty dessert.
The other has cooked (and as important, eaten with attention) quite a bit, and has a pretty good idea what to put in the dish to get something she thinks her guests will like. So she jumps right in, adding the basic ingredients she thinks belong in this particular bread pudding, maybe varying the spices slightly according to her intuitive sense of what will work. And gets a tasty dessert.
They both chose to use specific amounts of specific ingredients to arrive at roughly similar results. But in one case, the measurements were mostly determined ahead of time, while in the other, they were mostly determined during the process… which doesn’t mean they were just randomly guessed at.
It’s the same with plot construction. It’s not that the pantser just wildly throws stuff into the manuscript at random. It’s that they've read enough and/or written enough and/or thought about it enough that they have internalized the fundamental process of “story,” and don’t necessarily need to write it all down… any more than a cook needs to dig out a recipe to whip up a batch of waffles. But they’re still following the basic principles of good storytelling.
So we get to a little sub-secret: Read. A lot. In a lot of genres. And age ranges. Try to read good stories, well-loved stories, award winning stories, innovative stories, popular stories, classic stories, experimental stories. And those interesting little bastard mutt stories nobody else seems to love... but which speak to you anyway. (Those are the best stories, of course.)
You will absorb storytelling, and you will naturally absorb more of the type of storytelling that resonates most with you. And later, when you’re in the middle of your manuscript—whether plotted or pantsed or somewhere in between—and your brain throws out a flyer that wasn’t exactly in the masterplan, give that little bastard mutt of an idea a chance to develop into a contender before tossing it.
Story Revision: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a draft—my own or someone else’s—that couldn’t be substantially improved through thoughtful and thorough revision. But more important than what I think, virtually every editor I’ve seen discuss craft has said the same thing. We’ve talked about what an editor actually does in detail before, but here’s the TL;DR: Scraping a manuscript for mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, grammar, and basic continuity--ISN’T EDITING (nor is it revision). And does almost nothing to improve the fundamental story contained within the manuscript. (Yes, you still absolutely need to do it before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor—or “pressing publish”—but that’s beside the point.)
Just today I heard an editor say she cringes when she sees an aspiring writer doing first-round revisions at the sentence level, agonizing over commas, etc., because at that point the priority should be revision based on story development, making the story as strong and impactful as possible… tightening up dragging sections, making scenes carry their weight and have as much emotional resonance as possible. (Plus it’s pretty inefficient to worry about commas first, when the whole paragraph or page is likely to change… or be cut entirely.)
I filed the following under “Important Things I Have Learned…”
I have learned that when I write something I think is great as-is and I give it a quick spit-shine and excitedly send it out… it doesn’t get published. With everything I’ve ever had published, I did judicious post-first-draft work before submission.
And… this holds true for every author I know.
So please learn from my mistakes—if you write something you think is awesome and you’re proud of it, resist the urge to quickly spell check it, have your friend-with-English-degree read it and give you the thumbs up, then submit it. Because it probably is awesome, and you probably should be proud of it. So you should give it the best chance to succeed against all the other (likely more polished) works it’s up against. Because after an agent has passed on a manuscript, they’re typically disinclined to ever look at it again, even if you realize the error of your ways and do the work to make it “ready for primetime.” (And with editors it’s even worse, as once an editor at a given imprint has passed on a manuscript, all the other editors at that imprint typically won’t look at it, either.)
So that’s my .02 on the beginning and the completion of the novel writing process. In between, it’s just a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Which we’ll talk about next time…
We can’t always affect the wider world—and there’s so much going on that at times things can seem overwhelming—but we can still “do our best to do our best” at home, with our own work. To that end, I’ve put together a little four-parter which is meant to be more inspiration than prescription…
Here you are, stuck at home, maybe thinking it’s not the best time to query or submit your latest work*. So you’re left with writing. Or revising. Or polishing. Or maybe writing/revising/polishing your query.
[*But OTOH, maybe it is. Submitting during the pandemic is supposedly a fool’s game, but around here our experience has been the exact opposite. Which might tell you something about conventional wisdom. ‘Nuff said…]
Or maybe starting to think about your next project.
Or maybe you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture, wondering about the best path to wherever it is you want to go. (And wherever that is, it’s undoubtedly some version of “success,” whether that’s being published by a mainstream trad house, having a respected and responsive independent publisher, being self-published with great sales and reviews, or simply writing the best book you can, for your own enjoyment and maybe a few chosen readers.)
But whichever version of success you have as your chosen destination—and there’s no reason you can’t have multiple goals here—there are certain things which are crucial in getting there.
Well, here they are:
The Keys to the Kingdom…
The Passwords to Publication…
The Big Assist to Hitting List…
Yup, I’m talking about (drumroll!) The Big Fat Secrets to Writing Success!!!
There’s no “quick” in this get-rich-quick scheme.
Maybe no “rich,” either. At least not for me, because I’m selling these secrets for the discounted price of zero dollars and zero cents.
And actually, there aren’t even any secrets.
However, I’m convinced these attributes are absolutely vital to achieving whatever success looks like to you (whether artistically or commercially). So without further flap copy here’s the first attribute…
We’ve said it before: caring about your characters is key if you want your readers to care about them. (See this post.) But does that really matter? I mean, can’t the cleverness of your plot carry the day? Or the importance of your theme? Or the brilliant language in your prose? Or the detailed, evocative setting of your story?
All those things can be important, but at the core, what do most readers really want out of a story?
They want to care.
About something. Or someone. They want to be emotionally invested in some aspect of the work… they’re seeking a connection. And the core of that connection has to come from you. (Where else?) And the strongest way for that to happen is if you’re writing about something you’re emotionally connected to.
And ideally, not just your protagonist. You should care about the subject matter. About the theme. The plot. The setting. And yes, the language.
