Rules for Writing
My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
The Truth vs The Facts
First, some down-and-dirty definitions…
Memoir: A written chronicle of your memories of what happened to you (hence the name), either during a select period of your life or the entirety of it.
What makes it work: Delineation of the facts around your life—as best you can recall—filtered through your unique perspective… all hopefully bundled up in an interesting fashion.
Novel: A story constructed by you, with characters, settings, and events (and responses to them) chosen specifically to yield a compelling story. Ideally written in a way that makes it emotionally meaningful for the reader.
What makes it work: Connecting with the reader via your chosen characters and events, and hopefully crafted such that it gets at a bigger truth which will resonate with others.
I think we all know the fundamental difference between these—at least intellectually—yet we frequently see early writers negatively impacted by conflating them.*
[*I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an aspiring writer talking to a group about their WIP plot and someone says, “What if you…?” and the writer doesn’t respond with, “I like that” or “It doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to say,” but instead says, “But that’s not the way it happened!”]
I think some of this comes from confusing inspiration with source material. Many of us—especially with our early stories—are inspired by events that either happened to us or happened to others we know. This makes sense—we likely have an emotional connection to these events since they happened to us or people close to us—and we’re familiar with the specifics, so we can write those events with some verisimilitude.
This is all good—great, even—as far as it goes. Especially the part about the authenticity that comes from writing from personal experience.
The issue arises when the writer somehow thinks she needs to write it the way it happened. Either through (a) the belief that “the way it really happened” is somehow a stronger story than the one she could concoct, or (b) some sort of loyalty to the actual facts around the inspiring incident. Let’s deconstruct these…
(a) The problem here, of course, is that reality rarely follows a compelling, tightly-plotted story line. Simply because something “really happened” does not automatically make it more believable or real or compelling or resonant. These factors come from the value-added contributions of the writer, who makes the story more compelling, etc., through her story-telling, craft, and hard work.
(b) If you feel a sense of loyalty compelling you to tell the story as it happened, that’s great! Write a memoir (if it happened to you) or a non-fiction work (if you’re not personally involved in the events). Either of these will be stronger due to your fealty to the facts as they occurred. But I’d advise against writing a novel. Because a novel is creative truth-telling through lying. And “sticking to the facts” here can weaken—if not flat-out kill—the larger truth. (By robbing the novel of one of its special powers, as we’ll see below.)
So that might be what not to do. But what should we do? We can use the actual events to inspire a story, to give us a jumping-off point, to motivate us to write the wonderful/amazing/romantic ending that should have happened… or maybe to write the one that would have been terrifying had it actually occurred. Or let justice prevail… let the bad guy get his comeuppance in a poetically satisfying way. Or start with the bare beginning of the factual events and take it in a completely different direction. Or simply use your familiarity with the broad setting and events to add authenticity and detail to all those small little scenes in what is an otherwise wholly constructed tale.
Any of these will allow you to fold your personal experience and knowledge into your fictional story and up the “feels real” quotient without being boxed in by “how it really happened.”
Because at its heart I think one of the hidden powers of a novel is that it allows you to take some small fact about the human condition—whether funny or sad or scary or romantic or thrilling—and amplify it in a way that speaks to a larger truth. And being chained to the bare facts yanks the amplifier’s plug out of the wall, leaving your story without the power it could have had.
It’s a common belief among editors (because it’s largely true) that many early novels are autobiographical in some way. That’s fine. I’ve done it, most authors I know have done it, and you’ve probably done it (or will do it) too. All to the good… our experiences can be strong inspiration and make things feel more like actual lived experience to the reader, as discussed above. But we should use them as a springboard to take our story wherever it wants to go, not as gutters to keep it within a narrow lane.
Factual events can inspire your novel, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the source material. They’re not. The source material is what’s in your heart.
Happy lying... happy truth-telling!
Your Poor Little Friends
…so five minutes ago—as I write this—one of the best writers I know is working toward the end of perhaps the best thing she’s ever written, and tears are pouring down her face.
She notices me in the room and looks up from her laptop, eyes wide. I don’t even have to ask. “Oh, my poor little friends!” she says by way of explanation, then blinks as more tears run down her face. And—because I know her little friends too—I nod, and suddenly find myself involuntarily joining in.
I can think of no better illustration of honest-to-God writer engagement. And I believe pretty firmly that without writer engagement—real, gut-level, emotional involvement with your characters—it’s very hard to generate that level of reader engagement.
In other words, you have to give a shit.
And how do we do that?
A good start might be to internalize the concept that caring is an emotion, not a thought.
The good news is we all have a built-in barometer for things like this. We don’t have to think about it—in fact, thinking about it puts us at one more degree of remove from it. An analogy might be our sense of taste. When we take a bite of something—for example, homemade hand-cranked vanilla ice cream—most of us can answer the question, “Do you like it?” without too much intellectualizing, especially if we just listen to our initial emotional response and don’t think things like, ‘Is this healthy?’ or ‘Is this considered quality food?’ or ‘Do other people like it?’
The same can apply to your characters. Instead of thinking (there’s that word again), ‘My character has been designed with these attributes and those personality traits and faces this specific challenge—which the reader should be able to relate to,’ maybe ask yourself the simple question, ‘Do I care about them?’ Go with your gut response here rather than an intellectual one.
[NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them, although it can certainly help you—and readers—care about them and what happens to them. There’s a time-honored place in literature for the unlikeable protagonist, although this only seems to really work when the author sets out from page one to purposely create a fascinating-yet-unlikeable protagonist. I think the fairly common criticism of a book “having an unlikeable main character” usually means the author unintentionally created a not-very-likeable character. This is a subject deserving of its own post, but one thing that can definitely help here is the use of good betas.]
[NOTE #2: We should also recognize there are plenty of novels where having an emotional connection with the main character isn’t a top priority, either for the author or the reader. These could be plot-driven thrillers or humorous capers or broad historicals or any number of other types. And these can certainly be entertaining, successful works, but they’re typically not as likely to be the sort of stories readers bond with for the long haul… the type that sometimes come to be known as “beloved.” Maybe because humans seem to be hardwired to be more invested when there’s a person in the story they truly care about.]
So how can we raise the odds of this connection happening?
I think it’s largely a matter of spending time with them. I have a theory that, everything else being equal, the more time we spend with someone—assuming they’re generally good people—the more they come to mean to us. (I think this may be anthropologically tied to the human concept of “family.”) Regardless, by “spending time” I don’t necessarily mean writing a thousand page book about them. I mean letting them occupy space in your head… and in your heart.
When possible, spend some non-writing time thinking about them, just running scenarios through your head and imagining what they might do in various situations. Yes, this’ll also help you come up with plot ideas, but maybe even more important, it’ll help you get to know about them—and care about them—as individuals.
And if we invest enough time, attention, and research into our characters, they can become real to us. Not real in a “break with reality and visit the psych ward” sense. Real in an emotional sense. In the same sense that we—as readers—might care about Harry & Hermione & Ron or Hazel Grace & Augustus or Liesel & Rudy or whichever characters you’ve ever found yourself personally invested in.
And if you develop an emotional attachment to your characters to the extent that you find yourself springing a leak over your ‘little friends,’ take it as a sign that your readers might feel the same way.
Which—when you boil it all down—is the whole point of what we’re trying to do here, right?
Learning to Love Vegetables
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.
Kids Are Smart
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.
