Category Archives: Writing tips

Trails for Rabbits and Writers. And Rabbits.

Struggling with your current work in progress? Good for you. I mean, it’s lovely and wonderful and all when the story just flows like gravy over the Spoon Ridge Mountains of your mashed potatoes, but if you ask me, struggle is a good thing.

You’re somewhere in the middle of your book, aren’t you. And you’re totally frustrated. And ready to quit. Actually, yes, I am psychic. You’re also not eating enough vegetables and you need to call your mother and the world is going to end in 2012.

But before you grab and drop your messterpiece in the virtual trash, read the rest of this blog post. Your novel may yet be salvageable.

I said may be salvageable. Because let’s face it, sometimes the whole project does belong in the trash. But usually, it’s just a few pages here and there that deserve such fate.

This is where I must pause and offer a moment of reverent silence for the Days of Typewriters and Correction Fluid. In those days (yes, I actually am old enough to remember those days, the proof of which can be found in my so-mild-it’s-almost-precious brain damage, an unavoidable result of inhaling the literary scent of a generation: Liquid Paper), there was only so much you could fix on a page before it started to look like a cheap hooker in bad Kabuki makeup. That’s when you would practice the time-honored rip, crumple and toss that reminded you in multi-sensory fashion just what a horrible writer you were. At least on that particular page. Sometimes, the joy of actually making a three-point shot in your wastebasket would cheer you up enough to return to your novel in progress with renewed vim and vigor. But probably just vigor. Vim doesn’t get out much. Same with flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam gets lots of solo dates. Jetsam? Nope.

Today, it’s too easy. Bad writing doesn’t engage enough of our senses. It’s just “click, drag, pop” accompanied by wind chimes and the chirping of happy sparrows. There’s no satisfying machine-gun gear-grind inevitably followed by a pained groan from a spouse or co-worker who respects machines far more than humans and considers the removal of a sheet of paper from typewriter by anything other than gentle spinning of the platen wheel a mortal sin.

I know, you young folks are all “what? Platen wheel? What?” Google it. Wait, no, don’t Google it. Go to the library and check out a book called an “encyclopedia.” It’s sort of like Google, except it’s better at pressing flowers.

While you’re at the library, go to the fiction section. Grab the dustiest hardcover you can find and remove it from the shelf. Open to somewhere in the middle. Read a paragraph or two. Then find a comfy chair and keep reading. When the librarian taps you on the shoulder and says “we’re closing in ten minutes,” do a quick inventory of the past few hours. Were you drawn inexorably into the story? Or did you fall asleep? If the former, use this as motivation to get back to your own novel in progress. Because, let’s face it, the writer of the dusty library book struggled as much as you did with the middle. She just kept at it, you know? Maybe she took a break and made a BLT, only without lettuce and tomatoes since she really only likes BLTs for the bacon, and this inspired a brilliant idea that the protagonist could be allergic to wheat bread which would then solve her problem of a stalled plot because he just got a job in a bakery. Or maybe she printed out the offending pages, crumpled them up one at a time and played wasteketball until she felt so guilty about her growing carbon footprint that she vowed never to buy bottled water again, which gave her the brilliant idea of making her protagonist a quirky environmentalist because that would create palpable tension between him and his Hummer-driving love interest. Or maybe she went to the library and pulled out a dusty book and sat in a comfy chair and fell asleep because it was really horribly boring.

And when she awoke, she felt just what you did moments ago when the librarian tapped you out of your slumber, an electric surge of superiority all writers politely deny in public but crave in secret that goes by the name: “I can write better than that hack.” And as you brushed away fading dreams of secret library rendezvous and monkeys with typewriters and correction fluid in a spray can that works on annoying people, you realized you can do this.

You can fix the middle. Because you’re a damn good writer. Better than that loser who put you to sleep, anyway.

So go do it. Crumple up a few pages and write some new ones.

But first you should probably make a BLT.

Just in case.

The end. Yup. Really. Feel free to dig for hidden wisdom in this post.

* * *

You may be wondering why I don’t post more often. Why don’t you tell me? Choose from the following, or make up your own answer.

  1. Because I’m lazy.
  2. Because I can’t write until the muse shows up and she’s lazy.
  3. Because I like being contrary and infrequent blogging is exactly the sort of thing blogging experts tell you not to do.
  4. Because more often than not I don’t have anything new to add to the conversation and I have little interest in saying the same old thing in the same old way. Besides, you can get that elsewhere.
  5. Because I’m sending a coded message to rebel authors who are preparing a literary coup of the current publishing regime. (Count the number of days between posts. Assign a letter of the alphabet to each of those numbers. Re-arrange the letters until they make sense, in a “literary coup” sorta way. Follow the instructions carefully.)

