Category Archives: My Thoughts

The Delirious Ecstasy of Getting Lost

The other night I took a break from an editing marathon to watch a movie. This will not surprise anyone who knows me. I love movies. Especially movies you haven’t heard of yet. Like this one.

Phoebe in Wonderland.

It’s the story of 9-year-old Phoebe (brilliantly played by the other Fanning, Elle) and her apparent Alice-in-Wonderland-flavored struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (which turns out to be something else but I’m not telling because I think some of you are going to rent this movie now that I’ve mentioned it and it’s always more fun to discover Important Plot Points in the context of your own experience rather than through the eyes of another).

There are a number of reasons I enjoyed this film, but I’m only going to talk about one: I got lost in it.

Not lost in a “where is this going?” way (though a certain amount of that kind of lost is actually a good thing), but more in a “where did the time go?” way.

Phoebe (the movie, and the character) took me on a gentle, unexpected expedition. I felt as if I were actually wandering around in this uniquely blended mix of the real and unreal where Phoebe and her parents and sister and peers and a brilliantly odd drama teacher and more than a few fictional characters lived. It’s not that the story was a meandering mess – the structure and plot and point eventually revealed themselves. But for much of the story, I didn’t care about that.

I was having too much fun with the beautiful uncertainty.

I wanted to wander. I wanted to get lost.

Here’s the thing you already know about wandering: the point isn’t to end up somewhere, it’s all about wondering. (Didja catch that clever wordplay?) Wondering what’s around the next corner. What’s under the rug. What’s hiding in the tree. What’s lurking. What’s in the box. What’s making that noise.

Movies like Phoebe bend narrative rules a bit. They break out of the expected plot lines and invite viewers to experience snippets of the created world from the unique perspective of one of the characters. (See also: Finding Neverland and, if you’re not frightened by cardboard, The Science of Sleep.)

What does all this have to do with novel writing? Well, it’s simple, really. I’m telling you to get lost.

Go ahead and plot your story if that’s how you like to write. But once or twice or a thousand times, steal away into the novel’s world and allow yourself to step off the plotted path. Explore the stuff that’s not obvious, that’s not there.

You might be thinking “yeah, well my novel isn’t fantasy so I don’t see how this applies to me.” After slapping you silly with a waterlogged gnome hat, I’ll ask you to take back your words. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing – the world you’re creating is bigger than the story arc you’ve imagined. It’s deeper and wider and taller than the words on the page. You can’t point readers to that expanse unless you’ve been there yourself.

When you lose yourself in the world of your making, that world can grow, expand, and offer up things you’d never thought of. This can be a scary prospect, especially if you’re a write-by-numbers person. It might feel like being asked to strip naked and chase saber-toothed bunnies in a blinding sleet across a frozen lake. And it’s quite possible you could run in a hundred different directions and never discover a single thing you can actually use in the novel. But at least you will have gotten some exercise. And more than that, you’ll have discovered what you want your readers to discover – that there’s a great big living, breathing world behind the page.

If you follow all the writing advice books and blogs and tweets, you can learn to write a perfectly serviceable novel. Maybe even a really good novel. Tension on every page? Go for it. Flawed characters? Sure. Use all the tips and tricks you want. But before you type “the end” please take some time to wander. Here’s a helpful tip: If you find there’s nowhere to wander? Well, you might just need to start over.

There. That’s it.

Now get lost.

Why Are You Reading This?

Most blog posts save the Really Important Lesson for the last paragraph. I’m just going to cut’n’paste it right here:

I write not because I “have to,” but because I want to be read.

Thanks for reading.

Skip to the bottom of this post and you’ll see the very same words.

Are you still reading? Why? Anything written between the first and last word will merely be used to support the Really Important Lesson noted above.

