Category Archives: My Thoughts

Do the Best You Can With What You Have

There’s little need for a post here. If you’re pressed for time, just read the title again, let it inspire some brilliant application for your writing life, then jet off to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Of course, if you want to spend a few more minutes in this space (and who wouldn’t; don’t you love how the gray header matches the cloud of uncertainty that’s giving your muse black lung?), feel free. It’s your dime.

Here’s the thing (and by “thing” I mean premise for this post): writers have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations. We call these expectations “dreams” or “goals” to make them sound beautiful or practical. But they’re expectations nonetheless.

“I’m going to write 10,000 words today!”

“I’m going to get an agent by Christmas. This Christmas!”

“I’m going to quit my day job and write full time and be happy and successful and tip generously even when the service is bad!”

“I’m going to read every book ever written about how to write well before I even put a single word of my own novel on the page because then when I do it will be lovely and perfect and certain to capture the hearts and minds of every human being on the planet including people who’ve never read a single novel!”

Then, often due to circumstances beyond our control, the dreams become nightmares. The goals grow mold (like the stuff hiding in your basement walls that’s going to kill you someday).

Still, we persist.

Maybe you do what I do – try to give the pain of underperformance purpose by re-categorizing it as a “life lesson.” [Here’s how to do this: cup your ears to the yawning abyss and listen for some murmured echo of wisdom about how pain – even the pain of unmet dreams or goals – is really a gift because it makes us better writers. Then try not to throw up.]

There’s certainly some truth in that murmur – Real Life Pain does make us better writers of Imagined Pain. (See this post.) But unless your plan is to write a novel about feeling totally inadequate at the one thing you long to excel at, this probably isn’t the sort of pain you should be listening to.

We don’t mean to do this to ourselves. (Except for you masochists out there.) We start off with good intentions. But somewhere along the way, we become concerned that we’re not as far along as we thought we should be so we reach farther than we ought for the One Ring (“we wants it….”) only to fall off the horse. Again.

Discouragement sets in. And frankly? Discouragement sucks the fun out of writing.

What if, instead, you gave yourself a little slack? Sure, set goals. Follow dreams. Do everything you can to reach those places. But always, always with the quiet understanding that your reach only extends so far in any given moment.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it.

Then why do you keep beating yourself up for not being Stephenie Meyer?

Pursue everything with diligence and excellence. Maybe you’ll meet your writing goal. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get an agent this month. Maybe you won’t. Maybe your book will get published someday. Maybe it won’t.

Just do the best you can with what you have.

And that will be enough.

Give Up Your Publishing Dreams

If title of this post makes you nervous, you probably shouldn’t read it.

Or maybe you should.

Before we go any further, I’m going to have to ask you to place your publishing dreams in the box marked “misc” at the back of the room.

Be sure to leave all your unfinished queries and How to Get Published books & blogs and all those publishing-related inspirational quotes you taped to your bathroom mirror. Yes, even the quote that says J. K. Rowling was rejected twelve million times before becoming a kajillionaire.

Now pick up a blank notebook and a pen. We’re going old-school here. No laptops. No Internet. (Ironic, I know, considering where you’re reading this. Just work with me here.) I don’t want you to be distracted by anything but the breathable world and the clutter already in your head.

Everyone find an uncomfortable place to sit. Got one? Good. Now, I want you to spend the next few minutes doing this:

Nothing.

Your brain is going to need a few minutes of nothing to flush out the rest of that publishing dream. Because you’re still holding onto it, aren’t you. Of course you are. You’re hoping that after we wend our way through a forest of writerly wisdom we’ll break through into a clearing filled with purple wildflowers and clear blue skies and babbling brooks and talking rabbits who will reveal the Grand Secret to Getting Published!

Right.

Look, I know you’re still hanging onto the dream. I can see it in your eyes. You’ve got a virtual piece of it stuffed into the virtual small pocket in the front of your virtual jeans – the one inside the other pocket. [What’s the deal with that, anyway? A pocket within a pocket? It’s not like it’s going to fool anyone. “I searched her pockets, boss, and couldn’t find the USB drive with the computer files that could implicate us in crimes against humanity. Or the theft of millions of dollars. Or whatever the plot is.” “Really?” “Really. It’s not there, boss. I mean it.” “Did you check the pocket inside the pocket?” “Wait? There’s a pocket inside the pocket?” “You’re an idiot.”]

Distracting you? Why would I do that? What box? The box with your publishing dreams? Oh, I had my assistant send it to a warehouse for safekeeping. The one where they took the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. That one.

Forget about your publishing dreams.

Instead, do this: write the book you’ve always wanted to write. Or the book you know you were meant to write. Don’t write it for a demographic. Don’t write it to jump-start your writing career. Don’t write it because you’re sure you’re a better writer than Dan Brown. Don’t write it in hopes of becoming the next J. K. Rowling. Don’t write it for anyone but you.

