Category Archives: The Writer’s Life

(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.

Exercising the Why

Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop. I think we can all agree that’s a reasonable assumption.

A four-year-old girl walks up to you. She’s a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes and a surprisingly accurate sixth sense about strangers. She knows you’re the non-dangerous type, despite the army of wrinkle-lines marching across your face while you sort through a particularly tricky plot point.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Because that’s what a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes does. She asks questions. She hasn’t learned filters yet. Thank God. Because you need her to ask these questions.

“Writing,” you answer.

“What are you writing?”

“A novel.” She squishes her face because she doesn’t know that word, so you try again. “I’m writing a story.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a writer.”

“Why?”

You open your mouth, but no words come out. This is the kind of question you need a minute or ten to think about before you can answer properly. Tell you what, I’ll stop time while you consider a few options. (This is my fiction. I can stop time if I want to.)

The first answer that comes to mind is, “Because I can’t not write.” Aside from confusing a four-year-old with a double negative (she’ll become an expert on double negatives in due time…right around middle school), it’s also a damn lie. (Don’t worry, she can’t hear us while time is stopped.) You can indeed not write. That is, unless your laptop has been rigged by an evil genius such that if you stop typing 55 words a minute, it will explode. (Note to self: Write spec script for Speed 3: Caps Lock; call Keanu and Sandra.) But even then you still don’t have to write. It’s a choice. (BTW, if you do blow up, I’ll read a lovely poem at your funeral that celebrates all your artistic choices, especially the last one.)

Then there’s the ol’ standby, “Because I love words.” Yeah. That might work. But is that it, really? Isn’t the search for the right word among the most frustrating activities known to man and/or woman? Then there’s the impossible task of figuring out where to put those words. I don’t write because I love words (though I do love them) I write in spite of words. But that’s just me. If this is your final answer, I’ll restart time now and you don’t have to read any further. (But you will. Because you love words. Here, have a few more.)

You briefly consider “Because I want to be rich and famous someday,” but no four-year-old is going to care about anything that might or might not happen “someday.” She doesn’t understand the concept of time. If you were to tell her, “We’re going to DisneyWorld next summer,” she’d wake up every morning between now and then (at five thirty) and pester you with “Is it today? Are we going to see Mickey today?” until you’re tempted to answer, “Mickey Mouse is dead. Goofy shot him. DisneyWorld had to close because there’s blood everywhere.” You don’t really write to become rich and famous someday. I mean, that would be a nice bonus and a well-earned reward. But if “getting rich” is your primary motivation for being a writer, you’ve chosen the wrong field. Try Lottery Ticket Buyer.

Okay, what about…sorry. I have the attention span of a four-year-old so I’m going to restart time. And just to keep things interesting, our four-year-old moppet will keep repeating “Why?” until she gets an answer she likes. 

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Quick, say this: “Because I like making things?”

Our fictional moppet tilts her head (as fictional moppets do), says, “Okay,”  turns like a music box ballerina, then skips away to sidle up next to a woman collecting a salted caramel macchiato from the bar.

“Mommy, that wrinkly person in the corner likes making things,” she says. “Just like me.”

Just like her. Yup.

Now go back to making things.

In the Company of Strangers

If you want to be a successful (i.e.: published, well-read, income-producing) writer, you’re going to have to get comfortable in the company of strangers.

I’m not talking about the strange fictional people who inhabit your novel, I’m talking about the In Real Life kind. You know, those ugly bags of mostly water* you bump into while standing in line for your half-caff-soy-latte-with-a-double-shot-of-arsenic. If you’re anything like me (and I pray you’re not,  because this could lead to a sudden loss of cabin pressure), approaching strangers, let alone asking them for something, ranks right up there with public speaking, pregnant spiders, and admitting to an un-ironic love for Coldplay on a list of top fears.

But that’s exactly what you have to do.

Let’s say you’ve finished your novel. I mean the sixth draft, not the first. (If you approach strangers with the first draft, they will spontaneously combust and you will choke on their ashes. This is not as fun as it sounds.) You’re going to need some feedback on your masterwork before you take the next step. Mom’s already given her oven-mitt thumbs-up. “One star! Wait, which one means it’s really good? Got it. Five stars and six exclamation marks!!!!!!” Your best friend Louise told you it’s the best book she’s ever read. (Do I need to mention that it’s the only book Louise has read?) Being the wise person that you are, you know those glowing reviews may not represent the opinion of your target audience: everyone else.

What you need is a few strangers. Crit-group members are strangers. I know, I know. You  call them friends, but have you ever told them about your un-ironic love for Coldplay? I didn’t think so. Ask them to read your novel. Then consider their criticism. Use what works, ignore the rest.