You won’t be surprised to discover that I have a few theories on why you’re still reading. Feel free to skip these:

  • You think I’m trying to trick you. You know from the past that I sometimes mess with your mind in this space and wonder if I’m doing it again. Even now you’re reasonably certain this bullet point is merely a clever tease of something Yet to Be Revealed. You believe there’s a surprise coming. A punch line. Also, someone is following you.
  • You understand the value of the process. This is sort of like saying “I’m in it for the journey” even though you know ahead of time where the journey ends. How many of you saw Titanic. Spoiler alert: the ship sinks. So why did you go? And why do you read a book you’ve already read? Because you expect (or hope) to enjoy the trip. And unlike cruises on doomed superliners (and, apparently, stays at the Hotel California), you can leave any time you like. So are you still enjoying this little journey? Then read another reason below. Or close your browser. Go ahead, I dare you.
  • You don’t want to miss anything. It’s not just the journey that keeps you glued to the page, it’s the possibility that you’ll uncover something you didn’t expect, or better still, something only a select few others will find. When we discover something hidden between or beneath the actual words, we feel pretty darn good about ourselves. We feel smart and clever and are immediately ushered behind the curtain into an exclusive club that earns us at the very least, a knowing wink from the author, and sometimes a secret decoder ring. (But not this time. Sorry. My secret decoder ring supplier went out of business. I blame Dan Brown.)
  • You’re stubborn, an optimist, or a stubborn optimist. You haven’t met a terrible book you didn’t still read from cover to cover. Maybe you hold out hope it will improve. Maybe you hold out hope you’ll actually understand half the words the author uses. More likely you have some mild form of literary OCD and leaving a book unfinished is impossible for you. Did your parents tell you to “clean your plate” every meal, too? Yeah. I thought so. Please add “guilt” to this reason.
  • You like the way I write. Hey, stop laughing. It could happen.

Does it matter why you kept reading? Maybe to your therapist. But not so much to me, the writer. Yes, I’d like it very-much-thank-you if you kept reading because the beauty and rhythm of my words and the compelling intrigue of my narrative gave you a particularly satisfying literarygasm. But if you kept reading because of OCD tendencies or lingering guilt? That’s okay with me, too.

It doesn’t matter if we’re writing a query or putting the final touches on an epic novel that spans ten generations and gives Proust a run for his money, we write not just because we like the sound of pencil scratching on paper or fingers tippy-tapping on laptops, but because we want other people to read our words. Some of you might be queueing up an argument right about now that includes the words, “I don’t write for others – I write for myself.” If you mean, “I’m writing what I want to write, not what others would have me write,” then good for you. I have no argument with that. But if you’re trying to tell me, “I don’t want or need anyone else to read my words,” all I have to say is, Really? Then why are you reading this blog post?

I write not because I “have to,” but because I want to be read.

Thanks for reading.

Inspiration, Perspiration and Aspiration

Thomas Edison is famously known for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Some folks hovering in the shadows of the publishing industry have glommed onto this quote as a rallying cry for aspiring authors. “It’s not about talent – it’s about hard work,” they say. Well, they don’t actually say “it’s not about talent,” but the implication of Edison’s statement when recklessly applied to creative genius is that anyone with even a penny’s worth of an idea can work hard enough to someday achieve their publishing goals.

Nope. Not true.

I’ll wait while you take a moment to quote examples of “no-talents” who have worked their way into successful publishing careers.

Done? Yeah, I hear you. We could easily turn a corner here and start talking about what “talent” is, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that even the “worst” published writers have something to offer the reading public. [Oh, and that Edison fellow? He didn’t actually invent the light bulb – he improved on other people’s work. His “inspiration” was about refinement and revision and re-invention. Sound familiar, writers?]

Edison’s quote has been so misused that I sometimes feel sorry for the light bulb. But did you know Edison had more to say about “genius”? Perhaps as clarification for his “1/99″ comment he allegedly said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”

Ah, yes. Now we’ve got something usable for aspiring authors. It’s gonna take work. This is no surprise to any of you who have been studying writing books and agenting blogs and attending conferences in search of publishing wisdom. Keep at it. A lot of hard work can make a good idea into a great one.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) all the hard work in the world won’t turn an uninspired novel into an inspired one*. If your story is boring or unoriginal or badly written, if your idea (or your re-invention of someone else’s idea) isn’t the least bit interesting, your chances of being published are slim.

This isn’t the sort of message I like to deliver. I’d much prefer to say “all aspiring writers have an equal chance of getting published someday if they just work hard enough at it.” But that would be a lie.

I simply can’t downplay the importance of inspiration. Of a good idea. Of a great story. Of a compelling voice. Nor should you.

Do you have it? Do you have the inspiration or talent to set you apart from the rest? I don’t know. Maybe. (This is where you can be thankful for the role of subjectivity. One agent’s “I don’t see it” is another agent’s “you’ve got what it takes” when it comes to identifying inspired writing.)