And from this, we can deduce one of the anti-secrets of writing success: Don’t chase trends, flavors-of-the-month, or hot topics. Not just because you’ll be late to the party (like, years late), but because you’ll be writing about something you didn’t even choose, and which you likely don’t have an innate connection with.
There’s a good reason Red Barber’s quote on writing is the most famous. (“Writing is easy. Just sit down and open a vein.”)
Because it’s true.
Readers may not always get this, because—as discussed last time—one of the goals of revision is doing such a good job that it seems almost effortless. But anyone who’s ever had to sit down and pour their heart onto the page will absolutely understand the truth of this.
So—as one does when one is stuck at home—I’m in the middle of revisions these days. The sort of revisions where you basically know what you want to do going into it. (Things like, Make this character more complex and Give that guy stronger motivation for what he does and Make her less of a goody-two-shoes and so on.) And I have notes for what I want to accomplish—pages and pages of notes.
So you’d think it’d be a simple thing to effect the changes. And occasionally, it is. But the majority of them take quite a while… far longer than it took to write up the desired changes in my notes. Which is funny, because my notes are detailed—sometimes to the point of containing actual dialog and/or interior monolog—and one could pretty much copy and paste them into place.
Which leads us to the sticky part. The “into place” part, I mean.
First of all, you need to find the perfect place within the manuscript to insert the new text. You can spend quite a bit of time just trying to locate it. And if the perfect spot doesn’t exist, then you need to create it… which means further writing, just to make a space for the incoming information. And then, once the new text is in place, there’s something else we need to do…
We need to break out the refinishing skills.
I do a little antique restoration—furniture and machinery—and when you’re fixing a broken record cabinet, for example, the repair itself is by far the easiest part of the process. Hiding the repair—making it look like it was never broken—is much harder.
Let’s suppose the cabinet you’re restoring has a crack in it… maybe the wood has shrunk over the past century and left a gap in the middle of a panel. So you squirt some glue into the break, pull it tight with clamps, and let it dry. Voila! The break is repaired—it’s once again structurally sound. But it’s also obvious to anyone who’s really looking where the break was.
So you scrape off the excess dried glue. Then you fill any little gaps and irregularities with wood filler. Then you sand the joint smooth. Then you try to match the original color… or maybe that’s not possible so you strip and sand the entire thing. Then you stain the wood, which might require multiple applications to get the right tone. Then you apply the correct finish, which will almost certainly require several coats… with appropriate curing time in between each. Then you apply whatever final polish the piece requires.
Only then—when it looks like nothing was done at all—is it really done.
Which is almost exactly the same process we need to use when revising our manuscript. Assuming we don’t want the edits to be visible, that is.
In other words, we can’t just pry open an existing paragraph with a crowbar, shove the new information in, then duct tape it closed again.
Let’s say we want to go back and reinforce to the reader that our protagonist—Sara—is really bright. We could wedge it into basic description, telling the reader “Sara was short and muscular, with long, auburn curls and an IQ of 150.” Which is painfully clunky on several levels. (Personally, I almost never describe characters via exposition. It comes out in context, or through relevant dialog or interior monolog, or not at all. But my MO isn’t necessarily right or wrong—it’s just me.) The real issue, however, is that it’s simply telling the reader. Which can take the reader right out of the story. Because if Sara really is smart, we should see that organically through her actions and words and thoughts.
So we need to go back through the story and weave in subtle bits here and there that show the reader that Sara is really perceptive or talented or academically notable (or however you wish her gifts to manifest). Demonstrate that she’s doing really well in AP Calculus… show her beating a nationally ranked chess master… have her figure out who the thief is through sheer brainpower. But each of these scenes—and we will almost certainly want several smaller ones vs. a single big “reveal”—will have to flow naturally from the previous scene, and not just be stuck on. Then we need to smooth out any gaps in the material via multiple read-throughs, looking for any roughness or irregularities and polishing them with each pass. Then we need to check for continuity errors, making sure the timeline of events still makes sense. And of course Sara has to be relatively self-consistent throughout—not perceptive one day and oblivious the next just to make the plot work.
The reader needs to incrementally gain the understanding that Sara is bright through observing her doing a series of things that paint a picture of intelligence… through events that you’ve shown the reader, and are believable in the bigger context of the story and the characters contained within.
So please don’t just tell us that Sara is smart. That’s like gluing the broken board back together and telling us it’s fine, when we can all see that it’s not.
This is one of those non-intuitive cases where the more work you do, the easier the job seems to an outsider… until you finally do so much work that it appears no work was done at all!
At that point, congratulations—you’ve hidden all the seams. You likely won’t get credit for it (other than perhaps from your editor, who’s seen the before & after pics) but the reader will have the wonderful experience of reading a story that seems to flow smoothly and naturally… almost like the writer did nothing at all.
Ask any fiction writer what the most common question they get is and you’ll likely hear:
“Where* do you get your ideas**?”
[*Taking the question literally, the plausible answers are either (1) inside my head (i.e. from my imagination), (2) outside my head (i.e. from the world around me), or (3) a combination of 1 & 2 (i.e. take some event from some place and sometime in the world and re-imagine it into something else). #3 is—by far—the most common.]
[**FYI, writers speak of this question amongst themselves the way musicians talk about requests to play Mustang Sally or Free Bird. Just sayin…]
But the question behind the question is likely something more along the lines of: How do you develop the seed of an idea into a story?
This question is actually interesting—to writers as well as readers—because while the former has three answers (inside/outside/both), the latter has as many answers as there are writers. So I’m not suggesting that what works for one writer will absolutely work for another. We’re all different. But if nothing else, looking at someone else’s process can help jumpstart your own, different though it may be.
It might sound funny, but spinning a bedtime story completely on the fly—no notes, no pre-plotting, no outline—might be one of the best storytelling lessons we can have, for a few different reasons.
