Category Archives: General

You

Sit down. No, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t about dangling too many participles or ending sentences with prepositions. It’s not about your premise or your plot. It’s not about your characters (they’re all really very lovely). And it’s not about your craft.

You want what? A drink? Sure. What would you like? I have tea and coffee and…

Really? This early? How about just the orange juice without the vodka?

Okay, where was I? Oh, right. You’re a good writer. Your novel is competent, smart and entertaining. You’ve obviously read lots of books on how to write. I bet you read all the really popular agent and editor blogs, too.

But…

Hmm? Yes, you can move to the couch if you want. No, I don’t have any Xanax.

Like I was saying, your novel is good, but it’s missing something.

Yes, I know, I know. You’ve labored on this for months. You’ve poured every available minute into the writing and the re-writing. Your husband thinks you’re having an affair with someone named Strunk N. White. Your kids are wondering what a “crit group” is and where to find one and do they really need more feedback on their two-paragraph “what I did last summer” essays anyway? And your dog, Pulitzer, is afraid to ask to go for a walk because, apparently, his whimper sounds excessively adverbial and this causes you to scowl like Stephen King and it makes him nervous when you scowl like Stephen King.

No, you haven’t wasted your time. All that study has paid off. Surely you can see how you’ve improved. And if not? Go back and look at the first story you ever wrote. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed. You should be, too.

But your novel is still missing something. Something really important.

It’s missing you.

You’re looking rather pale. Maybe you should lie down.

Let me say again – you’re a good writer. I’ve seen manuscripts from contracted novelists that aren’t as well-written as yours.

Good. You’re getting some color back. You were making me nervous there for a moment. I’m not trained in CPR.

It’s quite possible that your novel is good enough to capture the interest of a good literary agent. And maybe even good enough to get published someday. Of course, that could take a while. You know how tough it is for writers to break through. Of course you do, that’s why you’ve been so diligent at the craft and so dedicated to learning the business.

Maybe persistence and patience are all you need at this point.

But I can’t help wondering about that “missing something.” Where are you in your novel? Where’s the smart, slightly snarky writer whose email correspondence always makes me smile? Where’s the clever wordplay? The knowing smile? The arresting blend of confidence and vulnerability that I think of every time I think of you?

All that great writing advice might have kept you off the page. I like you. I like the way you think. I think readers would like you, too. And if you found you – if your novel had more of you in it – I believe that might just bump your manuscript from the “good enough to be published” pile into the “wow, I love this!” pile on an agent’s desk.

Ah, yes, that’s the million dollar question. And there’s no easy answer. I’d suggest these three steps:

  1. Let the manuscript sit. Don’t obsess over it. Forget about it and do something else for a while.
  2. Stop reading “how to write” books and websites. Instead, read novels. Good ones by authors you admire. Fresh ones by authors you’ve never met.
  3. When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Be you.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. And if you find you’re still struggling, start another novel. Yes. From the beginning. The more you write, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the page. When you do, you’ll not only be “good enough to be published” – you’ll be the only person who writes like you.

That’s the book I really want to read.

Yours.

Yes, you can have the vodka now.

Stuck In the Middle

For some, it happens around the 30,000th word. The lucky ones make it to 40 or 50K before they start to wade through it. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, the dreaded Middle of Uncertainty. (Okay, no one really calls it that. I just made it up because it sounds imposing).

Just what is the Middle of Uncertainty? Well, it’s a lot of things, but in the simplest of terms, it’s that place where you start to lose hope/interest/momentum in this novel that you were certain was going to be a beautiful saga of love, loss, redemption and werewolves.

It’s the place where you’re suddenly stymied. Stuck. Or perhaps worst of all, beginning to fear that the rest of the book won’t live up to the first pages. Oh, and sometimes? You don’t realize you have a Middle of Uncertainty until the whole damn book is written and you’re starting work on your second draft.

Not every writer struggles with the Middle of Uncertainty. Some feel practically giddy when they hit the midpoint, then frolic to the finish line without the least bit of gastric or career distress. (We hates them, we does.) But most writers I know struggle here.

There are two main reasons for this struggle, and it’s important to know which is your root cause before you try to fix it.

The first? Writer fatigue. This is all about you. You’ll know this is the root cause when you start to write metaphors and similes that are as weak as other things that are weak. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. And you don’t notice even after reading and re-reading the paragraph six times. Sometimes this happens when you sit too long in the same place. Sometimes it happens when you try to write after a long, long, long, long day. Sometimes it happens when you’re feeling the pressure of a deadline.

