No, this post isn’t about music, but the above impromptu clip can serve as a writing analogy. It’s just a simple little groove, shot with a phone, with no rehearsal or audio processing or anything.
In other words, it’s the first draft of an idea, not a polished manuscript. It could undoubtedly be better were it rehearsed, recorded with decent microphones, and mixed with some processing. (In writer-speak, it needs revision, polishing, and editing.) And already I can tell how I’d “rewrite” it. (IMO it should be maybe 10 bpm slower, with a little more triplet feel “swing,” more quarter-note accents on the cymbal bell, and a little more orchestration around the kit, instead of primarily on two toms. Perhaps with a shaker overdub. And of course, it should exist within a song, serving as a support structure for other instruments and melodic ideas… it’s certainly not a complete story within itself.)
But still, even in early draft stages, it tells me what I need to know—does it do what I want it to do? Does it evoke a slight world-beat vibe (interesting setting)… can I hear the “song behind the song” (subplot)… does it have an implied melody (theme)…?
And—getting granular here—did the hi-hat add the right texture? Because what makes this little experiment work for me isn’t the obvious stuff (what the hands are doing). To me, what makes it worth exploring at all is what the left foot is doing… the slight jazzy lilt from the little hi-hat notes on the “ands” in between the quarter notes. For me, if they were absent (or—almost worse—right on the 1-2-3-4 quarter notes), then it would be obvious/plodding/boring to the point where I’d have zero interest in using it.
(Think of writing a story about a geeky-yet-goth girl, the adorkable guy who sits behind her in math, their insta-love, and their Scooby gang of misfits that save the world in between episodic bouts of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Yawn. Now make the characters senior citizens, but no ‘Assisted Living Rom-Com’ here—because NFW can they afford it—so they all live in a shitty little trailer park on the edge of town. With the currently-more-ambulatory taking turns caring for the currently-bed-ridden (though they all rotate through all positions sooner or later), until they’re forced to resort to crime to cover the increasing cost of their meds. In between bouts of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, of course. Because really, who’s more likely to blast Zeppelin at annoyingly high volumes—a sixteen-year-old with earbuds or a hard-of-hearing 70-something?)
My point is, sometimes what we need to do to find our emotional way into a story (see: Finding a Way In and a Way Out for more on this) is to change some aspect of the story to make it uniquely ours, to make it fresh, to make it resonate with us. You could age up all your snarky teen characters… by sixty years. You could take a “He Said, She Said” story and instead of showing Scene 1 from her point of view and then Scene 2 from his, you could show Scene 1 from hers, then turn right around and write Scene 1 again, only from his POV. You could tell a poignant wartime tale of destruction and loss, but instead of telling it in the voice of the heroic child protagonist, you could have it narrated by Death, who—far from being a heartless killer—is basically a kind, introspective being who feels overworked by the stupidity of man.
None of these is a gimmick, any more than playing a subtle offbeat with your left foot is a gimmick. The story may work without them, but your particular slant adds an intangible quality, a certain you-ness to it that may not only feel new and unique to the reader but—perhaps more important—feel new and fresh to you… which may give you the inspiration and motivation to dive in and do the hard work necessary to bring it to fruition.
One of my dad’s favorite quotes was a line from The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” He first heard of the quote by way of James Dean (who apparently appreciated it for the way he felt it related to acting). Taking that same philosophy a step further, I’d say it applies to any creative endeavor, whether acting or music or painting… or writing.
So find that little thing… that invisible thing… that essential thing… that makes your story feel like yours and no one else’s. And once you add that small essence to the mix—so small others may not even be aware of it—you’ll have something amazing.
Something only you can do.
Something that is you.
Back when I was an instructor, an administrative person opined that a good lesson plan is one where any instructor can pick it up and go teach the class effectively*.
I understand the concept as far as it goes and think it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. But my position was—and still is—that the teacher is an integral part of the process, and it’s reductive to think that any warm body with the ability to read and regurgitate a lesson plan can step in and do an effective job… at least for anything other than the most basic of tasks.
Sometimes, in order to really do an effective job, specialized knowledge is required, or perhaps experience or talent or training or skill or passion or… you get the point.
The teacher matters.
Because each of them brings something unique to the table.
Maybe I’m thinking about this today because, as I write this, I’m developing lesson plans for a workshop I’m giving at a conference in a few weeks. And the idea that another person could just take the lesson plan and PowerPoint and give the class seems wildly simplistic, because they don’t have the same personal experiences I do, nor my particular slant on things. (For that matter, they haven’t made the same mistakes I have either.) Not that someone else couldn’t teach a class on the same subject. They certainly could. And it might be great. But it would be a different class.
Which brings me to my point. Which isn’t really about teaching, but about writing.
As writers, we sometimes get hung up on basic plot mechanics. As though the specifics of what happens to who, and when, and where, is all that matters. (If that were really the case, all we’d have to write is a detailed plot outline, delineating everything that occurs within the story, and we’d be done. I did that once. With my OBFN. Writing that detailed outline bored me so much I hated writing the actual book.)
So I’m here to posit that not only are the mechanics of pushing characters through a plot like pieces on a chess board not the only thing that matters in a story, they’re not even the main thing.
Consider: Fully half the stories in the world are some variation on the theme of “X meets Y. X loses Y. X gets Y back.” (Or, as George Harrison so brilliantly put it, “Love lost or gained between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one.”) So if that’s the case, what separates a cheesy soap opera from something like The Scorpio Races or The Princess Bride or Flipped or…?
It’s not just what happens (or to whom, or when, or where). It’s how the story is told. It’s that special, intangible thing the author brings to the table that makes each of these stories unique and amazing in their own way, even though on the surface they’re all boy-meets-girl love stories.
Yes, plot certainly matters. And no, this isn’t a diatribe against crafting a tightly-constructed series of events which lead to a well-supported resolution. (Although sometimes we can take the concept of “Finding the Formula to Writing Success!!!” a little too much to heart. I’ve read how-to missives stating you’re supposed to have an “antagonist” who “wants something the hero wants, and fights the hero for it.” With this battle ideally starting 57 pages after the “inciting incident,” which is supposed to happen within the first 23% of the manuscript. And so on. What comes to mind upon reading such things is that many of my favorite books—including two of the three mentioned above—have no antagonist at all, in the traditional sense. Which is a subject for another day, but the lesson shouldn’t be forgotten…)
I’m typically against pontifications about how to write—and especially of the didactic “you must do this!” sort—as writing is more art than science, and we’re all a study of one. But one writing dictum I like is “Write the story only you can tell.”
This doesn’t mean write your autobiography.
This doesn’t mean write only about things with which you have direct experience, in a ‘write-what-you-know’ fashion.
It means tell the story in your head—and in your heart—in your own unique way. In a way no one else could. Even if it’s a “boy meets girl” story. (Or “girl meets girl.” Or “girl meets talking zebra.” Or whatever “X meets Y” makes your heart sing.) Because if you’re brave enough tell it in the way only you can tell it—even though that might feel scary, and even though you’ll be tempted to tell it the way you’ve read it a hundred times before—then you’ll have created something new and unique and fresh and original. Even though the so-called plot may be universal.
Which is really the best of both worlds.
Go be you.
*I think I replied with something like, “Okay, the final step of my lesson plan states: Teacher takes questions and provides meaningful, informative, in-depth answers based on years of experience and training in the specific subject matter. Could you follow those instruction ‘effectively’?”
Last time we discussed some not-infrequent issues arising during free school visits.
I suppose one answer might be to just Grinch-out and stop doing them, but that’s no real solution because school visits – free or otherwise – are really beneficial and big fun, if done right.
They’re beneficial to the kiddos (inspires them to want to read and write), to the teachers/librarians (helps reinforce things they’re trying to convey like the importance of revision in the real world, etc.) and to the authors (connects them to their readership, motivates them to think about and codify their process, etc.).
And again, they’re just plain fun and rewarding to do. Writing is predominantly a solitary activity and it’s good to know there are actual readers somewhere on the other end of the equation, and meeting those readers and taking their questions is always nice.
And finally, there’s nothing like students seeing a living, breathing writer, in person, to drive home the point that yes, real people actually write books… and they can too if they put their mind to it.
So yeah, the benefits of school visits are legion. And it’s also rewarding to be able to occasionally help out a school or district that maybe doesn’t have the resources to swing a typical author visit. (At its best, the concept of giving should be a win for both the giver and the recipient. If it’s not, something’s askew on one end or the other.)
With all that in mind, we want to avoid the types of issues we talked about last time. In general, most of them can be prevented by good communication between the author and the school.
Good communication… before the event.
Here are some strategies that may be worth consideration. (And if you have others, feel free to put them in the comments.)
1. When donating your services, make it clear that your normal honorarium is $XXX but you’re waiving or reducing your fee to help the school out. (In other words, make them aware of your value, and that they’re getting something of real value—something schools usually pay for—even though you’re not charging them for it in this instance.)
2. Ask what the visit “might look like.” Get them to give you a detailed rundown of the expected preparations, as well as the activities on the day of. If nothing else, making them state it in writing or out loud will make them more likely to follow through on it. (And yes, it’s okay to ask if lunch will be served if they don’t bring it up!)
3. Ask what exposure the kids will have had to your work prior to the visit. I’m not saying they need to buy every student a copy of your book (as at least one well-known one author requires for “free” visits) but they should have read at least some of your work in class—whether for assignment or SSR—and be somewhat familiar with you and your writing in general. This alone will make the presentation much more successful, as the students will have both interest and questions from the exposure.
4. Don’t be afraid to politely decline if it’s clear from their responses to the above that they don’t really value you and your presentations. This can be tough—most kidlit authors consider themselves allies of schools, teachers, and librarians. I know I do. So maybe use something like, “I can only do so many free visits per year, and I’ve learned that the students get the most out of them when the school’s willing to do some preparation beforehand.”
5. Be wary of places that contact you asking outright for free presentations. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems like most venues that contact authors asking for gratis presentations are shotgunning their requests, looking for whoever’s willing to bite. Sometimes it’s clear from their query they don’t know your work at all… you’re just another name on their list. This sort of spamming isn’t likely to result in a meaningful author day for either you or the students. (It’s a slightly different topic, but this can also apply to conferences, festivals, and workshops.)
6. Consider making them do some legwork, similar to applying for a grant. Maybe send them a form and have them fill out and return it, listing what they’ll be doing in advance of the day to ensure a meaningful presentation. (In a sense, it is a grant. You’re asking them to delineate the reasons their school should receive free educational services.) I heard an author on a podcast (it was “Kidlit Women,” IIRC) talk about something similar: She does two free visits per year. She has schools apply and she chooses what she thinks are the most deserving ones. And yes, she definitely has more meaningful visits after the schools go through the application process—they know the value of what they’re receiving and they really appreciate her choosing them.
7. Have the name and contact number of your host at the school (the person coordinating the visit) and a back-up if possible. All your communications should be through them, and they should be on hand during the visit. (Yes, sometimes situations change and life intervenes, and if you do this long enough then sooner or later you’ll end up dealing with a “substitute host.” But—assuming they’ve been briefed and the schedule of events decided upon beforehand—things should still go well.) This is par for the course with paid events, and there’s no reason to skip it just because you’re doing your presentation pro bono.
In the end, it’s not really about the dollars and cents. It’s about feeling like you've made a positive impact on the kiddos, and the best way to ensure that is to ensure they’re familiar with the work and—more important--engaged in the exchange that happens during an author visit. After all, you’re not there to speak at the students. You’re there to inform and inspire in an interactive manner, creating an experience they’ll take with them going forward.
And the way to ensure all this is to ensure the school values you.
And the way to ensure that is to value yourself and your work.
It’s funny, yet empirically true:
1. The more someone pays you, the better they treat you.
2. The less they pay for your work, the less they think it—and you—are worth.
3. No one will value you—or your work—more than you value yourself.
Not funny in a “haha” way. Funny in a “wow, that’s strange and illogical” way.
If someone does a professional job and charges a professional price, that’s to be expected, right? But if someone’s willing to do a professional job and charge a reduced price as a favor (or even do it for free), you’d think they would be treated even better. But so often it’s the other way around. Which is the ‘funny’ part. I’ve seen this dozens of times, with myself and with other writers I know.
Kidlit authors often do “school visits,” where a school will bring in an author to give a presentation to the students. Broadly, the authors talk about things like writing and reading and the value of persistence, etc. But there’s usually a lot more to the overall presentation than that, and a lot more behind-the-scenes prep work involved as well.
The schools pay the author to present to their student body. And if it’s an away gig, they cover travel and lodging, they have someone pick up the author at the airport, they have someone shuttle the author between schools then back to their hotel, etc. It’s a fairly standardized thing. The author is paid per day, with a “day” typically consisting of perhaps three presentations at one or more schools (sometimes schools share an author to spread out costs) and often also including signings and lunch with staff and/or students and occasionally an associated evening library program for adults.
The students get a lot out of it—both inspirationally and educationally—and the staff are usually super stoked to have an author come and talk with their students. To make the most of the author’s time on campus, they’ll often make sure the kids have read at least some of the author’s work and are familiar with them, etc. (This is really helpful, by the way, as it’s much easier to keep the attention of five hundred middle grade students if they know you and your work!)
And the authors get a lot out of it, too—they get to interact with their readership (perhaps the best part), they get to spread the word about not only their work but about the value of books and creative work in general, and they get to inform and inspire the students regarding the writing process. And they get an honorarium. (In a field without regular paychecks and no set salary, this is more important than one might think.)
This is all good. But once in a while you might run across a school without the budget to bring in an author… maybe it’s a smaller local school… maybe an under-served school in another district… maybe you’re acquainted with the staff. So for whatever reason you decide to waive or reduce your honorarium for them. And sometimes, everything goes wonderfully. Especially if the school knows and likes your work and the kids are familiar with your books.
(There was a high school in our state which had all their incoming freshmen read my book. They couldn’t afford an author visit but contacted me about maybe doing a Skype chat… less costly but also less impactful. They were some distance away but drivable round-trip in a day, so I said I’d do it in person for free since they were featuring my book in their curriculum. Turned out to be a wonderful experience. I did three presentations to reach all their freshmen and those kids were prepared. They’d done detailed language arts projects on the book and gave really well done presentations on them to me. The students and staff were super appreciative and attentive throughout, there was a nice lunch provided, and on my way out I was given a check for travel costs, which was totally unexpected and really nice.)