Taking Out the Trash
This morning my wife and I went for a run, taking a slightly different route than usual. (She thought I needed more hill work. Go figure.) As I ran by one house, I was struck by the trash building up in the front yard. Actually, what I was most struck by were the empty trash dumpsters near the pile of trash. I mean, the universe couldn’t send a clearer sign if it tried: Trash… meet Dumpster.
My brain tried to figure this out—as brains are wont to do—and finally settled on something they continually preach about in the nuclear industry: the danger of “off normal” becoming “normal.” (I used to teach a Human Performance class about the sinking of the cruiseferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea. The root cause was the sequential failure—over time—of multiple mechanisms that held the bow door closed, but this was made fatal by the crew becoming inured to it, ignoring the banging noises as the bow door slammed against the ship due to wave action and telling complaining passengers this was “normal.” The bow door finally came open at speed—in the middle of the night in the middle of a very cold ocean—and in no time, eight hundred and fifty souls ended up at the bottom of the sea.)
The real lesson is that humans are world-class experts at “getting used to stuff.” Around here we’ve done a bit of building, remodeling, and general spiffing up. And we have an overall rule: Don’t use the room until it’s finished. Because we know of several instances where people have moved into a place before all the finish work was done, and almost invariably it remains un-finished. Sometimes forever. Because after a while you stop noticing that the wall doesn’t have baseboard or the door is missing its trim or the outlet doesn’t have a proper cover. Especially if it’s never had it. Pretty soon it just looks “normal” and you can’t really imagine it any other way.
The same with writing.
After we’ve lived with a story for a while, it can seem like, well… like that’s the way it is. Period. But in reality, until it’s published and sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore, it’s all fair game. This should be obvious. Sort of like the fact that garbage can be put into a garbage can and they will magically take it away.
The problem—in both cases—is seeing it.
My first published fiction—an SF story—had a short scene I considered pivotal. It was one of the few action-y bits in the story, and it was the event that had popped into my mind when I first got the idea for the story. Yes, the action taken by the protagonist in that scene was important to the story. But what I couldn’t see was that since the action was self-evident after the fact, the reader didn’t need to actually see it in real time on the page. The reader just needed to get that the hero had indeed taken the clever action, then we needed to quickly move to the final climactic scene.
But I couldn’t see that. Because that scene had been there from the very beginning. And because at the time I didn’t really get that every word was up for grabs. So throughout revisions, that scene wasn’t even considered a potential target for tightening or trimming.
So I sent the “finished” story to my favorite SF magazine, and soon received a rejection from the mag’s editor. But it was a good rejection, something along the lines of, “We don’t need to see [the beloved scene]. It hurts the pacing. Cut it and artfully tape the ends together and I’ll publish it.”
Privately I still had doubts, but I tried it. And—wait for it—it worked. No, not just worked, but improved the story. Trimmer. Tighter. Less boring. (Thanks, Charlie!)
The big lesson for me was to learn to see things as though you’re an outsider, seeing it for the first time. Easier said than done, of course, but there are a few tips that help. The first is, assume there is trash in your yard. You can’t always see it right away, but it’s there. Keep looking until you find it, and when you do, put it in the dumpster! The second is, don’t assume the way it’s always been is the best way. Maybe comparison shop, and not defensively. When you see outlet covers in someone else’s house, don’t say, “Well, fine for them, but I don’t need them!” Instead imagine what your house might be like if you actually took the time to install covers on all your outlets. Maybe try a few and see what you think. And finally, don’t move in until it’s done. Done-done. (Submitting too soon may be the most prevalent mistake writers make.) When you think your manuscript’s finished, if at all possible, wait… work on something else for a while… maybe get a beta read or two… then go over it again with the “What’s wrong with this picture?” mindset, actively looking for trash to take out.
We can’t see what we don’t look for. But when we seek—and find, and remove—the trash that’s been there so long it looks “normal,” it really increases the curb appeal of our work.
The Sweet Spot
Last time we discussed counting words, and whether it helps or hinders or has no real effect at all. (Short answer: All of the above. Depending on you, your project, and your goals. And, of course, the KUWTJ factor*. But under no circumstances is it unconditionally required.)
(*Keeping Up With The Joneses.)
And as I mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious correlation between counting and quality, either way. But there is a related factor that actually does seem to affect quality.
And that’s pace.
In endurance running, there are two ways to screw up a marathon. (Well, there are actually about two million, but we’re only looking at two here.) One is to try and run faster than your optimum pace. And the other is to run well below it. Both will leave you feeling not-so-good, in different ways. And—interestingly enough—both will almost certainly result in a longer finish time than if you’d just found your sweet spot and maintained it.
And both result from the same thing: fear.
Fear of not keeping up with someone else (or maybe with someone else’s perception of you) which leads to exceeding your optimum pace and blowing up before the finish line.
Fear that maybe you can’t really do what you actually can (aka fear of failure) which leads to self-doubt and dropping back to “protect yourself.”
Guess what? Both of these can apply to writing, too.
With this in mind, there are some fundamental concepts regarding pace that might be useful for writers to consider, especially with book-length projects:
1. Your pace is your pace, and no one else’s. It’s not a race (even if others think it is). When you let your pace be dictated by someone else, you’re playing their game. Your goal isn’t to “beat” anyone. It’s to do the best job you can while writing, and feel good about the result after you’re done. (In other words, pace affects both process and result, so no matter which is more important to you, it matters.)
2. Know your pace. This doesn’t come from adopting someone else’s pace or from reading about it on the internet or from what an instructor thinks it should be. This comes from experience. Real, practical, empirical experience. But maybe you haven’t written a novel yet? That’s okay. After you’ve written a bit of it (say 10,000 words or maybe three or four chapters), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what works for you if you’re paying attention.
3. Try to maintain your average pace, within reason. What you’re really looking for is the macro of overall time (as measured in months or years, which we’ll talk about in a minute) as opposed to the micro of words-per-day. And keep in mind: faster is not necessarily better. Better is better.
4. But be flexible about it. Pace is a tool, nothing more. And it’s your friend, not your master. Some days, writing just may not be in the cards for you. Or maybe some weeks, or some months. I’m not talking about making excuses for why you haven’t touched base with your story in forever. I’m talking about those times when life legitimately intrudes, and you either can’t write, or writing might not be the best use of your time at the moment. Don’t beat yourself up—we’re humans, not machines. And even your favorite authors have times when writing is the last thing on their mind.
My overall hypothesis about the macro of writing pace for book-length projects: Each of us has an “optimum overall writing time” for the completion of a novel. (This can apply to any big project, but we’re going with novel as the desired outcome here for simplicity’s sake.)
And this time can and will vary—greatly—between different writers.
And this time can also vary between different types of projects.
And this time is not a specific value, but a range—a broad range.
And it’s actually more important to know the dangers of being too fast or too slow than knowing your exact optimum writing time. As follows…
Ideas are like seeds. They can grow into wonderful plants or trees. But before they grow, they have to germinate. And occasionally we’ll get an idea we’re excited about, and without really playing it out in our minds and considering different iterations, we just jump right in and start writing. (I’m guilty here, too… I’m about 60/40 pantser, which doesn’t excuse a lack of basic pondering before committing words to paper.) This can result in one of the more painful aspects of writing: going back to the beginning and starting over. Or—almost as painful—a major structural rewrite. Either way… ouch.
