Category Archives: Meaningless Drivel

The Maybe (An Imaginary Conversation Between Writer and Editor)

Writer: Which is the better career – janitor or hairdresser?

Editor: I take it you got my editorial notes.

Writer: Yeah. So tell me. Which one?

Editor: You already have a job.

Writer: Humor me.

Editor: Hairdresser.

Writer: Wrong. Janitor.

Editor: I didn’t know there was a right answer.

Writer: Exactly! Do you see what I did there? You just fell into my segue trap.

Editor: You’re talking about my notes, aren’t you. Clever.

Writer: I know, right? So about those notes…

Editor: Which ones?

Writer: Well…all of them. But let’s start with the one that says “you show great promise.” That’s just another way of saying “you suck as a writer” isn’t it.

Editor: No. It’s just a way of saying you’re not “there” yet. That’s why I wrote the rest of the notes. I’m trying to help you find your way.

Writer: Where exactly is “there”?

Editor: There? That’s the place where an agent reading your manuscript shouts “Yes!” so loudly she scares one of the nine lives out of the office cat.

Writer: Okay. So you think I’m not there yet. I get that. Are you saying I should self-publish?

Editor: No. I’m not saying that at all. If you want to do that, fine. But even if you choose to self-publish, you still want to go to “there.”

Writer: I thought I was nearly there until I saw your notes.

Editor: “Nearly” is an interesting word choice. Lots of authors are “nearly” there. So many, in fact, that you really can’t tell one from the next. Do you see how that creates a problem for agents?

Writer: I guess. But if I’m nearly there, why do I feel like such a failure after reading all your notes?

Editor: Blame The Maybe.

Writer: The what?

Editor: The Maybe. Tell me, why do you write?

Writer: Because I like writing.

Editor: You don’t need me for that. Why did you hire an editor?

Writer: Because I want to be published. Someday.

Editor: Right. What makes you think you’re worthy of being published. Someday.

Writer: I don’t know. I guess I hoped that maybe…

Editor: Stop there. See The Maybe? When you came to me, you were standing on the sunny side of The Maybe. That’s the side where hope lives. It’s a pretty great place. The possibilities are endless. Maybe you’ll be the next Stephen King. Maybe your novel will be as popular as The Hunger Games. Or maybe you’ll find just enough readers to write full time, even if you never reach the bestsellers list.

Writer: Is it so wrong to hope?

Editor: Absolutely not. But you were asking me why you felt like a failure, remember? Here’s why: when you saw you had work to do, you stepped to the dark side of The Maybe. That’s where doubt rules. Suddenly you’re thinking “Maybe I can’t write after all,” or “Maybe I’ll never reach my dream of being traditionally published.”

Writer: When I got your notes, I was still pretty pumped. I do want to be a better writer. But then…you really like the color red don’t you.

Editor: You’re speaking metaphorically.

Writer: Yes.

Editor: It’s a strong metaphor, well-matched to the moment, and you didn’t follow it up with unnecessary explanation.

Writer: You’re giving me a writing lesson right now, aren’t you.

Editor: Yes.

Writer: So you think I can do this? You think I can get “there” from here?

Editor: I think that’s mostly up to you. How are you at paradoxes?

Writer: At writing them?

Editor: At living them. A successful writing life is all about paradox. You have to be okay holding confidence and uncertainty at the same time. Then there are the publishing twins: idealism and realism. Love and hate? That’s the definition of writing in three words. If you can’t live in paradox, the writing life isn’t for you. Can you do that? Can you be patient and eager at the same time?

Writer: Maybe.

Editor: Which side of The Maybe was that?

Writer: The sunny side.

Editor: Putting off your career change, then?

Writer: For a little while longer. Yeah.

Editor: Good. Because I was lying before. You wouldn’t make a good hairdresser.

Writer: Why not?

Editor: You don’t know the first thing about cutting. Yet.

Writer: That’s a segue, isn’t it.

Editor: Yes.

Acknowledgments

According to Degree of Difficulty, it’s right up there with the first sentence of your novel, the query/love letter to your agent-crush, and the recommendation letter for that former employee who slept with your husband but really is a damn good accountant and shouldn’t be denied a job just because she’s a horrible waste of skin.

