The Fault in Our Stares

If Neil Gaiman walked into this coffee shop, I’d be starstruck. I’m not easily starstruck. As I slog through the latter part of middle age, I just don’t have the energy to drum up enthusiasm for the common celebrity. Confession: I haven’t read Entertainment Weekly in years.

Last summer I visited the set of the new Zach Braff movie (coming to theaters near you this July – and depending on the edit, starring me in one scene as a blurry background extra) and was non-plussed by the famously tanned faces that wandered in and out of the virtual frame. My favorite part of the visit was talking briefly with Zach’s much less famous brother, Adam, who is the co-author of the screenplay. (For the record, I would have been equally interested in talking with the other Braff, Joshua, who wrote the surprisingly compelling coming-of-age novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green. But he was off living his regular life.)

The only category of the self-congratulatory spectacle known as The Oscars that even remotely interests me is “Original Screenplay.” Yes, Cate Blanchett is a wonder of evolution, but I’d still rather talk story with Spike Jonze than glad-hand with Galadriel.

I like to tell myself that my predilection for pen monkeys* over prima donnas makes me a little less shallow than typical celebrity fawners, but that’s just a poor attempt to pretend I’m not totally smitten by those who pay their dues with the written.

Consider John Green, for example. I mean, look at the guy. Nerd. Normal. Generous. Funny. Successful. He’s the me I didn’t know I always wanted to be. Or maybe should have been.

And J. K. Rowling. I want to spend my summer vacation in her imagination. Then I want to learn a spell to make myself 12 again so I can enjoy delivering the best “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” report in the history of life.

And Marilynne Robinson. I’m a slow writer because I don’t know what to say. She’s a slow writer because she wants to be certain of what she says. I want her patience (right now) and her gentle genius for character.

And of course, Neil. I visited both the House on the Rock and Rock City long before I read American Gods. And I had a passing interest in mythology. It’s like I had all the pieces I needed to write that book except Neil’s brilliant mind. And how did he know I once wished for an ocean at the end of my childhood street? How could anyone know that? I want his way with words.

I want all their writerly gifts. I even want a taste of the celebrity I claim to have no interest in. I want people to line up at my book signings all a-quiver to be in the same room as “that cool guy who wrote that amazing thing I read fifteen times!”

When I stop to think about it, though, I realize what I really want is simply to be a great writer. The kind worthy of such admiration, whether or not it ever comes. But I’m not going to get there by drooling at the feet of my writerly idols.

So if Neil Gaiman walks into this coffee shop, I’ll try not to stare. Instead, I’ll offer a nod of respect, then return my attention to my laptop. I’ll write until I understand why I use phrases like “predilection for pen monkeys,” then I’ll keep writing until I become the best version of the only person who can write like me.

Meanwhile, I’ll brush up on my Neil Gaiman impersonation. I mean, in case of future book signings. Because nothing makes fans go all a-quiver like a smart English accent.

 

*Pen Monkey is a term I discovered on writer/writing guru Chuck Wendig’s blog. He’s way smarter than I am and a far superior writer and blogger. What are you still doing here anyway? Go there. You don’t need me anymore. 

 

(How To) Listen to Everything

The best advice about how to be a better writer can be summed up in six words: Read a lot. Write a lot.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to writers. (Not because it’s a secret. I just didn’t keep track.) If you’re not doing both of those things, any other advice you might unearth as you wander this vast Internet wasteland won’t do you much good.

There are no shortcuts to “getting there” as a writer. By “there” I mean a place where your writing is distinct enough that readers want to read all your books, and compelling enough that they forget you exist between the first and last page.

But you didn’t come here to hear six words you already know. You came here for the Secret to Becoming a Best-Selling Author. (Really? Um…that’s someone else’s blog.) No, you came here for encouragement and commiseration and the occasional bit of accidental wisdom. Today’s attempt at all three can be summed up in a single word. (You already know what it is. You’re observant that way.)

Listen.

You want to be a better writer? You listen. To everything. Here’s how:

Listen to other writers. Read their copious books and blogs. Try their writing habits on for size. (Except that “getting up at 4 a.m. to write before the world awakes” thing. Seriously. That’s just insane.) There is no “one size fits all” system for writers. Learn what other writers are doing, then adopt only those things that work for you. Please note: This doesn’t mean you’re destined to write your own “How to Write” book someday. It’s okay if some writers don’t do that.

Listen to your characters. Well-written characters are a writer’s best friend. They can help solve just about any plot problem, given the chance to speak. Make sure your characters have permission to tell the truth, then trust them when they tell it. If you’ve painted yourself into a plot hole, ask for advice. If they don’t have any, it’s likely that your characters aren’t as well-written as you’d thought. Start there.