Also, sometimes when a writer has an idea and a basic outline and then just cranks the book out, there can be a lack of interesting subplots or three-dimensional characters or maybe just the subtle literary subtext that can give a work more depth. And more often than not, this seems to occur when the author is pushing for speed and maybe writing faster than usual, whether due to internal pressure or external deadline.
When talking to writers groups, questions about writing schedule invariably come up. And my usual response is, “Everyone is different, with different lives and different priorities. I think you should determine what works best for you and do that.” Because I’m the last person to tell someone else exactly what they should do. The writers - online or at conferences - who stand up and pontificate things like [insert deep announcer voice], “You need to write for an hour every day before work,” are basically talking to themselves.
However, I’ll sometimes add, “My only recommendation is that I think it can be helpful to write regularly… for whatever value of regular works for you.” This has nothing to do with the speed at which you crank out words, but everything to do with keeping your subconscious engaged.
I’ve said before I think it’s pretty clear the subconscious does a lot of the creative heavy lifting when it comes to story creation. (Which is why it’s almost universal for writers to get ideas while showering or running or driving or washing the dishes or some low-concentration activity that distracts us just enough to let the subconscious come out and play.)
But for this to happen, that part of our brain needs to be engaged on a regular basis so it continues to “work” on the problem even when we’re not consciously thinking about it (similar to thinking about a problem before going to sleep and having a solution upon waking). And the way you feed your “creative problem-solving mechanism” (i.e. your subconscious) is to connect with your story regularly. Ideally this involves actually writing on it. But even if you can’t write, then editing or plotting or just re-reading the last few chapters will keep the story in your head and encourage your subconscious to keep working on it behind the scenes. This really seems to increase the odds that next time you sit down to write, you’ll have something worth writing about.
This is harder to accomplish if you only touch base with your story once a month or whatever. For me, whenever there’s been a long gap between writing sessions I have to spend quite a bit of time just getting the vibe of the story back in my head. (This seems especially true when it comes to getting the voice right.) So besides basic production issues, there seem to be some real creative benefits to working on your story regularly.
The Sweet Spot:
If you graphed my writing with “Overall Writing Time” on the X axis and “Subjective Quality” on the Y axis, the result would look pretty much like a standard bell curve. The curve would first start to sweep up at around the six month mark and taper back down near the eighteen month mark, with the sweet spot for overall writing time (everything from initial conception to plotting to writing to revising to polishing to final copy edits) hovering around the twelve month mark. The actual values are meaningless for anyone but me (and you’re missing everything I’ve ever said if you think you should somehow try and approximate them) but the concept remains:
Our creative minds seem to have a natural cruising speed they like to function at… thinking and digesting and regurgitating and writing and thinking some more and writing some more then re-thinking and subsequently rewriting, etc. We can certainly work faster than our natural pace (just ask anyone who’s ever had a demanding supervisor) but the results are rarely optimum. And it’s all too easy to work slower (just ask, well… anyone) but here, too, you’re probably not thrilled with the final result, let alone the lowered productivity.
Your sweet spot may be six weeks or six months or six years. (And it may vary with your experience level and mood.) The specifics aren’t important. What is important is to be aware of it and—as much as possible—honor it. But don’t over-think it. After all, the goals are pretty simple:
1. Get to the finish line.
2. Be happy with the result.
Where Does a Story Really End?
This one might be a little esoteric but hang with me. It’s a somewhat different take on resolving a book than the “Stick the Landing” post, which primarily delineated where we can go astray when ending our manuscript. That was a “how” thing, this is more of a “why.”
My theory is that a story doesn’t end when you stop writing. It really ends in the reader’s mind, when they think about it and imagine how it might unfold, going forward. Or how it might not. And the more the reader thinks about the story and the more they carry it with them after finishing the last page, the more resonance it has with them. (I don’t want to add, “…and the more they like it,” because that’s a bit simplistic, but saying, “…and the more important it may ultimately feel to them” probably has some validity.)
And who among us doesn’t want to write important books… books that resonate? (Even the term resonate conjures up things ringing on after the initial note is struck, like a church bell that carries on long after the rope is pulled.) As authors, we hear feedback about our work—both good and bad—constantly. Maybe more than any other profession. But it’s telling that the single comment on my work that meant the most to me was someone in the industry simply saying, “I finished it on Saturday and felt bereft on Sunday, as though I had lost touch with friends.” That meant more to me than any amount of “Loved it!” or “Awesome!” or “Thought it was great!” because it indicated that—at least somewhat, on some level—I may have achieved one of my goals for the book: to create characters who felt real, who seemed like people you might know, or might want to know. (I realize it’s kind of funny that someone basically saying, “I read your book and felt sad when it was over” was so meaningful to me, but there you go: resonance uber alles.)
So what factors might lead to a story carrying on after “the end”…? I think one is simply when the reader gets the feeling that—even though this particular episode is finished—at least some of the characters may have more life yet to live. Yes, we saw them—and some important times in their lives—but we probably didn’t see all there is to see of them. You don’t necessarily need to hint at what comes next (although that can be cool in some cases), you just need to give the reader the feeling that there is the possibility of more. Imagine a story that basically finishes with: Everyone died - The End. Even if the characters were interesting while they lived, it’s hard to believe anyone’s going to spend a whole lot of time thinking or wondering or worrying about them after they finish the book, because it’s a lost cause. For your characters to occupy someone’s thoughts beyond the end of the book, they need at least the vague vibe that something—ideally something interesting—is going to happen to them at some point in their future. (Yes, there are notable exceptions. One of my favorite books as a young man was Freedom or Death, by Kazantzakis. Let’s just say it doesn’t end in freedom.)
Another key factor is having characters that feel real. This can mean different things to different people (both readers and writers) and there are a lot of factors which can increase or decrease the credibility of your characters—so much so that there are whole books about the subject. So what I want to say here is simply to be mindful of the difference between your characters having realistic circumstances, and being plausible as real characters. The circumstances can be as bizarre as you like, but the characters should respond to their surroundings in ways that have some correlation to how real people might actually respond. One thing that can kill a reader’s suspension of disbelief is a character who’s not self-consistent. Readers will buy any number of fantastical settings, but they won’t buy a character who acts “out of character” in order to make the plot work. So… giant flying scaly alpacas? No problem. A smart character who suddenly does something really stupid for no reason other than to get us to the next plot point? Not so much.
It also helps if we actually care about the characters. Maybe have a little empathy for them… want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Another word for this is likable. Snark is currently popular, which is fine as far as it goes—humor can be a bonus in a manuscript. But if overdone, it can lead to characters readers don’t like. I can think of a few recent books which were well written but not well received, and many of the critical reader reviews basically said, “I didn’t like the main character. She was too [choose one] snarky / bratty / whiny / mean / spoiled / etc.” This is one area where beta readers can really help, because the odds are you—as the author—really like your main character. Which is as it should be. You created her, so you know all the back-story, the hidden motivations, the justifications for her misbehaviors, everything. Which also means you’re the least qualified person to judge if she’s really likable. Not everyone will like every protagonist, but if you get notes from multiple early readers that your POV character isn’t all that likable, you may want to address this before submitting.
This doesn’t mean you want your protagonist to be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy. Real people are flawed. They make mistakes. They get pissed off—sometimes at the wrong person, sometimes at the wrong time. Sometimes in trying to solve a problem they overstep and create a worse one. In other words, they’re human. We tend to like that in people. Especially fictional people we’re trying very hard to believe in.
