One of the hardest things about being a writer (assuming aspirations of publishing success and all the baggage around that) has little to do with the writing itself. It has everything to do with the difficulties of pushing forward with your writing efforts when you’re emotionally drained from the sustained lack of success. (Notice I didn’t call this “failure.” There’s an important distinction which we’ll get to.)
There’s a story (having every earmark of being apocryphal, except that it’s true) told by the famous collegiate running coach, Jack Daniels. He was coaching a talented distance runner, whom he took to an international track meet in South America. (IIRC the event in question was the men’s 5000 meter race.) Shortly after the start it became clear Jack’s student was outclassed by the international field. He fell further and further behind, until he was half a lap or more behind the rest of the pack. Totally disheartened, as he passed his coach he asked if he could drop out. Coach Daniels told him that as long as he ran up and caught the leader first, he could drop out. The runner then sprinted to catch up to the pack, knowing that once he reached them he could bail out and rest. However, it took him so long to catch up that by the time he passed the leader the race was almost over, so he hung in there and won the whole thing.
Wow. There are a lot of lessons in this story.
In distance running, the mind usually gives up long before the runner actually has to. (It’s thought this is a “governor” effect built into the brain, to keep us from hurting ourselves, and that one of the reasons elite runners are successful is that they’ve learned to override this governor.) I’ve experienced both sides of this (which is another post) but there’s also an interesting complementary phenomenon I call the “finish line effect.” This manifests when you’re totally fatigued and out of gas near the end of a long effort (like, say, 26 miles into a 26.2 mile marathon), and suddenly you see the finish line up ahead – finally! – and the fatigue magically lifts and you find you actually have something left in the tank after all and you’re able to finish strong.
The overarching lesson for us here is that fatigue is largely a mental construct. That doesn’t mean the effects of it aren’t real. They certainly are. But maybe—armed with this information—when we feel fatigued after a long effort without the results we hoped for, we can realize we don’t necessarily have to follow that little voice telling us to give up… to give in… to quit.
The “effort vs. results” equation isn’t fixed, it’s a continuum. Occasionally (very rarely, in my experience) someone actually hits the jackpot on their very first effort (whether first manuscript, first query, or first submission). But for the vast majority of us, it’s a long uphill slog. Probably multiple manuscripts (some abandoned mid-stream, some unpolished first drafts, some finished but in need of further revision & editing, and a few driven all the way to submittal-worthy completion). Probably multiple queries for each finished manuscript. And unless the manuscript in question falls into the “fully baked” category, you may go through multiple submissions without a positive response from an agent (or editor, as the case may be). And once you do get representation, the whole query/sub process starts over, trying to find that editor who is looking for exactly what you’re offering, at the time you’re offering it.
So yeah… perhaps multiple manuscripts, perhaps over multiple years, without a “yes.”
Some things to keep in mind along the way…
1. This isn’t failure. This is what success looks like… from the middle of the process.
2. This is absolutely the norm. I’ve heard tons of ‘author origin stories,’ and they’re almost all some version of this.
3. “Success” is probably not the best choice of immediate goal, as you will very likely become very discouraged very quickly. Instead, the initial goals should be to:
(a) improve your craft, to the point where you are able to…
(b) draft/revise/edit/polish a really strong manuscript.
(I’ve said before that in my opinion probably 90% of success hinges on this—having a really strong manuscript before you take any further steps.)
4. Somewhere along the way, this process may begin to look like failure to you. It’s not. (See #1.) But if you let the process discourage you to the point of quitting, then—and only then—does it become failure.
5. Realize there’s a finish line out there somewhere, waiting for you. You just don’t know how far away it is. Guess what? No one else does, either. What you do know—and what you should keep top-of-mind when you feel “failure fatigue”—is that the only way anyone ever got to the finish line was through sustained, incremental forward movement. (Remember, the best remedy for rejection is writing.)
6. And of course, once you get there, the finish line is really just another starting line. That’s the way it works. For everyone. So…
7. Enjoy the process! If you don’t love the actual act of sitting down at your desk—alone, for hours—and crafting the story in your mind into words on the page, then you may be in the wrong line of work. Because, really, all we have 100% control over is the work itself.
I had a gig last night (as I write this) that was fun and a bit different. It was a semi-unplugged thing at a nice restaurant, and in the interest of space and volume and simplicity I only brought a cajon (plus some smaller hand and foot percussion, etc.) instead of a full drumset. Which I’ve done before, many times. But due to some of the specifics of the gig we also played some tunes I hadn’t played before (including some I’d never heard before), and a lot of tunes I’d never played on cajon before.
All of which was fine, and actually enjoyable. (The venue had a fun, forgiving crowd, which helps. There may have been wine involved.)
The interesting part was that I had to figure out how I was going to best replicate the drumset part on the cajon--while playing the song on cajon—and then modify it as I went along, trying to optimize the groove without causing any undue musical bumps along the way. Again, this is fun and the right side of my brain enjoys the challenge. The not-so-fun part was when I’d arrive at a pattern that seemed to work well, playing something new to me, and then I’d sort of look down at my limbs to see what I was doing… and it would start to fall apart. I had to laugh—it was the tale of the centipede stopping to think about moving all those feet and then suddenly not being able to walk.
The writing lesson for me here was the benefits of not being over-analytical during the creative phase. (And by “over-analytical,” you know we really mean “critical.”)
Because if there’s one thing writers do that most others don’t, it’s stopping to critique our own work in the middle of producing it, frequently to the point of abject discouragement where we no longer even want to produce it.
Imagine someone building a concrete block wall like a writer: He sets the first block in mud. Fine. Then he sets the second one and immediately stops everything to take detailed measurements. Oops—the second block is 1/16th of an inch out of alignment. Dang! He pulls it, scrapes the mud, and re-sets it repeatedly until it’s perfect. But by then the rest of the mud in the wheelbarrow has set so he throws it all away and quits for the day.
Contrasted with how a builder would approach it: She builds the wall, realizing there are small imperfections along the way but continuing working because she knows she won’t have a smooth wall until she has a rough one. Then she cleans the joints. Then she puts on a rough coat, getting it somewhat level. Then a second, finer coat, to even out any little imperfections, followed by a smooth color coat to get it the way she imagined it at the beginning.
The process is iterative, not monolithic. We probably don’t want to worry about the final little polish when we’re in the middle of laying the first course of blocks. Thinking that way can drive us crazy, and distract us to the point where the writing comes to a standstill.
Thinking and doing are both important parts of the process, but generally not simultaneously. Everyone’s creative methodology is different, of course, but it usually helps when I try to follow some approximation of the following six-step process:
1. Think (about what you might want to do), then…
2. Do (until you don’t feel like doing any more at the moment), then…
3. Think (until you’re happy with what you previously did), then…
4. Do (some more), then…
5. Repeat thinking/doing until “the end.”
6. Go back and think/do/think/do until you think you’ve done as well as you can do.
So… if you’re at the desk (metaphorical or literal) creating output of any quantity and quality, consider not getting analytical in that moment and just continuing to create until the flow subsides. No matter how rough or raw or downright flawed the work may be. Because you can always smooth out rough work, but it’s hard to improve something that doesn’t exist.
