Yes, I’m still breathing. Just editing a zillion books at the moment. I promise I’ll write a real post soon. Meanwhile, feel free to visit the archives. Or watch old episodes of X-Files. Whatever works for you.
Step 1. Read.
Step 2. Write.
Step 3. Go back to Step 1.
I”ll be back with a slightly more thoughtful post soon. Meanwhile, have fun getting stuck in this loop.
You have a brilliant opening paragraph. I mean Pulitzer Prize brilliant.*
But somewhere around page [insert number here], the story begins to drag. I mean dead-body-up-a-steep-hill drag. Never fear, I’m here to help. (Not with the body-dragging. I have a bad back.)
Step One: Get a 12-sided die. (Ask your table-gaming friend. If you casually refer to it as a d12 he’ll invite you to join him next Friday in his parents’ basement for a rousing game of Pokéthulhu. You’re welcome.)
Step Two: Roll the 12-sided die. Note the number.
Step Three: Choose the associated item from the Action List below and incorporate it into your novel.
Step Four: Enjoy your Pulitzer Prize.
1 – Take something from your protagonist. I mean something he really cares about. Like his home. (Fires happen. Faulty wiring, mostly.) Or his mother. (Death happens. Like when fires happen.) Or his right hand. (Sith happens.)
2 – Incur God’s wrath. Send a tornado into the story. Or some other act of God, like a flood or a hurricane. Or Obamacare.**
3 – Reveal a deep dark secret. I don’t mean your deep dark secret (like the fact that you love Justin Bieber – I’ve seen your browser history), I mean your protagonist’s secret. Have one of her friends break her trust by telling a mutual friend about the skeleton in her closet. (It’s a squirrel skeleton wearing Barbie clothes. I can explain.)
4 – Cousin Oliver it. If you get the reference from that alone, you don’t need to read any further. If you don’t get the reference, Google it. Just make sure you Oliver it up in a believable way. Cousins rarely show up on your doorstep without good reason.
5 – Downsize. Look, your protagonist has been doing really well and all with the grave digging. I mean, when I look at those sharp lines and perfectly-defined spaces all I can think of is Frank Lloyd Wright. But he’s got to go. The cemetery can only keep one digger on staff and Barney has seniority.
6 – Get lost. Send your protagonist on a quest to get something mundane. Like a folding chair for the back porch. But have him go to an unfamiliar store in an unfamiliar part of town. Maybe he finds himself in the middle of a gang war. Maybe his car breaks down. Maybe he asks for directions at a gas station that’s being robbed. Or maybe he ends up on an island with a bunch of other people who don’t know how they got there.
7 – Find something. Have your protagonist uncover something unexpected while doing something mundane. Like a corpse in the flower garden. Or a cache of love letters in the attic from a famous actor written to her mother.
Or a doorway to a magical land in the back of the coat closet. Or a solid surface at the back of the coat closet that doesn’t lead anywhere at all.
8 – Get infected. Give your protagonist a disease. Something that comes on all of a sudden and really screws with his current plans. Preferably something that causes temporary blindness and/or paralysis.
9 – Drop a piano. Put your protagonist in the path of a random accident. Does he escape unscathed? I think it depends on the wind.
10 – Run. Give your protagonist a reason to leave right away. Maybe he owes a mobster lots of money and that mobster has just rung the doorbell. Maybe his house is on fire. (See #1 above.) Or maybe his planet about to be destroyed by Vogon Constructor Ships.
11 – Mail a package. Send your protagonist something that will make him get out of bed. A key to a storage locker. Or a map to a storage locker. Or a box of spiders.
12 – Go crazy. Mix your protagonist’s medications. Have a neighbor give him the wrong kind of mushrooms for his chicken marsala. Turn the neighbor’s stereo up to 11 while it’s playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on repeat.
*No, I haven’t actually seen your opening paragraph. It’s entirely possible it sucks. If it does you should probably fix it.
**Yes, it’s a cheap joke. But I enjoyed it and that’s what matters. For the record, Obamacare is the only reason I have health insurance today. I’m now fully covered for when the one-percenters invoke a plague to destroy the rest of us.
The writer community is a lot like a high school cafeteria. Not because of the food (although your w.i.p. diet of Cheetos and Dr. Pepper does bring back fond and/or frightening adolescent memories), but because of the cliques. For the purpose of this blogpost, we’ll use a different term: Tables of Earned Privilege.
Chances are you’re sharing a Table of Earned Privilege with Writers of Similar Experience. Let’s say you’re a self-published author. I mean the kind who hires an editor and a cover designer and a copyeditor and cares enough to produce something of quality, not the kind who throws a first draft at Amazon and suddenly thinks himself the next Stephen King. (Those particular writers are sitting at a different table – the Table of Delusion. It’s in the Janitor’s closet.) You’re seated at the Making a Go Of It And I Really Mean It Table. Look around your table. See any traditionally-published A-list authors?
Hey, stay focused here. Your eyes are wandering. I get it, there are some really cool tables.
Like that one with all the pizza and wine. That’s the Hocking-Howey Table of Self-Publishing Success. (It’s a somewhat honorary title, since they both also have seats at another table I’ll describe in a moment, long after this metaphor has exceeded its sell-by date*.) They’re a good bunch of folks, eager to engage in writerly conversation. They were you once. But let’s be realistic – one of the reasons for their success is all the time they spend writing and editing and marketing. So if they don’t have time to chat, don’t fret. You can always visit their website or buy their “How I Made It” book to pick up a few tips. I don’t mean that snarkily. Many of these folks have really good advice.