And finally, the veracity of the world in which your characters operate matters. It doesn’t have to be real (or science fiction and fantasy novels wouldn’t exist) but is should feel real, at least for the duration of your story. This means you should treat your setting almost like a character… develop details that go beyond what’s on the page, create a rich backstory, pin up images if that helps you visualize it. Then use just enough of these to intrigue us and make your place seem real, but consider sprinkling little tidbits throughout—without interrupting the flow of the story for an explanation—as an option to info-dumping everything on us at once. There’s a natural tendency (which I’m as guilty of as anyone, during first draft) to think, Damnit, I did all this research, I’m going to use it! (Around here we have a phrase we use when we read things demonstrating this: “You can see the research.” It’s not necessarily a compliment.)
So… these are some of the factors that can help your story live on in the mind of the reader after they’ve closed the cover on the last page. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all shooting for?
Don't Break the Spell...
Imagine you’re relaxing, listening to an amazing piece of classical music. Lights down, headphones on, eyes closed. Wine may be involved. You’re so into it you don’t even register the sound as music anymore. All you know is you’re in a meadow on a gorgeous spring day… the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you’re on a blanket with a gorgeous companion and a picnic basket. Wine may be involved.
Then during a pause in a delicate birdsong you hear a quiet cough, and…
You’re jerked back into your surroundings with the sudden awareness that no, you’re not in a meadow, those aren’t birds, and that isn’t sunshine. Instead you’re instantly reminded it’s merely an aural illusion created by people who were assembled in a concert hall to perform a piece of music they were hired to play. Perhaps in Philadelphia. Perhaps in 2014. And one of those people coughed, which somehow made it onto the final recording, leading to the dissolution of your sublime listening experience.
The same thing can happen with our writing if we’re not careful.
I was speaking to a group of writers recently and we were discussing why self-editing was important before sending a manuscript to an agent or editor or whatever the next step is. I briefly outlined the self-editing technique I described in the Seek & Destroy blog post, then tried to explain why it was important to avoid—among other things—unintentionally repeated words or phrases in your writing.
Fiction depends on the “willful suspension of disbelief,” as the phrase famously goes. When I’m reading a well-crafted work of fiction, it’s a total tête-à-tête—just me and the story. There is no author to that story anywhere in the room, and at its very best, the book itself disappears, much like the listening experience described above. Everything is story, and story is everything. This is magical, and the last thing you want to do as an author is destroy this spell by reminding the reader that the story they’re experiencing is a manuscript written by a real, live, imperfect human being. Perhaps one sitting in their family room in sweatpants a couple of years ago. Perhaps in Hoboken. Or maybe Albuquerque.
And using the word “actually,” for example, on every other page is precisely the sort of thing that will remind the reader that this book has an author. So is having characters tell each other things they both already know. So is having your fifteen-year-old protagonist sound like a thirty-something woman with an MFA. Who listens to music that was popular when said woman was in high school. And so on…
Another spell-breaking issue is transparency in the writing. Or lack thereof. After the above writers’ meeting was over, an attendee came up to discuss adding a bunch of metaphors to their manuscript in order to make it seem “more writerly.” Personally, I can get behind the (subtle, and occasional) use of metaphor to reinforce the theme of a work, but deliberately trying to sound “writerly” is probably a mistake. As a reader, nothing reminds me there’s a person on the other side of the text as much as coming upon a patch of over-wrought prose that yanks me out of the story. There are obviously exceptions to this, but writing that’s fairly transparent and stays out of the way of the story seems to do the best job of allowing the reader to remain immersed in the work.
Writing and storytelling are two separate aspects of creating fiction. Sometimes a strong play is best presented on a simple stage without a lot of extra props and window dressing cluttering things up.
So yes, we will absolutely cough on occasion during the creation of our story. That’s unimportant—everyone does. The important thing is to find and remove them before anyone else hears them, breaking the spell we’re trying so hard to cast.
The Hidden Partner
Q1: What do these books have in common--
The Book Thief; Wonder; Anna and the Swallow Man…?
Q2: And these--
The Book of Dust; The Running Dream; Walk Two Moons…?
Q3: And these--
The Fault in Our Stars; The Inquisitor’s Tale; If I Stay…?
The short answer is that each book within a given group was edited by the same editor. (Erin Clarke for group #1, Nancy Siscoe for #2, and Julie Strauss-Gabel for #3.) These were off the top of my head, but I could have listed a dozen books for each (also acclaimed works) or I could have listed a dozen other editors (also equally talented) and the list would’ve had the same upshot.
My point is not that there’s a stylistic commonality among the books of each group. (If there is, I fail to see it.) It’s actually that there isn’t a formula to these acquisitions. The commonality is both broader and deeper: each of these books is—first and foremost—a good story. A story that comes from a real place within the author… a place of passion, of belief, of heart. And a good editor knows that if the author has passion for the story and the editor responds to that passion, there’s a strong possibility readers might respond to it, too. So the “formula” is that good editors acquire good stories. Stories they respond to. Stories they believe in.
And once they acquire such a story, what do they do with it? Well, what they don’t do is re-write it. Some editors are writers (David Levithan comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean they push their own prose on the author’s work. (Do you see any of Tiny Cooper in The Scorpio Races? At all? Me neither.) But many editors aren’t writers. In a sense, they’re fundamentally readers. Perhaps the best readers ever. They read broadly, and passionately, and deeply. They can go through a manuscript and pay close attention to their own responses, then expertly articulate which parts work and which don’t, and why. And they can suggest which path the author might take to make the story stronger. But once on that path, it’s the author’s job to write the words that strengthen the book, not the editor’s.
Something else editors don’t do: they don’t overly concern themselves with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I mention this because I’ve seen (often, and recently) indie writers comment that of course they had an ‘editor’ go through their manuscript and make sure everything was legal—spelling/grammar/punctuation-wise—before they pressed “publish”. That’s a great idea, as far as it goes, but in the Venn diagram of publishing there’s very little overlap between that and what an actual editor does. (And by actual editor, I’m including professional freelance editors as well as editors at publishing houses, so none of us is off the hook here.) Editors are mainly concerned with the big-picture issues that can make or break a manuscript… does the story work as a story? Are the characters’ actions believable? Is the protagonist actually likeable (if that’s the author’s intent)? Does the prose flow, without getting in the way of the story (or worse, taking the reader out of the story?). Is the dialog realistic, as opposed to being a thinly-disguised vehicle for exposition? Are the characters self-consistent, and do their motives and emotions somewhat replicate those of actual living, breathing human beings? And of course, is the story about something of interest and import… is there an underlying theme that adds that extra layer of significance to what might otherwise just be characters moving through a plot?
These are all things the writer needs to concern herself with too, of course, but these are also the very issues we can become blind to, as we get too close to the story after having lived with it for so long. (With multiple re-reads, the specific text of a manuscript can seem almost inevitable after a while, making it hard for us to really see it, let along change it.) Which is yet another reason for editors—to get a fresh set of eyes upon the work, with a fresh viewpoint. (Specifically, a set of eyes lacking that stifling “It’s always been this way, so it has to remain this way” belief.)