So, first build the wall… then plaster it.
We all get stuck at times. With a capital S. I don’t mean small-scale stuck (you’re in the middle of a manuscript and chapter fourteen still doesn’t feel quite right). I mean big-scale stuck, like when a project you’ve spent a couple of years on seems like a total failure. Or maybe career-size stuck, or even life-size stuck.
So let’s get the platitudes out of the way first…
Yes, you should be thankful for whatever you do have, whether that’s health or family or friends or a dog that loves you or that you live in a first-world locale instead of a poverty-stricken third-world country.
Yes, it will probably feel better in the morning… or in a week or a month or a year. So give it time.
Yes, a long run (or hike or ride or dogwalk or whatever) along a remote trail will probably add some badly needed endorphins to your brain chemistry and some perspective to your situation.
And yes, a glass of wine with a sympathetic friend is almost certainly in order.
And I would recommend all of the above, as an attitude adjustment technique if nothing else.
But none of these is going to solve the root problem (unless your definition of ‘solution’ is: feeling slightly better while continuing to live with the same ongoing issue, with no hope of real change).
Part of the issue is usually that we’re unsure of the steps to take to mitigate the situation. Hence the word, stuck. We don’t know what to do, so we do nothing. Other than feel bad. Or complain. Which leads to feeling even worse.
Everyone is different, but for me, one of the main factors in feeling better about a bad situation is the idea that there’s something—however small—that I can actually do about it. It doesn’t necessarily fix the situation—at least not right away—but frequently it fixes my brain to the point where I stand a fighting chance of fixing the situation eventually.
Sometimes we get stuck in a do-loop, centered around the issue of, “How the heck can I get where I want to be? What are my first steps? And the next? And then…?” We spin our wheels because there are an almost unlimited number of possible actions, and there’s no way to see which will lead to success. If only we could see ahead as clearly as we can look back, right?
I don’t have a time machine, but there's an exercise that might get us close. Basically, it involves looking “back” from an imagined future and figuring out the likely steps that got us there. Which may sound goofy on the face of it, so let’s move away from the theory and consider a practical example…
Let’s say you’ve worked hard on a project for a good bit of time. It could be any number of things—creative, educational, career-related, artistic—but for the sake of the example we’ll assume it’s a writing project… let’s say a novel. You’ve written, revised, edited, and polished it to a point where you’re really happy with it. So you spend another big chunk of time and energy shopping it around… only to eventually strike out. Maybe none of the agents you contacted bit on your query at all. Or perhaps a few responded with a request for a partial, but it didn’t go beyond that. Or maybe one or two requested the full manuscript—but in the end none of them offered representation. Or maybe you shopped directly to editors, with similar results. Or maybe you had some nibbles and close calls (heartbreaking, to say the least!) but in the end it was a pass.
You’re naturally disheartened, doing all this work only to get skunked. When you’re ready to deal with it (after the appropriate mood elevation techniques, as discussed above) the first decision is to determine whether or not you think the project is worth further effort. If not, that’s an easy one—set it aside and get on to your next project., whatever that may be. (Hopefully with some hard-won wisdom in your toolkit which will increase the odds of success with your next WIP.)
But if you really feel the project has value and means a lot to you and it’d break your heart to give up on it—yet are unclear about exactly what to do next—this is where the “looking back from an imagined future” process can help get you motivated and back in the saddle. As follows…
1. Decide what success would look like for the project under discussion.
2. Relax, close your eyes, and imagine it’s a year or two down the road and you’ve finally achieved success with the project. (Not that you might achieve it, or that you will achieve it, but that you have achieved it, in some realistic, non-magical, believable way.)
3. Now imagine you’re being interviewed in the wake of the success and someone asks you to delineate the steps you took to reach this point.
4. List those steps, being as realistic and detailed as you can. (Break down the process into manageable chunks and place them in a logical sequence.)
5. Follow through on those steps.
So to re-boot our novel, for example, the process might look like this…
You decide that ‘success’ for this project would be your novel getting published. Determine if this means Trad/Big-5 (which should really be called “Big-500,” but that’s another post) or small press or indie, as this will affect the subsequent process. For the sake of the example, you choose traditional publishing.
You imagine this as though it’s a string of established facts: Query, submittal, agent representation, publisher acquisition, editorial back-and-forth, copyediting, ARCs, publicity, book birthday, reviews, signings at your fave bookstores, and your book on the shelves of stores and libraries across the country.
Now: What steps had to be taken for all this to happen? Be realistic—no hand-waving allowed here. (FYI, “I ran into David Levithan at Starbucks and he asked about the pages under my arm and I handed him my first chapter and before he finished his latte he offered me a contract with a six-figure advance...” is not realistic.) A realistic list might include the following:
1. Make the manuscript as strong as possible. Read it as though you didn’t write it. (The literary equivalent of “Drive it like you stole it!”) Be merciless when it comes to cutting or revising favorite parts if you know in your gut they don’t further the story. And do all the other things—large and small—that can tighten the prose, improve the flow, and not take the reader out of the story mid-passage. (Many of which we’ve discussed over the previous 35 posts.)
2. Review any critical feedback you got from people whose opinions matter in this context. (Agents and editors, primarily.) Even though it may be a lot of work, address any feedback that makes you think (even reluctantly), “Okay, okay… I guess they have a point.” And if you get the same feedback from multiple sources, you definitely want to take a long, hard look at it.
3. Draft a new query that’s short, to-the-point, and non-sociopathic. Remember, you can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript… you can only write them into liking it by virtue of the actual writing. But you can easily talk them out of wanting to read it. In other words, don’t be cute or clever with your query. Be professional. Besides a brief description of your work, mention only the things that will actually matter to the recipient (previous publishing credits, perhaps a realistic comp or two if applicable, a mention if you’ve met them/heard them speak at a conference, and your appreciation for other works they’ve represented or edited if this applies) and none of the things that don’t matter (pretty much everything else). There are approximately 17 zillion examples of successful queries around. Read a couple dozen current ones to get a sense of what they should and shouldn’t do, then draft the best version you can for your book.
4. Do the necessary research to find agents and/or editors who’ve represented and/or edited works similar to yours. Several agents and/or editors… but only those who work in your particular field or genre, and only one per agency or imprint. (There are so many resources available for this—several book’s worth—that I’m not going to list them here, but also keep in mind that many authors thank their agent and editor in the afterward of their books. But always double check regardless, because things in publishing can change rapidly.)
5. Choose carefully, as once someone at a given agency or imprint has passed, it’s less likely that another in the same office will accept (because—with editors especially—they generally share among co-workers and look for concurrence). In my nonfiction/periodical workshops I advocate not shooting for the top of the masthead. You may have better luck with someone newer/younger/lower on the food chain. (New agents are typically looking for clients to start their roster, and once an associate editor is allowed to acquire, they likewise start reading in earnest. Some will even post on social about their wish list.)