The solution to writer fatigue is simple: take a break. I mean it. Stop writing. Writer fatigue isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block. After all, you do have an amazing plot worked out for the story, right? Of course you do. That’s why writer fatigue is so frustrating. You know exactly where you’re going, but you just can’t get there from here.

Here’s the best way to fix it: do something that doesn’t involve writing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. Bake cookies. (Preferably thick, cake-like chocolate chip cookies.) Mail those cookies to your favorite noveldoctor. Run a marathon. Borrow your son’s Legos and build a scale model replica of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

Just leave the laptop alone for a while. I don’t mean ten minutes. I mean a day. Or two. (Yes, even if that deadline is looming. Your editor doesn’t want a crappy book on time. She wants a great book. On time. Or maybe two days late if you call and ask really nicely.) Then, just before you sit down to write again, think about the critical plot points that are yet to come. If they don’t shout at you and command your pen to paper so you can get there and then onto the big finale, well, you might need a longer break. Or…you might be suffering from the other reason for the middling struggle:

The broken story.

This is all about the work. It’s quite possible your book has no middle. Or no good one anyway. The beginning? You’ve got that down. And the ending is so perfect, anyone who invested six years in “Lost” will weep with joy when they read it. But that middle-to-end stuff? You don’t know what to write. Or maybe what you already wrote just isn’t working.

Try these second-half ideas:

  • Raise the stakes. Make the protagonist’s journey more dangerous. Don’t make it easy for the protagonist to get to the ending you know is coming. If the path is too clearly laid out, the reader will finish the book long before the final page.
  • Set a major obstacle in front of your protagonist. Kill his hopes. Kill his career. Kill his dog if you have to.
  • Stretch your protagonist. Push him to places he hasn’t yet gone, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • Send your protagonist on a quest that seems to pull him in the opposite direction from his goal.
  • Give the subplots their due. Remember when you locked uncle Sal in the insane asylum back in chapter three? Maybe it’s time he escapes. Or gets a visit from the protagonist.
  • Check your pacing. Does the action slow to a crawl in the second half after a blistering first half? Maybe you need to mix that up a bit more. Vary the rhythm to keep the readers’ interest.
  • Reveal more secrets. If everything is out in the open by the midpoint, readers won’t have anything left to discover along the road to the ending. Everyone has one more secret. Your character just hasn’t told you about it. Yet.

And heed these warnings:

  • Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. Readers have good memories. Stop rehashing the fact that Becky is a loner with a drinking problem. We know this. Give her something new to do.
  • Don’t introduce a new plot element that goes against the story’s logic or “rules” just to mix things up. Readers will stop trusting you. Then they’ll stop reading.
  • Similarly, don’t introduce a new character late in the story who suddenly has a key plot role. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but readers will find it hard to swallow when a mysterious woman in black lands on the page just in time to save the hero, then disappears again because that was her only reason to be there.
  • Don’t fill the space with flashbacks. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but the second half of your book has to do more than maintain interest, it has to propel readers to the end with purpose. A bunch of “remember when” content will usually drag the story to a halt. Keep the tension high.

Of course, you could just read a good book on plot and structure like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and do what he says. That would work, too.

Here’s the bottom line, writer-friends: The middle of your novel can’t be the boring part. Know which part can be the boring part? None of it. Sorry, there’s no “coasting” in a good novel. And there’s definitely no place for filler.

No one ever said writing was easy. Actually, someone probably did say that. But he was being sarcastic.

Write well.

Thief of Something

I am a thief.

There, I said it. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using my blog as a confessional. I feel so much better now.

Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I feel about the same as before. Except maybe a little guilty about pretending those four words assuaged some deep-seated guilt. Trust me, my guilt is almost always seated near the surface, like algae.

Also? This blogpost isn’t about stealing.

You probably shouldn’t trust anything I say from here forward.