Sure, during the course of their many trips through the manuscript editors will make note of typos and punctuation errors as they notice them. But it’s more an afterthought, as these are largely mechanical and don’t affect the fundamental nature of the story. Plus, editors have editors. They’re called copyeditors, and they back up the editor and author regarding all the potential mechanical errors that might accrue over 100,000 words. But even they go far beyond spelling and punctuation. Their brief includes chronological continuity (accurate accounting of times and dates between scenes), consistency of dialog with individual characters, notes about the vibe and grammatical consistency of voice throughout the text (casual vs. formal, etc.), as well as overall fact-checking of virtually everything in the manuscript. (If you write about a character driving a “Ford Camaro,” believe me—you’ll hear from your CE about it!)
So we know what editors don’t do. But what do they do? In short, they do magic. They take a good story and—working in concert with the author—bring all of their skill and passion and talent to bear in an effort to make it the best version of that story possible. Just like a good partner should.
So yes, absolutely—double and triple-check the spelling and punctuation and grammar of your finished/revised/polished manuscript before taking it to the next stage, whatever that is. But if you want the best for your story, also consider the vital step of having it fall under the eyes of an experienced editor. Your story—and your readers—will be better off for it.
Finding a Way In and a Way Out
I’ve come to realize that I might approach my writing a little differently than some (which is probably a universally-true statement). Including when it comes to deciding what to write next. I suppose if I had something hanging over me like a contract for multiple books about specific subjects due by specific dates—i.e. a tightly scheduled series—I’d probably fall back on my non-fiction experience and just try to get down to it without a lot of forethought.
But I don’t, and so I don’t. Instead I ponder. Play what if? Run different scenarios past myself and see if any of them light a fuse. And even when I stumble across something I find really interesting, there are two things I have to have before I’ll consider starting on it: A way in. And a way out. And though it may sound like it, these phrases don’t have much to do with plotting or writing mechanics.
“Finding a way in” doesn’t mean crafting the opening sentence (or scene, or even chapter). Those are obviously important to a strong manuscript, but even more vital is that you—as the author—have a visceral connection to the story. Something upon which you can hang your heart. Otherwise you might have a well-plotted tale, but you won’t be fully invested on an emotional level. People will forgive occasional plot holes or coincidences or shaky continuity (watched TV lately?) but not emotional distance between the story and the writer. Because that typically translates to emotional distance between the story and the reader, which means they put down your book and go do something else.
Finding a way in is akin to looking for a hook or an angle, but not in the external, story-mechanic sense. It’s finding the thing (maybe a seemingly small thing) that emotionally connects you to the story. Once you have that, the story has a heart. Then it’s up to you to give it arms (characters) and legs (plot).
For what it’s worth, here are examples of how I decided on the way in and way out for Road Rash. Your decisions for your stories will of course be different, but the concept remains: you need a way to get yourself connected to the story, and you need to know how far to let the story run before you stop giving the reader specifics and let them carry it forward in their own imagination.
My way in for Road Rash wasn’t “I want to write about what it’s like to play drums in a band on the road.” That’s definitely part of the book, but my little emotional hook was exploring the feeling of being tossed out or dropped from the team or kicked to the curb. Especially if the one being kicked doesn’t deserve it. (And that’s pretty universal—who hasn’t felt this at some point in their life, especially during adolescence?) This aspect doesn’t actually occupy the bulk of the book. The protagonist (Zach) gets kicked early on (Ch. 2) and he deals with the emotional fallout for a few chapters as he puts his life back together, but by the end of the first section of the book (pg. 80) he’s on the road with all of that presumably behind him. But much later in the story (pg. 300-ish), the issue of getting kicked out raises its head again, and because of all the baggage related to the earlier incident it carries more resonance than it otherwise might. And that was the vibe that gave me entrée into the story… that gave me a way to sink my teeth into it, emotionally. Much more so than “Boy goes on road with band,” which is really just a setting, with no implicit resonance or conflict or theme.
Likewise, finding a way out doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with the perfect final line or scene (that’s another conversation). It means having a clear vision of how far you need to go in the overall story to reach a satisfying resolution. (Note this still applies to series books. Maybe more so.) I’m drawn to somewhat open-ended conclusions, but even so, you have to get a handle on where to leave it.
With Road Rash I knew I wanted to see Zach and his few real friends achieve a certain level of validation, especially after choosing “hard right over easy wrong.” But how much? I didn’t want a Hollywood ending where they become world-famous rock stars but I wanted to show they had possibilities. I debated having them go to L.A. or New York and attempt to play in the big leagues, but to me that would have felt almost redundant. So I showed they had the potential—and the work ethic—to play at that level, when they get their little moment in the sun. And it could’ve legitimately ended there, but that still didn’t quite feel like enough. It occurred to me that one of the main lessons Zach learned was that—along with the music—what really mattered were the people in his life. I wanted to show this growth on his part, but without hammering readers over the head with it. So we see him and Kimber after the big show, and it hits him that even with all the amazing new possibilities opening up to him, nothing is more important than the person sitting right in front of him.
This is obviously subjective, but to me this sort of character-driven resolution carries more resonance than something more plot-oriented. That was my emotional “way out”… the idea that, in the final analysis, people—and our relationships with them—are the things of true value. So that’s where I wanted to leave the story—with Zach and Kimber sharing coffee, and Zach reprising Kimber’s “What does this taste like…?” routine to show how much he values her. From there, the reader can imagine how their story might unfold going forward.
And—to me—that’s enough.
So if you’re stuck during the initial blue-sky phase of conjuring up a tale to tell, look for an on-ramp to get your heart up and running into the story and an off-ramp to gracefully exit in a satisfying way when you’ve said what you came to say. After you have a way in and a way out you’ll still have a lot of work ahead of you but at least your heart will be in the story. And that’s a big plus when it comes to crafting a tale that’ll connect with your readers.
What Do I Want To See?
I sometimes talk about leveraging the subconscious when it comes to creating ideas. Here’s one way…
A frequent piece of writing advice is to take in TV shows and movies with an eye on the plotting, the logic being that a detailed analysis of the story as written will improve your plotting skills. Yeah, maybe. But mostly what it’ll do is give you a good understanding of how someone else might plot. Which is fine, but they’re not you, and your ultimate goal is to be the best version of yourself, not the best pastiche of someone else.
Yet I think there can be a benefit to watching your favorite shows with an eye toward plot, if you do it pre rather than post the story event. When I’m watching a show and something is developing, what I ask myself is, What would I—as a viewer—like to see happen next? Sometimes I guess—sometimes aloud, to the consternation of my wonderful wife—and sometimes I’m right. Sometimes not.
An unintended consequence of doing this is that you’re training yourself to look at story with the eye of a reader. Not a passive “feed-me-until-I’m-full” consumer, but an actively engaged reader who cares about the characters and who has preferences about what they might like to see happen to them.
In other words, you’re training yourself to plot.
Not to analyze plot, but to create it. Not based on some idea of what—in theory—other people might want or expect to see, but based on what you—as a fan, as a lover-of-story, as a reader—might want to see happen next.
And the cool part is, this totally translates from watching to writing. As I’ve mentioned before I like to think about plot when I’m running or showering or engaged in some other low-concentration activity. And I typically see my written scenes in my mind like clips from a film. But what I’m really doing when I’m thinking about the plot of a story I’m writing is similar to when I’m watching a favorite TV series… I’m watching a short clip of the story and I’m thinking, “As a viewer, what would I most like to see happen next?” I play different versions in my mind until I get that aha moment where I think, “Now that would be cool to see happen at this point!” A benefit of doing this is that instead of following a pre-conceived sequence of events, at each major turning point you’re getting a pretty direct read of what your subconscious has been working on regarding story direction.