When our boys were little we would read them bedtime stories, pretty much from birth. Somewhere in there—they were maybe two and four—I opted to tell them a story instead of reading them one. (Extemporize, not re-tell a classic.) For some reason—probably because I could be as wild and goofy and stupid about it as I wanted—they enjoyed it. So I got roped into doing it on the regular. Not every night, but perhaps three or four times a week.
Maybe someone else could world-build a totally unique setting and character-set every night (after an 8-to-12 hr. workday) but not me... I quickly learned the best way for me was to have several serialized stories going at once, in episodic fashion, and let them pick one each night and spin a little bit more of it.
No plotting or outlining allowed, because you didn’t even know which one it was going to be until you were lying on the floor with the lights out and a little voice would say, “Could we hear Cousin Crow, Dad?” And you’d say, “Really? Are you sure? I don’t think so…” And they’d start yelling, “Cousin Crow!!! Cousin Crow!!! Cousin Crow!!!” and you’d be off to the races, talking about whatever trouble that crazy bird was getting into next…
This went on for six or seven years. A couple hundred stories a year. Easily a thousand or so by the time we moved on to “Novels at Night.” Stories where the goal was to entertain them and make them laugh, and maybe even make them think about things in a new way.
These stories certainly weren’t War and Peace, believe me. Mostly goofy stories about various people and creatures having adventures and getting into trouble*.
[*Ex: There was a young dude who worked in a science lab—I named him “Wilbur the Science Guy” in a fit of stunning creativity—who was smart but absent-minded. He really liked to eat but he really didn’t like to waste time so he hot-rodded the lab’s microwave oven so it would cook a frozen burrito in two seconds instead of two minutes, which was awesome right up until he forgot and put in a burrito and set it for two minutes. The massive over-nuking of the burrito resulted not only in an explosion that plastered the lab’s walls with stinky, slimy beans and cheese, but also created a time warp that sent Wilbur back to medieval days, where further adventures featured him trying to explain science to a stupid and pompous king who didn’t believe in science. This was twenty years ago, btw…]
So, a few benefits of this ad hoc storytelling process…
1. It encourages us to exercise our “going with our gut” story development muscles. (AKA “organic” writing.) Because there’s no time for over-thinking. The main driver is simply, “What interesting thing could happen right now?” and then riffing on that.
2. You get instant feedback from your “readers.” If a couple of monkey boys are bored by your story, you’ll hear about it. Instantly. And loudly. (OTOH, if they find something funny, you’ll know that right away, too.)
3. You tend to consider—and play to—your audience. Not that this should always be the top priority when wordsmithing, but when writing for a specific age group—whether picture book, chapter book, middle grade, or YA—it’s certainly helpful to know who’s reading, and what they may likely be interested in. (Bottom line—if you don’t interest your readers, they won’t want to read your book. It's that simple, but sometimes we forget.)
4. You learn to create—and abandon—ideas quickly. Like, at the speed of speech if not faster. If something isn’t working, you quickly pivot and try something else. Sometimes you’ll think of an idea and toss it before it even comes out of your mouth. This translates well to doing actual plotting on, like, an actual book.
Again, none of these stories were the Great American Novel. Not by a longshot. But they taught me some valuable lessons. Lessons I still use today. Lessons we could use tomorrow.
Because after all, isn’t the ultimate goal the same—to keep the reader tuned in and engaged in your story, no matter what?
I was doing a workshop for young writers recently and as usual I started with a quick assessment…
Who writes—or wants to write—the following:
And so on…
The good news is I saw several hands go up for each area, and many of them went up multiple times.
Then on a whim I added, …and what about fanfic?
Lots of hands, and (even more important) lots of excitement. “Awesome!” I said, and we were off and running.
Fast-forward to a while later, as we’re discussing the revision process. I’m trying to give them two fundamental takeaways…
1. Revision can really improve our work.
2. Revision can really be enjoyable. (Because without them buying into #2, #1 isn’t likely to happen.)
The first one is pretty direct: Revision is where you can go from good to great, etc., along with explaining various reasons why virtually any manuscript can be made better with judicious revision. The teachers are nodding in agreement, and the students seem to get the idea. In theory.
The second one is a harder sell. I talk about how I changed my mindset from dreading revision to enjoying it. “Look at it this way: you’ve actually reached the end, and in the big picture it probably hangs together as a story to one degree or another. So the stress of wondering if you’re even going to finish the initial draft is gone. You made it! Now you get to return to your world and make it even better and—”
I stopped, as something struck me. “Remind me again—who’s into fan fiction?” Three fourths of the students put their hands up. “Well, this is similar.” I had their attention now, if not their concurrence. “With fanfic, you start with a world you love and characters you love and a basic story holding it all together, right?” They nodded. “So you don’t have to do the heavy lifting of world-building or character creation or fundamental rulemaking because it’s already been taken care of, right?” More nods. “So, you guys are basically saying that the fun of it is, you get to dive back into that world and improve things and add new things and just generally make it into the story you always thought it should be. Sound familiar?”
The room lit up with fifty or so lightbulbs turning on. Including the one above my head.
It was my turn to nod. “So it sounds like… revision is doing fan fiction on your own story!”
And it is.
My views on revision changed when I began to realize it was an opportunity to go back to the world I’d created—and the characters I’d created and was invested in—and play around some more. (With credit to my child bride here, because she got over her dislike of rewriting before I did and thus helped show me there was light at the end of the tunnel.)
And I think a big part of this is—as we’ve discussed before—reading like a reader instead of a writer: Take some time away from the story then go through it like a fan. And as you read, keep note of the things that bore you or confuse you or that you’d just like to see done better or different.
Then take that punch list and go back through it as “writer you” and make all the changes that “reader you” was wishing for, making sure the transitions are smooth and natural and that none of the stitches are visible after the surgery.