Except, maybe, these lessons I’ve recently discovered (some for the hundredth time) in my role as a freelance editor of fiction:

  • Pet words and phrases that are used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again can make an author look far less skilled than she actually is. Please note: writers are often blind to these tendencies. Thus, editors.
  • “People who get all creative with dialogue attributions make me want to ban the thesaurus as a writing tool,” he burped. “Seriously, folks, ‘said’ is fine most of the time,” he hiccuped. “Sometimes you don’t need anything at all if it’s clear who’s speaking,” he reiterated with an annoyingly unnecessary attribution.
  • Christian fiction is allergic to the word “nipple” and it doesn’t matter if that nipple belongs to a woman or a man or, presumably, a pipe fitting.
  • Since publishers usually work with a tight schedule (and also because it’s the right thing to do, professionally), writers should never miss a deadline. However, no one will be celebrating if you meet that deadline with an unfinished, sub-par, plot-hole-filled manuscript. Obvious takeaway lesson here: Frequent, honest communication with your editor is critical to having a successful writing career.
  • You know those books you’ve read that have terribly unsatisfying endings? See note above.
  • If you can’t imagine how the protagonist of your novel would act after waiting in a long line at a packed Starbucks only to being informed by a surly barista, “we’re out of coffee,” then it’s quite possible you haven’t sufficiently developed your protagonist’s personality.
  • Showing vs. telling is still one of the greatest challenges for writers. But I’m finding that it’s equally challenging for writers to tell a story without resorting to flashbacks. I’m not a flashback hater. Sometimes a flashback is necessary. Sometimes a flashback works fine. It certainly is a convenient way to impart information. But is it the best way to tell that piece of the story? Before stamping a flashback scene with “It is finished,” consider other ways to reveal the critical info to readers.
  • A subplot that suddenly goes away is like a buffet that’s out of teriyaki chicken when you were just beginning to think how nicely that teriyaki chicken would complement your fourth helping of shrimp fried rice. Subplots that serve no purpose might as well not be on the buffet in the first place. (Just pretend the metaphor works, okay? Thanks.)
  • On a related note, subplots don’t need to be neatly tied up by the last page, but they ought to at least point toward appropriate resolutions.
  • If your monkey can’t fly on page 7, your novel demands that you develop a believable argument between pages 7 and 212 for why he can fly on page 213. For the record: “because that’s what the plot needs” isn’t good enough.

Guess what? If you’ve read this far, my opening line isn’t a lie after all. I stole some of your time.

And I’m not giving it back.

Have a nice day.

The Blinking* Cursor

You know how it goes. You follow your inspired muse to the page and start writing and everything’s going great, then 1000 words in, you hit a wall. A big fat concrete wall with barbed wire strung across the top. Maybe the wall is a plot hole. Maybe it’s a character who is suddenly acting out of character. Or maybe you’re just really, really tired because you stayed up all night reading Anna Karenina so you can honestly say “Yes, I’ve read Anna Karenina” should anyone in your writers’ group ask if you’ve read Anna Karenina because that’s the sort of thing you imagine writers in writers’ groups ask whenever there is a lull in the conversation and you’re certainly expecting lulls at the next meeting because you’ve been asked to read an excerpt from your incredibly boring work in progress.

So what do you do when you hit a wall? Well, the best advice I’ve ever heard is this: change your environment. Get up out of your chair. Run the washing machine again since you forgot to put the washed load in the dryer last night (blame Anna) and the laundry is smelling more like Mountain Man than Mountain Spring. Pick up a book and read a chapter. Walk the dog. Walk the ferret. Walk the goldfish. Re-introduce yourself to your children. Pick lint off your significant other’s sweater. Knit a sweater. Go for a run. Call your mother. Kiss your spouse. Kiss your neighbor. Chase a rabbit. Eat a cookie.

Just do something other than stare at the blinking cursor.

This is excellent advice. Yes, there are some writers who can bore a hole through any writing wall with sheer determination (usually prompted by a looming deadline of “yesterday”). But most of us aren’t Cylopsian like that and we hate those people anyway so instead we must get up out of the chair.

I don’t know the science behind it, but apparently when we walk away and do something totally unrelated to the problem at hand, the brain feels emotionally secure enough to back up and re-consider the problem from a different perspective. (This is sort of like what happens when you’re trying to remember the name of that movie – you know, the one with that actor who did that other movie with that actress – and you can’t for the life of you remember it no matter how squinty your eyes or how furrowed your brow, but then it comes to you three days later during the silent prayer time at church and you’re so excited that you accidentally blurt “What Dreams May Come!” really loud and a split-second later as you re-play your prayerful exclamation you realize you might have pronounced “What” as “Wet” and no wonder people don’t invite you over for dinner after church.)