But this only happens if the host has done the appropriate prep work.
And this is where free visits can get tricky. Because if the school isn’t invested financially it can impact how they invest other resources… like time and attention. You arrive only to find out the person who coordinated your visit somehow isn’t available. You’re turned over to someone who doesn’t know who you are. No librarian or language arts teachers in sight, let alone the principal. No one introduces you to the crowd, so you do that awkward ‘Hi guys, I’m so-and-so and I’m here to talk to you about writing!’ self-intro. To a bunch of blank stares. Because the kids have no clue who you are, what you’ve written, or even why you’re there. Afterward the person who was sent to fire up the AV equipment for you sort of mumbles thanks, then you pack up all your stuff and load it back into your car, looking for a Taco Bell as you start the long drive home because there was no mention of food. And as you sit there eating your spicy tostada from the value menu, you wonder, Why the heck did I even do that?
Of course they don’t all go like that but in my experience this isn’t uncommon, and I’ve heard several authors relate similar tales, with “Free visits just aren’t worth it,” and “Half the time I end up regretting it,” being frequent comments.
Here are just a few classics…
And now for the punch line: When they’re paying you, those things virtually NEVER HAPPEN. The staff is engaged and super happy you’re there. The librarian and language arts teachers and principal or vice-principal are almost always in attendance… and frequently a bunch of other staff, too. The students are familiar with your work and engaged in the presentation, and they’ll have some great questions afterward. There’s almost always some sort of festive catered staff lunch, often attended by a select group of students who have a special interest in writing and/or have excelled in some relevant way. And they frequently send you off with a cool gift basket along with a check for the honorarium.
And yet if you give the exact same service for free, they act like they’re doing you a favor just letting you in the door.
So the lesson I’ve learned is, they don’t value you unless you value you.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do free author presentations. I did one last week as I write this, and I’ll absolutely do more. I’m just thinking that perhaps there are some strategies we can use so the visits are effective even though provided at no charge. We’ll discuss these next time.
Until then, please value yourself.
Back when we were kids we used to watch reruns of Gumby on TV. I vaguely remember my brother being a fan of the troublemaking Blockheads and I seem to recall my sister liking the concept of being able to walk into books, but being the simple boy I was, my favorite was Gumby’s dog, Nopey. Who could only say one word: “Nope!” (I mean, what willful child wouldn’t identify with a cute, friendly dog that went around saying “Nope!” to everything???)
Fast forward a few decades…
When we were designing our house, a very smart man looked at our plans, said some complimentary things, then added, “You know, if you angle this wall here, it’ll improve your view over there.” He was right, but I’ll admit that my first response was to channel Nopey because we were in the mindset of “doing it ourselves,” literally starting from a sketch done on a napkin. So I rationalized my reluctance, thinking things like, but then we’ll lose a few square feet in the corner of the room. But the idea was an undeniable improvement—brilliant, actually—and it wasn’t long before we made the change. And virtually every morning since—especially those rare and wonderful mornings when we both have the time to just sit in bed and write—I’ve looked at the view from where we sit and been so thankful we took the suggestion.
If you have an editor working on your book—whether paying you or getting paid by you—you don’t have to take all their suggestions. (If you do, there’s probably something wrong.) But if you say “Nope!” to all of them, there’s also probably something wrong. (Namely, you’re not really looking for an editor, you’re looking for a copyeditor. Or more likely a proofreader, as even a copyeditor will have editorial suggestions regarding voice consistency and story continuity and fundamental fact-checking, etc. Whereas when most people refer to a proof reader, they’re thinking of someone acting as a human F7, just checking the basic mechanics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.)
Why do I bring this up? Allow me to spin an apocryphal tale…
There was a man who wrote a book. And his book had some really unique and interesting ideas. And when he finished, someone suggested he should have someone with editorial skills take a look at it before he went further. So he went looking for an editor, only he had the above mindset—that editing was scraping a document for mechanical errors. (As we’ve discussed before, thinking an editor does this is akin to thinking a financial advisor simply counts your money for you.) He found his “editor,” a smart young guy who read widely, had a language arts background, and was good at putting his thoughts to paper. And he had the guy read the manuscript, with the instructions that he wanted someone to edit the story, looking for mistakes, etc. And the guy did this, finding the usual typos and wordos, etc. But the guy also had questions, suggestions, and comments. As editors do. Like, “You’ve already explored this argument earlier. Maybe consolidate?” or “I’m unclear—who’s speaking here?" or “This speech is kind of wordy—maybe tighten it a little?” or “I’m having a hard time believing the character would do that—maybe do something to increase his motivation?”
But the man wasn’t interested in the guy’s suggestions regarding his work, so he said “Nope!” He just wanted to make sure everything was legal (spelling/grammar/punctuation-wise) and that was all. He was unfamiliar with the concept of: “The writing is for the writer; the rewriting is for the reader.” So he corrected the objective issues the editor found and globally ignored all the subjective ones.
And no big surprise, when reading the subsequent result one might think (a) wow, there are some really clever, unique ideas here, and (b) this thing could use an editor. (If the reader isn’t also a writer, their version of (b) might be more like: Hmm… I don’t find this book as compelling as I thought I would. I have the vague feeling that it could flow better and be more engaging, but I’m not sure why.) But the result is the same—a manuscript which doesn’t do the thematic concept justice, because the writer was unaware that an informed, outside view will almost always yield fresh and valuable insights. (Or he was arrogant enough to think no one else had ideas which could improve his work, but it’s my tale so I’m giving him the benefit of ignorance over arrogance.) But either way, his unique and interesting ideas died a slow death, largely unread, because he couldn’t see beyond saying “Nope!”
There’s a vital difference between not liking/not taking a specific suggestion and roundly rejecting the idea of editorial suggestions altogether. A lesson I had to learn when I first became a manager (mostly through watching what happened to managers who didn’t learn it) was that I didn’t have to be the guy who came up with all the good ideas. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with being able to say “Hey wait a minute… that’s a better idea than my idea. So let’s stop the presses and do it your way instead!” Because an effective manager should be able to recognize good ideas and use them, regardless of source. And in some sense, besides being your story’s author, you’re also its manager… tasked with making it as strong as possible.
Almost no one likes to be told what to do. (Including me… hence my early love of Nopey.) I get that. But—assuming the editor/beta/critter has at least the social intelligence of a starfish—their suggestions shouldn’t be treated like insults. When someone has an idea (especially one about how to help you make your work better), the first step is to forget the source of it. Next, consider the idea as an idea, with no other preconceptions or baggage. (Imagine you thought of it, if that helps.) Then ask yourself: Is it a good idea? Does it resonate with me? Does it fit the story?
Obviously you should conduct this evaluation with the understanding that not all good ideas are necessarily right for your book. Books have a vibe, a theme, a personality… and an idea that’s contrary to the gestalt of the work may in fact harm more than help, no matter how clever it is. Which is why you, as the author, have the final say over which suggestions to take and which to leave.
Just don’t be like Gumby’s dog—as adorable as he was—and automatically say “Nope!” to everything.
Disclosure: This is a craft-oriented post and might seem a bit “inside baseball,” but I believe it’s important for multiple reasons. (Just one of which: If an agent or editor gets confused about your characters within the first ten or twenty pages, it’s unlikely they’ll read further. Which should be motivation enough to get this squared away.)
The subject of character names has been on my mind lately as I’ve recently read a few books which had issues with it. This is one of those areas where we can have a blind spot because after living with them for a while we tend to think of our characters as the specific names we’ve originally chosen for them and we’re naturally resistant to changing things. (Yet another example of the “too close” syndrome which can plague us as writers.) The following are a few things to keep in mind regarding the naming of characters in our work, with the goal always being clarity for the reader (that person who paid for the privilege of reading our words).
*NOTE: These aren’t rules (because there really are no rules when it comes to fiction) and I’m not into telling anyone how they must do things. So before each of these, add “please consider the following…” or “you might want to think long and hard before you…” And please don’t send an angry message about some famous character having three different names or whatever. Again: no rules. These are just concepts to be aware of, because whatever wild thing you do with your art, you should do intentionally, not accidentally. With that said…
1. Don’t introduce all your characters to us at once.
I recently read a book with an early passage basically saying “… and my brother so-and-so and my little sister such-and-such and my older sister what’s-her-name, and of course my best friend next door…” I ended up bookmarking that page because I’d read a name on page 50 and think, now who was that again…? and have to flip back and refresh. Spread them out if possible—let us see them each in context, doing whatever it is that makes them unique, instead of just another name in a list of names. Closely related to this is:
2. Don’t define a character to us only once.
This is common due to the fact that we (as writers) usually have them firmly in mind, and separate from each other. So we intro them and move on, always certain (in our minds) of who they are. The reader doesn’t have the weeks or months of forethought (and likely written notes) that we do regarding the characters, so they need a little help. More than once—in more than one manuscript—I’ve seen an editor comment “remind us” in the margin next to me blithely referring to a character. So if you mention “My best friend Jeri” early on and then we don’t see her for another thirty or forty pages, don’t just casually refer to her again without context. You know who she is, but the reader could likely benefit from: “Of course Jeri would understand—we’ve been best friends since sixth grade, and…”
3. Don’t give characters multiple names.
I was again reminded of this last week as I was reading a novel where both main characters had pseudonyms. Within the book, the characters’ real names were used constantly (i.e. on virtually every page) and their stage names were used infrequently (like maybe a dozen times in the entire book). Yet the book was titled using the pseudonyms. I found myself frequently flipping back to either the book cover or the flaps, trying to remember who was who. Yes, there are exceptions to this. And characters working undercover, etc., could—and probably should—have an alias. But referring to a character on a day-to-day basis by multiple names should only be done when there’s a story-enhancing reason for it… and only when it’ll be absolutely clear to the reader who’s who.
4. Don’t have a massive number of named characters.
The obvious exception here would be A Song of Fire and Ice, but keep in mind GRRM has a full-time dude just to keep track of the couple thousand named characters in the series (which tells us this isn’t necessarily a goal to aspire to). For us muggles a better goal may be to have enough named characters to keep things interesting and three dimensional, but not so many that neither you nor your readers can follow the story without constantly referring to a lengthy list of cast members (which of course will tend to kick the reader out of the story—definitely something to be avoided). Toward that end, keep in mind not every character needs to be named (that quirky Uber driver we only see once, for example). And sometimes one character can do the work of two. (If you want your MC’s boyfriend to have a mom and you need an oral surgeon in the book, consider consolidating them. Besides saving on names, it can give more depth to the mom.) When introducing a new character and deciding whether or not to give them a proper name, the type of questions to ask ourselves are: Are we going to see them again? Are we—either via narrative voice or through other characters—going to refer to them again? Are we going to attribute dialog to them frequently? If no, then perhaps we don’t need to add them to the roster. Maybe an impromptu nickname instead (“geeky Uber guy”) is enough to get through the scene without adding yet another name to the reader’s mental cast list.
5. Don’t let your characters have names starting with the same letter (or otherwise similar).
You see this a lot. Because, like most things mentioned in this post, in the writer’s mind there’s a clear difference between the hero, Jim, and his nemesis, Joe. But—again—probably not to the reader. If you submit a manuscript with a Bill & Bob or a Jill & Joan and it makes it past your agent to an editor who acquires it, you’ll likely be changing that, regardless. Because editors know that when confronted with multiple characters, readers sometimes use mental shortcuts like, Oh yeah, that woman with the ‘V’ name… So either Valerie or Victoria is going to bite the digital dust before the story makes it through line edits. (And authors and editors aren’t immune to the potential confusion, either. I read a passage in a novel where the author was clearly talking about “Jim” [good guy] but called the character “Joe” [bad guy] and the error made it through all the edits and copy edits.) Better to avoid it altogether.
6. Don’t let your characters have long, unpronounceable names.
This is particularly common with science fiction and fantasy works. I get why you might not want your book which is set on another world to be populated with people named Brad & Janet or Dick & Jane. But are you sure you really want characters with 7-syllable names that sound like a rare genetic disorder? There’s a balance between the too-familiar and the incomprehensible. Think of some of the more popular characters in seminal SF/F works: Leia, Cersei, Bilbo, Xena, Deckard, Mal, Hagrid, Gandalf, Aeryn, Han, Kara, etc… These are unique enough that they don’t seem like a random group of people right off the streets of West Covina, yet are fairly easy to both pronounce and remember.
That’s probably enough Don’ts. Here’s a Do or two: Do give your characters names that seem to fit them, give them their own identity, and resonate with you. But also, do take a minute to look at their names from the reader's point of view.
And, of course, you do you.
There are some sayings which, cliché as they may be, are so valid we should keep them permanently posted in our work areas. Such as “Pay yourself first,” which is useful and true in so many ways, yet frequently ignored. Or maybe “Make up your bed every morning.” Which is really just a pithy way of saying, Starting every day with a small, easy-to-accomplish task has been shown to lower procrastination and increase productivity and maybe even happiness.
Here’s one more: “Get a fresh set of eyes on it.” (Or ears. Or taste buds. Or whatevers.) Here’s why…
You may have noticed that sometimes in action films, people will be shouting back and forth during an action sequence and you can’t really understand the dialog because of all the action-y noises going on. And occasionally, it might be an artistic choice (perhaps the director or sound editor is trying to replicate the frantic, unclear communication that can occur during the fog of war). But this can also happen for a much more prosaic reason: the people making it are too familiar with the material. They know every word. They’ve read the script countless times, they’ve heard the dialog when it was filmed or dubbed (probably multiple times) and they’ve heard it over and over during the mixing process. So even if the line is buried in the mortar explosions or alien laser beams or musket fire, they know what’s being said and they can still “hear” it. (Plus of course volume equals excitement, which works until it doesn’t.)
