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Go Away Publishing Industry. I’m Writing.

It’s entirely possible that what you know about the publishing industry is killing your chances of being published.

I’m not referring to perky and/or snarky agents* who tease you forward with a one-in-a-thousand opportunity they call “querying,” or clueless editors* who wouldn’t know brilliant literature if it bit them in the Franzen. I’m not talking about the endless hoops writers have to jump through whether chasing the graying hope of traditional publishing success or the shiny silver promise of self-published glory. I’m not talking about the dearth of bookstores or the preponderance of ebooks or the utter unpredictability of bestsellers.

I’m talking about the thing that lies beneath all these other things.

I’m talking about information.

It’s ancient news that technology and the Internet Age (social media in particular) have changed and are still changing the publishing game. Not long ago the industry was the privileged child of Monopoly and Aggravation. Now it’s the bastard son of Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Trivial Pursuit. Imperfect board game analogy aside, the biggest difference between then and now is what we know (or can know, provided we have great web-surfing skills).

Logic seems to tilt in a writer’s favor here: Information leads to knowledge. Knowledge leads to power. Ergo, writers who know lots of stuff are powerful.

Yes.

And no.

Yes. We know more. Lots more. We know who stirs the waters and who tries to still them. We know where to find writing advice that makes a difference. We know what it takes to self-publish a book. We know the kinds of bribes agents definitely can’t accept because that would be unethical but as long as you brought that bottle of wine to the conference, sure, I’ll take it.

We know a lot because most of what there is to know is available on the Internet. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. What knowledge really affords us is opportunity. Power comes from knowing how to take advantage of that opportunity.

And don’t forget that with opportunity comes responsibility. Try querying an agent without first studying her query guidelines and see what happens. (No. Don’t. I hate to see a writer cry.)

And no. When everyone has access to the same information, none of us is more powerful than the next. In many ways, it’s even harder to get noticed, now that everyone with a computer, an iPad, a smart phone, or a heartbeat thinks he can write a novel.

About that novel…

Did you forget about your novel? You’re not alone. Most writers I know struggle to stay focused on their story, and it’s not just external distractions (children, spouses, Kardashians) that have them wedged between the rock of industry knowledge and the hard place of writing.

The abundance of publishing information (and easy access to it) may well be the number one cause of writer’s block. When writers should be listening to the protagonist’s plea for conflict, instead they’re worrying about whether or not the book is marketable. Or they’re praying for the perfect agent. Or they’re suffering the metaphorical flop-sweat of query-fear.

But there’s an easy solution. Right? All you need is one of those writing programs that can go full-screen with the click of a button. Or a legal pad and a pen. And maybe a writing spot without Internet access.

No distractions.

Apart from all that you know (and don’t yet know) about the publishing industry. You know a lot, remember?

This isn’t going to get easier. The publishing industry is shedding more and more of its clothes every day. It’s all there for everyone to see. Not quite naked, but still NSFW. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

Except that to write well, that’s exactly what you must do.

The publishing industry needs to go away while you write.

Maybe you write in short bursts between games of solitaire. Maybe you prefer day-long marathons. Whatever your mechanics, you must not let the publishing industry intrude on the mystery of storytelling. While you write, the industry no longer exists. It’s just you and your characters and all the things they do.

When you’re not writing (I don’t mean in the pause between sentences), go crazy on the Internet. Read the agent blogs, the writer blogs, the industry blogs. Surf and search and study and worry all you want. Become powerful.

But when you’re writing? Let it go.

Your characters have no idea there is such a thing as a publishing industry. Don’t screw up their story by distracting them with it.

 

*I actually have lots of love for agents and editors. This was just me playing with a popular notion for the sake of an interesting sentence. 

Vivisection

If you watch a writer in a coffee shop, you won’t be particularly impressed by her work. You might not even notice that she’s working. The external act of writing is a mundane thing. It is quiet, often deathly so.

ten fingers tapping

long sighs and silent swearing

insomnia cure

You have to slice a writer in half to reveal the invisible truth.

Writing is sudden bursts of brilliance racing ahead with yellow-jersey speed while you labor to catch up with tricycle typing fingers.

It’s a magnificent ache and pointless pursuit sandwich smothered in what-the-hell-was-I-thinking sauce.

It’s creation and destruction. Hope and despair. Love and love and more love.

And death. Lots of death.