And when you’re done… congratulations! You’ve just created some awesome fanfic based on the work of an author near and dear to you.
…so five minutes ago—as I write this—one of the best writers I know is working toward the end of perhaps the best thing she’s ever written, and tears are pouring down her face.
She notices me in the room and looks up from her laptop, eyes wide. I don’t even have to ask. “Oh, my poor little friends!” she says by way of explanation, then blinks as more tears run down her face. And—because I know her little friends too—I nod, and suddenly find myself involuntarily joining in.
I can think of no better illustration of honest-to-God writer engagement. And I believe pretty firmly that without writer engagement—real, gut-level, emotional involvement with your characters—it’s very hard to generate that level of reader engagement.
In other words, you have to give a shit.
And how do we do that?
A good start might be to internalize the concept that caring is an emotion, not a thought.
The good news is we all have a built-in barometer for things like this. We don’t have to think about it—in fact, thinking about it puts us at one more degree of remove from it. An analogy might be our sense of taste. When we take a bite of something—for example, homemade hand-cranked vanilla ice cream—most of us can answer the question, “Do you like it?” without too much intellectualizing, especially if we just listen to our initial emotional response and don’t think things like, ‘Is this healthy?’ or ‘Is this considered quality food?’ or ‘Do other people like it?’
The same can apply to your characters. Instead of thinking (there’s that word again), ‘My character has been designed with these attributes and those personality traits and faces this specific challenge—which the reader should be able to relate to,’ maybe ask yourself the simple question, ‘Do I care about them?’ Go with your gut response here rather than an intellectual one.
[NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them, although it can certainly help you—and readers—care about them and what happens to them. There’s a time-honored place in literature for the unlikeable protagonist, although this only seems to really work when the author sets out from page one to purposely create a fascinating-yet-unlikeable protagonist. I think the fairly common criticism of a book “having an unlikeable main character” usually means the author unintentionally created a not-very-likeable character. This is a subject deserving of its own post, but one thing that can definitely help here is the use of good betas.]
[NOTE #2: We should also recognize there are plenty of novels where having an emotional connection with the main character isn’t a top priority, either for the author or the reader. These could be plot-driven thrillers or humorous capers or broad historicals or any number of other types. And these can certainly be entertaining, successful works, but they’re typically not as likely to be the sort of stories readers bond with for the long haul… the type that sometimes come to be known as “beloved.” Maybe because humans seem to be hardwired to be more invested when there’s a person in the story they truly care about.]
So how can we raise the odds of this connection happening?
I think it’s largely a matter of spending time with them. I have a theory that, everything else being equal, the more time we spend with someone—assuming they’re generally good people—the more they come to mean to us. (I think this may be anthropologically tied to the human concept of “family.”) Regardless, by “spending time” I don’t necessarily mean writing a thousand page book about them. I mean letting them occupy space in your head… and in your heart.
When possible, spend some non-writing time thinking about them, just running scenarios through your head and imagining what they might do in various situations. Yes, this’ll also help you come up with plot ideas, but maybe even more important, it’ll help you get to know about them—and care about them—as individuals.
And if we invest enough time, attention, and research into our characters, they can become real to us. Not real in a “break with reality and visit the psych ward” sense. Real in an emotional sense. In the same sense that we—as readers—might care about Harry & Hermione & Ron or Hazel Grace & Augustus or Liesel & Rudy or whichever characters you’ve ever found yourself personally invested in.
And if you develop an emotional attachment to your characters to the extent that you find yourself springing a leak over your ‘little friends,’ take it as a sign that your readers might feel the same way.
Which—when you boil it all down—is the whole point of what we’re trying to do here, right?
I think it’s important to take note of—and to celebrate—the little victories*. Including those in your writing life.
(*The ones that mean something to you, I mean. I’m not always a big fan of participation trophies, especially for kids. Not that participation isn’t a good thing—it’s usually the best thing—but kids generally know the score. Literally as well as figuratively. I remember when our youngest was in a “no score” beginner basketball program. The theory: the kids play, they have fun, no one keeps score, and they’re all happy when it’s over. The reality: they all keep score on their own, and it freaking matters to them. Once after a game I told him, “Good game!” and he looked at me like I was an idiot. “What are you talking about? We lost, eighteen to eight!” **Storms off to retrieve his juice box and Lunchable**)
But when you have a real victory—no matter how small—I think it’s good to commemorate it.
When our oldest was a cub scout they had a little pinewood car derby. The kids all started with identical blocks of pine and they carved, sanded, assembled, weighted, tuned, and painted their cars. Other than discussing the importance of aerodynamics and reducing friction (he was a science guy even back then), I mostly just made sure he could use a power sander without hurting himself then let him get to it. He was pretty meticulous about the whole friction thing and on the night of the derby—after an hour of thrilling elimination rounds—he took first place. He was super excited about winning. Afterward, I was expecting some sort of trophy or plaque or whatever (these things always have trophies) but there weren’t any. On the way home I could tell my son was a little disappointed, but he didn’t say anything about it. So I went out the next day and got him one. Nothing fancy—just a basic little trophy with a race car on top and the words “First Place” on it.
I didn’t get it so he would have bragging rights or anything (bragging wasn’t really in his personality, regardless). I got it because I think it’s good psychology to commemorate the little victories we occasionally have. It’s also nice to have a tangible reminder of the occurrence, so that afterwards when you look at it, all the good, fun, validating feelings you had at the time come back to you, reminding you… Yeah, I did that!
In the writing world, these sorts of things come along all-too-infrequently. Even for the successful writer, a new book deal or a new release or hitting list or winning a big award doesn’t happen every day. Or even every year. And for those of us still upward bound on the ladder (i.e. virtually all of us) they happen even less often. So celebrate them.
