Category Archives: My Thoughts

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

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.

Absent Brilliance

Brilliance isn’t something you can buy for yourself. You can only receive it as a gift.

Some writers – I’d call them The Lucky Ones except for the fact that their brilliance is usually accompanied by a corresponding (and non-returnable) insanity – are granted the gift by the gods. Or The God. Or the universe. Or fate. (Pick one.)

They’re born with it.

They can’t deny it. They can’t escape it. It is woven into their being. Tell them to write something bad, they’ll try, and brilliance will whisper in the words they choose to leave out.

The naturally brilliant are not perfect. Far from it. But there is an innate and immutable beauty to their imperfection. They know this. They breathe it. They choke on it. The imperfection is where they find the best stories.

Then there are those who aren’t born with brilliance, but are awarded the next best thing: the Badge of Brilliance. Maybe someone gives it to them for a short story. Perhaps they get it for a novel. Or a blog post. They might get it once or a dozen times. It’s given to them by strangers and friends, by the well-informed and the uniformed alike. It means the most when the badge comes from someone they respect, like another writer. A brilliant one, preferably. Some who are given the badge are too humble to wear it so they stuff it in a purse or a pocket. Others display it like a neon sign.

There’s a third group and it’s a Very Big Group. It consists of people who weren’t born with brilliance, and who haven’t been given the badge.

Yet.

Ah yes, the Yet.

The Yet can be a motivator. Who doesn’t want to be called brilliant? Even those who would ultimately stuff the badge in a purse or a pocket want it. Brilliance is a writer’s brass ring. And so those who haven’t touched it (or those who want to touch it again) work hard to earn it. They read and write and study and hone their craft in pursuit of it.

The Yet can also be a monster. What if brilliance continues to elude them? What then? They become discouraged. Confidence dwindles. The dream crumbles. Writing just isn’t fun anymore.

Maybe you weren’t born brilliant. Maybe you’ll never wear the badge. So what?

Are you writing? Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Are you trying to become the best writer you can be?

Then here’s some good news: You can find happiness and fulfillment and success and maybe even wild success without having been called brilliant once. Because even absent brilliance, you are still the only person who writes like you. And there are people out there who happen to like the way you write. Or will.

I think that’s brilliant.

Saturation Point

Sit down, we need to talk.

Recently I’ve been observing some rather disturbing patterns in your behavior.

It all started out innocently enough. You had an idea, then a dream, then a plan. You were going to be a writer.

In the beginning, you wrote.

And verily, your writing was crap.

So you started hanging out in a dimly-lit bookstore, trying to look casual leaning against the shelf while stealing secrets from books on writing. You fully intended to buy one or two. Eventually. But books are expensive and you weren’t a wealthy author yet. Did you notice the stares from bookstore employees? No, they weren’t upset that you were stealing secrets. They were jealous that you actually had time to read. But you felt guilty nonetheless.

You adjusted your plan.

Your children noticed the switch from brand name peanut butter to generic and your husband wondered out loud why you were washing food storage bags for re-use, but none of them guessed what you were doing with the money skimmed from the food budget.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was first. Then Betsy Lerner’s The Forest For the Trees. Before long, your bookshelf at home looked exactly like the one in the bookstore.

Then came the blogs. The editor’s blogs. The agent blogs. The author blogs. That blog. This blog*. Oh, my, the blogs. You subscribed until your Google Reader was begging for mercy. But you didn’t stop there. You signed up for Facebook and befriended other writers. You signed up for Twitter and followed the pied pipers of publishing.

You were somewhat troubled when you kept hearing the same bit of advice, “read lots of great novels,” because where would you find the time?

“Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.” And I need to finish Cutting for Stone.

“Hey kids, tonight it’s ‘eat whatever you want’ night! Have fun and don’t forget to clean up the kitchen.” I have to get back to The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

You found the time.

My friend, you have a problem…

You’re addicted to becoming a writer.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with learning the craft and keeping up with trends. But you’re not a new writer anymore and you’re pruning in the stale, cold water of too much advice. Yes, this was a particularly bad metaphor. You know this because you’ve read a lot about metaphors, about how they can be distracting if they’re overwrought. You can’t have that sort of distraction in your novel. Nope. Never. You will not write a substandard novel, dammit!

What novel?

When was the last time you wrote…just wrote?

It’s okay to cry. I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to help you.

Time to adjust the plan again. You have tons of good writing advice in you. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. And now it’s time to get even better. By simply writing.

Put away the books on craft. Shut down the 27 tabs on your browser. You can go back to your craft books and blogs later. Much later.

Now is the time to stop being an addict to an idea. Now is the time to be what you’ve always wanted to be: a writer.

So write.

You’re better than you think you are.

 

*You clicked the link, didn’t you. Point made.

Listen

A good writer is always listening.

She listens to the voices of the long-dead, straining to hear writerly wisdom that only time and tide can reveal. She leans a little closer to Hemingway to discover the curious power of understatement and word economy. She plops down next to Dostoyevsky with her moral compass in hand and looks for truth in the floating needle that only points north when Fyodor tells it to.

She listens to the voices of the successful. Stephen King raises an eyebrow in reply when she removes a dozen sharp objects from her purse and asks, “which would you use to kill a clown?” James Patterson and his twenty-seven clones answer with a unison smile when she mutters the word “prolific” as both question and expletive. She eavesdrops on someone else’s conversation with Stephenie Meyer, then casually bumps into her on the way out, waiting until the elevator door closes before anxiously examining her coat sleeve for sparkly vampire dust.

She listens to the voices of the experts. She goes to Nathan Bransford’s place and comments generously and often, hoping for a karmic space kapow of the writerly kind. She’s certain the Query Shark can smell her coming, so she only visits when someone else is already bleeding in the water. Seven days a week she wanders the library-like halls of Rachelle Gardner’s comfy-chair home on the web. “It smells like books and coffee here.”

She listens to the voices of struggling peers. She shakes her head at the complainer who hasn’t written a decent word apart from his biting (if misguided) rant about the dearth of good novels being published today. She steps aside and allows a crit group partner the floor to dance her “Oh, why did I ever think I could be a writer?” pavane. She cries a little when her bestie reads from a heartbreakingly brilliant w.i.p., then schedules her own pavane for next crit group.

She listens to the voices of the underheard and the overexposed.

She listens to the voices of the broken and the perfect. The certain and the lost. The sellers and the buyers. The front-tablers and the remainders. The winners and the losers. The dreamers and the realists.

And as she listens to these voices, she nurtures and refines the most important voice of all.

Her own.

Instinct is a learned magic.