I’m not against outlining. At all. Some very successful writers do it extensively, others not as much. Personally, on the Plotter/Pantser scale I lean about 60/40 toward Pantser. And I think one of the reasons why is that if prior to writing I was asked to decide on some specific plot events that might happen 2/3 the way through the book, my natural response would be, “By the time I’m a couple hundred pages into the book I’m bound to have a better handle on the characters and their story than I do now, so the smart move might be to wait until then.” Basically, I trust that future-me will be better equipped to tell that part of the tale than present-me, because he’ll know much more of the nuances than I do currently.
So the next time you’re in the middle of a manuscript and you’re stuck, here’s an idea: Don’t think about what you think should happen or what you think your target audience expects to happen or what you think other writers might do. Think about what you—as a reader—would be most excited to see happen next, if you were in the middle of reading the book instead of writing it.
And then make that happen.
Stick the Landing
Make us remember you.
I read a LOT of newly-published YA fiction this past year, trad-pub’d and indie-pub’d alike. And I really enjoyed most of it.
Part of that enjoyment may stem from the fact that I do my best to read as a reader, not a writer. As an author this is difficult, because often you can’t help but see the cogs turning behind the scenes. But sometimes the writing is so effortless that it disappears entirely and you’re left with nothing but story. I love when this happens—when you enjoy the book as a story instead of analyzing the authorial choices the writer made. But things can happen that jerk you out of the story and back into writing-analysis mode.
If I had to name the most common place this occurs for me, that would be easy—the ending. Sometimes they feel tacked on, like the book was due so the author just ginned up an ending and sent it off. Or maybe the author had a good idea but sent it off before it was thoroughly revised and polished, closer to a first draft than a finished book.
I understand that sometimes authors are under time constraints. And sometimes you’ve spent so much time with a book that you just want to get it over with. But the absolute worst place to phone it in, writing-wise, is the ending.
Think about a book you read long ago which made a lasting impression. You probably can’t recall all the specifics, but you probably do recall the feeling it left you with when you closed the cover. And that’s at least partly due to the ending. Looking back, did the ending relate to the rest of the book and support it? Did it have a certain amount of gravity to it? Did it make the theme of the book a little more clear, or a little more important? Did it serve almost as a stand-in for the book itself, in miniature?
I’m not saying every book needs to have a ‘Great American Novel’-type ending. But the resolution should at least be at the same level—thematically as well as craft-wise—as the rest of the work. If not, it can do more harm-per-word than a weak passage elsewhere in the book.
Why? Because the final lines in any part of a book carry more heft than if the same words were placed in the middle somewhere. Having text followed by white space—at the end of a section, or a chapter, or the entire book—puts a spotlight on it and seems to automatically imbue it with more importance. Maybe because it seems to signal a change… a summation of what’s transpired or a hint of what’s to come. Maybe both. And maybe because there’s a natural pause when you reach the end of a section or chapter or book where you can’t help but hear the line in your head. Echoing. Resonating.
These are the top five issues that come to mind, looking back at recent reads with less than satisfying endings:
1. It feels rushed.
A book I read recently had a couple involuntarily separated throughout most of the story, over a multi-year span. Their reunion was the scene the entire novel was building toward, but when it finally happened it was sort of hug/kiss/I missed you/I missed you too/The End. If the ending is more denouement than resolution, it doesn’t have to be a major set-piece. But if the ending is the climactic scene, give it its due. You can always trim, if you (or your editor) later decide it’s too much. Think of it like you’re dressing for an important event. Spend some time with it. Try different things on, maybe clothes you don’t normally wear. Hang out in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, until you’re not just vaguely satisfied with it, but really happy. You don’t want to leave the dressing room until you’re feeling like, Damn… I look sharp and I know it!
2. It’s at odds with the rest of the book.
Funny can be good. Introspective can be good. So can outright tragedy. But you should have a very good reason to have a melancholy resolution to what’s been a light comedy up until then, or to suddenly have everything all sugary at the end of a dark literary novel. I recall a novel where the author resolved a life-or-death situation with a bad play on words. And I strongly suspect he had this in mind all along and just couldn’t bear let it go, even though it would have been stronger without it.
3. It has characters acting out of character.
You can create characters as wild and unique as you like, but to be believable they need to be self-consistent. If you have to have them do something untrue to their nature at the very end to make your plot “work”, you either need to re-think your plot or revise your character. One recent book had an intelligent, funny, self-aware protagonist who was completely rational throughout the entire book, then the big reveal was… he was just batshit crazy and making it all up. Hmm. The ‘unreliable narrator’ technique can work well… if we get subtle clues along the way that their version of events might not be completely truthful. Otherwise it feels like a lazy way out or an unrealistic cheat. Likewise the very passive girl who suddenly developed an extreme case of agency while her friend—who’d been driving events all the way through the book—suddenly turned into a pull toy and let herself be dragged through the climactic scenes. I can buy flying monkeys, but not that.
4. It doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
With most fiction (and more so with genre fiction) there is an implicit deal between author and reader. With a romance, someone is going to get together with someone else. Maybe not the someone you had in mind, but someone. Eventually. And we should care about it. Same with mysteries. There is a crime, there is a solution, and we should care. Don’t lose sight of why the reader is there. I recently read a mystery which was well written at first… until the story got so lost in following the victims during the aftermath that the ending fizzled. Any crime solving—such as there was—was done off-stage by police, not the main characters. Basically the denouement was: “An old mad-scientist was the culprit but he’s gone now so who cares anyway?” Good question. Not me.
5. It doesn’t resonate.
This might be trickier to diagnose and fix, but if your ending seems to fall flat, look to see if it ties back to the rest of the story, if it addresses what your protagonist was looking for earlier in the story, or if it reinforces the theme of the story. If it doesn’t seem to do any of these, it may not carry the resonance that helps create a satisfying ending. Not to get too lit-geeky here, but the word “resonance” technically means one object or system vibrating in sympathy with another, usually caused by one exciting the natural frequency of the other. The ending of the final chapter of a novel is not (or should not be) the same as the ending of a random chapter somewhere in the middle. It’s not just about summing up recent plot points or hinting at what’s happening next. It should somehow tie back to earlier events and put them in some sort of perspective or provide resolution or summation, but ideally without actually telling us this is what it’s doing. Understatement, metaphor, and oblique reference can be wonderful here. I think it’s important to remember that a strong, resonant ending (as defined by you, the author) doesn’t always come from the first thing that pops into your brain. This is an area where it can pay to spend some time, revisiting the ending during initial drafting and then again during revisions until you’re truly happy with it.
It’s called a resolution for a reason. So don’t leave the ending until—like the final notes of a song that fully resolves the chord pattern—it feels truly complete.
Make us remember you.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about authenticity in literature (or the lack thereof). I like to believe most of the failures in this area aren’t someone intentionally trying to demean, dismiss, or disrespect the culture of another. I think many of these are simply the writer being unaware of the amount of work it requires to authentically represent a different culture or subculture, or perhaps being unwilling or unable to put in the necessary hours to bring the work up from “stereotype” to “accurate representation.” Authenticity in fiction requires respect, research, and empathy. And craft, which is sometimes overlooked in these discussions.
The first decision an author has to make—before a single word is drafted—is to decide whether or not they should even write the story.