You don’t have to wait until the final end-goal is accomplished, either. You should celebrate the steps along the way. These may even be more important to recognize, because they’re the type of accomplishments that don’t usually garner outside kudos. (No one’s going to buy you an ice cream because a well-respected agent requested the first three chapters of your manuscript. So do it yourself.)
Some little-recognized-yet-important milestones that warrant a celebration…
You finish the first draft of a manuscript. (I told a writing friend once that I’d finished a first draft—he was basically a wise old cowboy type—and he said, “I’d think that might make a man want to open a can of beer.”)
You finish all your revisions/edits/polishing and—for the first time—you think it’s finally submittal-ready. (This is a big one, as the most important precursor to publication is a strong, finished manuscript.)
You do all your research and make a first-round list of agent candidates who represent works like yours, then you write/revise/polish your query letter and send it to them. (Oh yeah! Beer me! I put hope in the mail!)
After a number of rejections, you get a request for a partial. (Yay! Someone’s reading! This calls for chocolate!)
After even more rejections, you get a request for a full. (Yes! More hope! We press send and get ourselves a mocha!)
I’m not going to follow this all the way to, You hit list, win a Pulitzer, and get your own imprint… all within the same month. Not just because those things don’t really happen outside of the movies, but because that’s precisely my point: if we wait until “The Big Win” to celebrate, most of us are going to be waiting a long time without commemorating all the incremental victories along the way.
So don’t wait. Start now. Look for interim accomplishments that are steps along your path and give yourself a pat on the back for making that next step.
The events certainly don’t need to be tied to the specific path of publication, either. If they further your writing knowledge, skills, or talents in any way, they’re candidates for celebration.
Take a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Teach a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Present at a school, library, or writer’s group? Celebrate!
Publish an article in a magazine? Celebrate!
Write a piece for someone’s blog or podcast? Celebrate!
Interview someone for a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Get interviewed by a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Self-publish your book? You’re a hero—celebrate five times! (Because you’ve just been an author, editor, art director, publicist, and sales manager!)
Along with everything else, it’s good psychology. There’s nothing like a little positive reinforcement to keep us going. (And if you’re in need of external recognition, this can also serve to tip off your friends. “What’s up with all the wine and chocolates?” “Oh, that…?” *looks down shyly* “…I just finished final revisions on my contemp romance.”)
So yeah, recognizing and celebrating those steps along the way can give us the motivation we need to keep going along a path that is otherwise filled with way more rejection than acceptance. And besides, who doesn’t need more wine and chocolate in their life?
In a moment of irony, we’re going to start this post with a pop quiz…
1. What’s one of the biggest precursors for success not only in school, but in life?
2. What’s an activity that students seem to either completely love or totally despise, depending on how it’s administered?
3. What is the term for students perusing graphic novels, comic books, and silly picture books full of fart jokes?
4. What do we call it when students choose books with inappropriate Lexile scores, either well above or below the student’s assumed ability to comprehend?
5. What subject—as opposed to, say, math—can be forever lost to the student by too much dissection, too early?
Extra Credit: What’s THE terminal objective for having kids read in school?
Extra Credit: Instill in them a lifelong love of reading*. Nothing more. Nothing less.
*NOTE: As used here, we’re referring to the common practice of sitting down with a book—fiction or otherwise, classic or contemporary—and simply reading it for enjoyment and edification. Yes, a math or history lesson requires reading, and analysis and testing of the material presented is an important part of the lesson, but the main point of reading a math lesson has little to do with enjoying the actual words in the textbook.
Nowhere in the common definition of “reading” is there anything about memorizing and regurgitating sections of the book in question. Nor anything about analyzing and dissecting the work in question to ascertain “greater” meaning than that contained within the words on the page. Nothing about using reading as prep for a test on the very same reading, either—a cart-before-the-horse exercise wherein the results of the test end up more important than the actual reading of the book.
So why do we do this? I think it largely comes from a well-intentioned desire to apply metrics to the subject. And for the more Boolean, STEM-centric subjects, yes, we often need to quantify results to measure progress. So we tend to think we need to create a methodology to dissect, measure, and test all subject matter.
But for the more right-brained subjects, applying this mindset often does more harm than good. (One of the banes of my corporate existence was the oft-repeated dictum, “If you can’t put numbers around it, it doesn’t exist.” Hint: people who say this might make good accountants but are almost universally poor supervisors.)
So, what should we do? I humbly offer three strategies:
1. Start with the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. The first goal of any reading program should be that the student ends up with a love of reading such that they will continue the habit going forward. If that’s all that happens, that’s a wonderful success. But if the student ends up with a correlation in their brain between “reading” and “work,” then—regardless of all the curriculum objectives you’ve met on paper—the program is a total failure for that student. (Similar to sports programs that use running laps as punishment. Way to go, coach—you’ve just created a life-long negative association with one of the healthiest activities a person can engage in: aerobic exercise…)
2. Be mindful of selection criteria. You’ve probably seen the recent (and infamous) “recommended reading list” from Florida’s Dept. of Education that’s almost entirely comprised of books written before I was born, let alone the students. (Imagine a list for middle graders—put out in 2019!—that starts with Black Beauty, Heidi, The Secret Garden, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Anne of Green Gables. And I didn’t cherry-pick these… they’re simply the first seven titles on the list. The rest are more of the same. Who in the world thought today’s tweens might relate to those?) The same issues come with using big awards as selection criteria. (A famous report on the past 30 years of children’s literature says, “The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other award in children’s publishing.”) Remember, the first objective isn’t to introduce the students to “the brilliance of the classics,” it’s to get them to love reading. Which means they need to actually enjoy what they read, especially for the first few years of independent reading. Toward that end…
3. Let the kids pick their reading material. Obviously there needs to be assigned reading at times (but even then, please try to select something the kids might actually enjoy reading!), but it’s hard to over-stress the importance of actually letting the students select their own books—on their own—without “guidance” or “Lexile scoring” or “recommendations” (unasked-for) or any other type of thumbing the scale. If they ask for recommendations, then yes! This is where great librarians and teachers shine—they can pair up a student with a book in a way that seems almost like magic to an outsider (when it’s mostly deep knowledge of the material—including current books—paired with a deep love of books and reading, along with serious time and effort on their part). But one of the keys to developing a love of reading is the feeling of autonomy a student gets when they choose a book that they think might actually interest them (as opposed to their teacher), make the effort to read it, and end up actually liking it (both validating their choice and providing motivation to try the process again… win-win!).