Or look at that table with all the home-made food and a box or two of Chinese take-out. That’s the Barnes & Noble™ New Book Table of Mid-List Authors. They’re a kind-hearted, sincere, yet surprisingly anxious bunch. If you study them for a while, you’ll see them stealing glances at the Hocking-Howey table, wishing their personal budgets allowed for Pizza Whenever, too. They’ll chat with you if you tell them how much you love their books, or if you manage to say something clever and/or re-tweetably hilarious. But don’t expect to sit with them for long. There’s only so much room at the table. (“But it’s a huge table,” you argue. Yep. And yet they’re always one seat short. It’s like a perpetual game of musical chairs.) Besides, they feel most comfortable talking amongst themselves, sharing encouragement and contract horror stories while they pass the potatoes and scratch-made gravy. Keep watching, though. They’ll often wander off to visit another table. Yes, the one you’re pretty sure is catered by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, though it might be Outback Steak House – it’s hard to tell from this distance.
That would be the Limited-Seating-Available Table of A-List Authors. Oh, they don’t call it that themselves. They’re mostly really nice people who don’t have much inclination to live up to their iconic status. The best ones are happy to wander around the cafeteria to chat when they have a rare, spare moment. They love writing and writers. But once again, there’s only so much time left for such things, what with the TED talks, the multitude of ancillary projects, the sold-out book signings, the month-long writing retreats in Bora Bora and the wistful moments staring across a mirror-still lake at twilight remembering what it was like to be anonymous.
Pretty much everyone in the cafeteria is a hardworking writer just like you. Some are more talented. Some are more prolific. Some just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But they aren’t jerks who would rather get a one-star review than be seen chatting at your table. (Well, most of them, anyway.) They’re just doing the best they can with what they have, wherever they sit. So it shouldn’t be too disheartening when your tweet to an author who sits at a different table goes un-favorited, un-responded to.
Of course, it often is disheartening. We say we write because we love to write; that even if we never find success we’ll keep writing. But we say it while staring longingly across the cafeteria. We want to sit where the coolest** kids sit.
Maybe someday you will. But you won’t get there by staring longingly at them across the cafeteria. You’ll get there by writing. A lot. You’ll get there by engaging with other writers, no matter where they sit. You’ll get there because of your talent. Or your hard work. Or because you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
But if you don’t? That’s okay too. Because Cheetos are delicious and all tables are suitable for writing. Yes, even the one in the janitor’s closet.
*I’m aware the table-lines aren’t so neatly drawn in reality. But I liked the metaphor. I’m a big fan of metaphors. Especially imperfect ones. They go nicely with my collection of incomplete thoughts and broken dreams.
**Each of us has a unique definition of “coolest.” You might think the author who sells a quintillion novels is coolest. I might think the author who can burp the alphabet in Klingon is coolest. (Is that even possible?)
If you want to be a successful (i.e.: published, well-read, income-producing) writer, you’re going to have to get comfortable in the company of strangers.
I’m not talking about the strange fictional people who inhabit your novel, I’m talking about the In Real Life kind. You know, those ugly bags of mostly water* you bump into while standing in line for your half-caff-soy-latte-with-a-double-shot-of-arsenic. If you’re anything like me (and I pray you’re not, because this could lead to a sudden loss of cabin pressure), approaching strangers, let alone asking them for something, ranks right up there with public speaking, pregnant spiders, and admitting to an un-ironic love for Coldplay on a list of top fears.
But that’s exactly what you have to do.
Let’s say you’ve finished your novel. I mean the sixth draft, not the first. (If you approach strangers with the first draft, they will spontaneously combust and you will choke on their ashes. This is not as fun as it sounds.) You’re going to need some feedback on your masterwork before you take the next step. Mom’s already given her oven-mitt thumbs-up. “One star! Wait, which one means it’s really good? Got it. Five stars and six exclamation marks!!!!!!” Your best friend Louise told you it’s the best book she’s ever read. (Do I need to mention that it’s the only book Louise has read?) Being the wise person that you are, you know those glowing reviews may not represent the opinion of your target audience: everyone else.
What you need is a few strangers. Crit-group members are strangers. I know, I know. You call them friends, but have you ever told them about your un-ironic love for Coldplay? I didn’t think so. Ask them to read your novel. Then consider their criticism. Use what works, ignore the rest.
Now it’s time to find more strangers. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, your next strangers will probably be literary agents. Most of them will reject you without even trying to get to know you first. This will hurt because it will remind you of your sad, sorry, single life and the fact that you always dine alone and haven’t kissed anyone since the Bush administration. I mean, that’s one example of what it might feel like. Theoretically.
If all goes well, one or more of those agent-strangers will want to know you better. And then, gods-willing-and-favorable-winds…Representation! Your agent-stranger is now your biggest fan. (Don’t mention the Coldplay thing quite yet, though.)
If you’re self-publishing (and are going about that the right way), or your agent-stranger has sold your book to a publisher, your next strangers will be editors. They tend to be an agreeable sort, despite their fascination with red pens and love for strong drink and crisp bacon. But they’re still strangers. You’ll be trusting your precious baby with people who don’t know you from Chris Martin.
Once the editor-strangers have finished their work (and you’ve finally accepted that they’re not the Devil Incarnate, but rather some of his more talented literary demons), it’s time to face the biggest stranger group of all: readers.
Reader-strangers tend to tell you what they really think. Some will make you insane. Some will crush your spirit.
And some will make you feel like a writer. A real writer.
There’s no way around it. Your writing future is in the hands of strangers. You might as well make peace with that today. Then, as always, get back to writing. Don’t worry. There will always be strangers.
You’re counting on it.
*Nerd alert. Name the reference and win the satisfaction of having named the reference. I know, Best Prize Ever.