The fix for this is to bring in someone who’s never seen/heard it and have them watch it, then ask, “Did you understand the important dialog during the attack of the giant alpacas?” And if the answer is anything but, “Yes, I totally understood what was happening there,” the solution is not to say, “Listen again… the guy says ‘Giant alpacas are allergic to vanilla ice cream!’ which is important because the hero is a Good Humor driver. Can you hear it now?” Instead, the solution is to make it more clear, in any of several ways. (Again, assuming clarity is the desired goal here. Which, ninety-five percent of the time, it is.)
This applies across multiple disciplines. Especially writing. We can become so knowledgeable about the characters and back story and world building of our work that we aren’t really aware that some of what we “know” about the story isn’t actually coming across on the page. We’re simply too close to it, and when we read it we unconsciously fill in any blanks that may exist within the text. Especially on our fourth—or fourteenth or fortieth—time through the manuscript.
This is pretty universal. (At least, it applies to virtually every writer I’ve ever met, certainly including me.) So the safest path is to assume it affects you too, and act accordingly. Which probably includes some version of: Have someone unfamiliar with the story give it a read-through without any prior explanations from you. (Your husband or sister or friend with whom you’ve been brainstorming about the story for a year probably isn’t the best choice, in this context.)
Just have them read it—with zero editorializing from you—then sit them down with their drink of choice and ask them where things were perhaps unclear… where they might have felt a little lost in the plot or uncertain of the setting or stymied regarding why a character did something or just plain disconnected from the story.
Your job at this point is simply to capture the where and why. Where in the story were they unclear as to setting (possible description issues), where in the story did they stop liking the MC (possible motivation issues), where in the story were they unclear regarding the overall direction of things (possible plot issues), and (if they can tell you) why?
What you don’t want to do next is say, “Well actually, that happened due to…” because a little action-figure version of you doesn’t come with each copy of the book to explain what you really meant. All the reader will have is the words on the page, and if that’s not enough to keep them up-to-speed and engaged in your story without you filling in the gaps, then maybe a little more work is in order.
Standard caveats apply: This isn’t about story development. You’re probably not looking for What should I do about it?-type answers (unless the reader is an author/editor-type… and even then there are potential pitfalls--see this post). You’re just looking for spots where the words on the page might not fully convey the story that’s in your head. And of course the type of reader matters. If not your “ideal” reader, they should at least be familiar with the genre in question. (People freaking over f-bombs in a YA book likely don’t understand what “Young Adult” actually means these days, and people who don’t understand the fundamental difference between a star and a planet probably aren’t the best reader for your hard SF novel.)
So okay, you have a list of where things are perhaps unclear to a cognizant reader. Now what? I’d advise against the knee-jerk response of going too far the other way and hammering home whatever tidbit was glossed over. If you mention some aspect of a character or setting once or twice, that should get the picture into the reader’s brain every time they come upon it after that. Like if the first time we see it you state that the Dirty Dog Café is a rundown, funky diner on the edge of town with dingy pink vinyl booths and flypaper hanging up in the corners—some flies having been there since 1982—then you don’t need to mention it every time we visit that setting. Maybe someone can refer to it as a dive or a greasy spoon later on, but more than that can feel pedantic and/or like you’re insulting the reader’s intelligence. (Names are a separate issue which we can get into later.)
In brief: We need to find out what’s in our “mental story” that we left out of the manuscript, and we need to find a way to artfully put it into the written story without overkill. And without using the dreaded “As you know, Bob…” Because yes, Bob certainly already knows all about it.
And so do we.
In fact, as the creator, writer, rewriter, reviser, and polisher-in-chief, we probably know WAY too much about it. And—counter-intuitive as it may seem—perhaps the best help for that is from someone who knows nothing about it.
I’ve always been a little perplexed by people not knowing how to respond—or more important, not knowing how not to respond—when a friend shows them their creative work. (BTW, this isn’t the same thing as when a beginning creative asks you—as an experienced creative—for constructive feedback on their work. But there are some definite similarities—see “Critiquing the Aspiring Writer.”)
And more to the point, I’ve seen people feel hurt and discouraged by thoughtless responses when they’ve shown a friend their latest effort.
I’ve always thought this should be an easy one—you simply imagine showing someone your creative brainchild, and you respond as you would like to be responded to. Golden rule, right? No-brainer, right?
Then why do so many get it so wrong?
A sample of things I’ve seen people say when a friend shows them their work--
Upon reading a friend’s latest work: “Here’s a list of the mistakes I found.”
Upon hearing a friend’s [finished and mixed and mastered and replicated] CD: “You could just remix it.”
Upon reading a friend’s early effort: “We need to talk.”
Upon sampling someone’s culinary creation: “Because this is actually pretty good, I’m going to tell you how to make it even better.”
Upon reading a friend’s published work: “I thought it had too many ellipses…”
Upon walking through a custom house an architect friend designed. “I’d hate to have to clean a house this big.”
Note that these were the initial (and in most cases, only) comments from the friend of the creator. There may be a place for constructive commentary later in the conversation—if it gets that far. Like mentioning typos, which can be useful with a manuscript (but passive-aggressive with a published book, for obvious reasons).
It finally hit me that many of the people responding in inconsiderate ways probably aren’t creatives, in the sense that they haven’t poured themselves into making a work of art and then had the pleasure of showing it to a friend. So they don’t really know what it’s like to be on the high end of the see-saw when the other party decides to step off.
Fair enough. We don’t know what we don’t know.
But some of them are creatives. I find wonky responses from them harder to understand. Perhaps they really think they’re somehow helping the person with their “blunt honesty”? Perhaps their worldview is such that they think pointing out flaws in someone’s work is equal to creating the work itself? Perhaps they think if they don’t come up with some pointed critiques, they’ll come off as ignorant? Perhaps this is the chance to show off their academic education? Perhaps they’re jealous?
Hard to say for sure. But one of the best pieces of interpersonal advice I’ve ever received is about maintaining “the assumption of innocence.” So, working on the assumption there’s zero ill will behind any of the less-than-thoughtful first responses—maybe just a few gaps in knowledge—here’s a list of things to keep in mind when a friend shows you their work for non-critiquing reasons.
1. Resist the urge to blurt out the first thing to come to mind. (Unless your very first thought is, Wow – this is totally awesome! In which case, go ahead and let fly.) Sure, when we read a book or listen to music or watch a film, etc., we sometimes can’t help but notice little imperfections in the production. (The drummer rushed the fill leading into the second verse. The author used “their” instead of “there.” The dialog during the film’s action scene was mixed too low. The fudge is a little granular because the sugar wasn’t fully dissolved. Etc.) The process is automatic. So yes, on some level we might take note of them, but then (if we’re adults) we “listen beyond the production” (i.e. ignore any obvious little mechanical discrepancies) because we know these trivial things aren’t germane to the big picture. Then…
2. Say something positive. There’s virtually always something positive you can say. If not, I’d venture you might want to either dig deeper or check your head. It can be more local than global, if necessary… if you can’t say you liked/loved/enjoyed the work (as a whole), maybe you can say you really liked X (where X is some small-yet-real aspect of the work). Or even a positive comparison with their previous work. (“Your work keeps getting better.” Or, “I liked your last one, but this seems even stronger.”) In an absolute worst-case scenario, you can always compliment the effort involved. (“I can tell how much care you put into this,” or “Good for you for finishing this—I know it was a huge job.”) But once you get beyond the false & reductive It’s not my cup of tea so it’s not good mindset, a caring, supportive person (i.e. a friend) should be able to find something validating to offer.
3. But don’t lie. Because they can tell. Doesn’t mean you can’t slant any positive feelings a little toward the right side of the Dislike-Like-Love continuum, but outright lies or blatant cheerleading will almost always come off as insincere and do more harm than good.
4. It’s not a zero sum game. This reminder is to obviate any feelings of competition or jealousy that may arise from seeing the work. Someone else producing something of value in no way invalidates your own work. And someone else’s success in no way decreases your chances of success. Quite the opposite, in fact. We all can (and should) learn from each other, feel bolstered by each other, and gain inspiration from each other. So much healthier (and in my observation, more likely to lead to success) than feeling competitive with those working in the same arena. The goal isn’t to beat our fellow artists. The goal is to beat our own previous efforts.
5. It’s also not a test. Remember that kiss-ass kid in school waving his hand at the teacher just so he can smugly point out his classmate’s error? Don’t be him. Some people seem to take exposure to another’s work as a challenge or a test, where they feel if they can’t come up with something to criticize, they’ve somehow failed.
6. It’s not your job to point out flaws. Others will provide plenty of criticism, have no fear. (Some of whom should, like agents and editors, and some who maybe shouldn’t but will anyway, for reasons discussed above.) Your job in this situation is to be a friend. Friends support friends.
7. Everyone isn’t you. Everyone doesn’t have your taste, skillset, or particular worldview. Don’t make the mistake of conflating This doesn’t correlate with my tastes with This is bad. (More on this phenomenon here.) You really don’t like romance novels? Fine. But that doesn’t invalidate your friend’s romance novel. So don’t feel obligated to let her know you really don’t value the genre she’s working in. How about “I think romance readers might really like this!” instead? Because friend.
It’s easy to say, Well, you just shouldn’t care what others think of your work. And maybe, in some hypothetical perfect world, that might be possible. But not in the real world, for the most part. Most of us who create do so because we want to share our vision of the world with others. Which means we want others to get—to understand/agree/resonate with—our view of the world. Which, when you strip all the big words away, means we want them to like it. Enjoy it. Agree with it. Maybe even love it. Because in the end it’s all about communicating, about emotional transference… trying to put the thoughts and feelings in our head into another’s head. An imperfect process at best, and of course we don’t always get what we want, yet we still try.
When someone blows off a friend’s work with an ill-considered response, they’re not only saying they don’t like the friend’s work, but maybe that the friend’s attempts to create are misguided to begin with.
And of course, when someone expresses their appreciation for a friend’s work, they’re also validating the time and energy and expense it took to create the work, which really means they’re also validating the decision to make the work.
The creative life is hard enough—we shouldn’t make it any harder for those we care about. A supportive community can make all the difference, as we attempt to pull each other up the slope toward a higher vantage point.
A musician I work with has a saying, occasionally recited when someone in the band isn’t wild about playing a given song: “Every song is someone’s favorite song.”
This applies to a lot of things, even literature. Maybe especially literature. Because you never know when some small throw-away scene is going to resonate with someone…
I’m in a bookstore in Wyoming on book tour when a middle-aged woman corners me, hauls out her personal copy of my book and turns to a specific page, then proceeds to read a specific passage to me. Word for word. “This, right here…” she says when she’s finished, tapping the text with her fingernail, “…is exactly what it feels like.” We have a brief discussion, I thank her for her kind words, and she leaves. That’s it. But it’s clear the scene means a lot to her.
The reason this made such an impression on me is that the scene in question wasn’t what I’d consider one of the signature scenes in the book… not the end of a section or chapter, where you rework it until you think it really conveys what you’re trying to say. And not one of those aha! scenes where you’re revealing important information or the viewpoint character suddenly has an epiphany. It was just a transitional piece of interior monolog between two bits of action.
And yet, to this woman, it had significance. Maybe because it was about something she’d experienced herself, or maybe because it described things in a way that hit home for some reason. Regardless, the scene was important to her, and I was relieved I’d apparently done it justice.
There’s a small scene in one of my favorite novels… almost a throw-away line. Very understated. Basically, someone looks at someone. And not either of the main characters. But upon reading it, the tumblers clicked into place and a minor subplot to the primary story suddenly had more dimension. If you missed it the story would still work just fine, but for me, that small piece of elegant ‘under-explaining’ grew to represent everything I loved about the book as a whole.
In another book I read a few years back, there was a short scene—culminating in a bit of dialog—that really worked for me. Honestly, that brief scene was pretty much the only thing from the book that I can recall in detail, but it was enough. More recently, I was reading an interview with a well-regarded editor. One of the questions was on the topic of favorite books or scenes that the editor had worked on. The editor said what authors and editors always say (…that’s like asking me which kid is my favorite…) but then she added, “Well, there is this one scene in a book I edited…” and proceeded to quote my very favorite line from the book in question. (And yeah, you’d better believe I pay a little more attention to that editor and her work since then.)
On the flip side, there was a bar scene in Road Rash that my editor thought could probably go. (Okay, half the scenes in that book take place in a bar… what can I say?) However, to me it was one of a handful of pivotal scenes in the book, so I felt it should stay (although she has very good instincts and I did tighten it up). The point is, that little scene was one of my ‘favorite songs,’ and I feel that the more the writer is emotionally engaged in the story, the more the reader will be engaged also. (See this post for more on “finding a way in.”)
I’m not saying all the little transition-type bits in our work should have added meaning or extra inflection. Quite the contrary—often the best way to say someone went to the store is to simply write, “She went to the store.” But if there’s a scene that’s about why someone does something, it may be stronger to show the character’s thoughts and feelings around this--from the inside—than to describe it from the outside. Because it’ll inform us much more about the character herself—and how she thinks and feels—than a more objective observation. And having readers identify with your character on an emotional level may be the single most important aspect in getting them to “fall into” your story.
However, you can never really tell which scene or section or bit of dialog is going to grab the reader (because readers are like writers—each unique, with their own tastes and preferences). All we can really do—especially during the rewriting/revising/editing stages—is to consider everything carefully, without thinking, Well, this little throw-away scene doesn’t really matter because it’s just a bit of transition or monolog or explanation. Maybe it’s better if we realize that any of the hundreds of scenes in our books could end up as someone’s favorite scene. And treat them all accordingly.
Because it all matters. We shouldn’t have any throw-away parts. If there are, we should throw them away. But if they’re going to be in the book, we should treat them like they matter.
Because they do.
For various reasons I recently clocked several versions of “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn. Virtually all iterations—including the official studio recording—start around 120 bpm but eventually end up (after multiple verses and solos) around 128-132. And no one minds. Or even much notices. Because it totally works, on an artistic level.
Yet were you recording something like this today for a commercial label, there’s a good chance they’d have you record it to a click track (which keeps the tempo absolutely steady). The theory behind using a click is that music supposedly sounds better if the tempo is metronomically perfect. And, arguably, some types might. (Electronica and variants thereof come to mind.) But in practice, the real benefit of using a click has almost nothing to do with the music itself. It’s for the convenience of the producers, because it allows them to edit with impunity between different parts of a take, or between different takes. So the art is fundamentally changed for administrative reasons, rather than the other way around.
