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Category: My Thoughts

Once Again, With Feeling: The Empty Page

Once Again, With Feeling: The Empty Page

Life happens. And then it keeps happening. And by the time it starts to happen a little less – by the time you might actually have a little mental space for thinking thoughts and time space to write them down – you realize you’re used to the empty page, at peace with the simplicity of having written nothing.

The blog light grows dim, the empty page becomes an empty stage. There are no actors in the wings. No orchestra in the pit. No director pacing back and forth scribbling notes in his head.

But there are people in the audience. Some are regulars, virtual friends who visit every day just in case. Others are strangers who wandered in off the street because the door was open. And then there’s that creepy guy who lives in the balcony.

They’re here because of you. They want to see what you can do. They want to be entertained and informed. They want you to confirm and erase their fears with clever wordplay. They want you to shake the rafters with brilliance and break their hearts with unresolved chords. They want to feel. They want to applaud.

They get it, of course – they understand that life happens. It happens to them, too. They’ll give you grace for that. But now…now they’re beginning to wonder where you’re going with this.

And so are you.

So you cut the lights and exit the metaphor, stage left.

The regulars smile knowingly. The strangers wonder why you didn’t just edit the metaphor out of the blog post in the first place. The creepy guy who lives in the balcony falls to his knees, stunned to tears by the wisdom hidden so deep within the metaphor even you can’t see it.

And then you’re back to the empty page. Staring at it.

You’re tired of trying to be clever. You’re tired of trying to be wise. You just want say something small, something simple, something true. And so you begin…

The empty page is a curious thing. It seems to have a mind of its own.

It cajoles. It demands. It threatens. It pleads. It heaps guilt.

But that’s not the empty page. The empty page doesn’t care what you do.

The empty page doesn’t feel lonely.

The empty page doesn’t ache for meaning.

And, no, that’s not the blank page crying out to be filled.

It’s you.

The Other Authors

The Other Authors

Writing is a lonely business. This does not come as a surprise to you. Whether you write in the midnight quiet of a room lit only by the glow of your laptop, or in a crowded coffee shop exploding with sound and color and scent, you do it alone. No one shares your headspace when you’re trying to choreograph the tapping of fingers on keyboard with the spin and leap of ideas.

A writer, while writing, dances alone.

There is exhilaration and debilitation in this truth. That a man, woman or child can organize words gathered from a thousand places into a story that exists in no other place is nothing short of magic. That it is among the most challenging of tasks to turn that story into something another can love is nothing short of soul-defeating.

We write alone because there is no other option. Yes. I know about collaborative writing. Two heads better than one and all that. [Hi Tosca and Ted. Hope the third book is going well.] But even if you share the process with another writer, you’re still the only person who can live in your head at any given time, multiple personalities notwithstanding. This means that you and only you are responsible for taking what’s in that head and making it presentable for the rest of us who don’t live there.

This is where you take all the knowledge you have about writing, – all the education and experience and earned intuition – and pour your story through it. As you press the words through that sieve, you pray what drips to the final draft is as pure, perfect and lovely as the idea that sparked your writer-brain in the first place.

When you hand the story to an editor, you find out your fingers missed a few things that your brain meant. When you hand it to a copyeditor, you discover your editor missed a few things that your brain meant, too.

And then you’re done. The story is as good as it’s going to get.

Except it isn’t. You’ve forgotten about the other authors.

Some people call them readers.

But they are authors, too. They write between the lines. They hear the characters’ voices. The protagonist sounds like Hugh Jackman. Did you know? They taste the wine on page 37. It is surprisingly sweet. Like the wine they had that one time in that restaurant. They see the freckles on her neck. How had you missed this?

The other authors aren’t as skilled as you. They haven’t studied the craft. They haven’t wrestled the demons of writerly doubt. They don’t know there’s a civil war raging between the semi-colon apologists and the semi-colon abolitionists. But if you’ve done your job well – if you’ve given them enough – theirs is easy. Because they don’t have to write it down.

They write only in their heads, and it’s only there that the story you started in your own finally finds completion.

The other authors finish what you started. And if they call you brilliant, it is their fault, too.

Thank God for the other writers.

 

 

 

Better Than You Think

Better Than You Think

The first time you ran into a wall it came as a surprise. Not because you didn’t believe in walls, but because you didn’t know they could appear in the middle of a sentence.

But you broke through it like the Kool-Aid Man, with the same broad smile, the same blatant disregard for plaster and paint. Because you were a writer and that’s what writers do. They persist.

And persist you did. Through the next wall and the next, until one day you hesitated.

Do other writers run into this many walls? you wondered

Writing used to be about ideas and dreams. Once, you were an architect with an empty skyline and a pocketful of girders. But something happened along the way. You were demoted to demolition. Oh, you found certain strange satisfaction in the power to destroy with the press of a button. But it didn’t last. Before long you were staring at ten thousand craters where a hundred buildings should be.

On that day, and with dust-choked despair, you thought The Thought That Must Not Be Thought.

“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”

In that moment, the earth stopped spinning, the Walden woods grew dark, James Patterson put down his pen. Everything and everyone waited.