Let’s imagine someone suggests that a good character and setting for a realistic contemporary novel might be the story of a Japanese teen-age lesbian, struggling to make it through high school in modern-day Kyoto. It wouldn’t take me long to arrive at the conclusion that maybe I should pass on this one… I was raised in the States, have never been to Kyoto let alone absorbed the culture, and have scant knowledge of the LGBT culture among Japanese youth (which may very well vary between big cities and smaller towns). There are many ways I could get it wrong, and the cost to insure I didn’t would be too high. This isn’t to imply that a writer with my general background couldn’t do it, but the effort needed to get up to speed and do it authentically would be very substantial.
Of course, all cases aren’t this blatant. There is a subculture with which I am intimately familiar: that of the working musician, playing in clubs both locally and on the road. So when I wrote Road Rash—although I was deeply concerned with things like voice, character, plotting, theme, dialog, and the overall vibe of the story—the one thing I didn’t have to sweat too much was the verisimilitude of the background, because BT/DT.
But what if you want to write about something you haven’t been steeped in for years? Does this mean you can’t do it? Not necessarily. Let’s compare and contrast two approaches taken in recent realistic/contemporary novels… both featuring fairly similar band-on-the-road settings, and both written by non-musicians:
In the first one, the author basically took the "plug & play" approach: they sat back and thought, “Hmm…I wonder what it’s like to be in a band on tour, playing smaller venues?”, then wrote the story based on what they assumed it might be like, with zero research. How do I know? Because the book is so full of large, almost-comical errors that any musician who’d vetted the book would have pointed out the howlers immediately. I realize everyone’s experience is not my own, but there are basic facts of road life that are universal. (Just one of many: a band on tour—hauling their own equipment, including sound system—does not pull up at a new venue, waltz inside and get a drink, and then begin playing within five minutes. Trust me.) I could go on, but you get the idea. I finished the book and thought, Wow—they didn’t bother to ask a single question or do any research to even try to get it remotely right. This is a traditionally-published author, by the way, who lives in a city with a vibrant music scene. So basic fact-checking would have been easy-peasy.
[*An interesting side note is that none of the book’s reviews—which were mixed but overall fairly favorable—mentioned this. Which goes to show that just because a book seems fine to a mainstream audience doesn’t mean it’s not problematic to other sectors of the reading public.]
With the second book, the author (well published, with a long and successful writing career) realized their next book was going to contain settings that were new to them (a couple of the main characters were in a touring band) so they did their research. Realizing they still had some gaps in their knowledge base, they contacted another author they’d met on book tour who they knew was a musician (yours truly, but it could just as well have been the bass player at the local bar). They asked a number of questions regarding life as a working musician, including queries about logistics, finances, band politics, etc. Then they laid out the part of the plot that revolved around band life and basically said, Does this make sense? Does this feel authentic, from a musician standpoint? I’m happy to report that yes, the finished book felt completely authentic, and I was never pulled out of the story because something unbelievable happened. All because the author took the time to do some vetting and fundamental fact-checking.
Granted, sometimes it’s a bit more difficult than asking a few question of an informed source. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and get seriously involved to really get at the emotional heart of a story. I can think of no better example than The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen—a YA novel about a teenage girl who loses a leg in an accident. There were two years of solid research behind this book before a word was written.
First was the decision to even write the book at all. She fought against the urge to write it for quite a while because she knew it would involve a ton of work to do it right, but the story (conceived on our flight home after running the New York marathon, where we’d seen people with severe challenges struggle to run 26.2 miles) just wouldn’t let her go. Once she decided to tackle it, she started where you might expect—she read several books about amputation, prostheses, and recovery. It’s important to note that this was not to write the book itself (which is a common mistake writers make) but simply to give her the technical background so she’d be able to ask the right questions of doctors, prosthetists, and amputees. Once she understood the mechanics of the process, then the real work began—getting to the emotional truth of what it’s like to go through such a life-altering event, and then the long adaptation process afterward, leading—in most cases—to finding a new normal, emotionally as well as physically.
She interviewed people who make prostheses. She interviewed people who fit and install them. She interviewed a medical technician who used to be a dancer before she lost her leg, and can now move quite well on her prosthesis. She interviewed doctors. And of course she interviewed amputees. Lots of amputees. Which takes a slow and thoughtful approach—you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to please take off their leg for you. But the opposite happened. One patient who was visiting his prosthetist for a re-fit and a “tune-up” answered Wendelin’s questions, then asked, “Do you want to see how this all works?” He allowed Wendelin to watch (and photograph) the prosthesis removal and re-installation process, and then talked about the entire ordeal he’d been through since losing his leg.
After the book came out, a woman who was a medal-winning Paralympic athlete (below-knee amputee runner, just like the protagonist in Wendelin’s book) read The Running Dream, loved it, and used it in her own educational visits to schools around the country. When she learned through a mutual acquaintance that Wendelin had two organic legs, she expressed her surprise. “When I first read the book,” she said, “I thought for sure that the author must be an amputee, because she got everything so right… not just the medical stuff, but the way it feels… the way you feel when you wear a prosthesis every day.”
I’d guess I’d call this the definition of “getting it right.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I just finished reading a book featuring a protagonist who has a neurological condition with which I’m familiar. The author got it so effing wrong—in seriously fundamental ways—that it seemed like she’d simply gone down a list, looking for a condition she could plaster across her character’s forehead as a device to differentiate her from other teen protagonists. And once she found something she thought sounded interesting, she stopped long enough to read a single paragraph (at most) on Wikipedia, then invented a bunch of wildly inaccurate stuff and ran with it. (And this book was traditionally published, which begs the related question of where was the editor?)
So yes, it is possible for an author to write authentically about a group other than their own—females can write male characters, middle-aged adults can write child characters or senior characters, authors can write characters outside their religion, race, or gender identity. But only if they treat their characters with enough respect to do the hard work necessary to get it right.
And there’s a bonus to getting it right… One of the very best things about being a writer is all the interesting stuff you learn when you take a deep dive into something new, and a big part of authenticity in writing involves exactly that—research, interviews, study, and other forms of self-education... up to and including gathering hands-on experience. And in the process your writing becomes more accurate, your characters more three-dimensional, your setting more believable, your plotting more realistic… and you get a bit more educated in the bargain. What’s not to love about that?
Don't Do It Alone
Writing can be a solitary gig, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not talking about joining a writers group or taking a writing class. I’m talking about seeking help from people who’ve done what you’re trying to do. AND lived to tell the tale. (In written form, of course.)
There are hundreds (thousands?) of books available on some aspect of writing. We have a bookcase containing at least fifty of them sitting three feet from where I write this. Some are strictly craft, some are rules of the road, some are reference, some are about publishing, and some are about the sometimes-elusive writing mindset. And I suppose all of them have been useful to someone, somewhere, at some time. But—for my money—the ones that are the most useful are the ones that inspire you, that make you feel you’re not alone, that give you a creative flashlight to shine in the darkness.
In other words, the ones that make you want to write. Because in the end, you’re not going to succeed at something you don’t want to do. The following are suggestions for resources that raise the odds you’ll put in the work necessary to get where you want to go. (And yes, a strictly nuts-and-bolts craft book can be as inspiring as a writerly memoir if it’s done in a way that helps you focus and makes you want to sit down and tackle those tough revision issues…)
“Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. This is a wonderful little book, almost magical in the way it gives writers permission to write without worrying about perfection. The admonishment to “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft” is enough of a take-away in itself to make it worth the cover price. (I’ve given away three or four copies of this book to aspiring writers.) She covers important topics about writing (and the writing life) in such a kind, wise, generous, and humorous manner that it’s more like a heartfelt discussion with a good friend than a text on writing.