6. Tailor the query for the particular recipient, with all of the above in mind. Not just changing the name at the top, but actually drafting the letter for them specifically… who they are, where they work, the position they hold (there’s a difference between associate editor, editor, and editorial director) and—most important—what they’ve done in the field, either with representation or editing, and where your work fits into this.
7. Submit the queries, keeping careful records of where and when each query was sent. And as soon as you’ve sent queries for all the potential agents or editors on your list, start a new round of research, generate more possible leads, and sent out another wave of queries.
8. Follow up. Obviously send any requested partial/full samples right away with a brief note saying, “Thanks, here’s what you requested,” but also follow up on any rejections that incorporate specific manuscript suggestions or changes. (With a brief note: "If I made the suggested changes, would you be willing to take a look at it again?")
9. When you get representation or manuscript acquisition, be open to revision. (See this post where editors state the number one thing they look for in a new writer is the willingness to revise.) Virtually no initial submission—no matter how brilliant—is perfect as-is. And editors (and agents) know this. So if you think your manuscript is untouchable, this is a serious roadblock to publication. And if an editor wants to do back-and-forthing before official acceptance, I would absolutely be open to that also. Maybe they’re trying to get a promising manuscript to a point where they think they can sell it to their boss, or maybe they’re assessing how easy you are to work with. Or likely both. Regardless, this is definitely a success path. Don’t be precious—work with her.
10. Be a team player at every step. Meet your deadlines. Be professional. Don’t be difficult. Help out with publicity (via social, email lists, book signings, author presentations, etc.) when the time comes.
So… looking back from an imagined future success, the above is what a likely success path looks like to me. Obviously the latter parts aren’t completely within your control, but luckily the most important parts (the first six or so) are all you. And ninety percent of the whole damn thing is the very first step: make sure your work is as strong as possible, in all regards. Everything else is mostly common sense and professionalism, tied to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. (But the harder you work, the luckier you get, right…?)
It’s not easy. If you want easy, you’re in the wrong line of work. But it’s the best way I know of to get back in the game after you strike out with a project you really believe in.
TL; DR: We can lick our wounds for a while, but sooner or later we have to ask ourselves, “If this were to succeed, what steps would’ve had to have been taken in order to get there?” And—if we’re serious about succeeding with this particular project—we need to get back in the ring and take those steps.
I heard a podcast the other day aimed at musicians, and the host made the point that the musicians he knew who were successful were almost always professional in their demeanor, and the ones full of “high school drama” were almost universally not where they wanted to be, career-wise. And he posited that these people had these respective personality traits long before they’d either made it or hadn’t made it.
In other words, success didn’t make them act professional; acting professional aided them in their success.
I’m a big believer that this paradigm applies to every line of work, including writing.
Once upon a time, it was pretty easy for a writer to appear professional to the general public (even if they weren’t always that way IRL) because their exposure was so much more limited. There were fewer authors, and their interaction with the public was through more filtered means: interviews, press releases, and maybe the occasional book signing or radio/TV appearance. (And for some of these events—for bigger authors—there was a certain amount of hand-holding by their publisher’s publicity dept.)
Now—with the internet in general and social media specifically—it’s so easy for a writer to show their ass in public. Below are some things I’ve seen recently. To put it mildly, none of these will make potential readers want to run out and buy your book.
Dissing the (perceived) competition. Yes, at one time or another we’ll all see a book become wildly popular and maybe wonder why. Maybe even think our work is better. (Which is a whole other post in itself.) Beyond the fact that perhaps we’re missing something with our analysis, even if it were true, publicly complaining about it makes you look, well… unprofessional. Insecure. Petty. Sour grape-ish. Etc. (I once witnessed a local writer/reviewer talking to a best-selling author about the author’s popular book series. His very first words to the author were, “Oh yeah, you write such-and-such, don’t you? Personally I don’t get it, but…” Ever since, I discount everything the guy says in print. Deeply.) I occasionally post on social media about books I’ve recently read, but I only talk about books I think are exceptional. I recently told a writer’s group I thought it was bad form for an author to publicly criticize another author’s work. Someone asked why and I basically said, “That’d be like the owner of a restaurant also being the food critic for the local paper. There’s an obvious conflict. Plus it makes you seem like less of a writer because the general perception is that writers write, and they leave the critiquing to others.”
Responding to a negative review. You’d think we wouldn’t have to mention this in 2018, but you still see it all the time. (Hint: it NEVER goes well for the writer. Never. Ever. Ever.) Just… don’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion of your work, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind with your witty repartee. Other than to make them think you’re not just a bad writer, but a miserable person in general. (Yeah, that’ll help your career.) Repeat after me: Do not engage. Do not engage. Do not…
Bad-mouthing publishers in general. Has an effect similar to #1, above. I’ve seen a lot of this on book tour, and it’s typically done by people who would glom on to a trad publishing contract in a New York nanosecond if one came their way. Usually followed by wildly inaccurate tales of how publishers will screw you blind and steal your firstborn and—worst of all—entirely change your manuscript and then publish it without your permission. Again, this doesn’t do much to raise your perceived posture as someone people should pay to read.
Complaining about the publisher who passed on you. Hey, I get it. I’ve been passed on. So have you. And so has virtually every author you see on the shelves of your local book store. And sometimes it might not seem fair. (In all actuality, it usually comes down to a business decision: some version of, “Will the perceived sales of this manuscript—in today’s market—exceed the perceived outlay?” This is really just an educated guess on their part, and not infrequently they guess wrong. But it’s their money, so they get to make that decision. And artistically, the editor should really love the work they acquire. And that’s their decision. We don’t get a vote.) But to come out and complain, “Publisher XYZ passed on my brilliant manuscript but they published that piece of crap?” not only makes you look small-time and petty, it also indicates you don’t really understand how publishing works. Neither of which increases your stock.
Crapping on the publisher who actually published you. Yup. Saw this once again a couple weeks back, and so did those of you who follow the industry on social media. Hard to believe, but even some published authors seem to forget that behind those large, corporate, Big-5-type companies are people. Real people. Who work hard and have feelings and are trying to do their best in a fickle business, and who take it personally when you crap on their efforts. Which could reasonably be seen as crapping on them. Yes, sometimes an author might not agree with their publisher’s actions regarding the handling of their work. And yes, sometimes the best move is to make your feelings known. Politely. And privately. (It’s just Business 101—praise in public, criticize in private, right?) Sort of like authors who’ve publicly responded to bad reviews, authors who’ve publicly bashed their publisher (or agent or editor or art director or publicist or…) usually end up wishing they hadn’t. (The obvious exception here is when your publisher does something so egregious—regarding an issue so important to you—that you’d rather not work with them anymore. But if you intend to continue working with them, you owe them the common courtesy of acting professional.)
That’s a lot of “thou shalt nots.” How about a “shall”? Sure, sometimes things seem unfair, or something in the publishing world really pisses us off. What to do? This business is tough enough on its own, so for starters maybe don’t make things any harder than they already are. The professional response is to get back in the ring.
Just as the best revenge is trying to live as well as possible, sometimes the best response is simply trying to write as well as possible.