I’m talking about the dreaded Acknowledgments page.

I’m here to save you some pain. Because that’s what the courts tell me I have to do in order to compensate for all the damage I do as editor. (It was either this, or work at a morgue. But I’m afraid of…wait for it…Lindsay Lohan.)

The Acknowledgments page may be the greatest work of fiction you’ll ever write. To make it easier for you, I’ve provided a template below. Simply replace the bracketed descriptions with the appropriate info, then send this to your publisher mere minutes before your book goes to press. You don’t want to send it too early because at least three people you’ve thought about listing will say something stupid and lose their thank-worthiness between the deadline your editor gives you and the last possible moment you can actually turn it in (which is just after the publisher says, “We’re going with ‘I’d like to thank Kanye West and God’ if you don’t send the information in the next five minutes”).

So, here. And you’re welcome. And please sign my time sheet so I can count this toward my community service.

Acknowledgments

Wow, what a ride. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the help I got from the great team at [name of publisher], including [list of people you don't know personally who apparently had something to do with the production of the book, like the cover artist, copyeditor, proofreader, coffee monkey, that creepy guy with the blue goatee  from the marketing department]. Gosh, guys – you’re all the best!

I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my [mother; father; spermbank; alien host]. Thanks for [birthing me; empowering me; locking me in a closet for seventeen years so I'd have plenty to write about]. I’m proud to be called your [son; daughter; demon spawn; alleged murderer].

Thanks also to my writing group friends, [list only those people who said nice things about your book and not that woman who said it was like Twilight only not as well-written]. Your [hard work; encouragement; hopelessness as writers] inspires me.

This book would be [marginally readable; ten times as good; like Twilight only not as well-written] if it weren’t for the tireless work of my editor, [editor's name goes here]. I still think you’re wrong about [deleting the prologue; changing the POV; re-writing the entire novel in your voice]. Just kidding. All your advice was brilliant. You deserve a [raise; vacation; bloodletting].

What can I say about my agent, [agent's name goes here]? No really, what can I say [that captures the magnitude of thanks I owe him/her; that is defensible in court]? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Then, of course, there is the one person who not only believed in me, but also endured my [late nights; whining; lack of personal hygiene; constant swearing]. I’m talking, of course, about my [spouse; significant other; puppet-master; imaginary childhood friend]. You are [the yin to my yang; the moon and a million stars; the reason I wake up in the morning; the reason I drink]. This book is for you.

To all my readers – past, present and future – I love all of you more than [Downton Abbey; Nutella; the Downton Abbey episode where everyone was eating Nutella; Rob Lowe; that feeling you get when you're about to be stabbed].

Above all, thanks be to [God, Buddha, Aslan, Kanye West, my cleverly-named dog Hemingway].

Impractical Magic

There is no magic formula, no conjuring spell. No eye of newt, and toe of frog. No wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

Oh, you’ll find a few who would claim otherwise – people quick to sell you the secrets to a guaranteed bestseller. But they are charlatans. Or fools.

There is no such thing as a magic formula for a guaranteed bestseller.

You can’t reverse-engineer J. K. Rowling’s books, find out what makes them tick, then build a better Hagrid. You can’t boil Hunger Games down to the bones then wrap new, equally tempting skin on it.

The secret of a bestselling book is mostly invisible, organic, unpredictable; a creeping vine that winds through the words then burrows under a reader’s skin and wraps around the heart. It’s a thing that never quite reveals itself, proving its existence only by the trail of impossibly enthralled evangelists left in its wake.

Of course, this doesn’t stop writers and editors and publishers and pundits from trying to define its shape. And why not? We all want it – even those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.”

We want people to love our words. We want people to buy our books. Not because we’re particularly greedy. (We’ll only buy one Tuscan villa.) But because we want our stories to matter. To resonate. To change people. To inspire people.

And, yeah, to pay the bills so we have time and inclination to write more books.

There is no magic forumla for success.

There is, however, magic.

It appears unexpected. In a sentence that brings a gasp. In a twist that spins you dizzy. In the spark and crackle between words, the infinite ache below them, the impossible buzz above.