Some pretty high-tech people have recently posited that—for time management/productivity purposes—it may be beneficial to write all your tasks on a large physical calendar where you can see everything at a glance. Using a scheduling app on your phone/tablet/computer is great, but when you can see it all at once, laid out in front of you, your brain apparently gets a better overall picture of how to manage your resources.
There’s evidence that hand-written lists may be some of the very best productivity tools available. The act of making/updating/adding/crossing off seems to keep the brain engaged in task completion, and—as with the calendar concept—simply having it in front of you can help you wrap your head around it. Furthermore, just physically writing things down seems to help plant them in our memory differently than reading them or entering them via keyboard.
Anecdotally only, all of the above ring absolutely true. For me. And for my workflow.
I’m happy to gen up a click in the studio if someone wants or needs it—and I’ll play to it—but I’m aware of the artistic costs and I’m also happy to fly untethered, assuming everyone can play together nicely.
I used scheduling tools daily in my corporate gig, but I also was a huge fan of the “big calendar.” (I once made—and pinned up in the office—a really large calendar of the entire upcoming year, with all known events on it, including who was supposed to be doing what, when. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’d see people standing in front of it, holding an impromptu brainstorming session.)
And we definitely live by the written list around here. We even joke that if we complete something that wasn’t on the list, we should write it down then immediately cross it off. And then we’ll do exactly that. Because if the act of doing so causes something positive and productive to happen in our brains, who are we to argue?
The overall point here is (a) there are many different ways to accomplish any given task, and (b) there are many different tools available. I believe it’s helpful to determine your working methods, so you can determine the best tools for you. Regardless of what anyone else is doing.
I used to write mostly by hand, in notebooks. Because much of my writing happened where a computer wasn’t available, and because I was a poor typist. (Somewhere I have a box full of old 6x9 notebooks filled with my handwriting, much of which became published articles, and much of which were typed up by my wonderful wife.) When I bit the bullet and decided to write all initial drafts on a computer not only was my wife happier, but my writing improved. Because—against conventional wisdom—I often wear both “writer” and “editor” hats as I write, and if I compose a bad bit of writing I have difficulty moving on until it’s at least serviceable. On the computer change is fast and easy, so I can rapidly do a first-pass edit at the end of a paragraph or page or scene, then charge forward again.
I know this isn’t the norm, but it’s how my brain likes to work so I accommodate it.
A similar discussion arises around writing software. You’ll see online arguments raging over the “Word vs. Scrivener” debate (or similar) and it invariably follows this script: Player 1 will point out all the things right with Brand X and everything wrong with Brand Y, and Player 2 will do the exact same only in reverse. I think someone’s missing the big picture in these discussions. Not that the tools are the same, but that we (as writers) are different.
Because when it comes to art, “This is better” is meaningless. Unless you add “for me.”
So, analyze the way you work. If your brain needs to know details about where it’s going before it can get there, if it likes to think of “story” as groups of discrete scenes, if it likes to play around with scene arrangement before or during story creation, then you will very likely have better results with writing tools which use the “3x5 card” paradigm and allow you to construct, edit, and re-order scenes at will.
On the other hand, if you’re the old school, strong willed type who gets a rough idea then writes linearly until the end with no real revising before the first draft is finished, you could use a typewriter and get the same results as using the most sophisticated software. (William Gibson used a manual typewriter to write Neuromancer. If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is…)
And if you’re old school and a serious plotter/arranger, you could use real 3x5 cards pinned onto a corkboard. This can actually work pretty well, as it leverages the benefits of the “see it all at a glance” thing we mentioned earlier, and can be rearranged at will.
Personally, I’m somewhere between a pantser and a plotter, and Word has the right balance of simplicity, directness, and functionality… for me. (Or, to put it another way, when I have writing problems they almost never have anything to do with the tools I’m using.)
However… when I’m making notes (of the planning/pondering/plotting kind) it works so much better for me when I write them by hand. And it seems that the more informal (read: quick and dirty) I make the notes, the better. Not only better for actual content, but the better for flow. Which, when spinning ideas out of nothing, is perhaps more important. The best methodology for me is to staple a dozen or so blank pages together—no formal notebook or even lines on the page—and just start scrawling. I’m guessing this works because it sends a signal to my subconscious that this is just play… almost throw-away… which frees up my mind much more than using a fancy notebook which says, This Is Important! Perhaps—for me—it’s harder to be free and creative when I think the results have something really important riding on them, and/or have to be really good right out of the box. I’d rather tell my brain: This doesn’t effing matter. I’m simply blue sky spit-balling, just for fun. Nothing to see here… move along.
I’ll draw a wavy line after a discrete section, to delineate scenes or passing time, but that’s about it. And when an idea comes, I’ll work down to whatever level of granularity my brain will support, until the tank is dry. Sometimes, if I really get going on a scene, I’ll find myself writing actual dialog in what should be my “big picture” plot notes. (Truth be told, my brain probably doesn’t care about the big-picture concept as much as the small-picture, character-oriented stuff. So I go with that.)
And I’ll keep on doing it until I’m out of ideas for the moment. Then the next time I sit down to write, I have some tasty little ideas scratched out, and I get the (for me) exquisite fun of breathing life into them.
All of this works pretty well. For me. And would almost certainly be an absolute fail for a pretty large percentage of other writers out there.
Which is the real point here. Don’t get hung up on other writers’ processes. Unless you’re really lost in the wilderness, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time or energy worrying about which specific tools or methods other people are using. Because, by definition, they are other people. They’re not you. What matters is what remains after the process is finished: the story. Your story. The one that only you can tell. So tell it in a way that works for you, using methods that help you get your best work onto the page, whole and intact.
Older isn’t necessarily better.
Newer isn’t necessarily better.
Cheaper isn’t necessarily better.
More expensive isn’t necessarily better.
Only better is better.
Do what’s better for you.
Various studies have shown that something on the order of 80-90% of American adults wish to write a book.
Which is perfectly fine, except…
Surveys also show that 27% of American adults didn’t read a book at all in the past year. And 40% of them didn’t read a fiction book in the past year. And of those who did, many only read a handful.
So in essence, significantly more people want to write than want to read. Which is analogous to someone saying they want to be a musician but they don’t want to listen to music.
I think this hubris comes from the fact that the vast majority of adults can write, in the functional sense—they can compose a work memo or social media post or email, and for the most part it’ll be comprehensible. Most of us can do this by middle school. (Which, not coincidentally, seems to be where reading peaks out for a lot of us. An issue definitely worth discussing at some point.)
So there may be some sense of, I already know how to write—I learned that in school. In full denial of the fact that there is a craft to writing which goes way beyond obvious things like spelling and punctuation and being able to diagram a sentence. (Similar to how being able to operate the basic controls of a car doesn’t automatically qualify one to enter a NASCAR event.)
Note I’m not suggesting we need an English degree or MFA or anything along those lines in order to write. (But if so, fine. You do you.)
I’m simply saying we need the recognition that there is a craft to be learned. The good news is, much of the pertinent info is available right in front of our eyes, for minimal cost. The amazing learning devices containing this information are called books. There are of course non-fiction ones specifically written to help aspiring writers better learn the fundamentals of writing. (See this post for a round-up of some of our favorites.) But beyond that, the best teachers of all may simply be well-written books in our chosen genre.
Because with books (as opposed to some other art forms) we can literally see the smaller components the artist combined to create the entire work. Sure, there are behind-the-scenes things that influenced the finished work, like early drafts and editing and revisions. But when it comes to the actual words the writer used to craft the final story—how they were chosen and arranged and punctuated and emphasized and ordered into sentences and paragraphs and chapters and sections, well… it’s all there in front of us, in black and white.
So we should read. But not like a reader… like a writer.
Read well. Read deeply. Read widely.
Good books don’t happen by accident. (Just like overnight successes don’t happen overnight.) They’re created by talented writers working to the best of their abilities for significant periods of time, writing and revising and polishing until it’s as good as they can make it. Then further tightened and smoothed via the editing process prior to publication.
First: What’s a good book? That’s an endless discussion, but in this admittedly narrow context a working definition might be: the type of book we’d like to write. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if the book were somewhat successful on some level (critically acclaimed or sold well or award winning or considered exemplary of its genre or whatever) but beyond those third-party accolades, perhaps the most important quality is simply that we like it.
Next: We should find these books within our desired writing area and immerse ourselves, reading wheelbarrows full of them, paying attention to the how as much as the what. (What they have to say is important, and—for many readers—it’s paramount. But how they say it—for writers—can be a masterclass.) At first we’ll learn what the common tropes of our chosen area are, then as we delve deeper we’ll notice how good writers either avoid them altogether or turn them on their heads and use them in fresh ways. Also, we’ll learn what’s possible, where the boundaries are, and when they can be broken. (When I see someone saying, “I want to write a YA but I have a problem because I want my characters to [have sex / swear / smoke weed / whatever] but I don’t want to turn publishers off with mature content…” I think, Dude, you clearly have not read a single YA novel published in this century… show some respect for the field, por favor.)
Then: We should broaden our stylistic view and read outside our genre. Not just slightly off the chosen path—like going from mysteries to thrillers—but completely different, like going from contemporary romance to biographies of nineteenth century innovators. Read authors from different cultural and geographic backgrounds… covering different subject matter… with different points of view. My dad used to go to our local library and find a loaded returns cart, then grab the first five books on it and take them home. Not all were wonderful, of course, but it forced him to read broadly without a lot of selection bias (other than that someone, somewhere, recently thought the book in question was worth looking at). We could do worse.
All the above will feed into our writing, improving and deepening and broadening it. I’ve heard people say they don’t read because they don’t want any outside influence on their writing. If nothing else, being aware of previous work in our genre will help us avoid overused tropes, clichés, and devices that would otherwise be a flaming “keep away!” sign to editors and agents. (Fresh work is wonderful, but work that implies we have no knowledge of our field… not so much. It’s important to learn the difference.)
But besides the practical reasons we’ve discussed, probably the most important reason writers need to be readers is that, almost universally, good art is done by people with a deep love for the art form. (And conversely, almost never by people looking for a quick buck.) Reading will help us discover what we love about literature… not just what genre or style, but which aspects of the written word resonate with us. Are we drawn to well-rounded characters? Quirky dialog? A detailed, well-conceived plot? Realistic, slice-of-life writing? Interesting descriptions of new-to-us locations? Lush prose that sings like poetry? Or maybe an economic turn of phrase that contains volumes within a single sentence?
And this romance with reading, of course, will help us discover what we’d love to write.
It’s all there, right in front of us, in black and white.
Perhaps the most common question at signings or when talking to writing groups (right up there next to “Where do you get your ideas?”) is “What about self-publishing?” Sometimes asked with optimism, but often trepidation or even outright hostility. (The funniest was when I called on this older guy somewhere in the Midwest and he just barked “Self-publishing!” and sat there, arms folded and grumpy look on his face, ready to do verbal battle.)
I’m guessing the more confrontational attitudes are due to the fact that I’m traditionally published, so maybe they expect me to be the enemy? Sometimes there’s almost a trolling vibe to the question. Which usually makes me smile more than get upset. Usually followed by me shrugging and saying, “I’m pretty agnostic about the whole thing.” Usually followed by a huh? look on the questioner’s part. Like, how can I not have a firm, didactic position on the issue?
Well, I certainly have a personal preference—for me and for my writing—but that’s another issue entirely.
In the broader aspect, virtually everything’s over-polarized today (duh) and the ‘us against them’ mentality seems to have trickled all the way down to publishing.
Unnecessarily so, in my opinion.
You may occasionally see/hear trad authors looking askance at indie authors. (No one I know personally, but a quick perusal of social will show you this attitude can exist. Although tellingly enough, almost never from ‘successful’ authors. I guess some people feel better when they think they have someone they can look down upon.)
And I’ve also seen self-pub’d authors deride trad authors, stating traditionally published writers have given up control over their work, sold their souls to the corporate devil, etc., etc., etc. (Again, looking at the involved parties, it seems like the same mindset as above. How’re those grapes tasting?)
When in reality…
It would be pretty rare to find a self-pub’d author who would honestly pass on a mainstream publishing offer, were one made. (Assuming a typical contract for a first-time novel: five-figure advance, sliding 10-15% of hardback list price in royalties, totally pro editing, copy editing, and art direction, along with the sort of publicity, sales, marketing, and distribution a mainstream house can provide.) And of course, along with this would likely come the benefits of agent representation (which is a whole post unto itself, but for now let’s just say the benefits are many), as serious interest from a legit house will net you entrée to a legit agency.
But on the other hand…
It’s also true that there may be times when some traditionally published authors might wish they had more autonomy with regard to their publishing destiny. And I suppose a new author with an unexpected massive hit might wish they could somehow go back and reap 85% of it instead of 15%. And so on.
This circular firing squad mentality is largely built on the same false values that drive most of the toxic dead-ends on social media: FOMO, virtue-signifying, self-validation, and living in an echo chamber.
The operative word here being “false.” Because, as I usually reply when asked, whether your goal is large publisher, small press, or self-publication, the difference is (or should be) zero, as far as the work itself is concerned.
In other words, any book which is offered to the reading public in exchange for the reader’s time, attention, and money should be competently written (and rewritten/revised/polished) to the very best of the author’s ability. And it should be edited (which has almost nothing to do with spelling/grammar/punctuation--see this post) by a professional editor. And it should likewise be copy-edited to the same quality level. And the design and cover should be done by a talented artist who will do the text justice. Same with interior illustrations, if any.
All of the above applies whether the publisher is big, small, or the author herself.
So really, we—as writers—all have the same fundamental goals, desires, and quality benchmarks for our writing. We all want to put our very best work forward, written and edited and packaged to provide the very best reading experience for our readers.
Regardless of our genre, style, age-range, price-point, etc.
And regardless of the size of our publisher.
