I Quit. Again.

There is a tiny flame that burns deep within a writer. A pilot light. In moments – some lingering, some fleeting – that pilot light sparks to life and becomes a furnace of ideas. Great books have been stitched together from such moments.

These are not sweet and beautiful moments. There are no butterflies whispering perfect words into your ears. There are no fairies singing songs of your literary brilliance. These are pain-filled moments where orcs threaten you with bodily harm and the flame itself threatens to incinerate your soul.

Your fingers fly across the keyboard not in delight, but chasing fire. You fear the unpredictable flame, as well you should, but the end of it more.

So you type and type and type and type and type like a rocking horse winner, praying that it will be a refining fire that melts away everything except the truth and not a conflagration that burns your city of ideas to the ground.

Without warning, it fades. It recedes. It dims. Your fingers slow. So too, your body, your brain, your belief in yourself.

Your hope.

The once-febrile world inside your head grows cold. Doubt thrives in the cold.

“You can’t heat a room with a pilot light,” it says.

“Just test the words in your mouth,” it tempts. “You know the ones.”

I quit.

(The words taste like ashes and rust. And oddly, like candy.)

Some have said that what defines a writer is an unavoidable compulsion to write. “I can’t not write,” they proclaim. But what if that’s a lie? What if you can quit?

What if you could close the laptop, put down the pen, and walk away. Go back to living in the moment instead of filing every observation away for future consideration by firelight.

It should be easy. Just say these two words. Recite this incantation. This promise.

I quit.

It would be so easy, but for the problem of sparks. They’re everywhere.

In a song

In a laugh

In a vacant look from the stranger who is watching you write a blogpost from across a crowded coffee shop

If you are a writer, your pilot light can not be extinguished. It will continue to burn, faint and blue. Waiting.

In a vacant look from the stranger…SPARK!

Damn. I was hoping it would stick this time.

I think I just un-quit.

“There are two kinds of ache in a writer’s life – the ache of writing and the ache of not writing. Pick one and live with it.” – Me

What If?

Usually it goes something like this:

What if I’m a terrible writer. Or (gasp) a truly average writer?

What if all the kind words people offer about my stories are nothing more than polite lies accompanied by fake smiles because they want to avoid hurting my feelings?

What if my dogged pursuit of traditional publishing is a fool’s errand? What if there are exactly zero literary agents interested in the kind of stories I write? What if the only thing I learn from querying is how poorly I handle rejection?

What if I self-publish and the book just sits there on the virtual shelf, impervious to my attempts to find an audience for it?

What if the book’s cover is all wrong? What if the marketing blurb sends people away with a shrug? What if people think it’s too expensive? Or too cheap?

What if readers hate the book and slap it with 1-star reviews? What if they find it bland and purposeless and don’t review it at all?

What if I run out of story ideas? What if all my stories just plain suck?

Or it could go something like this:

What if I’m actually a decent writer? Or maybe even a really good one?

What if I start to believe the nice things people say about my stories?

What if I learn to trust my writing voice on the first draft, and my re-writing voice on the second and third and fourth?

What if I accept the possibility that I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right literary agent, and reject the idea that my work isn’t good enough for traditional publishing?

What if the 1-star reviews don’t matter? What if I own the idea that I’m writing for the people who do get it and that this is more than enough?

What if readers fall in love with the characters, the plot, the words? What if my stories matter?

What if I’m a better writer than I think I am? What if I get better with every story?

What if I could trust the “what ifs” in the second half of this blog post more than those in the first, and still be thinking about them long after I’ve clicked out of cyberspace and returned to my writing reality?

I wonder what that would be like.

#amwaiting

When the language gods sat down at their very expensive polished maple conference table to decide which term to use for the art of putting words together to tell stories, “writing” wasn’t their first choice. “Bloodletting” actually had the most up-votes and was likely to get the nod. But then one of the lesser gods – the one everyone mistakenly called Vern – felt compelled to mention how similar “writing” was to “waiting,” which they’d already determined would mean “excruciatingly long pauses where nothing appeared to be happening.”

While he was publically showing his support for the already-popular idea of eliminating “writing” from contention, he was secretly hoping his observation might be clever enough to gain him a little status among his peers. But when the other gods noticed this similarity, they immediately changed their votes. They’d find another use for “bloodletting.” “Writing” was perfect, because, as the god known as Carl V. Clamphammer said, “Writing and waiting are intimately intertwined.” The other gods cheered and nodded and deemed it a done deal and Vern was hailed as a genius.