It’s making friends and enemies. Then making enemies of friends with a press of the delete button.

It’s a whisper where a shout should be and a shout where the story is yelling at you to whisper.

Writing shrieks like that child screaming for another cookie. It cries like that old man who used to come every Sunday with his wife but now sits alone.

Writing is an empty balloon where your brain should be. It’s a world on the tip of your tongue. It’s a thunderstorm and a desert, a song and an empty stage.

It’s walls everywhere you turn…

You want to jump off a bridge. Wait…a bridge. Yes!

…and inspiration when you least expect it.

Writing is the reason “argh!” is a word.

Your wrists hurt, your head hurts, your heart hurts. You want to throw the computer across the room. You want to marry it.

Writing is a beautiful violence.

But you wouldn’t know it by watching a writer in a coffee shop.

ten fingers tapping

paradox of perfect calm

she is building worlds

 

 

 

 

DON’T PANIC

Writing fiction can make you crazy.

Here’s how.

Step One – Over the course of your next three lifetimes, visit a few thousand publishing-related blogs and read every nugget of writerly wisdom you can find. Pay particular attention to literary agents’ blogs. They’re jam-packed with practical tips, such as:

“If your novel includes a prologue, you’re obviously a demon from the pit of hell. I don’t represent demons. At this time.”

“Don’t even think of misspelling the word query. Seriously, stop thinking about it. Have you stopped thinking about it? I didn’t think so. Please go away.”

“Backstory in a novel is like back hair on a competitive swimmer. It slows you down. And it’s totally gross. Three words: laser hair removal.”

Step Two – Look up published authors’ websites. Then read about their writing journeys and routines, where you’ll discover inspirational gems like these:

“I write an average of twelve million words before breakfast. Then I go for a 30-mile run and save a beached whale or two before lunch. Well, on my off days.”

“I sold my very first book. I wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on cocktail napkins while distracted by a lounge singer crooning Neil Diamond songs. It was a story about cannibal vampire monkeys. No one had written a story about cannibal vampire monkeys yet, so it became a bestseller. My next book is about cannibal vampire orangutans.”

“I wrote 97 novels before landing an agent. That 98th novel is the charm, writer friends. Just hang on until the 98th. Be encouraged!”

Step Three – Read every book you possibly can on writing.* Here are some of my favorites (I might have gotten the titles wrong):

Writing Adverbally for Fun and Profit

The First-Time Author’s 127-Step Guide to Probably Getting Published

I Wrote a Bestselling Novel. That Qualifies Me As a Writing Teacher. Buy This Book.

Step Four – Meet regularly with fellow writers at a trendy coffee shop to talk about your works-in-progress. Pay close attention when crit group members say things like this:

“Your protagonist should wear a hat. I think your book would be ten times better if she wore a hat. A blue hat, with white, frilly trim. Or you can keep her hatless. But then your book will suck.”

“You totally need to rewrite chapter one. And all the other chapters, too. Except for chapter nine. That’s the one with the sex scene, right? That one is brilliant. Did you want me to return this copy of the manuscript? How about I just keep chapter nine.”

“I thought your story was lovely. I especially liked the part where the cannibal vampire monkeys attacked the…what? That wasn’t your story? Yours was about a woman who is reunited with her long lost sister? I must have misplaced that. Sorry. But have you read the one about the cannibal vampire monkeys? You should write one like that.”

Step Five – Go insane.

Everyone on the planet has writing advice. (Including me.) If you try to take it all in, your head will explode. If you try to apply everything you do manage to take in, your head will explode. If you stuff dynamite in your mouth and light it, your head will explode, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: DON’T PANIC.**

Study the craft. Read helpful blogposts and books. Listen to wise counsel. Then write. And write some more. And when you need a break? Take one. Don’t beat yourself up because your collection of writing advice isn’t complete. This isn’t Pokemon.

You have no reason to panic. You have plenty of time to follow your unique writing journey. Unless you’re on deadline. Or have sticks of dynamite in your mouth. Then you might want to panic at a level commensurate with the potential for serious injury. (Helpful hint: deadlines trump dynamite.)

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. (And take notes. Someday you’ll probably want to write about it on your blog. You know, to inspire other writers. Or make them insane.)

Happy writing, kids. And relax, okay?