Would you walk away? Would this be the wall that defeats you? Would you give up your dream? Could you?

You sighed in resignation. No, not yet. Every other writer sighed in relief.

And the world resumed its spin.

You took stock.

This is not as easy as it once was.

You are not as good as you thought you were.

You have a lot to learn about writing. About re-writing. About trusting your instincts. About breaking bad habits.

You do not yet suffer in brilliance; you suffer because you’re not yet brilliant.

And so the wall looks at you. You look at the wall.

You lift your fingers, set them gently on the keyboard. And you begin again to write.

Meanwhile someone is watching from a little ways off. She looks a lot like you, only older. She smiles, then whispers, not quite loud enough for you to hear…

You’re better than you think you are.


Good Advice/Bad Advice

Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.

Welcome to the Club

Welcome to the Club

Sometimes I watch the Twitter-stream and think the New Digital World is a beautiful place. A place of generosity. A place of kindness. In the Sometimes you can almost hear people listening, nodding, patiently waiting their turn to add to the chorus. In the Sometimes, the digital shell dissolves and we’re in a small room together, face to face.

You mention a book. I say I know that book. You say isn’t it the best? I say it’s brilliant.

I sip my orange juice (it’s morning here). You sip your wine (it’s evening there).

How’s that novel of yours coming along? you ask. Slowly, I answer.

Loved your last blog post, I say. I needed to hear that today, you say.

I sip my orange juice. You sip your wine.

We quietly slip back into our lives.

And then there are the Othertimes. In the Othertimes the New Digital World is an ugly place. A place of easy exclusion. A place of selfishness. In the Othertimes I hear silent pronouncements, judgments, snide asides. In the Othertimes the digital shell becomes a wall and we’re only in a room together if I qualify.

You haven’t read Faulkner? Exluded.

You’ve read Twilight? Really? Excluded.

You don’t have an MFA? Excluded.

You don’t have a book deal? I mean a real book deal? Excluded.

It’s pledge week and you weren’t invited. It’s high school and you aren’t cool enough. It’s junior high and you buy your jeans at WalMart.

Oh, there is a cursory kindness. And there are moments when the wall comes down – but instead of a small room it often reveals a stage and they’re on it and you’re not.

In the Othertimes, an excluded novelist (blogger, agent, editor) smiles politely, accepts the Otherness and continues on. But there remains an ache. We don’t want to examine it for fear it’s stamped “jealousy,” but it’s there. Instead, we wave it off as nothing or employ a familiar safety protocol: cognitive dissonance.

We didn’t like that club anyway. They’re snobs. They’re elitists.

They’re successful.

Okay, maybe we do like that club.

A little.

Or a lot.

Maybe we wish we were invited to their literary soirees and their Seurat picnics and their balconies overlooking the sunset Seine. Or maybe we just wish we could sit in a small room and talk face to face. Have you read The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes? you might ask, and you wouldn’t change your opinion no matter what they said; you would say how much you loved it.

They would sip their champagne. You would sip their champagne.

No. You don’t like champagne.

You would sip your tea.

And you would feel better. Cooler.

Accepted.

Would you?

Or you could forget about the Othertimes. Ignore them. Glide right through them. Perhaps you could stop, look around, and realize you’re already in a pretty good club. A club that matters.

Do you write? You qualify. Do you edit? You qualify. Are you an agent? A blogger? You’re in.

Have a seat. We talk about books here. Books and writing and publishing. And chocolate.

We don’t care how many followers you have or where you live or what you’re wearing. You can even use adverbs and sentence fragments here. Freely.

Sometimes the New Digital World is a beautiful place.

Like right now.

So…how’s that novel of yours coming along?

The Worst Book Ever. Or Not.

The Worst Book Ever. Or Not.

“Coldplay sucks!”

I had my car window open (as required between blizzards by Colorado law). Mylo Xyloto was playing on a recently-purchased stereo that had doubled* the value of my 2000 Jetta.

I didn’t see who shouted it. Probably not the elderly woman on the sidewalk who was attached by a taut pink leash to a matching taut pink poodle. And surely not the five-year-old doing donuts on his Big Wheel in the driveway across the street.

It’s a pretty safe bet the Chris Martin hate came from someone in the huddle of teenagers admiring their generation’s ironic muscle car, a tricked out Scion tC.

I ignored the shout and passed through the Norman Rockwell scene with a vehicular shrug. (The Jetta’s suspension needs work.) But a block later I turned the volume down from 25 to 18. I told myself this was because I didn’t want to cause [further] damage to my eardrums. I even imagined calling over my shoulder, “Thanks, random hoodie-wearing teenager. I will embrace your astute observation as free healthcare.”

There’s no such thing as free healthcare. And I wasn’t concerned about my eardrums.

like listening to Mylo Xyloto with the volume at 25. Yet after hearing “Coldplay sucks!” apparently I felt 28 percent less confident of this.