All this is true. Except the part about Vern being hailed as a genius. Ask any of the gods today and they’ll universally respond, “Who’s Vern?”

By this point, you’re probably wondering if I’m ever going to get to the point of the blogpost. Oh, I will. Eventually.

But first, let’s talk about bloodletting.

Okay. Fine. I’ll save that for another post.

This one is on…wait for it…

[Taps fingers on table.]

[Stares at clock on wall.]

[Goes online to try to understand Tumblr and find out where the missing “e” went.]

Writing and waiting. Carl V. had it right. If you’re a writer, you’re a waiter. (And yes, you might also be a waiter, but that’s not important, so ignore that six-top and rejoin me here at the point. Oh, and could you bring me some water? With lime, please. Thanks.)

Here are some of the ways a writer waits:

  • You wait for the computer to wake up from sleep.
  • You wait for inspiration.
  • You wait for the children to take a nap so you can wait for inspiration.
  • You wait for the Internet to stop offering you pictures of kittens knitting sweaters for their pet sloths.
  • You wait for feedback from your beta readers.
  • You wait for a response (or non-response) from literary agents.
  • You wait for your editor to get back to you with his notes. [Ed: Thanks for your patience.]
  • You wait for someone to buy your book.
  • You wait for the first five-star review.
  • You wait for the first one-star review.
  • You wait for someone to respond to the one-star review by telling the reviewer he should probably read the book before reviewing it.
  • You wait for writing elves to finish your novel while you sleep.
  • You wait for sleep that never comes because you’re worried that the writing elves might steal your idea and give it to James Patterson.
  • You wait for phone calls. Emails. Texts. Ideas. Words. Brilliance. Coffee. Wine. Hope.

There’s a lot of waiting in writing. But it doesn’t have to be an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening.” See, you can still write while you’re waiting. You can brainstorm the next book. You can come up with marketing ideas. You can argue with the voices in your head. You can crawl out of your bed and put on sweats and running shoes and pretend like one day of exercise will make up for the dozen donuts you ate yesterday while you were writing.

Waiting is a great time for pondering things. But here’s a tip – be sure to have paper and a pen (or a laptop, or a smart phone) nearby while you’re waiting. That plot problem you were struggling with? The answer will inevitably come to you while you’re waiting in line at the corner deli.

But it’s not like you have to fill every waiting moment with stuff. That’s insane. Please feel free to enjoy an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening” if that’s what you need. Sometimes doing nothing is exactly what you should be doing.

Then, when your nothing time is over, you can get back to waiting. I mean writing. I mean waiting. I mean writing. I mean…

Bloodletting might have been a better choice.

Thanks a lot, Vern.

This Isn’t an Abandoned Blog

The lack of recent posts is merely evidence that I’m ALL-CAPS VERY BUSY with editing work. [And all my clients said, “Amen.”] Oh, and also with a little fiction writing of my own. [And all my clients said, “You mean after you finish editing my novel, right?”]

I’ve already said lots of writerly things in this space. Feel free to skim the archives for writing tips and clevery-worded encouragement and a smattering of nonsense.

I’ll be back with a new post when Available Time and Having Something to Say intersect.

Meanwhile, write stuff.

How to Write Good Dialogue (Part Two)

My ancient (by Internet standards) post on “How to Write Good Dialogue” is inarguably the most popular of my bloggish renderings, based on search data anyway. (You probably preferred this one because you don’t like to follow the crowd. You’re the anti-hipster of hipsters.) It seemed prudent, then, to follow that up with another post on dialogue. [Checks date on previous post.] Yeah, I’m a little slow when it comes to prudence.

Anyway, here you go.

Wait…you read the other post, right? Well click here (or above where it’s also linked because I’m a linking fool) first. Then come back to this page for more dialogical goodness. [I don’t need to mention that there are exceptions to everything I tell you below, do I? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that without a reminder, right? Good. Then I won’t remind you.]