Sometimes determining what you really like in other writers’ works can help you with your own story creation. Especially if you dig beyond the What? to get to the all-important Why?
For example, it took me a little while to figure out that most books I really enjoy have a certain ‘realistic-yet-hopeful’ relationship aspect. It doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic, although it frequently is. I just need to be able to believe the characters in the relationship would actually, organically be interested in one another, as opposed to: Of course they’re made for each other… he has the smiliest smile and she has the hairiest hair! Beyond that, pretty much anything goes—as long as I can buy into it on an emotional level.
We’re all a ‘study of one,’ of course, but it was really helpful to me—and my work—to explore what resonated with me, and why.
I invite you to do likewise. Feel free to put your responses in the comments…
The below was my response to an author question I was asked on Goodreads (Who is your favorite fictional couple, and why?) and I thought it might be a good conversation starter here also, for the reasons given above.
* * * * *
My initial response is to say Bryce & Julie, from Flipped. I love them! Although I suppose they can’t be my official answer because they’re never really a couple during the period covered by the book—one is always zigging (emotionally) while the other is zagging, and they’re never on the same page until the end. And even then, the resolution is more about the potential for them to become a couple than about them becoming an actual item. But definitely, one of the greatest first-love books ever.
Then there is the pair from my all-time childhood fave: Kip & Peewee from Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. (Perhaps the original “teens save the planet” book, half a century before Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc. And perhaps the best of them all.) But again, they’re not really a couple during the book (she’s too young for one thing, even if she is the smarter half of the team). But, as with Flipped, you can definitely see them being together in the future.
And not that I would ever list my own characters as “my favorites,” but I do have a special place in my heart for Zach & Kimber, and GT & Jamie (and Rocky & Rann, and J & Assi, and…).
Then there are all the iconic pairings from TV: Let’s see… Buffy & Angel… Buffy & Spike… Angel & Cordelia… Willow & Tara… Xander & Anya… (Okay, let’s pass on TV.)
But before leaving human/vampire pairings, is there any better than Tana & Gavriel in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown? Not that I can recall. Even you-know-who & what’s-his-name. (To say nothing of the best fantasy couple that never was: H&H. Damn.)
And of course there are contemporary couples from adult fiction, like the interesting-but-not-quite-believable on again/off again/on again ’ship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist of Dragon Tattoo fame. My credibility isn’t stretched by the waif-like/multi-millionaire/psychologically-damaged/mathematical genius who still needs a legal guardian at twenty-something, but by the supposedly mature, intelligent, middle-aged reporter who’s so emotionally near-sighted he can’t see what’s right in front of him. Even with all that, they’re a memorable pairing. (And full disclosure—I actually liked that bastard-child of a fourth book in the trilogy. Partly for the resolution.)
Back in what is ostensibly kidlit land, the story of Liesel & Rudy in The Book Thief may be the saddest of them all, because—unlike in Flipped—the potential for them to become a couple is forever destroyed by the realities of living in wartime Germany. They’re both truly heroes at an age far too young to have to be heroic. And although neither of them know it until it’s too late, they’re in love from beginning. The final scene with the two of them just broke my heart.
So, to what may be my actual favorite fictional couple… at least for now. Puck & Sean from The Scorpio Races. (Don’t you just love the way he calls her by her first and last name?) Everything about that book is so understated… whispered, instead of shouting in your face. But really, I think they’re my favorite literary couple simply because they actually, really, truly belong together.
So... who is YOUR favorite fictional couple???
You’ll sometimes hear—in person and all over social media—people talking derisively about the “Big Five” as though they were the devil incarnate. There are several accusations that typically go along with the tirade, but the most common seem to be “They’re a monopoly!” and “They’re gatekeepers!”
I’m not here to defend the Big Five (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) because (a) they certainly don’t need any help from me, and (b) they’re all large, world-wide media corporations, with all the complexity—good & bad—that goes along with that. Saying the Big Five are all wonderful would be as shortsighted as saying they’re all bad. (However, I will venture that among the broad classes of entertainment/media industries*—film, music, and books—the publishing industry as a whole probably gets the highest marks when it comes to fundamental honesty and idealism. Which, again, isn’t to say they’re perfect.)
*Hunter S. Thompson reportedly said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” And while he did say it, his original quote was actually about the TV business. Which only strengthens the overall point.
I’m more here to address some commonly held beliefs (including the two mentioned above… both of which I’ve heard frequently on book tour and seen countless times online). Because holding outdated or incorrect beliefs—especially those that cast you in the role of hapless victim—can only hold you back as you strive for success in your chosen arena.
Let’s start with the first one because it’s pretty cut and dried—the numbers are right there for anyone who wishes to look. The first sentence of PRH’s ‘Imprints’ page reads: “Penguin Random House is the international home to nearly 275 editorially and creatively independent publishing imprints.” Obviously there’s no way any given project is going to fit all—or even most—of these, as each imprint has its own focus and flavor. But still, there’s a lot of choice here. (There are around thirty separate kidlit imprints alone just within PRH.)
Not all of the Big Five have 275 imprints (PRH being the biggest of the big) but it’s probably fair to say that between the five of them there are on the order of 500 separate imprints. And don’t forget about all the other large publishers. The “Next Five”—Scholastic, Disney/Hyperion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Workman, and Sterling—are each significant enterprises with multiple imprints. And the “many under one roof” paradigm doesn’t end there. Sourcebooks—a Chicago-based independently owned publisher which recently cracked the Top 20—has ten or so imprints of its own.
And beyond all this, many of your favorite independent publishers have distribution deals with one of the Big Five, leveraging the bigger publisher’s ability to get the indie’s books into bookstores, schools, and libraries nationwide. I mean, why not? That’s obviously one of the benefits to the author of being affiliated with a Big Five imprint. Why shouldn’t a smaller indie avail itself of some of that same bookish horsepower? Win-win.
So, the “Monopoly of Big Publishing” in actuality may be on the order of 1000 separate publishing imprints, all things considered. Hardly a paucity of choice, editorially or otherwise. And although it’s probably a subject for another post, the short take is that most of these imprints really do function as independent publishers, as least as far as editorial choices (i.e. which books they choose to acquire, etc.), and rely on the parent company for the bigger admin tasks like publicity, sales, marketing, etc.
Regarding the concept of gatekeeping… I suppose it depends on your definition of the term. If you mean there’s an evil troll at the bridge keeping you out because he simply doesn’t like you, or because he simply doesn’t recognize brilliant writing when he sees it, well… we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
But if you mean that the company that: (1) pays the author for the rights to the book, (2) pays for the editorial staff, and (3) art direction, and (4) copyediting, and (5,6,7) publicity and sales and marketing, along with (8) paying to have the books themselves physically printed and (9) distributed to the point of sale… if you mean those people actually deign to choose which products they buy and market, well, then yes, I suppose you could say they’re gatekeeping.
Although to me this seems akin to accusing Costco of gatekeeping when they choose which brands of ice cream they wish to sell in their stores. I mean yes, they do make a choice. As does everyone in every business where the goal is keeping customers happy and keeping the lights on.
(I’d say if a publisher doesn’t do any gatekeeping*, they may be a printer, not a publisher, and you may be paying them instead of the other way around. In violation of Yog’s Law.)
*Check this list from SFWA (paying particular attention to #5).
Well, as authors, we have the power of business choices too.
Our choices include either creating a product that’s targeted at a specific business, or creating the best work we can and then finding a good fit for it within the marketplace. (And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the latter may be the better path in the long run.) Or, you have the option of bypassing any sort of middleman and taking your work directly to the market yourself. All valid choices, and all can lead to success… whatever that means for you. The only choice I’d recommend against is choosing to believe that someone out there is somehow keeping you down. That’s a no-win belief… especially these days, when there are so many options available to us.
Including the Big Five Hundred… and beyond.
It’s up to you to discover where you—and your work—might best fit.
One of the hardest things about being a writer (assuming aspirations of publishing success and all the baggage around that) has little to do with the writing itself. It has everything to do with the difficulties of pushing forward with your writing efforts when you’re emotionally drained from the sustained lack of success. (Notice I didn’t call this “failure.” There’s an important distinction which we’ll get to.)
There’s a story (having every earmark of being apocryphal, except that it’s true) told by the famous collegiate running coach, Jack Daniels. He was coaching a talented distance runner, whom he took to an international track meet in South America. (IIRC the event in question was the men’s 5000 meter race.) Shortly after the start it became clear Jack’s student was outclassed by the international field. He fell further and further behind, until he was half a lap or more behind the rest of the pack. Totally disheartened, as he passed his coach he asked if he could drop out. Coach Daniels told him that as long as he ran up and caught the leader first, he could drop out. The runner then sprinted to catch up to the pack, knowing that once he reached them he could bail out and rest. However, it took him so long to catch up that by the time he passed the leader the race was almost over, so he hung in there and won the whole thing.
Wow. There are a lot of lessons in this story.
In distance running, the mind usually gives up long before the runner actually has to. (It’s thought this is a “governor” effect built into the brain, to keep us from hurting ourselves, and that one of the reasons elite runners are successful is that they’ve learned to override this governor.) I’ve experienced both sides of this (which is another post) but there’s also an interesting complementary phenomenon I call the “finish line effect.” This manifests when you’re totally fatigued and out of gas near the end of a long effort (like, say, 26 miles into a 26.2 mile marathon), and suddenly you see the finish line up ahead – finally! – and the fatigue magically lifts and you find you actually have something left in the tank after all and you’re able to finish strong.
The overarching lesson for us here is that fatigue is largely a mental construct. That doesn’t mean the effects of it aren’t real. They certainly are. But maybe—armed with this information—when we feel fatigued after a long effort without the results we hoped for, we can realize we don’t necessarily have to follow that little voice telling us to give up… to give in… to quit.
The “effort vs. results” equation isn’t fixed, it’s a continuum. Occasionally (very rarely, in my experience) someone actually hits the jackpot on their very first effort (whether first manuscript, first query, or first submission). But for the vast majority of us, it’s a long uphill slog. Probably multiple manuscripts (some abandoned mid-stream, some unpolished first drafts, some finished but in need of further revision & editing, and a few driven all the way to submittal-worthy completion). Probably multiple queries for each finished manuscript. And unless the manuscript in question falls into the “fully baked” category, you may go through multiple submissions without a positive response from an agent (or editor, as the case may be). And once you do get representation, the whole query/sub process starts over, trying to find that editor who is looking for exactly what you’re offering, at the time you’re offering it.
So yeah… perhaps multiple manuscripts, perhaps over multiple years, without a “yes.”
Some things to keep in mind along the way…
1. This isn’t failure. This is what success looks like… from the middle of the process.
2. This is absolutely the norm. I’ve heard tons of ‘author origin stories,’ and they’re almost all some version of this.
3. “Success” is probably not the best choice of immediate goal, as you will very likely become very discouraged very quickly. Instead, the initial goals should be to:
(a) improve your craft, to the point where you are able to…
(b) draft/revise/edit/polish a really strong manuscript.
(I’ve said before that in my opinion probably 90% of success hinges on this—having a really strong manuscript before you take any further steps.)
4. Somewhere along the way, this process may begin to look like failure to you. It’s not. (See #1.) But if you let the process discourage you to the point of quitting, then—and only then—does it become failure.
5. Realize there’s a finish line out there somewhere, waiting for you. You just don’t know how far away it is. Guess what? No one else does, either. What you do know—and what you should keep top-of-mind when you feel “failure fatigue”—is that the only way anyone ever got to the finish line was through sustained, incremental forward movement. (Remember, the best remedy for rejection is writing.)
6. And of course, once you get there, the finish line is really just another starting line. That’s the way it works. For everyone. So…
7. Enjoy the process! If you don’t love the actual act of sitting down at your desk—alone, for hours—and crafting the story in your mind into words on the page, then you may be in the wrong line of work. Because, really, all we have 100% control over is the work itself.
I had a gig last night (as I write this) that was fun and a bit different. It was a semi-unplugged thing at a nice restaurant, and in the interest of space and volume and simplicity I only brought a cajon (plus some smaller hand and foot percussion, etc.) instead of a full drumset. Which I’ve done before, many times. But due to some of the specifics of the gig we also played some tunes I hadn’t played before (including some I’d never heard before), and a lot of tunes I’d never played on cajon before.
All of which was fine, and actually enjoyable. (The venue had a fun, forgiving crowd, which helps. There may have been wine involved.)
The interesting part was that I had to figure out how I was going to best replicate the drumset part on the cajon--while playing the song on cajon—and then modify it as I went along, trying to optimize the groove without causing any undue musical bumps along the way. Again, this is fun and the right side of my brain enjoys the challenge. The not-so-fun part was when I’d arrive at a pattern that seemed to work well, playing something new to me, and then I’d sort of look down at my limbs to see what I was doing… and it would start to fall apart. I had to laugh—it was the tale of the centipede stopping to think about moving all those feet and then suddenly not being able to walk.
The writing lesson for me here was the benefits of not being over-analytical during the creative phase. (And by “over-analytical,” you know we really mean “critical.”)
Because if there’s one thing writers do that most others don’t, it’s stopping to critique our own work in the middle of producing it, frequently to the point of abject discouragement where we no longer even want to produce it.
Imagine someone building a concrete block wall like a writer: He sets the first block in mud. Fine. Then he sets the second one and immediately stops everything to take detailed measurements. Oops—the second block is 1/16th of an inch out of alignment. Dang! He pulls it, scrapes the mud, and re-sets it repeatedly until it’s perfect. But by then the rest of the mud in the wheelbarrow has set so he throws it all away and quits for the day.
Contrasted with how a builder would approach it: She builds the wall, realizing there are small imperfections along the way but continuing working because she knows she won’t have a smooth wall until she has a rough one. Then she cleans the joints. Then she puts on a rough coat, getting it somewhat level. Then a second, finer coat, to even out any little imperfections, followed by a smooth color coat to get it the way she imagined it at the beginning.
The process is iterative, not monolithic. We probably don’t want to worry about the final little polish when we’re in the middle of laying the first course of blocks. Thinking that way can drive us crazy, and distract us to the point where the writing comes to a standstill.