The following is often attributed to Yogi Berra, but probably first said by Jan van de Snepscheut:
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”
Truer words were never spoken.
When I was a youngster, an otherwise-intelligent adult told me that when running you should breathe through your nose, as this accomplished two things: the small hairs would filter out dirt/bugs/whatever, and the nasal passages—with their proximity to blood vessels—would warm the air on its way to your lungs. As a scientifically-minded kid this all made sense to me, and it wasn’t until much later when I began to run in earnest that I realized that while all of the above may theoretically be true… in reality it turns out to be complete bullshit. Because in reality, when running, the #1 goal of your respiratory system is to supply enough oxygen to fuel the activity. Period. And running with your mouth closed is in direct opposition to this overarching goal.
Had the adult been a runner, none of this would have come about. But instead he was a scientific guy who read a lot—about a lot of things—and therefore had theoretical knowledge about any number of subjects. Which is not the same thing.
Theory is great. Necessary, even. But ultimately it’s nothing but a tool on the road to reality.
In our writing life—especially as aspiring writers—we’ll hear tons of well-meaning advice on how to approach things. Much of it from people who are coming to it from a theoretical perspective rather than a practical one. Or perhaps from a scholarly one. And some of it may be from people who perhaps aren’t where we desire to be, publishing-wise. And—maybe not so well-meaning—occasionally from people who may be more interested in separating us from our money than in actually helping us get where we want to go, publishing-wise.
To this latter point, I recently saw an online ad with the following phrases…
* * *
WRITERS: Want to UPGRADE to AUTHOR?
…I know you're tired of watching your friends publish.
…be the one holding the sharpie at the book signing, asking how to spell names.
…you ARE good enough and you can get the unfair advantage: the INSIDE SCOOP.
…I sit down with top publishing pros every week… to get YOU not only the best tips, but CURRENT tips.
Want to know what's trending in publishing NOW?
What the hottest agents are seeking TODAY?
Step-by-step guides on how best-selling authors made it to the top?
* * *
I honestly can’t imagine worse writing advice. The above implies the writing itself doesn’t matter and it’s simply about knowing what those editors and agents are looking for RIGHT NOW. And if you could only turn in a manuscript with the right subject matter—the CURRENT, HOT subject matter, TRENDING NOW—then you’d be the one all your friends were jealous of instead of the other way around, and you’d be holding the sharpie of doom at the signing instead of standing in line, pissing your pants with envy.
Regardless of the actual quality of said manuscript.
(And also: Wow, way to try and capitalize on people’s self-doubt, jealousy and FOMO.)
In reality, every writing success story I know of is unique, with unique twists and turns along the way to the finish line.
So in reality, trying to copy someone else’s specific path is an exercise in futility.
In reality, the only commonality between publishing pathways I’ve noticed is persistence, a willingness to work hard, and a desire to continually improve one’s craft.
And in reality—let’s be honest here—there can also be an element of luck involved. Yes, we can influence the odds by applying the above traits (“the harder you work, the luckier you get”) but to ignore the element of randomness is like going to Vegas and betting the farm because you “really deserve to win.” Being deserving doesn’t always have a lot to do with when the ball drops.
But also in reality—mitigating the above—it’s also true that “it only takes one YES to wipe out all the NOs.”
Because in reality, you don’t need to convince every “Big Time Editor” or “Hot Agent in New York City” that your work is worthy.
Only one. And that’s enough.
Or maybe none, for the intrepid indies among us.
Because in reality, what matters are the words that end up on the page. The words you chose… the words you wrote… the words you rearranged and rewrote and revised and polished, until they said what you wanted to say, in the way you wanted to say it, to the very best of your ability.
And that’s no theory.
When I was a kid—probably in fourth or fifth grade—I got in some sort of minor trouble at school, something to do with my snarky reply to a teacher’s comments on a paper I’d written. (Apparently I was pretty defensive as an early writer. Or I was a mouthy kid. Or—upon reflection—likely both.)
I don’t remember the exact details but as I recall, my view was that the teacher knew what I meant, so why was he being such a butthead over my specific word choice? The actual words didn’t really matter as long as I got the point across, right? Sheesh!
A note was sent home explaining the teacher’s interpretation of the, er… discussion.
My dad’s response was to put me in the car, drive me to our local library, and prop me in front of the huge dictionary they kept on a stand. Then he made me look up the word “run,” and had me stand there and read the entire entry for that single, simple word. There was at least a page of entries (in teeny tiny dictionary font) on run as a verb. Then another page on run as a noun. Then more on it as an adjective. Then all the different variations and phrases involving this supposedly-simple little word. It took me half an hour. I got the point. (Well, the real point is that my dad was an exceptional man, but it took me a while longer to understand that particular truth.)
The point: words matter.
Meaning, inflection, and the intangible yet oh-so-important quality best described as ‘voice’ are all greatly affected by the specific words we choose to use in any given piece of writing. In fiction, words tell us much more than the objective information they’re conveying. In narrative (i.e. in a viewpoint character’s voice, whether directly in 1st person or less directly in 3rd), word choice fleshes out the character and can give clues as to their regional background, age, education, upbringing, etc., but more important, it speaks to their personality—to who they are as a person—beyond just imparting basic facts. As a character’s possible response to a situation, (1) a simple shrug, (2) saying, “I don’t know,” or (3) stating, “I’m unclear on this particular concept” all imply the same thing. But they also paint three different types of personalities, from taciturn to direct to… well, perhaps either honestly erudite or maybe just a smartass. And in dialog, of course, we can do the same with all our characters, even the otherwise-unnoticed bit players who can stand out with a unique turn of phrase.
This also applies to non-fiction: even with something as routine as technical writing, word choice can have a big impact…
Fast forward thirty years from my stint as a mouthy fifth-grader: I’ve traveled to a nuclear facility in another state to help them with some training issues. I’m part of a panel that’s interviewed a number of employees over several days, and we’re tasked with writing a report outlining their challenges and recommending solutions. There are a handful of us writing the report as a committee (which is exactly as painful as you might imagine). Some of the panel are trying to appear “writerly,” and are suggesting revisions for virtually every sentence that up the syllable count and lower the clarity. Words like delineate and mitigate and optimization and methodology are flowing like water. Very muddy water.
The facilitator of the group—who has up until then remained in the background—interrupts the proceedings. “For clarity’s sake,” she says, “why don’t we consider avoiding a longer word whenever a shorter one will work? Why say ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ will be just as clear?” I give a silent cheer and volunteer to revise the draft, and it feels like taking a shower in cool, clear water to replace the above words with more direct terms like say and fix and better and way. More important, the final result seems to have more impact, and—most important of all—gets through to its intended audience.
I never forgot that lesson. Maybe the final draft didn’t come off as “intellectual” or “writerly,” but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was (and is, and forever will be) to convey the ideas in a way that will best reach the reader.
The larger point here is not that all writing should use common, simple words. (Somewhere above I used the term erudite, because that single word conveys my meaning better than any other.) The point is that specific words have specific meanings, and a change in word choice can slant the entire tone of the piece you’re writing, whether that’s an article about when to plant begonias or a business report on corporate culture or the fictional dialog of a seventeen-year-old girl from San Diego.