“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” by Renni Brown and Dave King (with occasional—and hilarious—illustrations by Goerge Booth, of The New Yorker fame). In some ways—even though ostensibly a craft book—this goes hand-in-hand with the two more memoir-ish books in the group. One of the most important things for an aspiring writer to grasp is that they’ll never even get their book in front of an editor until they learn to edit their own work. Which is very different than writing. Assuming traditional publication, you won’t be the only editor on your book, but you’ll almost certainly be the first. (And in a sense, the most important, because once you get a “yes” from a publisher, the rest is simply hard work. But getting that initial yes depends quite a bit on your revision abilities.)
“On Writing,” by Stephen King (subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft,” which is a great description as it’s as much memoir as writing how-to). I love this book because it gives you a peek into the “writer mindset” better than perhaps any other volume. His advice on writing (specifically self-editing) is spot on, and he speaks directly to the issue without a lot of theoretical pontificating. I’m not a huge fan of the “Here’s the formula to writing your novel!”-type books, and King’s book is the antithesis of this. He’s an instinctive writer, and his idea of plotting is basically to just start writing and let the story out. Even if you’re more of a plotter than a pantser, it can be freeing to know that some of the most beloved (and successful) novels of the 20th/21st Century were written with no outline whatsoever, let alone following a detailed formula involving prescriptions like “have the inciting incident occur within the first 15% of the manuscript.” And beyond all that, it’s simply a great read (as you might expect from Mr. King).
“The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes” (Jack Bickham) and “The 28 Biggest Writing Blunders” (William Noble). These two concise volumes make nice bookends (together they’re less than 250 pages). We’re treating them singly because they’re like two books you might read for the same writing class… one at the beginning of the semester and the other near the end. Both were published by Writer’s Digest Books and both follow the same layout and overall style, down to the (And How to Avoid Them) subtitle after their proper titles. “38 Common Mistakes” is great for beginning fiction writers. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the author says, but overall it’s very solid advice for aspiring writers, under the “you have to know the rules before breaking them” adage. (Ex: “Don’t be constantly bouncing around between POVs.” Sure, this can—and is—broken frequently, and sometimes successfully, but it’s helpful advice for someone seeking clarity in writing their first novel.) “28 Biggest Blunders,” on the other hand, is a better fit for someone with a half-million words under their belt, focusing on more esoteric topics like voice and style instead of primarily nuts-and-bolts like grammar and technique. One thing I really like about both is if you have questions about a specific writing topic, just glancing down the (very descriptive) table of contents in either volume will likely lead you directly to an answer… or at least point you in the right direction.
There are obviously many more helpful books on writing (to say nothing of some of the great writing-related sites online, which we should discuss later), but if you ever feel the need for a shot of writing inspiration—or maybe some well-thought-out ideas about the craft of putting a story together—you could do worse than to start with these.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to do it alone. There’s plenty of advice, inspiration, and technical know-how available, as close as your nearest bookstore, library, or web browser.
Are there any favorite writing books that inspire you to sit down and pound the keys? If so, tell us in the comments!
I know a fair number of authors, and the vast majority of them wrote unpublished (and sometimes unpublishable) manuscripts before seeing their “first” book on the shelf. So much so that I’ve come to think of the OBFN (Obligatory Bad First Novel) as part of the process.
(*note: the actual number of OBFNs one may have can vary from zero to many. I refer to it in the singular for clarity, and because most of us have at least one.)
You hear it all the time—writing a novel isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Very true. It’s a long, sometimes arduous process, and it’s better to think of it in small steps rather than trying to wrap your head around the enormity of it all at once. Who wants to think about actually sitting down and writing twenty-six chapters, or stepping out the door and running twenty-six miles? Better to deal with it a chapter—or a mile—at a time. As Anne Lamott says, just take it bird-by-bird.
But there’s another, less obvious way a novel is like a marathon. Experienced distance runners say it takes you two or three marathons just to get the damn thing figured out. How to train, what to eat and drink, what a realistic pace looks like, etc. (To include a bunch of variables you haven’t even thought of until you’re in the middle of it. Like when you’re a dozen miles from the start and you went out a little too fast and you feel like complete toast and you realize you’re not even halfway done yet and holy crap you feel a cramp coming on. Talk about your sagging middle…)
So yeah, it might take a while to figure out what works for you, writing-wise. And the place this learning curve happens may be during your first novel. And that right there is a great reason to write it—you’re going to learn stuff in the process that you cannot get anywhere else… not from a class or a book or a conference. Stuff about yourself, and about what process works best for you.
So the OBFN is definitely part of the journey, and you should view it as such and not get too twisted up about it. I’m not saying, “Your first novel is going to suck.” It may be great, or not. I’m saying it doesn’t really matter. At least not as much as you think it does in the middle of it. Because there’ll likely be more. And they’ll likely be stronger, building on what you learned during your OBFN.
I didn’t know any of this when I wrote my OBFN. I just thought I was writing an awesome book and I hoped everyone would love it. Alternating with feeling like I was working on the worst piece of garbage ever committed to paper. But either way, it was such a struggle while I was in the middle of it that I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it. (Not helped by the fact that it was a 500-page epic techno-thriller with three or four viewpoint characters… one of whom was a dog.) My mindset was, “This is it--my novel! It had better be perfect, because it’s my one novel!” Of course coupled with, “It had better get published, because it’s my novel!”
Guess what? It wasn’t perfect. And it didn’t get published. (And as it turns out it wasn’t my only novel. But I sure didn’t know that at the time.) I managed to get an agent with it, and he shopped it around to all the usual NYC publishing houses. And he got some nibbles from some of them. (One of whom said, “This was a very close call.” Which in some ways was worse than nothing.) But in the end it wasn’t placed, I was sort of heartbroken, and I went back to writing non-fiction for a while, thinking, “Boy, that was a waste of a year.”
But here’s the secret: It wasn’t. Not at all. I learned so much from that process, and it substantially changed the way I approach writing fiction, dumping all the stuff that didn’t work for me (including a fair amount of ‘conventional wisdom’) and keeping the stuff that did, learning to trust myself a little more. The next manuscript I wrote was placed (with help along the way from a great editor and a different—and amazing—agent) and published. But it absolutely wouldn’t have been without the OBFN preceding it. And if I had to do it over I wouldn’t change anything, including the “failure” of my first novel. Now I look back at it and think, Thank God that wasn’t published, because it honestly wasn’t that good (and a not-so-good book out of the gate can hurt your future prospects), and more important, even with substantial revision it wouldn’t be the kind of book I want to write going forward (it was all plot and no character).
So I’m not saying, “Don’t try, because a significant percentage of first attempts don’t ultimately publish.” I’m saying “By all means, jump in with both feet—write that sucker! But don’t stress over it, because you really can’t lose. Either it’ll be a blockbuster (good on you!) or it won’t, but either way it’s a necessary part of the process, and either way you’ll learn more about novel writing than you would reading a dozen how-to books.”
And either way, it’s a hell of a ride.
So—if you have one—tell us about your OBFN…
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.