It’s what happens when the characters suddenly become real, when the plot takes on a life of its own. It’s the surprise that draws us closer to the monitor, unsure what just happened but longing for more.

It’s the root of that creeping invisible vine and we wants it, my precious.

So we chase it. We try to understand it. Corral it. Analyze it. Engineer it.

Sigh. Will we ever learn?

A writer can’t invoke magic. Story is its only enchanter.

And that, my friends, is the end of the post.

Yes, really.

What were you expecting? A formula? Sigh. Okay, try this: the better the storyteller, the more the magic; the more the magic, the happier the readers; the happier the readers, the more likely they’ll become impossibly enthralled evangelists. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

Now go out there and become a better storyteller. In case you’re wondering it’s a simple three-step process:

Read. Write. Repeat.

Have a nice day.

How Do You Know You’re Growing as a Writer?

I’m not sure how to open this post. I thought about playing the simile card and saying something about how becoming a better writer is a lot like becoming a better other thing – a better architect, a better juggler, a better OPI color namer, a better human. That would have been entirely true. And entirely boring.

I also considered manufacturing a conversation between a beginning writer and a seasoned writer that could foreshadow the post’s inevitable wisdom. I probably would have included an exchange like this:

Seasoned Writer: I’m told you want to know how I got to be me.

Beginning Writer: Yes. Tell me what to do, oh wise sage.

Seasoned Writer: Was that sarcasm?

Beginning Writer: Sarcasm? I’m not sure what you mean.

Seasoned Writer: Never mind. You want to know how to grow as a writer.

Beginning Writer: Yes, master.

Seasoned Writer: First of all, stop attributing wisdom to someone just because he’s older. Secondly, learn sarcasm. But most of all, read a lot and write a lot.

Beginning Writer: That’s it?

Seasoned Writer: Yup.

Beginning Writer: It’s that simple?

Seasoned Writer: Who said anything about it being simple? If it were simple, writers wouldn’t feel compelled to add one more thing to this list.

Beginning Writer: One more thing? There’s another thing to do? Tell me. I want to do it. What is it?

Seasoned Writer: Drink a lot.

But that sort of opening would have a 70 percent chance of inviting the eye-roll twins of obviousness and pretentiousness.

So instead, I’ll skip the meaningless drivel and get right to a list of things that answers the question posed by the post title. Here, then, is some meaningful drivel. I mean here are some clues that let you know you’re growing as a writer.

  • You are finally beginning to understand why some of your writer-friends enter a meditative state of humble reverence whenever the name Marilynne Robinson is mentioned.
  • You recognize your progression from careless adverb abuser to adamant adverb hater to champion of whatever word works best even if it’s an adverb.
  • You remove the pins from the voodoo doll that bears a striking resemblance to your editor and start dressing it in only mildly embarrassing outfits borrowed from your daughter’s Barbie collection.
  • You know when you’ve written a brilliant sentence and this knowledge brings a moment of pure pleasure that quickly morphs into something resembling abject terror.
  • Your mother/husband/bff unintentionally reveals what she/he thought about all your previous writing when commenting with unchecked surprise about your newest work, “You wrote this? Really?”
  • You’re reading fewer “how to write” books and blogs, not because you exhausted them all (you tried) but because you find that these days you’re learning more simply by reading great fiction.
  • You thought about starting a writing blog because you want to help other fledgling authors but then scrapped the idea because you’d rather be writing your novel and, really, how much time is there in a day?
  • You notice beginner mistakes in published works and, after a moment to decry the sorry state of traditional publishing, find yourself wondering if “smugness” is really so terrible a thing to feel after all.
  • You embrace the revision process not because you read somewhere that you’re supposed to but because you know it’s necessary.
  • You’ve gained ten pounds and can rightly blame five of those on the siren’s call of your laptop. (Feel free to blame the other five on the donuts.)
  • You’ve traveled from “truly inspired by” through “totally depressed by” to “often challenged by” another author’s brilliant writing.
  • You have a love/hate relationship with everything you write and welcome this as the necessary push and pull of critical thinking.
  • You look back at your early writing and convulse in laughter.
  • You look at your current writing and know that someday you’ll look back on it and not convulse in laughter so much as smile a knowing smile.
  • You have no idea where your thesaurus went and you don’t care.
  • You’ve stopped saying “I want to be a writer.”