Listen to your critics. There are two kinds of critics in the world – those who love the sound of their own voice more than anything, and those who love the sound of a well-written story. The former are attention-seekers who don’t really care about your words. Most people would tell you to ignore them. That’s solid advice. But I think there’s some value in listening to them once in a while. Not because they have great wisdom (though they might), but because they can teach you something about the human condition; like for example, narcissism. Then you can use this when you craft characters for your next novel.

The other kind of critics deserve your full attention. When they say “I struggled with Mrs. Jenkins’ motivation for killing the penguin,” they’re telling you “I really wanted this to work, but it’s missing something.” These sorts of comments are not unlike the way baseball fans lean into fair territory as the potential winning home run arcs through the air toward the foul pole. Good criticism is leaning toward hoped-for results. These folks want you to succeed. Try leaning along with them to see what they see.

Listen to your mother. That’s usually good advice in general. But when it comes to your creative work, there’s still something to be said for listening to Mom (or other Family Member of Significance). Maybe your mom is an honest-even-if-it-hurts mom. Lucky you. Brace yourself, then listen. She might not have a lot of insight about the literary brilliance in your novel, but she probably knows a thing or two about you. Who knows, you might discover a flaw in your writing voice that only your mom could identify. (“It doesn’t sound like you. It’s much too happy.”)

Or maybe your mom is an I-love-everything-you-do mom who still has that handprint ashtray on the coffee table in the living room even though she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Take those glowing words about your crappy first draft for what they are: a sincere desire for you to be happy and successful. This is fuel for the soul. Burn it while you revise that crappy first draft.

Listen to your inner voice. I don’t mean the voices in your head. Nor do I mean the characters’ voices here. I’m talking about the little voice that says things like “that doesn’t seem to be working” or “that’s kind of the best thing you’ve ever written.” I’m talking about your writerly instincts. Note: Like most of these bullet points, this idea is closely tied to the original six words. The more you read and write, the better your instincts. Does that mean a day will come when you don’t need an editor? Um, probably not. But it does mean when that editor asks “what if you tried something like this?” you’ll be able to answer the query with confidence.

Listen to hope. Believe that you can do the impossible. Because you can.

Listen to despair. It’s okay to feel like a failure once in a while. Fighting that feeling just serves to prolong it. Be emotionally honest with yourself. Say it with me: “I suck as a writer.” Go ahead and compare yourself unfavorably with all the other writers. Just don’t stay here. Remember that you’re the only one who can write like you. Maybe that doesn’t feel like a good thing today (because you suck). But tomorrow? Tomorrow it will be a grace.

Listen to the wind. We live in a loud world. All those voices above (and many others) are constantly competing for your attention. Sometimes the best thing to listen to is…anything but those voices. Take a walk through the forest and bend your ear to the wind as it bends the branches to the earth. Skip rocks across a pond and count each slap of stone on water.  Play hopscotch with the neighbor kids and let their laughter soak your spirit. Stand on a busy street corner and embrace the chaotic rhythm of the workaday world as a kind of urban music.

Don’t think about your work in progress. Just take in the sounds and silences of the world around you. This may be exactly what your brain needs to sort through the current writing challenge: uninterrupted time for the subconscious to do its best work. But even if you don’t become a better writer by listening to the wind, at least you will have listened to the wind. And that will make you a better person.

Enough

My hair is mostly gray. I’m not young enough to engage in Twitter conversations with YA authors.

But not totally gray. I’m not old enough to be revered by them.

I write by the seat of my pants. I’m not degreed enough to talk shop with the MFA crowd.

I was raised in the church. But I’m no longer Christian enough for that culture, or the subculture of writers who are fighting to find their place in it.

I was married for a quarter century. I’ve been alone for nearly a decade. I’m not married enough to join you and your husband for dinner. I’m not single enough to find my tribe in a bar or a book club.

I’m not successful enough to make you want to be like me. I’m not handsome enough to catch your superficial eye. I’m not brilliant enough to write the novel that will make you fall in love with me.

I’m not prolific enough to overwhelm you. I’m not motivated enough to market what I’ve finished.

I’m not connected enough to call in favors. I’m not humble enough to learn from my mistakes. I’m not confident enough to make the mistakes I need to make.

I’m not a good enough writer to make you second-guess your decision to write. I’m not a bad enough writer to instill in you a feeling of well-deserved superiority.

My stories aren’t lyrical enough. Or direct enough. Or familiar enough. Or surprising enough.