 

*I should probably mention here that I’m writing a book for fiction writers, too. The working title is, “Your Muse Isn’t Real (And She’s Trying to Kill You).” It will be a small book filled with potentially helpful advice and an equal portion of possibly harmful advice. You’ve been warned.

**The title of this post is offered in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, who could have penned just those two words and I would still call him a favorite author. However, he didn’t stop at two. He wrote a few more. Many of them were quite well organized. You should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again.

 

How to Write Good Dialogue

Well-written dialogue doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it quietly goes about its business, revealing truth and ferrying the plot toward its conclusion.

Bad dialogue, on the other hand, stands out like a man wearing a clown costume to a funeral. (Unless it’s a clown funeral. Then it’s like a man not wearing a clown costume to a funeral.)

But for all its invisibility, good dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting. Besides giving voice to your characters, dialogue frequently puts legs on that “show, don’t tell” axiom.

For a rare few writers, writing dialogue is as natural as breathing. It’s second nature to them. But for many others, writing good dialogue is one part chore, two parts challenge. For them, dialogue is an unrepentant thief of patience during the revision process.

For those who are in this latter category, I offer the following tips. As with pretty much every other bit of writing advice that exists, there are always exceptions. For example, you can use intentionally stilted or awkward dialogue to help shape a unique character. Maybe the creepy guy who’s stalking the protagonist never uses contractions. (This would certainly enhance his creepiness.) Maybe the daughter of the rich oil baron talks as if quoting lines from a bad romance novel because that’s all she ever read in her sheltered life. But even in those cases, it takes a deft writing hand to craft appropriate dialogue that fits both character and context. It’s not as simple as writing badly.

But I digress. On to the dialogue tips:

Simplify Attributions – As much as possible, just use “said” and “asked” and their variations in dialogue scenes. Or use nothing at all when the context makes it unquestionably clear who’s talking. People who bark, spit, grunt, or burp their words need to see a doctor. Or a veterinarian. Clever attributions can divert attention from the dialogue to the attribution itself. You don’t want this to happen. “Trust me,” he puked.

Don’t Be a Puppet Master – In real life, people bring assumptions and prior knowledge to a conversation. This is also true for your fictional characters. Don’t force dialogue through your characters’ throats because you need to tell the reader something. If the information wouldn’t naturally be revealed in the context of the conversation, find another way to deliver it. Your characters aren’t puppets; they’re people. Treat them as such.

Maintain Believable Pacing – Most conversations aren’t like a game of ping-pong, despite how convenient it would be to use ping-pong as a visual metaphor. Unlike ping-pong, the back and forth of conversation is uneven, sometimes dominated by one party, sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes languid. Context should always determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. There is a rhythm to good dialogue, but it’s rarely something you can set  your metronome to. Don’t force characters to speak just because you’re uncomfortable with their silence. Always let the moment decide its own pacing.

Avoid Long Monologues - I know. One of your characters is a blowhard. He likes the sound of his voice and this is important to the character development or plot. Let him have his way. But don’t make a habit out of long speeches unless the story requires it. Dialogue usually requires two people. And while one may say little while the other says a lot (see pacing, above), giving characters pages of monological diatribes risks boring the reader. And in my experience, long-winded monologues are frequently evidence of a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. Rather than revealing important information contextually and through creative “show, don’t tell” opportunities, they make their characters dump it on the page for them (see puppet note above).

Kill (Most) Adverbs – Do I need to say it again? Only use adverbs when they actually add something to the dialogue. If it’s clear the character is upset and yelling, you don’t need to add that she’s yelling “loudly.” Yelling is, without further qualification, loud. That said, you might actually find use for adverbs in the dialogue itself. Real people use them in conversation (though not as much as you might think). That’s fine. Just don’t staple them willy-nilly to all your attributions.

Use Contractions – Unless you’re writing a period piece or a novel that otherwise demands the stiff-upper-lippedness of contraction-free speech,  please use them without apology. They just sound more natural. This, by the way, holds true not only for dialogue, but also for the rest of your narrative. If you want to challenge this advice, that’s fine. Please have your well-thought-out reasoning notarized by at least three editors who agree with you before presenting it to me. Thanks.

Don’t Give Readers Whiplash – “A lot of newbie authors,” he began, turning to look her mascara-streaked face, “suffer from this malady.” He looked down. “They break up a single piece of dialogue,” he continued, “with so many little ‘asides’ that the reader gets whiplash.” He looked up into her eyes again. “Do you know what I mean?”

