Category Archives: The Writer’s Life

Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.

 

*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well. 

How to Love Writing

“I hate writing. I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

I’ve met a few people who are quick to say they love writing. They are sincere, happy people who tend to glow in the dark. People who eagerly sift through tornado-paths of literary devastation to find the one story that can threaten to replace your well-earned despair with un-warranted hope. I hate* those people.

I also hate writing. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit strong. How about this: I find it difficult to love writing.

Oh, there are moments when writing appears to be lovable. Like the moment when you first come up with a story idea. “I’m a genius!” And the moment when you sit down to start writing that story. “This is the best idea ever!” And the moment when your fingers line up like agreeable soldiers on the keyboard. “When I finish this novel I’ll finally have something to brag about at my high school reunion!”

But those aren’t really writing moments. They’re “anticipation of writing” moments. It’s easy to love writing when you’re approaching the desk. But when you actually begin…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap :-) tap tap tap tap tap.

Tap tap tap. Tap tap.

Tap…tap. :-(

Crap.

To love writing, you have to love, or at least endure, lots of unlovable things. Like these:

  • Staring blankly at a computer monitor for long periods of time.
  • Sitting in a chair for long periods of time.
  • Standing at a standing desk for long periods of time in a half-hearted attempt to increase your life expectancy or impress your writing group friends.
  • Accepting the fact that your vocabulary is entirely…um…what’s the word? Small? Not big? Little? Wait…[searches thesaurus]…oh right, inadequate.
  • Waiting for the kids to fall asleep. Waiting for the spouse to stop bugging you to come to bed. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for your fingers to obey your brain. Waiting for Twitter and Facebook to stop demanding your attention. Waiting for the voice in your head to stop shouting “You can’t write!”
  • Those moments when confidence and self-doubt occupy the very same space and stare at you like you’re supposed to know how that’s even possible.
  • Dirty dishes. Dirty clothes. Dirty children.
  • Lukewarm coffee. Stale donuts. Cheetos dust.
  • Friends who don’t understand you.
  • Friends who think they understand you because they wrote a poem in third grade and got a ribbon for it.
  • Friends who think you’re insane.
  • Friends who think you’re going to be a millionaire as soon as you finish your novel.
  • Insanity.
  • Hoping this novel will make you a millionaire.
  • Another writer’s success.
  • Another writer’s  failure.
  • Backaches. Heartaches. Truth aches.
  • Asteroid strikes. Al Qaeda. The zombie apocalypse.

And that’s just today’s list.

Let’s be honest. After all this, can you truly, sincerely say that you love writing? Can you?

Um…

Tap tap tap tap tap…

Er…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap…

Yeah.

Me, too. [Starts glowing in the dark.]

 

*I don’t really hate them. But I do find it difficult to love them. Which is exactly the same way I feel about writing. (See what I did there? Gosh, I loved writing that sentence. (See what I did there? I know. I deserve a ribbon.))

Meet Me at the Breaking Place

“This book is incredible. You absolutely have to read it.”

Ah, these words. More than mere validation for authors who spend so much time in uncertain solitude, they are payment and a generous tip for all the pain endured on the road from first thought to last word. They are the perfect reward.

“It’s a good book.”

“A great read.”

“So well-written.”

These are fine words, too. Encouraging words. We’ll take them above silence any day. But they fall far short of “you have to read this,” which, when expanded to its original size, looks something like this: “If you don’t read this book, you won’t merely have missed out on a good story, you’ll have missed out on discovering something else far more significant – yourself.”

That’s the magic of “you have to read this” stories. They don’t just take readers on a ride, though they can. They don’t just provide an escape, though they often do. The “you have to read this” stories do something more: they reveal truth. Not just any truth, they reveal the reader’s truth. They show the reader something of herself. Something that helps her to feel like she is seen and known.

And perhaps most importantly, they remind the reader that she is not so alone.

These stories meet the reader right where she breaks and burrow into the cracks there. They grow roots in a character’s heartache that resembles her own. In deep longing that vibrates at the same frequency as hers. In a familiar fear. A familiar expectation. A familiar desire.

The breaking place is where characters become more than a writer’s fiction. It’s the place where the reader realizes the story isn’t about someone like her, it’s about her.

So how do you create this breaking place? Can you manufacture it? Well, writing is, in a purely functional sense, manufacturing. It’s putting words together in a certain order toward a certain end. But no, you don’t manufacture a breaking place. The breaking place comes from your story. It starts as your heartache. Your fear. Your desire.

This is why writing well is so difficult. First you have to know your own story. And you have to be honest about that story. Then you have to soak your fictional characters in your truth until it becomes their own.

But it’s worth the pain, writer friends. When a reader says about your book, “you have to read this,” they’re not just recommending a good story, they’re saying, “I’m in this book. By some strange magic, I’m right here on the page. See me. Know me.”