For any single concept we wish to convey, there are lots of words that probably come close. We shouldn’t be lazy and automatically go with the first one to come to mind, and we shouldn’t use words that are out-of-character with the goals of the work just to try and make ourselves look like more of a “writer.” I think the best advice here is simply to not be afraid to try on different words until you find the ones that make you think, aha! (My unscientific term for the gut feeling we get when the words finally yield the tone and meaning we’ve been trying to get across.)
Words are often referred to as tools, but they can also be seen as toys. Don’t be afraid to get in there and play around.
And maybe crack open that huge dictionary if it helps.
As with most creative endeavors, there are occasional misconceptions about the art and craft of writing. One is that authors (successful ones, at least… whatever that means) basically sit down and the magical fairy dust flows from their fingers and onto the page. In my observation, good writing is much more about sustained hard work over time and much less about spontaneous bursts of creative genius.
I know a number of people I’d classify as good writers. And I make a habit of studying them, their work, and their workflow, trying to make useful correlations. The first of these is that for most of the writing—from most of them—I’d say I rarely see lightning bolts of sheer brilliance on the individual pages of their day-to-day output, especially in early drafts. What I see are well-considered elements (setting, character, theme, plot) that the author cares deeply about, expounded upon in print.
Often in a “three steps forward, two steps back” fashion. Which can be painful and slow at times.
But in spite of this, the writer has an overall vision in mind for the work, and they keep working away until (1) the story is complete, and (2) everything in the story aligns with their vision for it, to the best of their ability.
And the operative word here is work. Another correlation I’ve noticed is that good writers tend to show up every day (for a realistic value of “every”) and put in the work. Sometimes the work goes well, the writing is good, and there is a good amount of it. Sometimes, maybe not so much… for either quality or quantity. (The worst, of course, is when you do a lot of writing and none of it is any good.) But even when the writing isn’t stellar, or when the writing doesn’t come easily and the output is lower than they’d like, they are there—putting in the work. And they’re making progress, even if only a little. Because even a roughly written version of a concept is something. And you need something. Because with something, you can work on it… revise or trim or restructure or expand it. But you can’t do those things with nothing. Which is why the prime job description for being a writer is basically “Show up and do the work.”
A third correlation I’ve noticed is the more you show up and do the work, the more often you get the sort of writing you want. Part of this may simply be the benefits of practice—repeated experience leads to increased facility. Part of it may be the creative part of your brain finally getting the idea that it’s going to at least attempt to be creative every working day. And part of it may be self-fulfilling and self-sustaining: you do it regularly and thus get a little better at it, and thus enjoy it a little more, and thus do it more often and get even better, and thus enjoy it even more, and thus…
And even when the muse ignores your invitation completely, there are things you can do during your regularly scheduled work hours if actual writing isn’t in the cards. You could work on what I call the Three P’s… Ponder, Plot, and Plan. This doesn’t have to be strict outlining (but it can, of course). It can also be as simple as sitting there with your eyes closed and musing on what you—as a reader who has read up to where you are in the story—would like to see happen next. (See the “What Do I Want to See?” post for more on this.) And then jotting down as much or as little as it takes to capture the ideas such that you’ll recall them when the time comes to write them. You could also go through what you’ve written recently and line edit it—just basic tightening or clarifying. Or even just go back half a dozen chapters and sit down and read it without either hat (writer or editor) perched upon your head. Instead, go through it like you’re reading for pleasure. And sometimes you’ll find that when you get to where you left off, your muse pays a brief visit and rewards you with some worthy ideas. (And even if not, an added bonus of these activities is they also allow you to simply stay in touch with the story, even if you’re not actively adding to it at the moment. This is important because keeping the story in your mind is key in keeping your subconscious involved in creating it.)
Think of “showing up, prepared to put in the work” as setting the table for your muse: If you set the table, they will come.
Or maybe not.
But if you don’t, they will NEVER show up. Of that you can be certain.
Happy writing… and set an extra plate at the table!
There’s a long-standing theory that writers shouldn’t talk about their WIPs because that’ll take away their desire to write it, or interfere in some way with the creative process.
I’m calling BS on this.
Having said that, I’m not one to publicly talk about works I’m planning to write, nor do I advocate doing so… simply due to common sense cart-before-horse reasons. In my casual observation, there’s a pretty solid negative correlation between those who do the above—typically on social media and typically in bemoaning fashion—and those who actually finish/revise/polish/publish their work. Although my business-whiz son would be the first to say, “Dad, correlation—in either direction—is not causation,” so technically we’re not sure if blabbers don’t finish or finishers don’t blab. Either way, I’m not taking any chances…
However, I have a countervailing philosophy that says there can be a significant creative benefit to discussing your works-in-progress, assuming it’s done in the right way with the right person. (The not-right person is the one whose first reaction is to immediately tell you exactly what's wrong with your idea and how they’d improve it, etc. Life is rough enough without voluntarily pulling on that specific hair shirt.)
But… When you're on page 281 of a 400 page novel and you find yourself holding a couple of competing ideas in your mind, it can be very helpful to run them by someone who knows how to listen and can help you brainstorm in a positive fashion. The other person may likely be a writer but they don’t have to be. The more important part is that they read widely and thoughtfully, and are capable of putting their emotional responses to story ideas into words. Spoken words. (And of course the most important factor is that they adhere to the Prime Editorial Directive™: Help the writer write THEIR book as best they can.) Really, it’s much more of a gentle back-and-forth exchange—like a lunar-gravity ping pong match with a nerf ball—than any sort of critiquing session. You’re looking for the “Yes, and…” kind of response vs. the “No, but…” type.
One benefit, of course, is simply getting another viewpoint (similar to what a beta reader does, but more “during” than “after”). And that’s great. But you also get something you don’t get from a beta reading—the real-time back-and-forth exchange of ideas concurrent with the initial creative process. You’re trying on ideas with your “pre-beta” without having to write them out first, and you can quickly pivot with a “…or maybe she does this instead of that” if you realize your first idea wasn’t quite right, and your brainstorming partner might reply with “…yes! And what if he sees her do it, but maybe she doesn’t know he sees her…?” to which you respond, “Yeah, and then he’d act differently toward her and she wouldn’t know why, but we would…”
And so on.
This can be an effective way to jumpstart your story elements (as well as a great time saver, since you’re essentially beta-testing without having to type it all out first), as long as you’re aware it also means you’re primarily testing plot ideas and not the actual writing itself. (For that, there’s still no substitute for someone reading the written words without any verbal input from the author, just to ensure everything in your head actually made its way to the page.)
