Category Archives: My Thoughts

Something About Success

Maybe you’re like many aspiring writers. Maybe articles like this one by Amanda Hocking (or the revelation that she recently signed a publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press) simply inspire you. Perhaps this sort of news taps you on the shoulder, offers a sly smile and whispers, “you’re next.”

If so, you don’t need this post. Go write a bestseller. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean it sincerely. Be encouraged and write brilliantly and sell a squillion books (e- or otherwise).

The rest of you? Have a seat on the floor. I’d offer the couch, but it’s much too comfortable. You’re liable to enjoy sitting on the couch. The floor on the other hand is compressed carpet on petrified pad on cracking concrete.

I love success stories. I really do. But they also discourage me. I’m not talking about jealousy here. I’m truly happy when others succeed. I’m an editor. A writer’s success is an editor’s greatest reward. (Trust me, we don’t do it for the money.) But I’m a writer, too. And when I hear about seven-figure advances or million-selling e-books I find myself suddenly considering my own writerly mortality. The questions and doubts I’ve successfully hidden under the couch crawl out and stare up at me like hungry, sharp-toothed weasels:

  • Is my writing any good?
  • Do I have the confidence and persistence necessary to get published?
  • Are my goals too lofty? Not lofty enough?
  • Will people still be buying books by the time I’ve finished writing mine?

Hearing about someone else’s success acts as a pause button for my own writing journey. It forces me to reevaluate why I’m doing this. Do I write simply because I love telling stories? Or do I write because I hope someday to make a little (or a lot) of money selling those stories?

I usually conclude that answer to both questions is “yes,” and I have no trouble living in that tension. But in the midst of this pondering, I find myself face-to-face with a third and frighteningly more honest answer: I write because I want to matter.

This begs the question, how do you measure “mattering”? If I were to leave it up to the world (and even to well-meaning friends and relatives), it would mean selling a ton of books. It would mean getting a feature story about my writing success in the Wall Street Journal. It would mean securing a movie deal. It would mean being mentioned in the same breath as Amanda Hocking.

The odds of this happening are slim.

And that, my bone-weary friends, can be discouraging.

Thankfully, there’s a “but” to this story. (You knew there would be, didn’t you. Good for you. Here it is.)

But…if it’s true that I write because I love telling stories, I’ll sit down at the computer again sooner or later. Probably sooner. And if it’s true that I want to sell those stories, I’ll continue pursuing that goal, patiently and diligently. As I do these things I’ll remember who I am: a writer. And in that moment of clarity I’ll realize…this is why I matter.

You can move to the couch now.

10 Reasons Someone Else’s Novel Shouldn’t Have Been Published

Admit it. You’ve stared, slack-jawed at an open book in Barnes & Noble, stunned by the horribleness of the writing. You’ve whispered your frustration to the universe, a few choice obscenities that brought an audible “harrumph” from a blue-haired woman browsing the nearby Christian Inspiration section.

How is it possible this hack of a writer got a publishing deal and your (almost brilliant) novel can’t even get a literary agent’s attention?

The universe isn’t fair. You accept that. But really? I mean really? This book is utter crap. Except you don’t say “crap.” You say “shit.” And you almost never say “shit.”

Because you just can’t let it go, you buy the offending book and make it your goal to enumerate all of its sins.

Three chapters in, you’ve already found five things that make you throw up a little:

1. The writing is stilted. It’s a hodgepodge of meandering, redundant sentences and pointless sentence fragments.

2. Nothing is happening. I mean nothing. There’s no discernible plot, no tension, no conflict. I have no reason to keep reading.

3. The characters are one-dimensional. Therefore, I don’t care what happens to them. If anything were happening. And nothing is. I think I already mentioned that.

4. The dialogue sounds like it was written by a third-grader. “Mr. Johnson, the curtains were not in the curtain box that was left on my porch which is where they should have been. That is why I am crying about the missing curtains from the box.”

5. “I don’t consider the ‘no adverbs’ advice a hard and fast rule, but after reading three chapters of this novel, I may have to reconsider,” I say, dumbfoundedly.

You keep reading anyway. It’s a painful experience. When you finally get to the last page (74 blurted obscenities and 3 packages of Tums later), you’ve discovered five more reasons this book should never have been published:

6. There are no character arcs. It’s all straight lines. No one learns anything. No one grows. No one changes. No one cares. Especially me.

7. The ending sucks. True, there wasn’t much plot, but just when it was showing signs of potentially being interesting, everything was resolved. In five pages. That’s not an ending, that’s laziness. Or a word count restriction.

8. The whole thing is written in a bland, passive voice. It’s like soggy melba toast. I hate soggy melba toast.

9. There is not one original idea in this book.

10. It’s littered with typos. Okay, so maybe this isn’t the writer’s fault, but I sure wouldn’t let my book out in public looking like this. If necessary, I’d hire my own proofreader to make sure it’s prefect. I mean perfect.

Then, perhaps to compensate for the lack of conflict in the narrative, you take the offending novel, cover it liberally with peanut butter, and offer it to the neighbor’s drooling pit bull.

After moment to savor the book’s destruction, you return to your desk, where you sit with perfect posture in front of your computer. You open the file marked “latest draft” and begin to review your masterpiece – the one that’s been rejected exactly 15 times by literary agents who obviously don’t know what great writing is.

Three chapters in you start to squirm. You clear your throat. You look out the window at the neighbor’s yard. It’s littered with torn pages.

You look back at your novel. It’s littered with bad prose. Your plot wanders. Your characters blend into each other. It’s entirely possible the dialogue falls flat in a few places. Is the ending satisfying enough?

Shit.

Writing a novel is hard work.

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.