And so it comes back to you: the perfect reward. Because, of course you see them. Of course you know them.

They are you.

And suddenly, right there in the midst of your uncertain solitude, you realize another truth: you are not so alone either.

Payment and a generous tip.

 

Two Paths

The path to writing well and the path to publication are two different paths.

I’ll explain in a second. But before I begin, let’s dispense with the “good writing is subjective” conversation. Can we just work from the assumption that everyone in the room understands that my definition of “writing well” and yours differ at least in small ways, and perhaps also in big ways? We can? Cool.

Four Truths About the Path to Writing Well

1. Writing well takes time. Period. There are no shortcuts to writing well.

2. Each person’s journey to writing well is unique. A select few writers get there (relatively) quickly. Most don’t. You are probably in the latter group. Don’t beat yourself up about that.

3. You can study writing until you’re blue in the face (where you’ll quickly learn that clichés like this are verboten), but there is no substitute for simply writing. I recently tweeted this: “You don’t find your writing voice by reading about writing. You find it by writing.” If you take nothing else from this post, take that.

4. Writing resources (craft books, blogs, conferences, fortune cookies) can make the path more interesting. They can inspire a healthy curiosity and ignite an interest in pursuing excellence. They can teach you plotting and character arcs and other helpful stuff. But they can also frustrate your writing life. If you’re constantly reading about how to write, you’re not writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not growing as a writer. Here’s a tip: If you’re buying more writing books than novels, you’re probably doing it wrong. Reading is your best writing teacher and writing is your homework. Do your homework.

The path to writing well doesn’t always line up with the path to publication. Sometimes the two paths are parallel. Sometimes they’re perpendicular. Sometimes they’re the very same line. This is one of the reasons why your head hurts.

Four Separate Truths About the Path to Publication

1. The path to publication takes time. Almost always. Except when it doesn’t. For some, it appears to happen suddenly. Like “overnight” suddenly. Usually the “overnight” can be measured in years. Usually.

2. Each person’s path to publication is unique. Stop comparing yours to everyone else’s. Especially that guy in your writing group who got an agent last month – the one whose writing truly sucks. Compared to yours, I mean.

3. There is no substitute for studying all you can about getting published. Read the agent blogs and the “how to get published” books. Go to conferences. Listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before, whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing. Heed (most of) this advice.

4. The pursuit of publication will frustrate your writing life. Seriously. Every moment you spend in that pursuit is a moment you don’t spend writing. (Or reading about writing, for that matter.) Along the path to publication you will be angry and depressed. You will be confused. You will be exhausted. You will question your dream. More than once. But if you’re patient and persistent, the path will matter. It will give shape to your dream. Be patient and persistent, okay?

Some final advice: if you haven’t been on the path to writing well for long, please don’t start down the path to publication. Not yet. Just write for a while. Maybe a long while. Write until you find your voice. Then and only then, step onto the second path and try not to stumble.

Oh, and when you finally get published? Well, there’s another path. The marketing path. We’ll talk about that another time.

Meanwhile, wear comfortable shoes.

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, you either wrote something or you didn’t.

Maybe it was a banner day, when the stars all aligned and the metaphors all sang and the characters all looked up from the page to offer their thanks for three dimensions instead of two, for flesh and bone and blood and tears, for life itself, even though some of them will be dead by page 243. Especially because of that.

Maybe it was a prolific day, a day of ten thousand perfect words, or ten thousand shitty words. A marathon that left you sweaty and exhausted and finger-cramped and grateful and utterly bewildered by your apparent good fortune.

Maybe it was a puzzle-working day. A battle royale with an impossible scene that has held you hostage for weeks. And maybe you finally solved it. Or maybe it finally solved you. Defeat and delete.

Perhaps it was a forgettable day. The kind that dissolves into a thousand others like it. Your words didn’t sing. They didn’t shout. They didn’t even whisper. They just filled the space like gray clouds in a gray sky.

Maybe you spent the day in Catatonia, staring at the laptop like a powerless stupor-man. Empty. Lost. Wordless. The blank page mirroring your blank expression and somehow turning it into a sneer.

Maybe you walked by the laptop a hundred times. On your way to breakfast. On your way to get the kids ready for school. On your way to work. On your way to make dinner. On your way to clean up that mess in the bathroom. On your way to bed. Maybe you didn’t type a single word.

Maybe you wrote exactly twenty-seven words.

Maybe you deleted a chapter. Or two. Or three. Or all of them.

Maybe you wanted to quit. Maybe you did quit.

Maybe your computer died and you lost everything.

Maybe you started a new book.

Or maybe you typed “The End.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what kind of a day it was.

Because at the end of the day you’re still a writer. And there’s another day waiting…at the end of the day.