Another way this can save you time is what I call “rabbit hole avoidance.” Sometimes, having external editorial feedback during/before the initial drafting can spare you the heartache of throwing away large chunks of writing and starting over when you come to the astute conclusion that maybe you shouldn’t go down the whole “kill & bury the uncle” path in chapter 17… which is fine, except the epiphany comes a hundred pages later—in chapter 25—when you finally realize you could really use that uncle right about now because he’d be perfect for another idea you have. Damn. If only you’d thought of that earlier…
And now for what may be the biggest potential benefit of “talking plot.” Talking about a creative activity seems to engage a different part of the brain than just silently thinking about it. I can’t count the number of times that simply outlining my plot issue verbally has led to me turning around and—again, verbally—solving it. Sometimes before having received any input from the other person. Not sure why this is so—maybe your mouth has a more direct connection to your subconscious?—but I’ve seen this work too many times to ignore it.
Not all ideas put forth will be useful ones. That’s okay—poor ideas often lead to good ones, which is the whole concept behind brainstorming. Or as my wife likes to say, “Mark will come up with 99 bad ideas, but idea #100 makes it worth wading thru all the lousy ones.” (Usually followed by a snicker.) But again, much of this process is simply the brainstorming partner listening and making encouraging noises, then occasionally asking pertinent what-if questions. The main thing is that the designated writer in this scenario not make blanket “NFW” responses to any ideas, but listen and consider in turn. When this happens—on both sides—the end result is usually very positive and productive.
The above is my experience. Everyone is different, with a different workflow, and this may or may not work for you. My only advice would be to try it and see. The next time you’re stuck in the sagging middle, instead of just putting your head down and grinding something out, consider bouncing a few ideas off someone else—ideally someone considerate and creative—and see if it sparks something. I’m betting it will.
If you have any techniques you use to jumpstart your story-spinning, please share them with us in the comments.
As an author, you’ll occasionally have people asking you to read their manuscript and provide advice. (Whether or not you should do this is a topic unto itself. Some established writers have a blanket policy against it for valid reasons, including the fact that it’s bad business to work for free. Others are happy to do it when time permits, paying forward the help they received as beginners themselves.)
Often the person asking is an aspiring writer. Maybe a younger writer, or maybe a beginning writer—of any age—just learning the basics of the craft. Assuming you’re going to take on the task of reading their work and giving feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t step on dreams.
This is the equivalent of the primary Hippocratic concept, “First, do no harm.” There are experienced writers who feel anything less than ‘brutal honesty’ is somehow beneath them. They think some people simply weren’t born to be writers, and the sooner someone tells these poor schmucks this, the better.
Really? In reality no one actually knows who’s going to eventually—with enough sustained effort—become a decent writer. History is full of late bloomers who didn’t show much early promise. (The Big Sleep, anyone? Watership Down? Or how about Angela’s freaking Ashes—a first book that was published when the author was sixty-six?) And even if they never go on to become successful authors, they still receive the intangible benefit that writing gives everyone who puts pen to paper—the unique feeling of accomplishment in organizing their thoughts and setting them down in print. Some aspiring writers may never find success in publishing (however they happen to define it). But they may still get as much out of it—on a personal level—as a best-selling author. And on the Big Scale of Life, this might even outweigh the benefits of brutal honesty. Wheaton’s Law still applies.
2. Leave them wanting more.
A good question to ponder when helping the new writer: “What single activity is most germane to becoming a better writer?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is writing. Followed closely by reading.)
When my kids were young I signed up to coach my older son’s basketball team, along with one of the other dads. The players on our team were all good kids but were complete beginners. (And my buddy and I weren’t exactly John Wooden either.) We taught the kids basic b-ball skills as best we could, but during and after the games some parents would get down on their kids for not “doing better.” (Which is invariably fruitless. Everyone is doing their best in the moment with the tools they have. Which are not your tools.) In the end, I’d pull the more serious parents aside and bluntly explain the reality that our team was rather less skilled than the other teams, and my real goal for the year was simply that the kids enjoy the experience enough to want to continue playing basketball going forward. Because the only way they’re going to get better is to play more. A lot more. And for that to happen, they’re going to have to want to play.
Artistic skill develops over years, not weeks. This doesn’t mean you can’t get real benefits from a few intensive weeks of writing and study, but most people who do typically have years of practicing their craft behind them. Can you imagine taking a complete non-writer and throwing them into something like Clarion?
So the real objective here is simply to leave them wanting to continue writing.
3. Giving them a fish vs. teaching them to fish.
What’s your overall goal when critiquing an aspiring writer? If it’s “make this specific story better,” then I suggest you take a broader view. Making a beginner’s story stronger is usually pretty simple, as the flaws are generally apparent. (Blatant exposition, unrealistic dialog, over-use of adjectives, inconsistent characters, telling us how a character feels instead of letting their actions reveal it, etc.) If you just line edit the heck out of it, it’ll almost certainly be a stronger story. But will they have learned anything about the craft of writing? (And—if you really do a deep-dive edit—will it even be their story when you’re done with it?)
So consider helping more with overall craft than just working on specific story issues. I remember a friend coming to me with an article he wanted to submit to the local paper. One line he’d written was something on the order of “He was very, very tall.” Instead of simply slashing it and replacing it with “towering” or whatever, it was a great entrée into a discussion of intensifiers. Same deal with multiple descriptors. He was describing a woman who was “… warm, sweet, affectionate, and cheerful.” Instead of just cutting three of the four, I asked for an example of her behavior. He gave me one, and we talked about a way to fit it into the story instead of him just telling us how nice she was.
You want to leave them with interesting things to consider, as you show possible paths to their goal. (As always, you want to help them write their story as best they can, not show them how you’d write it.) So don’t default to only showing what’s “wrong”. Think about it in terms of giving them options, and showing them why one option may be stronger than another. (This is really all about the “why,” right?)
4. Stay within their skillset, while stretching them a little.
I’m a drummer, and occasionally give informal lessons to beginners. I don’t start by sitting down and demonstrating 4-way independence (where each limb is doing something different at the same time). That’ll either frustrate and discourage them or go over their head entirely. Instead I’ll ask them what they would like to be able to play on the drums, and I’ll give them something relevant to work on that they can’t quite do perfectly yet, but which is within their grasp.
Closer to home, you probably don’t want to overload your beginning writer with a rundown of the nuanced differences between limited third-person, objective third-person, and omniscient third-person points-of-view. Find out what they wish to accomplish with their story, and try to help them get there with understandable advice that speaks to their current skillset. Example: If they’re using close third and are unsure about the mechanics, they can probably benefit from something like, “It might help the reader feel grounded if you stay in one character’s head throughout the entire scene or chapter.”
5. Catch them doing something right.
This goes back to the concept of leaving them motivated to continue writing. It doesn’t mean being a cheerleader. It means striving to find some aspect of their work they honestly did well. If not in execution, then in concept. It could be a character that—at least at times—feels real and unique. It could be an interesting plot twist. It could be a bit of dialog that rings true. It could simply be a well-described breakfast at a funky little diner. Let them know you thought it was well done, and why. Encourage them to apply this technique to other parts of the story, if applicable.
Writers have strong and weak points. That’s universal. What’s not so universal—especially with beginners—is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. So do them a favor and let them know what they do well. If they’re wise enough to take it to heart and capitalize on it, it can really benefit their writing going forward.