Thinking and doing are both important parts of the process, but generally not simultaneously. Everyone’s creative methodology is different, of course, but it usually helps when I try to follow some approximation of the following six-step process:
1. Think (about what you might want to do), then…
2. Do (until you don’t feel like doing any more at the moment), then…
3. Think (until you’re happy with what you previously did), then…
4. Do (some more), then…
5. Repeat thinking/doing until “the end.”
6. Go back and think/do/think/do until you think you’ve done as well as you can do.
So… if you’re at the desk (metaphorical or literal) creating output of any quantity and quality, consider not getting analytical in that moment and just continuing to create until the flow subsides. No matter how rough or raw or downright flawed the work may be. Because you can always smooth out rough work, but it’s hard to improve something that doesn’t exist.
So, first build the wall… then plaster it.
In a recent post I briefly mentioned this and I want to expand on it here, as I think it applies to all areas of writing (fiction, nonfiction, short works, book-length works) as well as several aspects of the industry itself.
In the middle of my nonfiction workshop I usually throw up a slide with a couple different mastheads on it, one from a healthy, mid-sized national magazine (50,000 – 100,000 monthly readers) and one from a big one (closing in on a million). The mid-sized mag (which I’ve written for quite a bit) has maybe a dozen in-house people on staff. I point to the person at the top of the masthead—the publisher, in this case—and look at the class. “Do I send it to her?” I shake my head. “No way. Her job is the big picture of keeping the whole business afloat.” I go down a bit further, to the editorial staff, then zip past positions like Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief until I get to Managing Editor. “This is the guy I send my stuff to.” (And when I started my relationship with him, IIRC, he was an Associate Editor.) Then I look at the big masthead (close to a hundred people in all) and we play the same game, after going through a bunch of people just to get to the editorial dept. “Her? No chance in France. Him? Not even close. This guy? Probably not. Her? Maybe, if I had a strong resume and was pitching a feature. This woman?” I ask when we’ve gone down a dozen editorial positions to Assistant Managing Editor. “Yeah, I’d probably go with her if I was pitching a piece to them for the first time.”
Why? Because those people are in the sweet spot, where they have the horsepower to make decisions (or at least recommendations) about article acquisitions, but not so far up that they don’t care about smaller (single article) editorial decisions. They may also give your query a little more attention. I once sent a story to a small magazine with a small staff, basically consisting of the editor (who I think was also the publisher), an assistant editor, and an admin assist. I sent it to the junior editor on a hunch. She read it/liked it/bought it (not sure if she got the concurrence of her boss first, and I didn’t really care). She also told me this was the first time someone had sent a piece directly to her.
Moving beyond periodicals, this methodology can also work as you get into the broader book publishing arena. New agents, for example, are typically looking to build their roster (hard to place books if you don’t represent any authors). This doesn’t mean they’ll automatically sign anything that comes across their desk—all the usual criteria of quality saleable fiction still apply. And they may not have the clout (and industry relationships) of established, successful agents. But on the other hand, newer agents are more likely to be actively seeking out new stuff, as opposed to well-established agents who may already have their hands relatively full with existing clients.
Similarly, when an editorial assistant becomes an assistant editor, they will be looking for manuscripts to acquire. As with new agents, most newly acquiring editors don’t already have a group of existing authors to work with and must build their list from the ground up, so they may be more willing to read your work. (Again, this doesn’t mean their standards are lower than established editors—they may in fact be very picky about their “first” books. And they will almost certainly need the concurrence of senior editors within their imprint before they can give you a “yes.”) But in general, they may be more open to at least taking a look at any given submission.
And I’ve seen several instances of a newer agent or editor posting on social media about the types of projects they’re looking for… sometimes with a general wish list and sometimes with fairly specific criteria. (Please note that if an editor muses on twitter that she’d love to see a near-future SF version of Gone With The Wind featuring an LGBT cast with global warming filling in for the Civil War, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily sit down and write that novel. These sorts of posts are really aimed at writers who may already have an existing work which somehow fits into the general gestalt of the request. And if you happen to have one that does… fire that query off right damn now!)
The real lesson here is that while most aspiring authors would love to be working with a rock-star agent or editor, the odds are mathematically against that happening—at least right away—for the majority of new writers. (As discussed in this post, an editor at a big house may work on a dozen or so books a year, and most of those will be from existing authors.) So consider increasing your chances of representation and/or publication by keeping your eyes and ears open for newer/junior editors and agents who are looking for a foothold in the industry just as you’re looking for yours.
Who knows? Maybe you can team up and make it to the top together...
I’ve gotten pretty good at skunk abatement. Just ask my wife/partner-in-stink. If you can get her to stop laughing, that is. The first time we had a skunk problem I called the county and asked if they could come trap it. They could, but it turns out they have to kill them after they trap them. (Something about the law… yada, yada.) Heck, anyone can kill a skunk. I wanted to move them. Unharmed. (After all, they’re just doing what skunks do. And they were here first.) So after a little trial and error we hit on a fairly successful process for safely/humanely relocating skunks. It’s better for the skunk, it’s better for us, and—believe it or not—it’s actually kind of fun. In a goofy, semi-thrilling, Tom Sawyer-ish way.
There’s invariably some trepidation, it sometimes takes longer than planned, and yeah, it’s occasionally downright smelly. But every time we manage to relocate one of the little stinkers to greener pastures, we’re always glad we went through the effort.
Guess what? The same thing applies to our “literary skunks.” You know—those scenes (or chapters or sections or maybe even entire books) that, while perhaps well-plotted or well-written when considered alone, don’t really work in the larger context. We sometimes like our stinky little darlings too much to kill them dead, so we tend to hem-and-haw and lightly edit and rationalize, trying to find some way to justify leaving them in the work at hand. Which we often do… to the detriment of the larger work.
There’s another way. One that’ll allow you to remove these favorite-but-ill-fitting scenes without the trauma of killing them dead: Excise them (and artfully re-connect the remaining loose ends in the ms), re-label as appropriate, and save them in a folder of “favorite unused scenes” or similar.
Some real-world examples…
The original draft of Road Rash had a scene in the middle that ended up not working, plot-wise—due to downstream events—so I rewrote the chapter without that scene, but filed the original chapter away because it had things I liked. (Primarily descriptions of onstage connection and communication.) And sure enough, in the penultimate chapter two friends are onstage again (after some time apart) and—with a little revision—I used maybe a page of the original material (split into two separate scenes) and I was really happy with the result. (It’s not that it saved me a bit of work. It’s that the writing captured a vibe I wanted to portray, and I didn’t want to lose that when I excised the original scene.)
A while back I wrote a short story featuring a middle-aged woman who had a rather harrowing day on the job. I wasn’t real happy with the resolution but I really liked the character/setting and the opening adventure. So I ended up taking the basic scenario (rewritten with the protagonist being younger) and used it as the opening of a novel. (Which is now out on sub, so light a candle for me…)
I know someone whose OBFN was an adult thriller that wasn’t acquired, but he hung onto the original plot concept and later used it as the basis for a successful YA novel. Likewise, another author friend had a short story that didn’t really gain traction, but they expanded it into a novel (which did gain traction).
I recently revised a WIP which had a book-within-a-book as part of it. And during revisions (you guessed it) the “book-in-book” sections had to go… they broke the flow and perhaps confused things for the reader. The revised manuscript is tighter and better for it. But I also saved those sections—because, in the micro, they were some of my favorite parts—and I may write a book based on that character later. (So light another candle, please.)
So yes, retaining selected sections you’ve trimmed can give you potential seedlings that might grow into something interesting later.
But (and this may be the more important part) the act of excising the scenes and carefully storing them away as a separate document for possible later use makes it far easier to cut them. Because in your mind you’re not really killing them… you’re putting them in the deep freeze for later, which is a lot easier to stomach than simply highlighting and deleting.
I’m certainly not suggesting we do this with all our trimmed passages… that’s crazy talk. By all means, when you see something that clearly needs to go, the best path is almost always to cut it and move on. But on the occasion you find something superfluous which you also happen to love, try the following: Cut and save it, continue on with whatever editing you’re doing, then go back afterward and read the passage without the extra text. Assuming it’s better, mollify yourself with the thought that your favorite passage is safely in the vault, then move on. The manuscript at hand will almost certainly be stronger for it, and who knows… you might even find fertile ground for the excised text to spring to life in the future.
Sure, skunks are cute little critters. But that doesn’t mean they belong in your basement or backyard or under your porch. But it also doesn’t mean you have to kill them dead. Make the effort to move them safely and you’ll find you can live skunk-free and guilt-free.
We all get stuck at times. With a capital S. I don’t mean small-scale stuck (you’re in the middle of a manuscript and chapter fourteen still doesn’t feel quite right). I mean big-scale stuck, like when a project you’ve spent a couple of years on seems like a total failure. Or maybe career-size stuck, or even life-size stuck.
So let’s get the platitudes out of the way first…
Yes, you should be thankful for whatever you do have, whether that’s health or family or friends or a dog that loves you or that you live in a first-world locale instead of a poverty-stricken third-world country.
Yes, it will probably feel better in the morning… or in a week or a month or a year. So give it time.
Yes, a long run (or hike or ride or dogwalk or whatever) along a remote trail will probably add some badly needed endorphins to your brain chemistry and some perspective to your situation.
And yes, a glass of wine with a sympathetic friend is almost certainly in order.
And I would recommend all of the above, as an attitude adjustment technique if nothing else.
But none of these is going to solve the root problem (unless your definition of ‘solution’ is: feeling slightly better while continuing to live with the same ongoing issue, with no hope of real change).
Part of the issue is usually that we’re unsure of the steps to take to mitigate the situation. Hence the word, stuck. We don’t know what to do, so we do nothing. Other than feel bad. Or complain. Which leads to feeling even worse.
Everyone is different, but for me, one of the main factors in feeling better about a bad situation is the idea that there’s something—however small—that I can actually do about it. It doesn’t necessarily fix the situation—at least not right away—but frequently it fixes my brain to the point where I stand a fighting chance of fixing the situation eventually.
Sometimes we get stuck in a do-loop, centered around the issue of, “How the heck can I get where I want to be? What are my first steps? And the next? And then…?” We spin our wheels because there are an almost unlimited number of possible actions, and there’s no way to see which will lead to success. If only we could see ahead as clearly as we can look back, right?
I don’t have a time machine, but there's an exercise that might get us close. Basically, it involves looking “back” from an imagined future and figuring out the likely steps that got us there. Which may sound goofy on the face of it, so let’s move away from the theory and consider a practical example…
Let’s say you’ve worked hard on a project for a good bit of time. It could be any number of things—creative, educational, career-related, artistic—but for the sake of the example we’ll assume it’s a writing project… let’s say a novel. You’ve written, revised, edited, and polished it to a point where you’re really happy with it. So you spend another big chunk of time and energy shopping it around… only to eventually strike out. Maybe none of the agents you contacted bit on your query at all. Or perhaps a few responded with a request for a partial, but it didn’t go beyond that. Or maybe one or two requested the full manuscript—but in the end none of them offered representation. Or maybe you shopped directly to editors, with similar results. Or maybe you had some nibbles and close calls (heartbreaking, to say the least!) but in the end it was a pass.
You’re naturally disheartened, doing all this work only to get skunked. When you’re ready to deal with it (after the appropriate mood elevation techniques, as discussed above) the first decision is to determine whether or not you think the project is worth further effort. If not, that’s an easy one—set it aside and get on to your next project., whatever that may be. (Hopefully with some hard-won wisdom in your toolkit which will increase the odds of success with your next WIP.)
But if you really feel the project has value and means a lot to you and it’d break your heart to give up on it—yet are unclear about exactly what to do next—this is where the “looking back from an imagined future” process can help get you motivated and back in the saddle. As follows…
1. Decide what success would look like for the project under discussion.
2. Relax, close your eyes, and imagine it’s a year or two down the road and you’ve finally achieved success with the project. (Not that you might achieve it, or that you will achieve it, but that you have achieved it, in some realistic, non-magical, believable way.)
3. Now imagine you’re being interviewed in the wake of the success and someone asks you to delineate the steps you took to reach this point.
4. List those steps, being as realistic and detailed as you can. (Break down the process into manageable chunks and place them in a logical sequence.)
5. Follow through on those steps.
So to re-boot our novel, for example, the process might look like this…
You decide that ‘success’ for this project would be your novel getting published. Determine if this means Trad/Big-5 (which should really be called “Big-500,” but that’s another post) or small press or indie, as this will affect the subsequent process. For the sake of the example, you choose traditional publishing.
You imagine this as though it’s a string of established facts: Query, submittal, agent representation, publisher acquisition, editorial back-and-forth, copyediting, ARCs, publicity, book birthday, reviews, signings at your fave bookstores, and your book on the shelves of stores and libraries across the country.
Now: What steps had to be taken for all this to happen? Be realistic—no hand-waving allowed here. (FYI, “I ran into David Levithan at Starbucks and he asked about the pages under my arm and I handed him my first chapter and before he finished his latte he offered me a contract with a six-figure advance...” is not realistic.) A realistic list might include the following:
1. Make the manuscript as strong as possible. Read it as though you didn’t write it. (The literary equivalent of “Drive it like you stole it!”) Be merciless when it comes to cutting or revising favorite parts if you know in your gut they don’t further the story. And do all the other things—large and small—that can tighten the prose, improve the flow, and not take the reader out of the story mid-passage. (Many of which we’ve discussed over the previous 35 posts.)
2. Review any critical feedback you got from people whose opinions matter in this context. (Agents and editors, primarily.) Even though it may be a lot of work, address any feedback that makes you think (even reluctantly), “Okay, okay… I guess they have a point.” And if you get the same feedback from multiple sources, you definitely want to take a long, hard look at it.
3. Draft a new query that’s short, to-the-point, and non-sociopathic. Remember, you can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript… you can only write them into liking it by virtue of the actual writing. But you can easily talk them out of wanting to read it. In other words, don’t be cute or clever with your query. Be professional. Besides a brief description of your work, mention only the things that will actually matter to the recipient (previous publishing credits, perhaps a realistic comp or two if applicable, a mention if you’ve met them/heard them speak at a conference, and your appreciation for other works they’ve represented or edited if this applies) and none of the things that don’t matter (pretty much everything else). There are approximately 17 zillion examples of successful queries around. Read a couple dozen current ones to get a sense of what they should and shouldn’t do, then draft the best version you can for your book.