I run into walls a lot. (Insert Toyota joke here.) Want to know how I deal with walls? Do I flip down my Scott Summers sunglasses and burn a hole through the concrete? Nope. So that must mean I get out of my chair and do something else, right? Um…no.

I stare at the blinking* cursor.

I might still try to write, but it only takes a few keystrokes to discover that I’m facing one of those Escape from New York walls you can’t get over without Snake Plissken’s help and Snake’s retired, so good luck with that.

So instead? I just stare at that blinking* cursor.

Three hours later, I get up out of my chair and declare myself a complete failure as a writer, having added nothing to my novel except an impenetrable obstacle that fittingly resembles a very wide, very tall tombstone.

Here is where I’m supposed to spin this unflattering picture of the writer’s life into some kind of inspirational lesson. Um. Nope. Can’t do it.

Because sometimes writing is impossible. Sometimes trying to put a word on the page is like trying to staple a wasp to a jackrabbit. And sometimes, you waste hours of your life staring at a blinking* cursor.

I’m sorry smelly laundry. I’m sorry obese ferret. I’m sorry neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale**. I suck.

What can I say? I’m a writer.

*Please feel free to replace the asterisked instances of “blinking” with your favorite swear word. I did.

**No, I don’t have a neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale. But this is my blog and my daydream so I can pretend whatever I want. Like right now? I’m pretending that Kate Beckinsale’s people will happen upon this post during routine “checking for unflattering web content” Googling and decide it would be great PR if she were to suddenly show up in Colorado and invite me out to dinner where I’d be happy just to listen to her talk in that sexy English accent even with her mouth full of P.F. Changs’ Oolong Marinated Sea Bass.

7 Writing Myths I Just Made Up So I Could Debunk Them

Yes, there are lots of actual writing and publishing myths out there worthy of review. But everyone else writes about those. Surely you’ve stumbled across a post or two debunking such common myths as “literary agents are out to kill your writing dreams” and “first-time novelists don’t have a chance in hell of getting published.”

You don’t need yet another post about those myths, do you? No, you don’t. What you do need is this post in which I make up some writing and publishing myths of my own. Just so I can debunk them.

Isn’t this more fun anyway?

Oh, and I might have tried to stuff some actual helpful advice in this nonsense. I say this only because if you learn something, I want it to seem like I planned that all along.

The Myth: If you misuse “its” and “it’s” in your manuscript, you’re screwed. No one will represent you. Not even really bad agents.

The Debunking: While it’s true that agents tend to prefer writers who know basic grammar skills, a beautifully-told tale with a compelling author voice and commercial potential is usually enough to make them forget the fact that you can’t spell “pulchritude.”

The Myth: If you pitch an agent the same book more than once with the argument “I fixed all the stuff that was wrong last time,” they’ll put a curse on you and you’ll never get published.

The Debunking: Not true. You’ll probably need to look for a different agent, but just because the one you’ve been annoying isn’t interested in your much-improved novel doesn’t mean it’s unpublishable. And while it is technically true that some agents still place curses on writers, most these days merely block your email address.

The Myth: There is a higher incidence of liver failure in writers.

The Debunking: Actually, this one is true.

The Myth: If your novel includes vampires, portals or sullen teenagers who’ve recently lost a parent and are having a hard time coping and so they turn to drugs or cutting or sleeping around until one day they are awakened by the epiphany that “life is hard – just deal with it,” agents will draw a big red “x” across your manuscript (virtually, of course, because a Sharpie would really screw up their computer monitor) and reject your proposal out of hand.

The Debunking: If you’ve found a unique way to write about vampires or portals or sullen teenagers, you might just get representation. Here’s the deal: while it’s stupid and naive to follow trends in order to get a publishing deal, if you tell a good story that just so happens to also be a trending topic or theme, you’ll still have a shot at being noticed.

The Myth: All first novels are essentially autobiographical.

The Debunking: Well, that would explain why Stephen King is so creepy. But, no. Not all. Just most.

The Myth: If you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer, every article about you will refer to this behavior in a way that makes you look like a self-important jerk.

The Debunking: Nope. But if you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer and you make a point to tell everyone you meet that this is the way real writers write, then every article about you will (quite rightly) refer to this behavior in a way that make you look like a self-important jerk.

The Myth: Only crappy books are getting published and that’s why your book hasn’t been snatched up by an agent yet.

The Debunking: Both crappy books and great books are being published and the jury is still out as to which category yours falls under.

There you go.

You’re welcome.

Have a nice day.