Look, Who’s Talking Now? – One of the most common dialogue problems I run into with first-time novelists is that all the characters sound alike. While this can appear to happen in real life (see: junior high girls), it doesn’t really. The words we choose to spit or drool from our lips differ from one person to the next (even among junior high girls). So does the rhythm of those words – the spaces between them. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t have many words to choose from. Some people use big words because they read a lot of books or found an abandoned thesaurus while waiting at the DMV. Our speech patterns are uniquely our own. Listen. No, I’m not saying that so you’ll pay closer attention to this blogpost. I’m encouraging you to actually listen to Real People in Conversation. Then apply what you’ve learned to your fiction. If you know your characters well (this is a theme I will never stop shouting), you’ll know how each of them uses language. Write that way. In the perfect written world, readers should be able to identify characters simply by their dialogue.

Are You Listening? – When a character is talking, the presumption is that the people they’re talking to are really listening. Because, of course, what your character is saying is Really Important to the Plot. But maybe they’re not listening quite so intently after all. Maybe they’re queuing up a response, unwilling to hear what the speaker is saying because what they have to say is so much more important. (This never happens in real life. Ahem.) Or maybe they’re distracted by something going on around them. (Despite how they might look on the page, conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. The world spins madly on.) Or maybe they’re actively ignoring the speaker, not because they have something more important to say, but because they simply don’t like the jerk. Consider how the characters are (or aren’t) listening, and you’ll naturally write more believable dialogue.

Context Rules – Don’t feed lines to your characters so they can tell the readers what is going on. That’s just lazy and rude. Use context to deliver the details that people wouldn’t naturally be talking about. Show me the red button that triggers the missiles. Don’t make the character say, “This is the red button that triggers the missiles” if everyone in the room already knows that. Whenever a character reveals something that he wouldn’t naturally say in conversation with the person he’s talking to, I am pushed out of the moment, forced to consider the possibility that these characters are pausing their story to talk directly to me. That’s just dumb. (Unless you’re using that perspective/voice as a literary device. But please, don’t do this unless you’re really a brilliant writer. Thanks.) Build context, then trust it.

I Know, Right? – Characters who know each other pre-exist that conversation on the page; they have a history together. They communicate (just like you do with people you know) in a kind of shorthand. Not everything is said – not everything needs to be said. When Bob says, “He’s dead, Jim,” to Bonnie, there’s no need to explain this to the reader. Let the characters have lives beyond the page. As above, allow context to give us enough to figure out the rest. Instead of writing “Bonnie smiled, remembering how Bob always used to watch Star Trek.” Have her respond with a smile and, “No, he’s only pining.” Don’t explain it. It’s their in-joke. Some readers will know the references, some won’t. That’s okay. What all readers will get from that exchange is that these two have history – they know each other in a way that can be seen in a simple, unexplained exchange.

Say Something, Anything – Or don’t. Dialogue isn’t just words; it’s also the things we don’t say, the pauses and the spaces and the awkward, echoing silence. Sometimes the best thing a character can say is nothing at all. Use this sparingly for greater effect, but don’t ignore the emotional power of wordlessness.

Stop Talking – Break up those dialogue scenes with compelling expository writing. Just as Big Blocks of Expository writing can weigh heavy on some readers (I often hesitate before buying a book that is comprised of unending blocks of unbroken text), so can conversations that go on for page after page after page. It’s not a conversation, it’s a novel. Conversation is a piece of that puzzle, not the whole thing. Mix it up.

Rants and Speechifying – Rants can be entertaining. They’re usually fueled by strong emotion, so they tend to reveal a lot about the Ranter. Speeches, on the other hand, are often boring. In fiction, speeches typically appear on the page when there’s Something Very Important to say. Fine. But before you give a character a long speech, make sure he’s the speechifying kind (know your characters), and make damn sure it’s reasonable in context. So many speeches spouted by characters end up sounding like the writer is preaching to the reader. I don’t want characters to preach to me. I want them to react honestly to the circumstances they’re facing. In my experience, speeches serve best as background noise for while you check your email. Rants, however – even wrong-minded rants, especially those – can be dangerous. Danger is good for fiction. Boredom? Not so much.

‘Nuff Said – There will come a time during a conversation when one or more of the people involved will run out of things to say. Unless that’s the point of the conversation, end it sooner. Do something interesting with exposition to keep the reader’s interest. There will also come a time when a character simply doesn’t know what to say. This may be because you don’t know your character all that well. (You know what to do.) Or perhaps it’s because the conversation has simply run its course. End it. Don’t drag on conversations just to fill a page.

Bonus advice: Don’t drag out blogposts, either.

“He’s dead, Jim.”