4. Do the necessary research to find agents and/or editors who’ve represented and/or edited works similar to yours. Several agents and/or editors… but only those who work in your particular field or genre, and only one per agency or imprint. (There are so many resources available for this—several book’s worth—that I’m not going to list them here, but also keep in mind that many authors thank their agent and editor in the afterward of their books. But always double check regardless, because things in publishing can change rapidly.)
5. Choose carefully, as once someone at a given agency or imprint has passed, it’s less likely that another in the same office will accept (because—with editors especially—they generally share among co-workers and look for concurrence). In my nonfiction/periodical workshops I advocate not shooting for the top of the masthead. You may have better luck with someone newer/younger/lower on the food chain. (New agents are typically looking for clients to start their roster, and once an associate editor is allowed to acquire, they likewise start reading in earnest. Some will even post on social about their wish list.)
6. Tailor the query for the particular recipient, with all of the above in mind. Not just changing the name at the top, but actually drafting the letter for them specifically… who they are, where they work, the position they hold (there’s a difference between associate editor, editor, and editorial director) and—most important—what they’ve done in the field, either with representation or editing, and where your work fits into this.
7. Submit the queries, keeping careful records of where and when each query was sent. And as soon as you’ve sent queries for all the potential agents or editors on your list, start a new round of research, generate more possible leads, and sent out another wave of queries.
8. Follow up. Obviously send any requested partial/full samples right away with a brief note saying, “Thanks, here’s what you requested,” but also follow up on any rejections that incorporate specific manuscript suggestions or changes. (With a brief note: "If I made the suggested changes, would you be willing to take a look at it again?")
9. When you get representation or manuscript acquisition, be open to revision. (See this post where editors state the number one thing they look for in a new writer is the willingness to revise.) Virtually no initial submission—no matter how brilliant—is perfect as-is. And editors (and agents) know this. So if you think your manuscript is untouchable, this is a serious roadblock to publication. And if an editor wants to do back-and-forthing before official acceptance, I would absolutely be open to that also. Maybe they’re trying to get a promising manuscript to a point where they think they can sell it to their boss, or maybe they’re assessing how easy you are to work with. Or likely both. Regardless, this is definitely a success path. Don’t be precious—work with her.
10. Be a team player at every step. Meet your deadlines. Be professional. Don’t be difficult. Help out with publicity (via social, email lists, book signings, author presentations, etc.) when the time comes.
So… looking back from an imagined future success, the above is what a likely success path looks like to me. Obviously the latter parts aren’t completely within your control, but luckily the most important parts (the first six or so) are all you. And ninety percent of the whole damn thing is the very first step: make sure your work is as strong as possible, in all regards. Everything else is mostly common sense and professionalism, tied to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. (But the harder you work, the luckier you get, right…?)
It’s not easy. If you want easy, you’re in the wrong line of work. But it’s the best way I know of to get back in the game after you strike out with a project you really believe in.
TL; DR: We can lick our wounds for a while, but sooner or later we have to ask ourselves, “If this were to succeed, what steps would’ve had to have been taken in order to get there?” And—if we’re serious about succeeding with this particular project—we need to get back in the ring and take those steps.
Last time we discussed how, prior to becoming a writer, one has to ‘acquire the desire’ to actually buckle down and write. (TL;DR: You do it, with regularity, such that you actually make a little progress at it and thus feel a little better about it—and yourself—and thus continue to do it, with regularity, until your desire to write eventually outpaces your available time, thus rendering the question of “making oneself write” forever moot.)
For now, let’s talk about that word, regularity (whatever that means for you and your life), and how to achieve it. As mentioned, you don’t make time, you allot it. (Making time is like printing your own money—basically magical thinking. However, allotting time is like budgeting the money you actually earn—much more realistic, and much more likely to succeed.)
And here’s the big secret to allotting time: to do it successfully, do it well before you plan on using it. If you do the hit-and-miss thing where you tell yourself, I’ll just see how my day goes and try to find time to write at some point, you’ll find this is more often than not a failure path. To the point where you may become discouraged with your lack of progress and pretty much stop trying.
However, there’s a proven success path for allotting time (or money, or any other resource): remove the variables. Remove the element of chance (will I find time today?), the element of choice (do I want to write today or not?), and the element of making determinations (how much should I write today?). You still employ these elements (the last two, at least) but you do it ahead of time—and only once—when you make the initial choice (I choose to follow this schedule to the end) and the initial determination of the schedule (I will allot this much time, on these days, to writing). Then, once that’s done and you’ve committed to it, it’s simple. Not necessarily easy, but certainly easier than if you had to constantly fight to convince yourself to “make time” to write on a daily basis.
Writing, for experienced writers, is simply doing what we enjoy, being who we are, and doing our job. But for aspiring writers—at least at first—it’s training. Not on how to write, but simply to write. And the first rule of training is: have a reasonable plan, and stick to it.
If you can do that, there are few limits on what you can accomplish…
Once upon a time I put out an open invite to a large group of people, asking if they’d like to run a marathon. (Because it’s almost universal that people will hear someone mention running a marathon and they’ll say, “You know, I always wanted to do one of those… someday.” Very similar to someone finding out you’re a writer and then replying, “You know, I always wanted to write a novel… someday.”) And that was my basic pitch to them: You want to do one “someday?” Well, someday can be this year. Let’s do this!
And of course there were lots of questions…
“How do I know if I can do it?”
“I’ve never done one—how hard is it?”
“How in the world do I get ready for something like that?”
And my answers were basically:
1. You can’t do it. Not yet, NFW. But if you do the training, you will absolutely be able to do it.
2. That’s up to you. If you follow the training plan, it will be challenging but do-able, even fun. If you don’t, it will be virtually impossible.
3. No worries. There is a plan for that. And we’re going to follow it, all the way to the finish line.
I ended up with seven or eight serious takers, which was a pleasant surprise. (I would have been happy with half that many.) I sent out the training plan, and we all started training. Occasionally together, mostly individually. But we communicated and checked up on each other via email frequently. One of the guys—probably the youngest & fittest of the bunch—exceeded the training plan very early on… he went out and ran ten miles when the plan only called for an easy three-miler that day, and he ended up injured and had to drop out.
Everyone else stuck to the plan—or a very close approximation of it—and our mantra during the eighteen weeks of training was “Respect the Distance.” We knew if we respected it—by doing the required training and not taking those 26.2 miles for granted—we’d likely succeed. And we also knew if we blew off the training—like skipping studying for a big exam—we’d likely end up as roadkill halfway through.
The punchline is everyone made it to the finish. Happy, healthy, and very proud of what they’d accomplished. (This was Big Sur, hardly a walk in the park.) And no one was prouder of them than I was. One of them—who’d struggled during the final miles but overcame and made it—told me afterward he’d learned something vital about himself: He had more willpower than he’d ever imagined, and if he could do this, he could do anything. (I’m not crying… you’re crying.)
And really, it all started with making a commitment to following a reasonable, rational, do-able training plan, and then following through on it. Some writing-related lessons here…
* It’s not a race. The goal is TO FINISH, feeling good about yourself and what you’ve accomplished. Period. As we’ve said before, writing a book faster—or slower—than someone else doesn’t make it better. Or worse.
* Having friends can make a huge difference in keeping you going. These can be fellow writers, beta readers, or just supportive friends/family/spouse. Either IRL or as part of an online community. You don’t have to go it alone. (Unless you want to, of course. You do you.)
* It can be good to have a coach—someone who’s been there before—to ask questions of, or bounce ideas off. A brilliant teacher, who was teaching me how to teach (Col. Jeff Cooper, for those who may know of him), once told me that the primary attribute of a good teacher is that the success of the student takes precedence over the success of the instructor. Find someone who feels this way… who will help you write your story as best you can, instead of telling you how he would write it. If you can’t connect with someone like this—either locally or virtually—there are plenty of writers who put their thoughts about writing on the internet, via social media, blogs, forums, etc. And of course, there are actual books, by actual authors, showing you their way. (As discussed here.) As always, YMMV, so pick what works for you and feel free to ignore what doesn’t. There is no one right way.
* Have a plan, commit to the plan, and remove as many decisions as possible. But don’t beat yourself up if life occasionally intrudes. You missed this week’s scheduled Tuesday night writing session? Try to make it up Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning, if you can. Or just let it go and move on. It’s what you do the majority of the time that matters, not the occasional exceptions.
* And finally, respect the distance. A novel is like a marathon. You’re going to need more than just a burst of enthusiasm at the start to carry you to the finish. It’s going to take a while, there’ll be times in the middle when the going is a little rough, and you can’t really hold the whole thing in your head at one time. But you don’t have to. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, working on the part at hand, and you’ll get to the finish line sooner or later. But don’t worry about the finish line when you’re in the middle of it. Just keep moving, and try to enjoy the process. Why else do it?
So, how do you “get in the habit” of writing? First off, don’t rely on habit. Rely on commitment to schedule. At least in the beginning. Then, once you start getting the intrinsic rewards of writing, you won’t need to follow a schedule to make yourself write, any more than most of us need to follow a schedule to remind ourselves to eat. You will want to do it. Maybe even too much. (The good news is, excess writing won’t result in excess calories…)
So, for those of us having difficulty getting started or maintaining a head of steam when it comes to writing, here’s a three-step plan:
One – Create a writing schedule that you believe you can reasonably achieve. (The specifics are of course up to you, but it should have you writing on a regular basis.)
Two – Write the plan down, post it where you can see it every day, and make a commitment to follow it.
Three – Follow it. All the way to the finish line.
When talking with aspiring writers, you inevitably get questions about “getting on a schedule” or “sticking to a schedule” or “making time to write” or “getting in the habit” of writing. Boiled down, the question is basically, “How do I make myself write?”
But if you listen beyond the noise and get to the question behind the question, it’s actually more like, “How do I make myself want to write?”
(And some so-called experienced writer will inevitably answer the first question with, “It’s easy. If you really want to write, you’ll make time.” Which, besides being rude and dismissive, is also not helpful. And as we’ll eventually see, it’s also kind of bullshit.)
If you’ve been writing for a while, it’s easy to forget what it was like when we first decided we wanted to try writing. It’s like trying most other new skills: we’re not sure if it’s for us, we’re not good at it yet, and we probably don’t automatically enjoy it. We just know we want to give it a try. So we attempt to get in the habit of writing. And this is where a lot of aspiring writers flounder.
There are lots of books and theories and videos on the science of developing habits, with lots of different ideas on what it takes. Sometimes I think we’re focusing on the wrong aspect – it’s not just the number of repetitions, it’s the feedback we get for doing it… the intrinsic feedback. In other words, if you approach writing in a way that works for you (i.e. gives you results that make you feel good about writing, and about yourself) then you’ll want to continue this behavior. And vice versa, of course.
Just wanting (even wanting really really badly) to be a writer won’t necessarily lead to you becoming a writer. We all know people who have “wanted to write” for years, yet never really do. And I don’t think this is necessarily some moral failing on their part. I just think they didn’t approach it with the right mindset, and consequently didn’t follow an adequate training routine.
Once upon a time—as an adjunct part of my main gig—I would take squad-sized groups of people and help turn them into runners. The basic goal was to have them able to run five miles or so, including up and down hills, as a means of increasing their overall CV fitness. This training happened over a period of 12 to 16 weeks. There’d usually be a few who were already pretty fit and active, and then there would be a good sized group who were of average fitness but hadn’t run since their school days. We’d start pretty low and slow, but even so, right after the first run I’d always get the question: How the hell do you ever learn to actually enjoy this?
And I’d say, running is like smoking. Really.
Let’s say you’re a teenager and you want to smoke (because your friends all smoke and you want to be cool like them, of course). And the first time you smoke you feel pretty much like you do after your first run—your lungs hurt, you’re nauseated, and you feel like you might puke at any moment. And if you only smoked once every couple of weeks, you’d feel crappy every single time you smoked. But instead you do it pretty regularly. And after a while you can smoke in front of your homies and not cough like a dweeb. Then pretty soon you don’t really mind it that much. Then you find yourself sort of looking forward to it. And—if you hang in there and continue to smoke regularly—after a while you really enjoy it and then you discover you have to do it.
And then the punchline: Well, running is exactly like that.
And it is. But guess what? So is writing.
Which is why my most fundamental advice to aspiring writers is always: Try to write regularly. For whatever value of “regular” works for you and your life. I’m the last person to tell someone when and how much they should write—you know better than anyone what your life-load can handle. However, I think I can safely say if you write for 45 minutes and then not again for two or three weeks—when you write for half an hour—and then you don’t write again for a month or so, when you manage to squeeze in an hour, and so on… you’ll be like the intermittent smoker, continually starting over from ground zero.
Because here’s the big secret... the thing that the smug “you just gotta make time” pundits don’t tell you... You don’t make time. You allot it.
And there’s also a secret (which of course is just a marketing word for technique) to successfully allotting time.
Which we’ll talk about next time when we discuss the hidden value of scheduling.
Until then, happy writing!
In talking with young musicians, one teachable point seems to come up repeatedly—the benefits of being about to “get outside yourself.”
Working on an art form isn’t always a smooth learning curve. There are definite peaks, with plateaus - and even valleys - in between. With music, one of the leveling-up accomplishments is being able to get outside yourself as a creator. Typically, we learn how to play our chosen instrument somewhat, then we start a band. With many young bands, you watch them play and realize they’re a bunch of musicians playing in the same room at the same time, but they’re not really a band yet. You can tell they’re each thinking only about what they’re doing as they’re doing it (the epitome of this is looking at your hands as you play, with no regard for what anyone else is doing). Then, as the next step, they start to think about what they’re going to play, with little concern for how it’s going to fit into the song. (The example here is the young drummer who’s determined to play that flashy fill he just learned—no matter what—even though it doesn’t fit the mood of the music. Ask me how I know…)
A big leap forward is finally getting to a place where you aren’t thinking about your own playing in the moment at all; you’re listening to the music as a whole and adjusting to the others, trying to make it sound like a cohesive unit. Then, ultimately, you want to be able to interact with the band almost without conscious thought and really get some distance from it, so you can step back and hear the music as it appears to the audience. Because—unless you’re just playing by yourself for the fun of it—one of the primary goals is to have the audience feel what you’re attempting to convey. It doesn’t really help if you’re working away but your creative ideas aren’t coming through due to a disconnect between intention and execution.