Speaking of the primacy of student choice, Penny Kittle—in Book Love, her book on getting students to love both reading and writing—says, “Allowing students to make choices about what they read has been presented in our profession, especially at the secondary level, as enrichment—something to do once the hard work is over. I believe, instead, that it is at the center of our work.” And, “I believe all students need to own their reading in the same way I believe they must own their writing.”
For many kids, reading enjoyment seems to peak in mid-late elementary grades then fall off somewhere in those tween middle school years… and sometimes never recovers. (And in schools where this doesn’t seem as prevalent, I’ve noticed they usually have deeply engaged librarians and language arts teachers.) In my own informal polling of young people, “They made us read crappy books!” and “They made it into work!” were two of the top reasons why this happens, along with basically being “too busy” for pleasure reading.
The busy-ness aspect is a separate subject, but if we take care of the first two issues and they actually learn to enjoy reading—and writing—then they’re more likely to stick with it even when life gets a little hectic.
Going back to the opening question (what’s one of the biggest precursors for success…?), pleasure reading actually has to do with a lot more than pleasure. So helping our kiddos develop a love of reading is beneficial to them well beyond the language arts arena, and well beyond school itself.
Happy writing… and reading!
I’m pissed as I write this. Not Brit-pissed (it’s morning and I’m at a coffee shop so… not likely) but American-pissed. Royally.
A writer-friend of ours posted an adorable family photo on social. Cute and casual. In it, one of the family members was reading a well-known and beloved children’s book. But after a handful of “This is adorable!” comments, someone (another writer-dude) put up a comment that basically said, “My new book such-and-such is better than this book for reasons XY&Z.”
And I’m all like, WTF???
After biting back the urge to call him out right then and there (which would only further ruin the post of the adorable family pic), I tried to figure out why in God’s name someone might do this. If it was an ill-advised attempt at humor, I could semi-sorta get it, I guess. Maybe. (As John Scalzi points out, the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.”) But there was zero humor in it—this was just a blatant attempt by the dude to insert a plug for his book into a decidedly non-business post. (And slamming someone else’s much-loved book in the process, no less.)
This is by no means the only case. You’d be hard pressed on any given day to read a popular article in School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly and not see someone blurt out in the comments, apropos nothing at all, “My book ‘Three Ways to Trim Your Nose Hair’ is available on Kindle now!!!”
Look, I get it. Publishing is a tough business, maybe more so these days than ever. It’s no longer enough to just write something other people want to read. An author is also expected to do a lot of the publicity for their own work. (Which we’ll address in a future post.) And of course the rise of social media has magnified this paradigm by a thousand. And for those writers who are their own publisher, they’re solely responsible for virtually all of the publicity, sales, and marketing of their work. All while seeing what their peers are doing to try and sell their books. And of course, most of the writing “news” that other authors post is heavily weighted toward the relatively-rare good news about book deals and best-seller status and awards, etc., further fueling the FOMO flames licking at indie authors’ backsides.
So yeah, I get the pressure to keep up with whoever you imagine is your competition. (Tip: It’s actually not anyone else at all. It’s you.)
But don’t do it! Three reasons…
1. It’s just wrong. That’s reason enough right there. Friends don’t spam friends. Or see them as “sales opportunities.” Or piggyback onto their popular posts which have nothing to do with their book whatsoever. Or hijack a congratulatory comment thread about someone getting a nice promotion within the publishing industry. Or in any way insert themselves where they’re not invited.
2. It doesn’t work. Consider the goal of all this desperate spamming: in theory, it’s to generate sales. So, in an insanely reductive fashion, some writers think the answer is simply to shout “Buy my book!” as loudly and as often as possible. But, as should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (my dad’s favorite phrase when I didn’t get something), this is so wrong-headed as to be laughable. Because—at some level--all business is personal. We tend to give our business to those we like and avoid giving it to those we actively dislike. Duh.
So don’t make us actively dislike you. Double duh.
It’s sort of like literary cat-calling. With the same results. (Like, when in the history of humankind has it ever worked for some knuckle-dragging loser to whistle at a woman in the street and yell lewd suggestions at her? Spoiler alert: Never.) Same with hijacking a thread to blurb your book. It’s an absolute failure path. It’s even worse—career-wise—than doing nothing, because besides (1) alienating your few remaining friends and (2) actively discouraging people from buying your book, there’s the added problem of...
3. It kills your rep within the industry. What do you think an agent or editor or publisher will think of you when they see you trying to hawk your book in the middle of someone else’s affair like a drunk uncle trying to convert everyone to his politics at Thanksgiving? Yup, pretty much exactly that—they’ll tag you as a flaming ass-wipe, to be avoided at all costs.
Similar to cat-calling, it shouts from the literary rooftops: I’m desperate, I’m self-centered, I’m driven by peer pressure, and I have no clue how real human interaction works!
So, what should we do to engage potential readers in the online sphere?
For starters, try to act like you’d want a guest to act if they were invited into your home: Be kind, be thoughtful, and above all resist the urge to see every conversation as an opportunity to sell yourself or your product.
Try to be the best version of your writing self. Consider the following…
Recommend other authors’ books. Everyone (every reader, at least) loves honest book recommendations. But we automatically discount anyone who recommends their own book, for reasons that should be obvious by now.
