Category Archives: The Writer’s Life

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. 

So What?

Right now, you’re thinking one of these things:

  • “My novel sucks.”
  • “What if no one buys my book?”
  • “I got a one-star review!”
  • “I got a hundred five-star reviews!”
  • “I don’t know if I have what it takes to be a writer.”

And right now, I’m thinking this: So what?

Does your novel suck? Maybe. Maybe not. Some of the best books I’ve edited arrived from the author with a side of Severe Doubt. “It might make you ill.” It didn’t. Conversely, some of the worst books I’ve edited arrived from the author with a side of Unwarranted Confidence. “I think it’s really good.” It wasn’t. Most authors struggle to accurately assess their own writing. Here’s why: familiarity. Remember those sentences you wrote that surprised you? The ones that made you wonder if a brilliant writer broke into your office just to mess with you? Well, you’ve read them twelve hundred times, and now they just look old and tired. Does your writing suck? Let someone else determine that. Like an editor. If the answer is “well, it’s not great,” then at least you know you’re a pretty good judge of writing (and you know you have work to do). And if not? Lighten up, okay?

So what if no one buys your book? Does that mean it’s a terrible book? No. Does it mean you’re a terrible writer? No. It might mean those things, but it also might mean that you’ve simply not done enough work marketing it. Or that the market is saturated with books like yours and only one or two are getting all the attention. But let’s back up a moment. You’re posing a “What if…?” question. Stop it. Just stop. No good comes from such thoughts. Write your book. Learn all you can about how to market it. Then do the best you can with what you know. If after all that you still only sell a hundred? Well, until you write another one and sell 101, that’s your bestseller. Celebrate it.

You got a one-star review? A real one? Congratulations! Someone read your book and had an emotional reaction to it. Yeah, they hated it. But they read it. Isn’t that why you wrote the book – so people would read it? All authors (especially successful ones) face the dreaded “one-star review” at least once in their career. The people who write one-star reviews are not your target audience. Perhaps they’d hoped they could be. But they aren’t. A one-star review is their way of admitting this. Be glad for it. Wish them well. Then let it go.

About those 100 five-star reviews. Yippee for you! But be careful. If you let positive reviews go to your head, you’re going to start associating your self-worth with stars. This is a dangerous game. Because you’re going to get some of those one-star reviews, too. Or worse, two-star reviews. (The horror!) Suddenly you’re only a 4.39. Or worse, a 4.38! No. No. No. You’re not. You are not your review score. You are more than stars, my friend. Far more. Enjoy the stars for what they are (thank-you’s from readers), then let them go.

And finally, all writers wonder if they have what it takes to be a writer. It’s part of the job description to ponder this question weekly (or daily, or monthly, or hourly). Welcome to the club. But there’s really only one question you should be asking yourself: do you want to write? If the answer is “yes,” then write. If the answer is “no,” then stop trying. Yeah, writing takes dedication and diligence and time and blah, blah, blah. But mostly it’s just about the “yes.” Sometimes you’ll have the confidence to shout it. Sometimes you’ll barely be able to squeak it. But the “yes” is enough. It’s always enough.

So, what now? Write. That’s what.

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.