I’m not sane enough to be someone’s anchor. I’m not insane enough to dangle my feet over the ledge.

I’m not polite enough to appease the easily-offended. I’m not profane enough to chat comfortably with the filter-less.

I’m not happy enough to make you want to be near me. I’m not sad enough…well, I might be sad enough for most things.

It’s all enough to make me want to quit. As a writer. (And sometimes as a human being.)

But then I remember the shadows with skin on. The characters I’ve found and the characters who’ve found me. Thomas Lingonberry, whose life is changed by a bomb, a girl, and distraction. Becky, who is so broken, so alone, so in need of a friend like Lindy. Or the girl in the tiger light who doesn’t want to remember the things she can’t forget. And all the other characters waiting in line for their stories to be told. Walter “Blue” Parkins. Pearl. Raspberry Lynette Granby.

And then I realize, I’m not only enough for them. I’m all they have.

In the worst moments, the loneliest moments when depression is lying to me and all I can see are the places where I’m not enough, the places where I don’t fit, I can believe they’re all I have, too.

I know that’s a lie. I have so much more. I’ll find my way back to remembering that, eventually.

But until then, they’ll be enough.

12 Ways to Fix the Boring Part

You have a brilliant opening paragraph. I mean Pulitzer Prize brilliant.*

But somewhere around page [insert number here], the story begins to drag. I mean dead-body-up-a-steep-hill drag. Never fear, I’m here to help. (Not with the body-dragging. I have a bad back.)

Step One: Get a 12-sided die. (Ask your table-gaming friend. If you casually refer to it as a d12 he’ll invite you to join him next Friday in his parents’ basement for a rousing game of Pokéthulhu. You’re welcome.)

Step Two: Roll the 12-sided die. Note the number.

Step Three: Choose the associated item from the Action List below and incorporate it into your novel.

Step Four: Enjoy your Pulitzer Prize.

Action List:

1 – Take something from your protagonist. I mean something he really cares about. Like his home. (Fires happen. Faulty wiring, mostly.) Or his mother. (Death happens. Like when fires happen.) Or his right hand. (Sith happens.)

2 – Incur God’s wrath. Send a tornado into the story. Or some other act of God, like a flood or a hurricane. Or Obamacare.**

3 – Reveal a deep dark secret. I don’t mean your deep dark secret (like the fact that you love Justin Bieber – I’ve seen your browser history), I mean your protagonist’s secret. Have one of her friends break her trust by telling a mutual friend about the skeleton in her closet. (It’s a squirrel skeleton wearing Barbie clothes. I can explain.)

4 – Cousin Oliver it. If you get the reference from that alone, you don’t need to read any further. If you don’t get the reference, Google it. Just make sure you Oliver it up in a believable way. Cousins rarely show up on your doorstep without good reason.

5 – Downsize. Look, your protagonist has been doing really well and all with the grave digging. I mean, when I look at those sharp lines and perfectly-defined spaces all I can think of is Frank Lloyd Wright. But he’s got to go. The cemetery can only keep one digger on staff and Barney has seniority.

6 – Get lost. Send your protagonist on a quest to get something mundane. Like a folding chair for the back porch. But have him go to an unfamiliar store in an unfamiliar part of town. Maybe he finds himself in the middle of a gang war. Maybe his car breaks down. Maybe he asks for directions at a gas station that’s being robbed. Or maybe he ends up on an island with a bunch of other people who don’t know how they got there.

7 – Find something. Have your protagonist uncover something unexpected while doing something mundane.  Like a corpse in the flower garden. Or a cache of love letters in the attic from a famous actor written to her mother. Or a doorway to a magical land in the back of the coat closet. Or a solid surface at the back of the coat closet that doesn’t lead anywhere at all.

8 – Get infected. Give your protagonist a disease. Something that comes on all of a sudden and really screws with his current plans. Preferably something that causes temporary blindness and/or paralysis.

9 – Drop a piano. Put your protagonist in the path of a random accident. Does he escape unscathed? I think it depends on the wind.

10 – Run. Give your protagonist a reason to leave right away. Maybe he owes a mobster lots of money and that mobster has just rung the doorbell. Maybe his house is on fire. (See #1 above.) Or maybe his planet about to be  destroyed by Vogon Constructor Ships.

11 – Mail a package. Send your protagonist something that will make him  get out of bed. A key to a storage locker. Or a map to a storage locker. Or a box of spiders.

12 – Go crazy. Mix your protagonist’s medications. Have a neighbor give him the wrong kind of mushrooms for his chicken marsala. Turn the neighbor’s stereo up to 11 while it’s playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on repeat.