And of course, hearing positive feedback about some aspect of their writing will only motivate them to keep trying. And that—sustained effort—is probably the biggest precursor to success of all.
Writer’s Block is a phrase that seems to come up wherever aspiring writers congregate, whether online or IRL. Either they worry they have it (because words don’t magically flow like water from their fingertips when they sit down to write), or they worry about its inevitable appearance (because although things may be going fine at the moment, apparently it afflicts all writers at one time or another).
So here’s a thought: instead of considering it something to fear, consider it something to, well… not exactly look forward to, but listen to. Like heeding a caution sign on a twisty road or taking advice from a wise friend.
My operating theory is that what we call “writer’s block” is our subconscious trying to tell us something. And the corollary is that we might benefit from paying attention to it instead of trying to brute-force our way through it.
For me at least, the inability to really sink my teeth into a writing project is usually code for “I haven’t thought about it quite enough yet.” I rarely get the long-term feeling of “I’m totally empty and have no idea what to write” (and when I do, it’s almost always the universe telling me to take a break) but more often I’ll get stuck on a specific story issue, whether plot or character-related.
I’ve come to believe this is my creative mind trying to tell me—as directly as it can—that I need to cogitate a little more about the story before committing words to paper.
I try not to sit down to write until I have at least a vague clue as to where I’m going because—for me—the least productive place to come up with new ideas is sitting on my butt staring at a blank screen. I’d rather mow the lawn or wash the dishes or stand in the shower. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think the real writing happens away from the keyboard, and I also believe the subconscious does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to creativity. So if I’m stuck on a plot point, I’ll go for a run (or any other activity that takes just a minimal amount of attention). The slight attention requirement of running or walking or whatever seems to distract the conscious mind just enough to let the subconscious come out and play. Then during the run I’ll sort of mull over the scene in question, playing it in my head like a movie. Each time I play the clip I change it a little, and sooner or later an idea will pop into my mind. And if it’s a good idea, I get that “aha!” feeling. If not, I keep playing the film clip until I do. (Or until the lawn is mowed or the run is over, in which case I let it go for the time being.) Then, assuming I have an inspiring little idea that gets me past the sticking point, I’m ready to sit down and begin writing. And of course, once you have enough of an idea to start a scene, your mind generally comes up with other ideas to extend or complete the scene.
Another part of the solution to what people call “writer’s block” may be as simple as writing regularly. It’s an over-used phrase but there’s some truth in the simple concept of “ass in chair.” Like most skills, if you exercise it regularly you not only get better at it—in terms of craft—but you also get more efficient at it. And you develop confidence that if you start the tiny little scene you have in mind, you’ll likely come up with more. (I can’t count the times I’ve sat down to write with only a sliver of an idea in mind—thinking I’ll probably run out of creative steam in ten minutes—and I end up going for several pages. The trick is just capturing that initial spark, then putting in the work.)
A related aspect of this is simply habit. Some authors advocate writing at the same time and place every day, in an effort to condition your mind to be creative on schedule. This has all the earmarks of a good idea—by all means, give it a try if it fits your workflow. That level of specificity doesn’t work for me, but the overall concept does. I find that if I work on my story in some fashion every day (or for some value of “every day” approximating “most days of the week”) then, everything else being equal, the writing comes easier than when I let it sit for several days on a regular basis. And “working on” doesn’t have to mean original-drafting exclusively. It can mean researching and making notes, or outlining the next few chapters, or maybe going back and editing what I wrote in my last few sessions. (And of course, it can mean simply writing.) The point is, touching base with your book daily—in some fashion—will keep the story in your mind. And this is one of the keys to keeping your subconscious engaged.
I also find it helps to have a sense of overall direction. I’m not a detailed outliner, but I like a few signposts along the way, and I like to have at least a rough idea as to how things might end. (A provisional ending, if you will. I might change it when I get there but for now I just want something to drive toward.) Using a road trip as an analogy, I don’t need a detailed route mapped out, with every little meal stop and gas station and motel already decided on… please. But I like broad ideas, on the order of: “I’m starting on the East Coast—let’s say New York—and heading to the West Coast. I think I’ll swing down through the South instead of the Mid-West because I prefer the warmer weather and the BBQ… maybe Atlanta, maybe Birmingham, maybe New Orleans… not sure yet. But I know I want to drive through the Southwest, then on to the coast. Final destination is either L.A. or San Francisco… I’ll know more when I get closer.” That’s pretty much all I need, and I’m ready to go. Enough to keep me moving along, but not so much that I can’t take a detour if it looks promising.
We all have different working methodologies and I’m not saying, “Simply do this, and all will be well.” You have to find what works for you. But how you cast things within your own mind can have a big impact on how they affect you, so consider re-casting your perception of what’s commonly called “writer’s block,” maybe to the point of not applying that phrase to yourself in any sort of regular setting.
Imagine you’re building a shed in your backyard. You decide on the basic size and shape… maybe you pour a footing. Then before you continue you get some cool ideas about how you want to configure the walls… maybe you want more windows? A friend stops by and says, “What’s wrong? I thought you were building a shed. Why aren’t you pounding nails already?” Would you say, “I don’t know. I think maybe I have…” (poignant pause) “…builder’s block.”? No, you’d say, “I am building a shed. I just need to decide a few more things before I start pounding nails.”
So maybe you don’t have writer’s block after all. Maybe you just need to decide a few more things before you start pounding the keys. Which isn’t an excuse for TV and bon-bons—you still need to maintain forward momentum. So if you need to make a few more decisions before you start (or return to) initial drafting, that’s fine. Don’t over-think it. Just stay in touch with your story—and give your subconscious fuel—as regularly as possible, and you’ll get there.
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!
Not a fun thing. And if not careful it can lead to the J word—a separate issue deserving of a post all its own. But for now let’s stick to rejection and what we can do about it.
So, what can we do about it? The same thing we can do about war: absolutely nothing. Because rejection itself is an external factor largely outside our control (or we’d all be at the top of the New York Times list, right?).
What we can control is what we do - and don’t do - in response to it. And the first thing we can do to improve our response to it is understand it. Because frequently there’s a gap between what we think the rejection means in the moment and what it actually means.
What we think it means: Shit! Someone didn’t like my manuscript! Someone important! They hated my manuscript, they hated my writing, and they probably hate me! My writing sucks! I suck! They’re a big-time agent or editor or reviewer and believe me they know the difference between good writing and bad writing, and if it was any good they would have represented/bought/loved it! But they didn’t, which proves I suck! Lord, do I suck! I will never get published! (Or get an agent. Or a starred review. Or a Newbery medal. Or a spot on the NYT bestselling list. Or whatever your particular golden ticket is at the moment.)
What it actually means: For one particular person, at this particular time, your particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for their current needs. For any number of reasons.
That’s it. Someone somewhere didn’t choose your work at this time. (For reasons which may remain unknown to you and which may relate to your work directly, indirectly, or perhaps not at all.) Notice I didn’t say, “Someone somewhere didn’t like your work.” And nowhere did I say, “Something thinks you’re a terrible writer.” Yet that’s what we tend to hear when someone passes on our work… writing is such a personal thing, so we tend to take criticism of our work personally. Yet the truth is, rejection is almost never personal.