It’s the same with writing—it really helps to be able to step back and look at it from the outside. You know what you want to say with your story, but is it getting across to the readers? Imagine you’ve designed a cool piece of office furniture, with the goal being that other people might buy and assemble it so they, too, can enjoy it. If the overall design is good but the instructions aren’t clear and concise, it’s going to be a frustrating experience for the customer. I think this is a not-uncommon weak spot for many of us: we have a good story idea, but our implementation may lack the perspective to get our story across to the reader the way we intend.
I saw a manuscript recently containing something like: He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said dejectedly. I’ve done this myself. It comes from us (as writers) being really intent on making sure the reader knows exactly how the character feels. So we overdo it and veer into territory that we (as readers) might find less-than-transparent while reading. (When you read a line like this, you can almost see the writer looking at his hands as he plays.) But if we get outside of our good writing intentions and view it from the other side, we can see that simplifying it might make the writing itself less intrusive on the story.
Looking at the above snippet as a reader, if the description of the character’s mood is clear enough through his actions (i.e. showing) we don’t need the “dejectedly” (i.e. telling). So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said. reads smoother and is less clunky. (“ly” adverbs used as dialog descriptors are often clunky sounding to readers, and our inclination to use one should be taken as a sign that we may need to show more of the character’s mood vs. telling the reader about it.) And since the author is already talking about “him,” the reader doesn’t need an attribution at all. So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job.” is even tighter and smoother, and every bit as clear. (And as I’ve heard from my editor more than once, tighter is usually better. Especially from the reader’s point of view.)
I’m as guilty as anyone of creating this sort of prose during initial draft. One way to mitigate it is to write it, then take off the writing hat and put on the editing hat while you do what you can to make sure everything’s consistent, tight, believable, engaging, etc. Then go yet a step further in getting outside yourself—take off the editing hat and put on the reader’s hat. While letting some time pass in the interim, if possible. And while you read, try to stay in the mindset of: I’m a new reader to this work… I didn’t write it, I didn’t edit it, and I have no idea where it’s going. I’m simply going along for the ride. Then, as you read, try to stay attuned to your enjoyment level. If it wanes, look for and note any nearby plot drift or inconsistent characterization or over-explained motivation—even down to the sentence level as in our example above. Then, when you’ve finished reading it, you can put your writing hat back on and revise to those notes, then back to the editing hat, and so on.
Writing is interactive, but not just between author and editor. It’s also between writer and reader. But before you get to a real editor—or to real readers—you may have to assume both roles along the way. So don’t look at your hands as you play, don’t place cleverness above clarity, and don’t try to shoehorn that brilliant riff you just thought of into chapter two if it doesn’t fit.
And most important, occasionally get outside yourself and listen from a distance to make sure your ideas are getting across as intended and your audience is along for the ride.
I recently came across an old post by one of my favorite online writing resources: Mary Kole, whose site kidlit.com has some great overall writing advice and inspiration. In brief, she’d talked with a bunch of editors about writers and writing, in search of an answer to the question: What’s the #1 thing an editor wants from a new writer? And the answer wasn’t something obvious like writing ability or superior story-telling skills (not that these aren’t important). No, the most important quality to an editor when considering a new writer (assuming the writing and story are up to par, of course) is a willingness to revise.
I recently drafted a lengthy, semi-autographical blog post about the importance of being willing to listen to qualified feedback. (Consisting partly of stories about me—and other writers I know—learning this lesson. Frequently the hard way. Which of course is much more entertaining to an outside observer than the easy way.)
But I’m saving that one for another day because I realized there’s something that has to come before the willingness to do meaningful revision… the desire to do meaningful revision. And I also realized this is where the real problem lies for some of us.
On first glance, the idea of revision seems like the polar opposite of fun. Which is understandable. Especially when the process is generally thought of as: Take something you’ve been working very hard on for a very long time, which you thought you’d finished. And with which you’re intimate, and maybe even a little bit in love… because it likely contains a piece of your heart. Now, take that precious thing which has occupied your life for the past year and tear it apart and rebuild it. Take some of the bricks down from the walls and replace them with other, different bricks, or even change the floor plan and rebuild some of the walls entirely with all new bricks, in a new configuration.
Hardly seems like something anyone would actually want to do. And besides the whole “kill your darlings” aspect, there’s also the fact that it just looks like a ton of hard work. Like a homework assignment you have zero interest in, but which you need to complete in order to pass the course. So is it any wonder a lot of writers seem to avoid it as much as possible?
(And here’s a little observation, entirely personal and anecdotal and which by no means should be taken as a general rule but… I’ve noticed some reverse correlation between writers who state they don’t do much—if any—revision, and my enjoyment of their work. Typically the writing itself is fine, but sometimes I notice a lack of the weaving together of thematic elements throughout the story, which only makes sense as the more subtle aspects of doing that seem to come from close, careful rereading and revision of the manuscript. However I can also think of a famously non-revising author whose work I really like, so again, more of an observation—and a subjective one at that—than an overall rule. But still…)
So yes, writers sometimes avoid the hard work of revision. Yet writers (pretty much by definition) don’t avoid the hard work of writing the manuscript in the first place. Because, while it is hard work, it’s writing. And (again, almost by definition) writers love writing.
Part of the solution is the emotional realization that revision is in fact writing. You know… that difficult, painful, vein-opening thing we all love.
I said “emotional” because most adult writers intellectually realize revision is part of the writing process. (And not coincidentally, one of the hardest tasks for middle school and high school writing teachers is conveying the importance of revision to young writers, who typically just want to write it, turn it in, and move on. At almost every school visit ever, the teachers at the back of the auditorium will stand on their little metal folding chairs and cheer like drunken football fans when you mention the importance of revision to the writing process.)
But getting that concept in our gut—to the point where we actively look forward to revisions—is another thing. The solution can be a carrot-and-stick thing…
The Stick: Editors really value the willingness to revise (see above). This is because they believe that revision almost universally improves the end result. (For whatever value of “improve” you choose: sales; critical acclaim; awards; or simply artistic merit.) And from that, we can deduce that your odds of creating a manuscript which might attract said editor (or agent, as the case may be) will be greatly improved by judicious revision prior to submission. Not to oversimplify, but in many cases the choice may come down to revision or rejection.
The Carrot: Approached correctly, revision can be big fun. Writing (as in initial drafting) is certainly enjoyable, but it also comes with stressors: First off, will we even make it to the end (or perhaps quit halfway due to frustration, procrastination, or distraction)…? Will our plot ideas (as incomplete as they may be at the outset) contain enough elements to comprise an interesting novel without padding? And, assuming we make it to the end, will it “work” as a story? But with typical revision (as opposed to those rare, worst-case, throw-it-away-and-start-over situations) we already know the answers: Yes, we made it to the end, and on some level it likely qualifies as a story. Now, we get to go back into that world we love, with those characters we love, and play around even more, and make it even better. At this point much of the hard work is done, and we can focus on “Oh wait… wouldn’t it be cool if we did this instead of that?” (It’s important to internally characterize it as “get to” vs. “have to,” and “play” vs. “work.” Because fun, right?)
And all of this can work even better if we can get some distance from the manuscript first, either through letting it sit for a while or writing something else in the interim. Or, ideally, both. Then we can approach it almost as if someone else was the responsible party and we’re just there to play around and see what we can do with it. Sort of like the paradigm where the grandparents get to pick up the grandkids from the stressed-out parents (who do the hard work of actually raising them) and enjoy spoiling them for an afternoon.
When I was a kid I hated vegetables, almost by doctrine. And I suppose it’s possible I could still dislike them as an adult yet recognize their nutritional value, and thus occasionally choke them down. But somewhere along the line I learned to appreciate them and, finally, actually really like them. To the point where I voluntarily choose to prepare and eat them. Frequently.
What we enjoy, we tend to do more of, and better. So we shouldn’t “suffer through the necessary pain of revision.” We should try to view it as a fun day spent playing in the sandbox instead of a day in the salt mines.
We’ll be happier. And our writing might even be better for it.
Roger Sutton (Hornbook editor and all-around curmudgeonly kidlit pundit) has stated words to the effect that one of the issues he frequently sees with manuscripts from aspiring writers is adults thinking children’s literature is a vehicle for telling kids how they should behave.
I have to agree. You often see the above in the guise of the wise adult character sagely giving advice to the teen protagonist, or—if the teen won’t listen to the wise adult—as a cautionary tale. (Quick survey: Did you ever read a so-called cautionary tale as a teenager and think, “Wow, I’d better never do that!”…? Me neither. For most kids, those things are double-dog dares.) This mindset also implies that the adult is somehow automatically more intelligent than the kid. In my experience, this is unlikely.
Because kids are smart.
And sometimes, those same aspiring writers (if they happen to be among your friends or in your critter group) may offer critiques of your MG or YA project based on what they think kids “need to hear.”
Which may be the worst reason ever to write a book.
Because the only kids you really have license to tell what to do are your own kids. (And even then, that stuff can totally backfire on you. Trust me.)
Because none of us have been tapped on the shoulder by the universe with a clear message along the lines of: “Go forth and tell kids they should practice chastity, clean their room, and not do drugs…” Nope… your readers will smell that bullshit a mile away and run for the hills. And then they’ll cease to be your readers.
Because kids are smart.
Because telling someone to do something—and I include myself in the definition of “someone”—is the least best way of motivating them to do it.
Because fundamentally, all that kids really need in their literature are truth and hope.
The truth is there are as many different types of kids as there are kids. The truth is we are all individuals. The truth is there is no single “right” way. The truth is that fitting into the norm is not—nor should it ever be—the overriding goal of growing up.
There are other truths about life—hard truths—which you may or may not decide to include in your work, depending on the age and experience of the intended reader. That’s up to you. But even if your work does contain some seriously dark, hard truths, kids still need the small hope that if they’re true to themselves and what they believe in, there’s at least the possibility… the potential… that things might work out eventually.
So give them the truth, sure. At least, some of it. And give them at least a glimmer of hope.
And it’s fine to challenge them to think about difficult issues.
But don’t tell them what to think about them. That’s the easy way out. And it never works.
Because kids are smart.
I recently put something out into the universe which is a real longshot. (What we call “putting hope in the mail” around here, dating all the way back to when we’d put actual stuff in the actual mailbox.) It’s not a manuscript. Or even a query. It’s more like a query to a query. And as I said, it’s a very low-probability thing… maybe a half-percent prospect. At best.
And I’m perfectly okay with that. Because once in a while, taking a flyer on something can lift you up a little. Give you a different vantage point. Increase your perspective.
In life there are the sure things, the reasonable opportunities, and the longshots. We need to engage with all three of these, for different reasons.
And, of course, there are the failures.
Like most of us, I’ve experienced approximately seventeen zillion failures. But the funny thing is, I don’t really remember them. But I DO remember the miniscule percentage of longshots which I’ve actually made. Including the literal ones…
Once, when our younger son was maybe seven or eight, he and I were casually shooting baskets in our driveway when it turned into a “Hey Dad, can you do THAT?” game. At some point he had me shoot with my back against the railing which separates our driveway from the hillside (preventing someone from accidentally going off the driveway and ending up at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of feet below). It was a longshot—definite three-point territory—but I got lucky and made it. Was this enough for him to call it good? Not even. He had me move further away along the railing—to half-court territory—then added some serious spice: he wanted me to balance on top of the railing and make a jump shot as I was leaping off. Now, just standing on the top rail for more than a second or two—with my back to the hillside below—was difficult. Sinking a half-court shot jumper from there? Forget about it. But I dutifully climbed up on the railing and flailed around as I tried not to fall backwards and break my ass, then jumped off and heaved the ball at the top of my arc. And made it. He immediately made a beeline for the house, yelling all the way. “Hey Mom… Mom! You won’t believe what Dad just did…!”
I’ve missed thousands of basketball shots. But who cares? I’ll always remember that one.
None of which means we shouldn’t focus primarily on the more realistic opportunities. (After all, buying lottery tickets is a really bad way to pay the rent.) And I certainly do. Along with that longshot, I also queried on a non-fiction piece I felt I had at least a realistic possibility of getting.
And—the hardest part of all—after I sent those queries, I did my best to forget about them and get to work on something else.
It’s a cliché, yet completely true: You will miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. And yes, you might miss most of the ones you do take, but at least you’re out there, trying, and you have a non-zero possibility of success.
And what keeps me going is my corollary to the above: If you take enough longshots, sooner or later you’re going to make one.
And when you make one, all the misses just fade away.
But beyond all that, once in a while you just need to swing for the fences for reasons having nothing to do with actual success or failure. It’s deeper than that, verging on the topic of mental health. Artistic health. Maybe even spiritual health.
Because we need to occasionally remind ourselves that there’s a big world out there—bigger than you, bigger than me, and bigger than our usual day-to-day achievements.
Because everyone has dreams. But not everyone takes the steps necessary to explore even the possibility of those dreams coming true. And taking those steps pays off for everyone who does it, not just those who succeed.
Because putting your work—your art—your self—out there is the prime generator of one of the most important things in our world. Yup, the h-word.
So today—an hour or so ago, as I write this—I got a couple of email replies. One was from the editor I’d queried about the article, basically saying Sure, sounds good, let’s do it! And I thought, Cool—this’ll keep me in coffee and drumsticks for a while. And the other email was from the person I’d queried about the query. And she basically said, Sure, let’s give this a shot. It’s a longshot, but let’s try! And I thought, Cool, that half-percent chance is now a one-percent chance.
And then I pushed it out of my mind and got back to the revisions I’m doing on a manuscript. But now, riding on my shoulder as I work—so small I don’t dare even look at it lest it disappear entirely—is a tiny speck.
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.