There’s a time and place for action in the middle of dialogue, and when done right, that action can greatly enhance a scene. A well-timed look or touch can speak volumes. Just don’t use action to distraction.

Use Dialects Sparingly – Some of the best novels ever written are packed with well-defined characters who speak with dialects that by their very nature reveal a certain level of education or perhaps a country (or region) of origin. Characters with unique or easily-recognizable dialects can add a great deal to a story. However, crafting believable characters with any sort of dialect is no easy task. In part, this is because the dialect you see with your eyes (on the page) has a much different “feel” than a dialect you hear with your ears. In some cases, dialect can detract rather than enhance a story. If your character’s speech is hard to understand (and this isn’t due to an intentional plot point), consider dialing back on dialect. And whenever you do use it, just be sure you’re consistent both to the way such a person would speak in real life, and from scene to scene in the story itself. Otherwise your characters will sound like Kevin Costner in…well…any movie where he attempts an accent.

What other dialogue tips do you have? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile…

“Happy writing,” he said.

A Compelling Reason

Why do you write?

Wait, don’t answer that. Not yet. Let me play psychic. (Don’t try this at home. At least not with the aid of an Ouija board. You might get sucked into the underworld – and I don’t mean the good one where Kate Beckinsale wears leather. Or you could become possessed by demons. Or – yikes – you might be inspired to make a low-budget paranormal horror film that will turn you into a millionaire!)

First, I will place a few of your worst possible answers on the table so I can sweep them into the trash bin.

Because I want to be rich.

Because I want to be famous.

Because I’m a brilliant writer and apparently it’s up to me to stem the tide of crappy novels.

Because everyone else is doing it.

If you’re in this to become rich and famous, um, really? I mean, if that happens because of your writing, terrific. Wear sunglasses at night and snort Beluga caviar for breakfast. But if this is the reason you write ? Um…really?

Are you a brilliant writer? Says who? Okay, let’s assume you are brilliant. If your goal is to make people forget about crappy books, you’ve already failed. There will always be people who love what you refer to as crappy books. And – get this – there will always be people who think your books are crappy.

If you’re writing because everyone else is doing it, may I introduce you to this herd of lemmings and that cliff?

Sweep. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Okay. Now, let’s look at another possible answer.

Because it’s fun. I like writing. It makes me feel good. And it keeps me off the streets. It was either this or a drug habit. You don’t want me doing drugs, do you? DO YOU?

No, of course we don’t want you doing drugs. If writing’s fun for you and that’s all you want out of it, then party with your participles until you’re [adjective] in the [noun] and you can’t [verb] anymore. But if you’re hoping to be published someday, you can’t use this as your primary answer. Sorry. It just won’t do.

I know what you’re thinking so I’ll just go ahead and write the words here:

Because I can’t not write.

[And the crowd goes wild! Except the crowd is wrong.] That’s not an answer. Not a satisfying one, anyway. I know where you’re going with it. You’re comparing writing to breathing. Or a beating heart. Or choosing the slowest possible line in the grocery store. Every. Single. Time.

Writing’s not an autonomic function. It’s not something you can’t not do. It’s a choice.

“Hold on there buddy, boy,” you say. “I don’t agree. I really can’t help myself. I have to write. Something compels me to…”

Ah, stop right there. You said “something compels me.”

“So?”

So dig a little deeper. What is this “something” that compels you? What could possibly be so compelling that you would be willing to give up precious sleep (among other precious things like children and spouses and the latest episode of “Modern Family”) in its pursuit? Want the answer now? Okay. Here:

You want to matter.

You might also know this by other names, such as:

You want to be remembered.

You want to make a difference.

You want to be seen as beautiful. Or worthy. Or smart. Or clever. Or funny.

Is it any wonder why rejection stings so much? Oh, sure, we all buck up and say “I’m okay with rejection because I learn from it.” Yeah. But first it hurts. That’s what makes the learning stick.

So what difference does this make? Who cares why we write? I do. And so should you. Because if you recognize that your writing is more about you than the words on the page, you’ll take it seriously. You’ll give writing the respect it deserves. And you’ll get better at it.

Stephen King wrote, “you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

He’s absolutely right. But not just because words matter.

Because you do, too.