Now it’s time to find more strangers. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, your next strangers will probably be literary agents. Most of them will reject you without even trying to get to know you first. This will hurt because it will remind you of your sad, sorry, single life and the fact that you always dine alone and haven’t kissed anyone since the Bush administration. I mean, that’s one example of what it might feel like. Theoretically.

If all goes well, one or more of those agent-strangers will want to know you better. And then, gods-willing-and-favorable-winds…Representation! Your agent-stranger is now your biggest fan. (Don’t mention the Coldplay thing quite yet, though.)

If you’re self-publishing (and are going about that the right way), or your agent-stranger has sold your book to a publisher, your next strangers will be editors. They tend to be an agreeable sort, despite their fascination with red pens and love for strong drink and crisp bacon. But they’re still strangers. You’ll be trusting your precious baby with people who don’t know you from Chris Martin.

Once the editor-strangers have finished their work (and you’ve finally accepted that they’re not the Devil Incarnate, but rather some of his more talented literary demons), it’s time to face the biggest stranger group of all: readers.  

Reader-strangers tend to tell you what they really think. Some will make you insane. Some will crush your spirit.

And some will make you feel like a writer.  A real writer.

There’s no way around it. Your writing future is in the hands of strangers. You might as well make peace with that today. Then, as always, get back to writing. Don’t worry. There will always be strangers.

You’re counting on it.

 

*Nerd alert. Name the reference and win the satisfaction of having named the reference. I know, Best Prize Ever.

The Weight of Your Words

I love my computer*. Let me say that up front, in case it thinks otherwise and decides to unflash its memory. But I have fond (if only for the purpose of this post) memories of a time when writing hurt more than it does today. Oh sure, we have carpal tunnel syndrome and baked sperm syndrome (well, some of us, anyway), but those are fancy aches. Yesterday, a writer’s pain was blue-collar. It was immediate and visceral.

Remember writer’s cramp? Now that was a pain you could feel. It started somewhere between thumb and forefinger, then exploded up the arm like lightning. And who can forget the grating, yet sublimely satisfying earache inspired by the ratchet-clickity-rip of paper from the typewriter platen? (Look it up, youngsters.)

Writing on a computer is easy. Comfortable. Maybe too easy. Too comfortable. Oh, I’m not about to go back to typewriter days (I don’t remember them that fondly and I’m much too old to make a convincing hipster), and my handwriting is even more illegible today than yesterday, thanks to the doctor-signature scrawl I was unable to deny inheriting from my parents. (Note: They’re not actually doctors. They just write like them. My mom’s handwriting isn’t so bad, really. But my dad’s? I was fully qualified to interpret hieroglyphics by the age of seven, thanks to his cleverly-disguised birthday card wishes.)

Back in the day when writing was more physical, we felt every word. We punched high-heeled keys like stubborn elevator buttons. We scraped leaky pens against reluctant paper like fingernails on a blackboard. (You’re welcome.) We didn’t have a delete button (Liquid Paper doesn’t count, Michael Nesmith’s mom). And a save function? Nope. We called that “starting over.” (Cue purchase of more paper, more typewriter ribbons, more pens. That means cutting bacon from the family budget, son. Sorry.)

In the computer age, words are cheap. They cost you nothing because you can write all of them down without a second thought. You can delete them, revise them, replace them, all with the slightest touch of fingers to a quiet, accommodating keyboard.

No, I’m not raising the flag of the writerly curmudgeon. (Though hey, if you prefer a typewriter or pen and paper, more power to you. Especially to your fingers.) I’m just stopping by to ask you to consider a new way of looking at how you write. I’m not talking about when you’re writing the first draft. Computer Convenience is the patron saint of the first draft. Go ahead and throw everything you want on the page. First drafts are free!**

I’m talking about when you’re tunneling down to the bedrock and revising your manuscript for public consumption.

The revision process is painful. After all, you’re throwing away perfectly good words and ideas. It’s supposed to hurt. Certainly far more than a comfy keyboard and endless undo might suggest.

So let it. Feel the ache in your head, your heart, your elbows, your wrists, your fingers. Feel the sharp edges of every word against the soles of your feet. Imagine you have to cough up real money from your meager bank account to pay for each word that finds a permanent home on the page.

And when it hurts too much? Celebrate the pain. You’re almost there.

Because if you feel the weight of your words – really feel it, chances are, your readers will too. And that’s a price worth paying.

 

*No. I don’t plan on marrying it when such a thing becomes legal (because really, that’s where our country is headed, am I right fear-fueled zealots?). We’re just going to live together. And when I’m tired of it, I’m going to trade it in on a new model. When it comes to computers, I’m proud to be a serial monogamist. Okay, fine. You caught me. I have more than one computer. A serial bigamist, then. 

**They’re not free for everyone. I labor over mine. Every. Stinking. Word. Yeah, I’m one of those people who can’t seem to abide by the advice I so freely give to others.