Write it the way you want to write it. Use sentence fragments. Or run-on sentences. Write an epic. Write a novella. Verb all the words you want. Adverb to your heart’s content. Rules? There are no rules. There is just your novel.

Only yours.

Ready? Begin. I’ll just play Angry Birds on my iPhone while you write.

By the way, there are a lot of levels in Angry Birds.

[That’s it. This post is over. The box labeled “misc.” has been shipped to a fictional warehouse the size of the actual Rhode Island, which, granted, is really small for a state but really big for a warehouse. Just keep writing. I’ll be back. Don’t expect me to bring the talking rabbits.]

7 Writing Myths I Just Made Up So I Could Debunk Them

Yes, there are lots of actual writing and publishing myths out there worthy of review. But everyone else writes about those. Surely you’ve stumbled across a post or two debunking such common myths as “literary agents are out to kill your writing dreams” and “first-time novelists don’t have a chance in hell of getting published.”

You don’t need yet another post about those myths, do you? No, you don’t. What you do need is this post in which I make up some writing and publishing myths of my own. Just so I can debunk them.

Isn’t this more fun anyway?

Oh, and I might have tried to stuff some actual helpful advice in this nonsense. I say this only because if you learn something, I want it to seem like I planned that all along.

The Myth: If you misuse “its” and “it’s” in your manuscript, you’re screwed. No one will represent you. Not even really bad agents.

The Debunking: While it’s true that agents tend to prefer writers who know basic grammar skills, a beautifully-told tale with a compelling author voice and commercial potential is usually enough to make them forget the fact that you can’t spell “pulchritude.”

The Myth: If you pitch an agent the same book more than once with the argument “I fixed all the stuff that was wrong last time,” they’ll put a curse on you and you’ll never get published.

The Debunking: Not true. You’ll probably need to look for a different agent, but just because the one you’ve been annoying isn’t interested in your much-improved novel doesn’t mean it’s unpublishable. And while it is technically true that some agents still place curses on writers, most these days merely block your email address.

The Myth: There is a higher incidence of liver failure in writers.

The Debunking: Actually, this one is true.

The Myth: If your novel includes vampires, portals or sullen teenagers who’ve recently lost a parent and are having a hard time coping and so they turn to drugs or cutting or sleeping around until one day they are awakened by the epiphany that “life is hard – just deal with it,” agents will draw a big red “x” across your manuscript (virtually, of course, because a Sharpie would really screw up their computer monitor) and reject your proposal out of hand.

The Debunking: If you’ve found a unique way to write about vampires or portals or sullen teenagers, you might just get representation. Here’s the deal: while it’s stupid and naive to follow trends in order to get a publishing deal, if you tell a good story that just so happens to also be a trending topic or theme, you’ll still have a shot at being noticed.

The Myth: All first novels are essentially autobiographical.

The Debunking: Well, that would explain why Stephen King is so creepy. But, no. Not all. Just most.

The Myth: If you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer, every article about you will refer to this behavior in a way that makes you look like a self-important jerk.

The Debunking: Nope. But if you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer and you make a point to tell everyone you meet that this is the way real writers write, then every article about you will (quite rightly) refer to this behavior in a way that make you look like a self-important jerk.

The Myth: Only crappy books are getting published and that’s why your book hasn’t been snatched up by an agent yet.

The Debunking: Both crappy books and great books are being published and the jury is still out as to which category yours falls under.

There you go.

You’re welcome.

Have a nice day.

Writing Advice You Should Definitely Ignore

The title of this post is not some clever reverse psychology trick. You really shouldn’t listen to this advice. It’s bad for you and it goes against everything you’ve ever heard from all those lovely and wise literary agents out there. The Chips and Nathans and Janets and the rest. (I’m not being sarcastic here. All the agents I’m thinking of are completely lovely and incredibly competent and smell like cupcakes.)

So why am I writing this post? Because sometimes advice that’s perfect for The Many is perfectly wrong for The Few. I’m not saying it’s bad to be among The Many. It’s actually a great place to be as a writer because there’s so much helpful information out there for you. When agents and editors speak in generalizations (usually with sentences that begin “Always…” or “Never…” or the more sinister variation, “If you ever want to be published…”), those of you who are among The Many really ought to listen.

If you’re perfectly content with the writing advice you’re getting elsewhere, please stop reading now. I’m only going to screw that up with what I say below. Seriously, I mean it. Go away.

Go. Away.

Yes, I see you. You’re still reading. Right, right, that’s only because you want to see what sort of drivel I’m going to drool onto the page so you can wipe it away. Like actual drool.

I’m cool with that. Mostly because I happen to like the word drivel.

Now let’s get on with it.