I have friends who love the Twilight books. If the Twilight books were people, these friends would marry them. Or at least stalk them obsessively. Now let’s face it, you don’t have to drive down many streets before hearing shouts of “Twilight sucks!” This makes me wonder, do people who like the Twilight books** ever turn down the volume because of the shouting? What if the shout comes from a trusted friend? Or a trusted stranger who goes by the pretentious nom de plume, “noveldoctor”?

I haven’t yelled “Twilight sucks!” on this blog, but I might have made an oblique reference or two about my lack of personal love for Bella and Ed’s Excellent Adventure. (Like that, for instance.) If I’ve caused any of you to turn down the volume, I apologize. I believe strongly in value of literary (and musical) criticism, but yelling “Twilight sucks!” is not criticism. That’s just being rude.

My taste in music and books is different from yours. I’m okay with that. In fact, I celebrate it. If everyone loved the things I loved, you’d all be my soulmates. I live in a small apartment. I only have room for one soulmate. (I know she’s out there somewhere, though the restraining order remains an obstacle.)

I can’t always tell you why I don’t like something. Maybe it’s repetitive themes. Or predictable chord progressions. Maybe it’s paper thin characters or a reed thin voice. Given ample time and motivation I think I could wear the tweed jacket and smoke the tobaccoed pipe of a reasonably skilled critic and explain in more detail. But I don’t look good in tweed.

can tell you why I like Coldplay. Or books by Alice Hoffman. Or the color and smell and mystery of actual twilight, if not the book. I like these things because they remind me of a secret language I only remember when someone leads me to it. I like them because they break me into pieces or put me back together. I like them for the space between the words and for the unresolved chords.

I like these things because they linger.

That doesn’t make me a good judge of what you should or shouldn’t like. It just makes me…me.

There’s only one opinion that matters when you read, listen, watch. Yours. If you enjoy artful criticism, go ahead and soak up all you want. Then heed it or don’t.

But when you find something you love, keep the volume at 25. Don’t let someone make you feel “less” just because they don’t agree with you.

And then be thankful for the guy who can’t get enough of ABBA. Don’t shout “ABBA sucks!” Let him play it at 25.

Because honestly, do you really want that guy to be your soulmate?

 

*The stereo cost under $200. You do the math.

**I’m not just talking about Twilight. You did know that, right?


A Word, Please

A Word, Please

Think of a word you don’t like – one that makes you squirm. Sure, it could be a common word like “moist” or “chalky,” but choose something edgier – something you almost never say in real life.

Got it? Okay, have a seat. Your word would like to have a word with you.

Word: Hey.

You: Um…hey?

Word: Do you know why you’re here?

You: Not exactly.

Word: We need to talk about me.

You: I don’t think we do.

Word: Oh, right. This is where you tell me you don’t need me; that you never need me.

You: Um…yeah. Something like that.

Word: Because there are millions of words out there and you don’t have to use any you don’t want to. Is that it?

You: Yup.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: I don’t believe in “right” words.

Word: Oh really. Didn’t you struggle for hours yesterday to find “the right word” to describe your protagonist’s hair?

You: That’s different.

Word: How is that different?

You: I liked the word I found.

Word: Chestnut. It’s a fine word. But why not badger or mudpie or UPS-uniform?

You: UPS-uniform isn’t a word. Chestnut was the right word.

Word: Sometimes I am, too.

You: But I don’t like you. That’s why I have a thesaurus.

Word: So, instead of “shit” you might say “crap.” Something like that?

You: Sure.

Word: Do you like writing?

You: Of course I like writing.

Word: Do you like good stories?

You: Now you’re just wasting my time. Get to the point. There are only so many hours in the day and I have a dozen blogs to read and then I need some pondering time before making a new pot of coffee so I can consider writing more of my novel if the mood hits me while I’m staring at the blinking cursor.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: You already said that.

Word: Fine. I’ll reword it. What if the story demands me?

You: I already told you. I’d just choose something else.

Word: You’ll compromise the story, then. You’ll talk about your hero’s badger hair because chestnut gives you the heebie-jeebies.

You: Yes. I mean no! Now you’re just trying to trick me.

Word: Look, sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Sometimes they demand a word you don’t like or a plot twist you find distasteful. Maybe they want you to reveal an ugly truth about a character. Sure, you have a choice. You can replace all the shit with crap. You can ignore the slutty actions of your protagonist because you don’t like slutty protagonist actions. You can coddle and mollify and adjust and fix and tweak your story until it’s free of stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Or you can just tell the truth.

You: You’re making too much of this. I can tell the truth however I want.

Word: Okay. Tell a story about a writer who hates me.

You: Nice try. You want me to use you in a sentence. Besides, that’s different.

Word: How?

You: That’s not the story I’m writing.

Word: Then look at the story you are writing. Are all the characters in it you?

You: Of course not.

Word: Do they all believe exactly what you do? Do they despise the same words you do?

You: Um…no.

Word: Then how are you going to let them tell their story if all they have are your words? Use their words. Tell their truth. The story deserves it. Your readers deserve it.

You: But…

Word: Or don’t. It’s your funeral. I mean your story. But don’t come crying to me if you end up with a shitty story.

You: A crappy story.

Word: Whatever.

Sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Do them.