Signal boost worthy people and causes (without getting all didactic, hateful, or preachy, because who likes that?). Like the above, we want to learn about good people and good causes, as long as there’s no conflict of interest and we’re not being spoken down to or lectured.
Try to give helpful tips to fellow writers. Because it’s a nice thing to do. Because helping others succeed doesn’t hurt your own chances one bit. Because it increases ‘community’ and decreases ‘competition’ among writers. And because freely offering something of value (as opposed to “buy my book!”) is how you garner honest engagement.
Be an inspiration, not a frustration. Have you noticed how, with some people, you usually feel better after reading their posts? (Maybe grateful, maybe inspired, or maybe just lifted by a smile or a chuckle?) And with others, most of the time it leaves you either bummed or annoyed or demotivated?
So… which of the above feelings do you want others to associate with you?
Try to be that.
Several posts ago I mentioned that the best way for me to capture writing-related thoughts (rough scenes, plot points, timelines, etc.) was to staple several blank pages together and sort of free-form scrawl on them, with perhaps a wavy line between scenes as the only semi-official delineator. My theory is that this works for me because it allows my brain to believe there’s no special importance attached to whatever I’m writing.*
* Notice I used the terms “for me,” “I,” and “my brain.” Your mileage may vary. As always.
I believe the creative mind functions best when it’s actively engaged in an activity without stress. Not coincidentally, I also believe the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. So when you’re doing something you enjoy—without any feelings of stress or fear wrapped around the outcome—you’re more likely to find yourself in that magic zone where ideas come more readily and are executed at a higher level. (I’d say you’ve “set yourself up for success”—and you have—except the concept of “success” is the opposite of what you want on your mind.)
So we might consider replacing concepts like “success” and “winning” and “stress” and “competition” with terms like play and fun and creativity and enjoyment. All of which can add up to us operating at a higher level. It’s ironic, but trying to do well often leads to doing less well. Because when you’re doing X, you should be thinking about (wait for it…) X. Or even better, you should be so immersed in doing X that you’re not consciously thinking about anything. The last thing you should be thinking about is “doing well at X,” which is not about X at all, but about the negative consequences of failing at X. Which of course takes you out of the flow of actually doing X, instead taking you down the fear path and increasing your odds of poor performance.
Once upon a time I was working with a team of men and women who had been doing performance drills with a spirited attitude (and great results) for a long time. Then along came an extra-important federal inspection, the cornerstone of which would be “evaluated exercises.” (i.e. more drills, only with lots of extra focus and extra observers, etc.) I gave them a pre-drill briefing, as per usual. But not as per usual, near the end of the brief a high-level administrator came in and “wanted a few words” with the team. I figured a little cheerleading couldn’t hurt so I let him talk. My bad. He proceeded to tell the team how important these exercises were, how a lot was riding on the results, how they had to do their very best, and how they couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. After pulling the pin and tossing that into the briefing, he left. Everyone was dead quiet as they gathered their gear and got ready to head out, the stress in the room palpable. “Guys, hold on,” I finally said. They stopped. “This is just another drill. Just like last week or last month or last year. You guys are the best in the country at what you do, you’ve already proven that. So don’t change a thing—go out there and kick ass, like always… and have fun!” (Okay, there might have been a few f-bombs inserted here and there, but that’s the gist of it.)
They ended up doing well, but that’s not the point. The point is: Don’t be that administrator inside your own brain when you’re creating. While it’s natural for us to want to perform well, we ironically perform at our best when we’re not worried about performing well… and ideally, not even thinking about performing at all.
As creatives, we need to do whatever we can to set the stage for our muse to arrive and do his/her/their magic. And part of that hinges on putting ourselves in a worry-free/fear-free state of mind as much as possible. My experience around adult learning is that humans don’t do inductive reasoning well under stress, they don’t do creative thinking well under stress, and they don’t retain well under stress.
In other words, they don’t write well under stress. Especially creative writing, and especially self-applied stress.
One way this can manifest with writers: Someone writes a book with zero pressure while enjoying the process, and then has huge, unexpected success with it. Then—when it’s time to write a follow-up—they have all these thoughts swirling in their brain about how important it is, how their career is riding on it, how lots of people are waiting for it, how they can’t blow it, etc. Is it any wonder it sometimes takes them years—and sometimes multiple “throw it away and start over” rewrites—to finish their next work? (Which—when it finally does come out—is sometimes seen as disappointing.)
I can’t think of a better recipe for creative disaster, and I feel for anyone who has to create under those circumstances. They would almost certainly do better if they could convince themselves that no one was waiting for their next book, that it didn’t matter at all, and that they were just writing for fun.
So how can we apply this to our own writing? Three strategies:
1. For starters, we can consciously not think about who might read whatever we’re writing at the moment. Yeah, your evangelical Aunt Betty might not be that into your uber-dark sexy/bloody/demonic urban fantasy. And that’s fine—it’s her choice. But if that’s the story you want to tell… that you need to tell… then you have to do whatever it takes to keep her the hell out of your writing brain while you’re drafting it. Tell yourself she’ll never read it or tell yourself you’ll warn her off or lie to yourself that you’ll remove all the stroke-inducing parts during revisions. Whatever it takes. Or—better yet—tell yourself it’ll never be a book at all… you’re just writing it for yourself and it’ll never see the light of day.
(I know a writer who did exactly that. He wrote a ‘labor of love’ book he really wanted to write—with no plans to ever publish it because he felt it was too outside the box—but after finishing it he was convinced to submit it. He did, and it went on to become an award-winning bestseller.)