Here’s the bad advice I warned you about. Read it. Then feel free to call me names in the comments.

On Branding – I know what you’re thinking. (I’m psychic like that.) This whole “branding” thing is mostly for non-fiction writers. Yes. True. And necessary. (Google it. Study it. Do it.) But it doesn’t take much exploration of agents’ and editors’ and publishers’ blogs before you read about the critical importance of defining who you are as a fiction author. The agent sages will tell you without apology that your chance of getting published in multiple genres is somewhere between slim and Victoria Beckham. And, of course, they’re right. So what do you do about that? Well, if you only write one genre, you’re all set. Lucky you. But what if you write in multiple genres? What then? Well, you could simply choose your favorite genre and work exclusively on that until you’re really good at it, then do your darnedest to get noticed by an agent. That’s a fine idea, too. Do that. Unless you haven’t yet found your favorite. In that case, here’s my bad writing advice: just write the story that’s in your head. Don’t fret about branding. Just write. Because here’s the thing – for The Few, this “branding” thing can become a sentient shadow determined to constrict your creativity in trade for the tenuous promise of a better chance of publication. The shadow of branding can keep you from experimenting and exploring and growing as a writer because you’re afraid you might be coloring outside the lines. Don’t let it. Write whatever the muse tells you to write. Please note: following this approach demands that you loosen the grip on your publishing dreams and your most-likely-ambitious timetable for those dreams. But in the meantime, you’ll be enjoying the writing journey. At some point you’ll still need to decide which novel do you want to be known for (first). Then, yes, if you get a publishing deal for that book you’ll be branded according to its genre. But that’s okay. If you write more of those novels, you can make more money. (If that sort of thing is important to you.) But please don’t stop writing the other books the muse demands. If you’re one of the luckiest few, you’ll be able to place novels on more than one shelf in Barnes & Noble someday.

On Writing the First Draft – Nearly everyone in the biz will tell you, “turn off the self-editor when you write” or some variant of that. Some have even rather boldly said it thusly, “write a bad first draft.” If that works for you, wonderful. Save your editing for the second (and subsequent) drafts. But for The Few…this won’t work. For The Few, there is no other way to write than to wrestle with every word, every sentence, every paragraph. There’s no other way to write than to edit and re-edit page after excruciating page. Sometimes it’s one page forward and two pages back. It’s almost always a painful and laborious process…and it’s the only way The Few can write. So if you’re among this group, don’t you dare write a bad first draft. Write the best damn first draft you can. Then, and only then, go back through the manuscript. I’m sure you’ll still find a few things left to fix.

On Submitting Your First Book – Agents warn, “Don’t send us your first novel” or at the very least, “Don’t tell us you’re submitting your first novel.” They say this for a good reason. A first novel is often a practice round writers didn’t know was practice until it was done. Most first novels are training exercises. And most just aren’t very good. I said most novels. There are exceptions. (And isn’t this whole post really about exceptions? Yeah, it is.) Look, I know writers. The majority of us suffer from extremely low self esteem and believe even our best work is crap. It may be. But then again, it could be brilliant. Don’t assume that because a novel is your first, it absolutely without question isn’t worthy of submission. Do your due diligence – get feedback from crit groups and freelance editors and other experts. Listen to what they say. If what you hear is a quiet complaint of cursing followed by an under-the-breath “some writers just have it…why the hell don’t I?”, this probably means it’s really good.

That’s enough for now. I’ll save more bad advice for another post. Okay, are you ready for the M. Night Shyamalan twist?

Ignore everything I just wrote. You’re not among The Few. Nope. Sorry. You’re not the exception. You’re just like everyone else…

…probably.

When Editors Go Bad

book cover fakeIf you’ve been reading my little blog for any length of time, you already know that editors aren’t prefect. [Yes, I just wrote “prefect.” Squirming yet?]

As evidence of this, I present to you some of the most common mistakes editors make. By “editors” I mean me. And by “mistakes” I mean errors in judgment prompted by sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, lack of confidence in the job, or plain ol’ incompetence. I’ve given each of the editorial screw-ups a title, but these are only my made-up titles and are not the terms officially sanctioned by the National Governing Board of Freelance Editors (NGBFE), which I don’t think exists, but if it did I would already be reaching for my wallet to pay a fine for my contextually inappropriate abbreviation of “old” in the previous sentence.

Never Say Never – It’s so easy to do and it seems so right, we don’t think twice. We just do it. And the thing is, it’s quite often the right thing to do. But…not always. I’m talking about trimming adverbs. You see, we’ve read all the books, too – the ones that say adverbs are badverbs. Or something like that. So we cut ‘em out of habit. Even when we shouldn’t. We make similar mistakes when applying other Rules of Good Writing, like getting rid of all semi-colons or universally suggesting all “tell” copy needs to “show.” Thankfully, this sort of mistake only happens when we’ve been editing for 24 hours straight. Which we aren’t supposed to do, according to the NGBFE.