However, let’s remember: Edison was no idiot. He was gifted with a highly capable brain. Likewise, some people have a natural gift for writing. (If you’re one of them, lots of folks secretly despise you. Oh, they don’t wish you harm. They’re just upset that God didn’t spread the inspiration a bit wider and feel it’s particularly unfair that through some processing error in the Brilliance Distribution Department you ended up with their share.) Every idea they exhale dances like Baryshnikov. Of course, if those folks never do a lick of work with that inspiration, they’re as unlikely to be published as those who are all work and no inspiration.

Which leads me to a suggested revision of Edison’s quote, specifically tuned for the writing community. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly impossible math, you might want to look away. Here goes:

“Finding success as a writer is 100 percent inspiration and 100 percent perspiration.”

Think about that for a moment. Actually, you know what? Think about it until my next post.

Peace.

*Please note, I’m not saying you can’t find new inspiration for a novel in the process of working through it. I’m simply stating that any book that is completely void of inspiration is most likely unpublishable (by traditional means, anyway).

I’m Good at Drawing Frogs

When I was 10 years old, I liked drawing almost as much as writing. And though I dabbled in the drawing of reptiles, particularly snakes (which are actually a bit more complex than one might assume, despite their limbless design), I became particularly adept at frogs. If you wanted a drawing of a frog, you came to me.

I enjoyed drawing frogs. I mean, frogs are definitely the sort of creature boys ought to draw if they draw at all. Well, frogs and spiders. (Though if you ask me, spiders are more about math that art. Can you count to eight? You can draw a spider.)

But I also liked horses. Now before you accuse me of being all girly (no, I did NOT sew my own G. I. Joe clothes… I manufactured them – please, make note of the distinction), I’d like to add that my love for horses came from watching The Lone Ranger on TV (a totally masculine show because the protagonist is a cool cowboy who wears a mask), and not from falling in love with Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague (although, yes, I did read it – purely for research purposes).

It was only natural that I would attempt to combine my love for drawing and my interest in horses.

Only one problem. I was a frog specialist.

My first attempts at drawing horses were disasters. If you know anything about horses, you know that words like “sleek” and “majestic” define their shape, whereas, frogs are all about “bulbous.”

I quickly became frustrated and disappointed and nearly stopped drawing altogether. I thought that all artists would naturally be able to draw anything they wanted.

Nope.

Thankfully, in the midst of my pre-adolescent pencil-and-paper angst, someone asked for a picture of a frog. I drew it. And it was good. Damn good.

Meanwhile, I bought a book called “How to Draw Horses” or something like that. I studied it. I practiced. And I improved. Had my interests not suddenly shifted to All Things Sports, my horse drawing ability might have soon eclipsed my frog drawing skill.

Okay. Segue here.

When I first started writing, I became quite good at instructional copy. Curriculum, sunday school lessons, things like that. I enjoyed writing instructional copy (in part because I was good at it).

I also loved reading novels.

Do you see where this is going? Of course you do. I wanted to write novels.

My first attempts were pretty awful. They were… bulbous. I almost gave up writing when I realized how far off the mark I was.

But then someone asked me to write curriculum. For money. Real money.

So that’s what I did. And over time, I added all sorts of non-fiction writing to my resume. I became an editor and discovered I was good at that, too. Then I worked my way into editing fiction (which is what I do almost exclusively today). The whole time, I never stopped trying to improve my fiction writing.

Here’s the perfect place in my over-long post to reveal all the amazing novels I’ve written and published. Except I’m still working on that. I think I’m at a place where my novel writing is as good as (or even better than) my non-fiction writing, and I might just be a better writer than editor. I guess we’ll see soon enough (“soon enough” meaning as soon as I finish the current w.i.p. and start doing just what you’re doing – submitting it to agents).

The point of all this? Simple: Find out what you naturally write well; write lots of it; and, if possible, get paid. Meanwhile, keep getting better at what you love.

Someday, you might just become adept at drawing horses.

Well, that’s it for today… I’ve got a few frogs to draw. Gotta pay the bills, you know?

See you next time.

Let It Die

Is it time let your novel die?

That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.

Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?

There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.

But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.

And nobody wants it.

You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”

Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?

How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?

I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an “overnight success” story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.

If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.

For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.

Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.

But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.

Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.

Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.

And I think it’s hungry.