Your Book Reviews Are In

I’ve been to the future. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Quintuple-stuff Oreos. The reanimation of Walt Disney*. Laundry robots. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

And the reviews for your novel. No, not the one you’re writing now, the next one. The one you’re certain is the best possible work you could ever do. (Wait, don’t scrap the one you’re currently writing. It’s the best possible work you could ever do. For now.)

The Time Lords wouldn’t let me bring back a laundry robot, but they couldn’t stop me from memorizing what people will say about your novel. Here are just a few of the reviews. Most came from Amazon.com. Yeah, they totally own the future. I can’t tell you more or they’ll suspend my Kindle-reading privileges in the now.

_________

[Five Stars] Brilliant!!!! The best book I’ve read in like, forever!! I mean it, seriously. The plot is perfect. The characters are perfect. The font is perfect. It’s like, if Twilight (remember that?) had been written by Hemingway or Steinway or whatever that guy’s name was. It is totally. That. Good. Buy it. Right now. Did I mention how brilliant this book is?

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by a total stranger who said I could keep it only if I promised to give a totally unbiased review. I’m pretty sure “unbiased” means “really positive.” But if I got that wrong, well, then I’d probably rate it three stars. I didn’t like the font that much.

 

[One Star] Don’t. Bother. The characters were thinner than the paper books used to be printed on. The plot has a hole bigger than the one in the ozone layer. (And that’s really big, because this is the future and the ozone layer is practically depleted.) I really wanted to give the book a chance because of all the “unbiased” five-star reviews, but apparently all these five-star reviewers think “un-biased” means “totally inaccurate and obnoxiously hyperbolic.” Check out this excerpt from page 49:

She grabbed the wheel from Jack and held on like she’d invented it.

I mean…seriously? Who writes this crap? I’d have given this zero stars, but I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge the hard work of writing a book. The author probably gave up an entire November to write it. One star for commitment. Zero for content.

 

[Four Stars] Loved this book. After a strong start (the scene by the newspaper kiosk was perfect), I was completely taken by Hannah and Jack. They reminded me of my real life story (apart from Hannah killing her father and all the time-traveling, of course). When Hannah lost Jack the third time my heart started racing and I just had to check and see what percentage of the book I’d read. I was praying there was at least another ten percent – enough for Jack to come back. Thankfully, I was only at 83 percent. The next seven percent or so was probably the weakest part of the story, but the last ten percent? Totally worth it. I can only hope this wasn’t the best possible work the author ever will do. I want more. Oh, and I almost forgot: spoiler alert.

 

[Zero Stars] The file I got was all screwed up. I couldn’t even read it. Digital books suck.

 

[Three Stars ] Solid, if unspectacular novel. I mean, it was good for what it is – a time-traveling love story. But nothing will ever be as good as The Time Traveler’s Wife. While this one might have had fewer factual errors (everyone knows you can’t meet yourself in the past – that just screws everything up), the characters didn’t do it for me. I believed Jack’s story, but Hannah seemed more like a petulant child than a heartbroken lover. The action scenes are great, though. The author really knows her way around Union Station. I felt like I was right there. Overall, it was a decent escape, worth the price of digital but definitely not one I’d get in heirloom paper.

 

[Five Stars] Best book I’ve ever read. And I don’t even like time-traveling romances!

Disclaimer: I’m the author’s mother. She’s almost exactly like the character Hannah. Apart from the time traveling, of course. Her father would have been proud. We miss him.

 

[Two Stars] I haven’t read it yet, but from what I hear, it’s like Twilight except without vampires or werewolves. So what’s the point?

 

[Four Stars] Actually, four and a half stars. Wonderful story. Creative plot. Characters I actually care about. What else could a reader want? It did get bogged down in unnecessary details at about the halfway point, but I can accept a little Crichton-ization if the overal story is compelling. This one is. And the writing? Check this sentence out:

She grabbed the wheel from Jack and held on like she’d invented it.

I dare you not to fall in love with Hannah.

Highly recommended.

_________

 You’re welcome.


*Walt was visibly upset when told about Disney’s purchase of Miramax but calmed down after he learned about Pixar.