 

*No, I haven’t actually seen your opening paragraph. It’s entirely possible it sucks. If it does you should probably fix it.

**Yes, it’s a cheap joke. But I enjoyed it and that’s what matters. For the record, Obamacare is the only reason I have health insurance today. I’m now fully covered for when the one-percenters invoke a plague to destroy the rest of us.

Next Table Please

The writer community is a lot like a high school cafeteria. Not because of the food (although your w.i.p. diet of Cheetos and Dr. Pepper does bring back fond and/or frightening adolescent memories), but because of the cliques. For the purpose of this blogpost, we’ll use a different term: Tables of Earned Privilege.

Chances are you’re sharing a Table of Earned Privilege with Writers of Similar Experience. Let’s say you’re a self-published author. I mean the kind who hires an editor and a cover designer and a copyeditor and cares enough to produce something of quality, not the kind who throws a first draft at Amazon and suddenly thinks himself the next Stephen King. (Those particular writers are sitting at a different table – the Table of Delusion. It’s in the Janitor’s closet.) You’re seated at the Making a Go Of It And I Really Mean It Table. Look around your table. See any traditionally-published A-list authors?

Hey, stay focused here. Your eyes are wandering. I get it, there are some really cool tables.

Like that one with all the pizza and wine. That’s the Hocking-Howey Table of Self-Publishing Success. (It’s a somewhat honorary title, since they both also have seats at another table I’ll describe in a moment, long after this metaphor has exceeded its sell-by date*.) They’re a good bunch of folks, eager to engage in writerly conversation. They were you once. But let’s be realistic – one of the reasons for their success is all the time they spend writing and editing and marketing. So if they don’t have time to chat, don’t fret. You can always visit their website or buy their “How I Made It” book to pick up a few tips. I don’t mean that snarkily. Many of these folks have really good advice.

Or look at that table with all the home-made food and a box or two of Chinese take-out. That’s the Barnes & Noble™ New Book Table of Mid-List Authors. They’re a kind-hearted, sincere, yet surprisingly anxious bunch. If you study them for a while, you’ll see them stealing glances at the Hocking-Howey table, wishing their personal budgets allowed for Pizza Whenever, too. They’ll chat with you if you tell them how much you love their books, or if you manage to say something clever and/or re-tweetably hilarious. But don’t expect to sit with them for long. There’s only so much room at the table. (“But it’s a huge table,” you argue. Yep. And yet they’re always one seat short. It’s like a perpetual game of musical chairs.) Besides, they feel most comfortable talking amongst themselves, sharing encouragement and contract horror stories while they pass the potatoes and scratch-made gravy. Keep watching, though. They’ll often wander off to visit another table. Yes,  the one you’re pretty sure is catered by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, though it might be Outback Steak House – it’s hard to tell from this distance.

That would be the Limited-Seating-Available Table of A-List Authors. Oh, they don’t call it that themselves. They’re mostly really nice people who don’t have much inclination to live up to their iconic status. The best ones are happy to wander around the cafeteria to chat when they have a rare, spare moment. They love writing and writers. But once again, there’s only so much time left for such things, what with the TED talks, the multitude of ancillary projects, the sold-out book signings, the month-long writing retreats in Bora Bora and the wistful moments staring across a mirror-still lake at twilight remembering what it was like to be anonymous.

Pretty much everyone in the cafeteria is a hardworking writer just like you. Some are more talented. Some are more prolific. Some just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But they aren’t jerks who would rather get a one-star review than be seen chatting at your table. (Well,  most of them, anyway.) They’re just doing the best they can with what they have, wherever they sit. So it shouldn’t be too disheartening when your tweet to an author who sits at a different table goes un-favorited, un-responded to.

Of course, it often is disheartening. We say we write because we love to write; that even if we never find success we’ll keep writing. But we say it while staring longingly across the cafeteria. We want to sit where the coolest** kids sit.

Maybe someday you will. But you won’t get there by staring longingly at them across the cafeteria. You’ll get there by writing. A lot. You’ll get there by engaging with other writers, no matter where they sit. You’ll get there because of your talent. Or your hard work. Or because you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you don’t? That’s okay too. Because Cheetos are delicious and all tables are suitable for writing. Yes, even the one in the janitor’s closet.

 

*I’m aware the table-lines aren’t so neatly drawn in reality. But I liked the metaphor. I’m a big fan of metaphors. Especially imperfect ones. They go nicely with my collection of incomplete thoughts and broken dreams. 

**Each of us has a unique definition of “coolest.” You might think the author who sells a quintillion novels is coolest. I might think the author who can burp the alphabet in Klingon is coolest. (Is that even possible?)