Exterminate! Exterminate!Despite the fact that the title is a reference to Dr. Who’s Daleks, this editorial no-no has nothing to do with science fiction and instead is a subset of what I lovingly call The Goldilocks Compendium. (Actually, I’ve never called it that until just now. And because of that little lie, I can expect another fine from the NGBFE.) Exterminate! Exterminate! is all about being “too hard” on a manuscript. It’s about cutting. (Not the kind that people do when they’re emotionally unstable, though it must be acknowledged that all editors are emotionally unstable and probably would resort to this sort of cutting if not for coffee, wine, and chocolate.) This is the arena where I am most roguish. If I had a sweatshirt with my editorial mantra on it, it would say “Less is more.” I think it would be dark gray, with a half-zip collar and white lettering. I celebrate the economy of words, perhaps to a fault (except in blogposts, where I overwrite to my heart’s content). Maybe this is why Twitter is fun for me. Anyway, when I come across a big paragraph, my eyes get bigger still and out comes the X-acto knife of death. Cut, cut, snip, snip. And now it’s just a single sentence. There’s nothing wrong with cutting extra words (most people use too many), but I run the risk of cutting away the pretty colors in a manuscript if I’m not careful.

Intimidate! Intimidate! – Part two of The Goldilocks Compendium is a corollary to the above: going too soft on a manuscript. I’ll admit I can be intimidated by good authors. I’ll read an amazing manuscript and think, “damn, that’s good,” and question my editorial skills and my sanity and my salvation and wonder if I have the right to touch any words at all. Usually, on a second pass, I discover areas for improvement and make those edits and recommendations. But sometimes I’m not tough enough on what’s there. It works, so why change it? Well, here’s a good reason: to bump it from good to great, or great to excellent. This is why I’m (eventually, though never soon enough) paid the (not really) big bucks. And this where an editor’s art and uncertainty walk hand in hand like young lovers. (No, I don’t have a clue what that means.) Hopefully, more often than not, I make the right call. But I am always thankful, if a little sheepish, when an author says, “Hey, you missed something. I think we could actually cut this (or add this, or change this)” after I’d already let it slide.

My Word Is Better Than Your Word – I think this is self-explanatory. But I’ll explain it anyway. Sometimes an editor replaces a perfectly good word just for the hell of it. [Note to NGBFE: I”m kidding. Officially.] Okay, that’s not usually why. They replace the word because they like it better. I have my word preferences and you have yours. Most of the time, yours work just fine. But sometimes, I’ll read yours and think, “Really? ‘Crepuscular?’ Why?” And then I’ll change yours to mine because I’m the editor and I’m supposed to know what’s best for you. Normally, I’ll realize my selfish ways before I finish editing and you’ll never see my words because I’ll change them back to what you had. Unless there’s defensible benefit to changing your word, I don’t need to touch it.

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? – Some authors have clearly defined voices. When I read their manuscripts, I hear exactly what they sound like and can attenuate my editing to match that voice. However, when I work on a manuscript where the voice isn’t so distinct, I sometimes make this editorial blunder: I apply my writer’s voice (or one of them, anyway, considering I suffer from Multiple Author Voice Syndrome). That’s not the right thing to do. In these cases, it’s the editor’s responsibility (according to NGBFE statute 27.1, subsection R.) to help the author find and then maintain his or her voice throughout the manuscript. This is easier said than done, by the way.

Missing the Point Completely – Sometimes Editors Miss the Point Completely. An author may have constructed a perfectly reasonable plot or created a perfectly believable character, but the editor Just Doesn’t Get It. And in their attempt to fix The Thing They Just Don’t Get, the editor makes things worse. I don’t have a Really Good Excuse for why this happens. Let’s just go with, Editors Are Human and follow that up with Humans Are Imperfect and leave it at that. Here’s the good news, though – Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Then someone invented the Internet. Now editors and authors can Talk About Stuff and Clarify Things They Just Don’t Understand. [Another note to NGBFE: I’ve already calculated the fees for excessive capitalization. You’ll be receiving payment in approximately six to twelve-hundred weeks, depending on when my accounting department can get to it.]

Other Stuff – We add typos. We miss continuity errors. We break a plot when trying to fix it somewhere else. We change the color of your protagonist’s hair. We get fingerprints on the printed manuscript. We remove all references to Al Gore. We add references to Al Gore. We write whole sections for you instead of simply noting in a comment what we think is missing. We can be lazy and careless.

But mostly we try really hard to do everything we can to make your book the best book you’ve ever written.

That’s all for today. I need to go screw up edit a manuscript now. Thanks for coming. Please deposit your 3-D glasses in the bin at the end of the hallway on your way out.