It’s largely a business decision. And that decision is rarely in the hands of a single individual. (If anything, acquisitions are getting to be more and more of a collaborative process at major houses. Because business.) I’ve seen an editor “love” a manuscript, then end up passing because of concern from above stemming from the fact that a recent book of theirs with a vaguely related theme tanked.
Who knows? Maybe they like your work but it’s considered a little too close to another project of theirs which they also like, and which beat yours into the pipeline by a few months. (Seen this one also, and I feel extra sorry for the author who has to hear an editor say, “I loved everything about your book! But… we already have another book about a left-handed girl on our fall list.” Ouch.)
Or maybe you’re a published author but your last few books didn’t meet “expectations” (i.e. sales numbers didn’t stack up against the advances paid or copies printed in the initial run) so they’re not that interested in your next work, regardless of subject matter or basic manuscript quality. (Seen this happen to people too. An unpublished writer may have a better shot than a published one who’s seen better days—assuming equally strong manuscripts—because with the unknown writer there’s always the chance that she’s the one, while the law of averages says that another book by the mid-lister will probably sell what their last few book sold. Business, right?)
And of course there’s the sheer weight of the numbers involved. An editor at a big house can only acquire, edit, and shepherd a finite number of books through the publishing process (maybe a dozen or so a year), yet they have a flood of submissions coming in constantly. Same thing for reputable agents. Do the math. Every one of them will admit they’re forced to turn down way more perfectly good manuscripts than they accept.
Then there’s the matter of personal taste. The opinion of a respected agent or editor may be an “informed” opinion, but in the end it’s just one person’s opinion, based on one person’s taste. Just because your book didn’t click with that particular agent or editor doesn’t mean it won’t with the next one. There’s no lack of anecdotes about people passing on what turned out to be successful books, from Harry Potter on down. And even here they’re not saying they hate you and your writing. I’ve seen responses to authors basically saying, “I really liked the writing and the protagonist’s voice, but the plot didn’t go where I thought it should.” Or, “Loved the story, but found the main character unlikeable.” Or some other version of Loved X and Y, but didn’t quite buy Z. (Heck, I just read about the author of the breakout bestseller “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” stacking up 122 agent rejections before landing an agent and eventually a contract at St. Martins.) And these sorts of stories crop up all the time. Which is my point: Rejection is the norm… it’s absolutely part of the process.
So… the first step to dealing with rejection is also the hardest: don’t take it personally! It’s not a referendum on your skill as a writer or your innate worth as a person—it’s one person’s decision at one particular point in time.
And the best way to get over it (the next step) is to write. When you have something out on submission, in my opinion the very best thing you can do is not to wait by the phone but get to work on something else. For several reasons:
(1) It gives you something constructive to do instead of biting your nails.
(2) If rejections start coming in, you have something new to emotionally fall back on… a creative distraction of sorts. Which is way better than fixating on how they don’t like your baby.
(3) It can serve as an internal reminder that you’re not just “the author of the project currently on submission,” you’re a writer, period. One who has many more books inside you. One who’s getting better with each new project you tackle. And writers write.
(4) I think it’s best to stay ahead of your submissions so you don’t feel as if your entire career depends on the manuscript currently making the rounds. Because that way lies madness. Believe me.
(5) And finally, it’s always good to have new work waiting in the wings regardless. Because one type of rejection you may get is: This particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for me but I loved the writing—what else do you have? And if one of those comes in and you don’t have something else in the vault—something finished and ready to go—you’re going to get a sore foot from kicking yourself in the ass.
All of which is to say, we need to accept that rejection is an integral part of the writing life. I don’t know a single writer that got anywhere without going through rejection (and sometimes a lot of it) before reaching their goals. And it doesn’t necessarily stop then, either, because once you reach a goal (representation, publication, winning awards, hitting list, etc.), there’s another golden ticket to strive for, just out of reach.
So maybe we turn the tables on the R-Word, instead of letting it beat us down.
So maybe we use it as renewed motivation to get our butts back in the chair and do what we came here for in the first place.
So maybe we write.
“I don’t need time – what I need is a deadline.”
~ Duke Ellington
For our first eighteen-plus years growing up, we have people—typically teachers—giving us assignments. Including parameters: what the assignment’s about, how long it should be, when it’s due, etc.
In kindergarten you do the “work” under the teacher’s direct guidance. In early elementary school they give you assignments with short but discrete deadlines, like overnight. A few years later you might have stuff due in a week, with gentle reminders during the interim. By high school the deadlines are longer, with occasional guidance along the way. In college they basically present the material and the endpoint and it’s strictly on you to keep up or not—the hard truth doesn’t come out until the final. But even then, there’s an overall goal and an overall due date… both of which are given to you by others.
And then you’re out of school and suddenly… nothing. No one giving you creative writing assignments, complete with word count and deadline. No one checking that you stay on task and complete things on time.
In your adult life, no one’s going to come up to you like a thesis advisor and say, “Here’s the assignment: I want you to spend a lot of your downtime letting your imagination wander freely—thinking about different story ideas—until one grabs you and won’t let you go. Develop it in your mind until you have a real feel for the characters, the theme, the basic story arc… Then start writing. Maybe make some notes if that helps your workflow. Or not. But I want you to work on the manuscript regularly—daily when possible—carving out time from other activities if you have to. And when you’re not writing, think about your story. Think about it when you drive, think about it when you shower, think about it when you wash the dishes. Obsess over it. Use these ‘creative thinking sessions’ (which look a lot like daydreaming to non-writers) to deepen the world you’re creating, solve any plotting issues that come up, and make each scene feel as real as possible. Keep writing until you finish the first draft. Celebrate. Then dive back in and shore up the overall theme of the story (which may have only become clear in the writing of it). Ensure your characters are self-consistent. Revise any structural issues, with the goal of having the story be as clear, concise, and captivating as possible. Re-work dialog until it reads like real people, having real conversations. Then polish the manuscript, making sure every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, and every sentence is as strong as it can be, and says exactly what you want to say. When you’ve done all this, consider letting a few trusted reader-friends look at it, and hear their feedback with an open mind… especially if you hear the same comments from multiple readers. Address any issues they find—assuming they have the smell of truth about them—then give everything one last going-over to tighten any remaining loose screws. I want you to have a finished manuscript of 75,000 to 100,000 words—polished and completely ready to submit to an agent or editor—within 12 months. Ready… go!”
Whew! Trust me, no one is going to do that for you.
So you have to do it for yourself.
And you have to treat it exactly as you would any other important assignment from a teacher or supervisor. Plan it out, set a timetable, and make it a priority until it’s finished. I really believe the concept of the “self-assignment” is one of the secrets to creative success, because without it, it’s just too easy to let your creative endeavors fall off the table as other things intrude. It’s the age-old conundrum of forsaking the “important” for the “urgent.” The completion of your writing may not seem urgent on a day-by-day basis, but don’t you dare try to tell me it’s not important.
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.