2. When you come to a juncture in your writing where there’s a choice between “practical” and “fun,” go with fun whenever possible. When I wrote Road Rash I actually sat down to write another book entirely. A book that made much better business sense—a non-fiction book—because I’d been there/done that and was familiar with the process. But while creating the proposal (with non-fiction the usual business process is reversed—first you sell it, then you write it… a topic for another time) the voice of a seventeen-year-old drummer started talking to me, telling me his story. It made no real sense to drop my “logical” project in favor of this novel. I had no idea if anyone wanted to represent, edit, or publish a book of this type, or if anyone would read it/like it if it were published. But I listened to that little voice and it turned out to be one of the best writing decisions I’ve ever made. And—more important—the writing of it was so much fun.
3. As you’re writing, remind yourself that the final result will undoubtedly be different (and better) than the story as you’re originally drafting it. This will help keep you from becoming too precious about your actual words (if you love them like a mother loves her new-born baby) or too twisted up with frustration and anxiety (if you hate them like a colony of rabid hyenas nipping at your heels). Trying to determine “how good” something is while in the middle of the creative process is like looking down a road you’ve never taken before and trying to tell what’s over the next rise. You have—at best—only a wild-ass guess, and the only rational answer is that you’ll find out when you get there. In the meantime, enjoy the stretch of road you’re on and don’t worry too much about what may show up in a hundred miles.
If writing is important to you…
And if doing your best is a priority…
Then the most important thing you can do is…
I have half a dozen music gigs this month. Which in itself is not a big deal. (When I was younger there were times when I’d play five nights a week for months on end.) What’s different is these gigs are spread out over five different bands.
Two of them are my “home” bands—one a larger, full-service group, and one a smaller, semi-unplugged thing that shares personnel and songs with the larger group. With both those bands I generally know the material to the point where I can listen to the other performers, observe the crowd (always the writer, right?) and just enjoy the music and the vibe.
But three of them are groups where I’m not the regular drummer and don’t necessarily know the material, and with two of those bands I get only one rehearsal each before going into the gigs. Which means I need to use some pretty ruthless triage during rehearsal, because there’s no way to discuss/chart/rehearse forty-plus songs in a couple of hours. (My method is basically: Nail the big stuff and don’t stress over the small stuff. To that end I limit myself to one line of scrawled notes after each song’s title on the set list.) During these “cram before the test” rehearsals (which typically consist of us playing through the intro and a few bars of the verse, and if everything’s cool I stop and ask to move on to the next one, because triage), a well-intentioned musician may sometimes tell me, in some detail, about the little accents he or she’s playing during the third verse or the bridge or whatever. At which point I politely explain that the #1 thing I care about is having the right feel for the song. If the groove of the song feels good—to the other band members and to the audience—then the little stuff doesn’t matter so much. However, if I nail all the little fiddly bits but the feel is wrong, it’s still a complete fail from where I sit. And the #2 thing is the fundamental arrangement, especially the intro and ending. Beyond that, we just have to trust experience, skill, and intuition.
So for me the fundamentals boil down to (1) Soul (i.e. the groove, which includes feel, tempo, and dynamics) and (2) Substance (i.e. major arrangement elements, including starting, stopping, and any big changes along the way). All else is secondary. If not tertiary. I wouldn’t think any of this is privileged information, but you’ll still occasionally see musicians playing with their nose buried in a chart—trying to hit all the little finicky bits they were told are somehow important—but they’re not really playing the music… they’re not engaged in the performance or what the other players are doing, and thus they’re likely not engaging the listeners. (Which is sort of the whole point of playing music in public, right?)
I think the same thing applies to any creative endeavor, including (you guessed it) writing.
Regarding writing, I think of these two fundamental attributes as follows…
SOUL: When I think of stories that have resonated with me, what I recall is the feeling I had upon reading them (and—for the really good ones—the feeling that lingered for quite a while after). But almost never the clever little plot events, at least not in any great number. I can remember stories that moved me to tears. But… I can’t really recall all the specifics of what happened. Nor do I need to. Sure, the basic outline is there, but what’s really there are the characters and the way they made me feel.
SUBSTANCE: The other thing that comes to mind when thinking about a specific story is: Did it hang together as a story? If so, good. If not, not so good. And a lot of this has to do with how artfully the author brought us into the story and released us from it, and handled the major transitions in between. (More on ‘Sticking the Landing’ here.)
I’ve said before that for me, the soul of a story—especially early in the process—is the vibe of it more than anything else. I get a certain feeling in my brain, and I attempt to convey that feeling to the reader. (Similar to how with a slow bluesy number, you might want the listener to feel longing or loss or desperation. But if you play it too fast… boom—that’s feeling’s gone. And nothing else you might do or say or play will make up for the loss of the essential mood of the song.)
I see aspiring writers arguing online about whether or not this or that “content” is “allowable” in this or that genre or age range, or what the specific word count of a middle grade should be vs. YA vs. adult literary, etc. I just want to mash the Godphone button and shout, “You’re missing the point—none of that matters as long as the story’s good. If we believe in your characters and give a shit about what happens to them, we’ll buy it!” And this is demonstrably true. By far the most popular books in recent history are a series ostensibly written for school-age children, yet the books average 150,000 words (600 pages) each. (And as I write this, the current overall #1 best-selling book in the country—according to Publishers Weekly—is the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire… almost twenty years after its initial publication.)
So I guess the lesson here is don’t worry so much about the fiddly bits—the word count or genre constraints or the edginess quotient of the so-called “content.” Sure, you should be aware of current conventions (mostly because if you aren’t, you’re not paying enough attention to your chosen art form). But if you nail the all the “conventional wisdom” aspects and still have a weak story, it’s likely not going anywhere. On the other hand, if you have an amazing, unique, fascinating story which—although well-constructed—might be a little outside the box, you may find yourself with an agent/editor/publisher who also feels engaged with the Soul & Substance of your story, and subsequently a contingent of the reading public who are likewise engaged in your work.
Keep on rocking, keep on writing!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.