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.

The Truth Below the True

I’m not going to tell you my true story.

Not just because it’s decidedly uneventful for the first four decades or so (apart from the usual stuff – saying clever things as a toddler, enduring the “let’s get Steve and his older brother matching sailor suits, won’t that be cute?” miscues of otherwise wonderful parents, leaving home, getting married, having kids, taking the occasional vacation, discovering unique ways to incorporate bacon into daily life), but because some of the story, particularly the season that begins just after those first four decades, features choices and consequences and events that, if published, could end up hurting Real Life People.

No matter how redemptive the story might ultimately be, a memoir that begins, “I fell in love with someone who was not my spouse,” is fraught with potential to damage friends and family members and others who don’t care to remember what happened “way back when.” Could such a book be helpful to people struggling with a similar situation? Probably. Cautionary tales have merit, to be sure. But I’m not telling you mine.

You’re distracted, aren’t you.

You’re wondering if that opening line is indeed from my unwritten memoir. Let’s take a closer look at this distraction for a moment. Look beyond the base curiosity that feeds our strange hunger for rumor. In just one sentence we see the edges of something that makes us squirm: even the best fall down sometimes. [Hat tip to Howie Day's "Collide."]

Don’t turn away just yet. Look deeper. Beneath the true story of a man who falls in love with someone who isn’t his wife is something called longing. I’m not going to use this space to tell you the “right and wrong” ways to deal with longing. [Feel free to bombard me with emails about "boundaries" if you must. Then take a real close look at why you feel so compelled to bombard me with emails about boundaries.] I’m not even going to try and define longing here. But you know it, don’t you. You know what it is.

It is a truth.

Though I choose not to tell my true story, I still feel compelled to write. (Hey, I’m a writer. It’s what we do.) And that, my virtual friends, is why I write fiction – short stories you can read here (if you have a strong stomach for angst and don’t mind digging a bit to find the hints of hope in the pain) – and a novel, which will finally get stamped with “The End” by summer if all goes well.

Let me make something abundantly clear: I’m not writing my “true story” in novel form. For the record, I don’t think that’s such a good idea for writers. But I am telling the truth. The truth of longing. The truth of what it feels like to be lost. Of what it feels like to be desired. Of what it feels like to be forgotten. Of what it feels like to wait. Of what it feels like to sip grace.

These truths are universal – and such universal truths are exactly what make a novel both believable and compelling.

I’m sure you’ve read novels that resonate with you. Maybe you couldn’t articulate exactly what it was that captured you, but you knew that this novelist was telling the truth. I suspect you’ve also read a few books that have had the opposite effect – you simply couldn’t relate to the characters or the storyline. Why? I’d bet the story was a little short on truth.

If you want to be a good writer – a writer who connects with readers, you have to get in touch with the truth below the true. Fair warning: getting to the truth below isn’t always fun – in fact, the journey can be ugly and scary and dangerous. But ignore it at your own peril as an author.

Tell whatever story you want, be it a mystery or fantasy or historical romance. Make up characters and plot lines as far removed from your own true story as the fiction demands. Hey, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. You can go anywhere.

Just be sure to tell the truth when you get there.

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.

Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Yes, there are lots of great books “on writing” (my favorite is the one that goes by that name, except capitalized; it’s by Stephen King), but I’ve found that you can get some great tips from the characters and narrators of Actual Novels. And isn’t it more fun to read a novel than a book about writing a novel? Sure it is.

I have a few of these lined up in the queue (gosh, I love writing that word), but I thought it might be fun to open this irregularly recurring blog feature with an unexpected little book. It’s called Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and is written by Adrienne Kress. Alex is a middle grade novel about pirates and treasure and schoolteachers and a train you can never leave and an Extremely Ginormous Octopus and the Very Wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society. It stars young Alex Morningside who is actually a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl with short hair, not a boy at all.

The book is clever and quirky-with-a-capital-Q (watch for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a pirate who uses a laptop to record the piratical business of the day). I’ve visited the author’s website and followed her tweets (that just sounds creepy) and I believe I can say with absolute most-likely-hood that she, like her novel, is also Clever and Quirky. And while Adrienne is a real life actress in addition to being a multi-published author (there’s a sequel to Alex, called Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate), she seems a very down to earth sort of person, quite unlike the Extremely Ginormous Octopus who tends to drink a lot because no one sees him as a serious Actor.

This is where we can all take a moment to offer a soft sigh of complaint that Some People are granted more than their fair share of talent and “why oh why can’t I have just a little of hers?”

There. I feel better.

Now, on to the helpful writing tips, taken directly from the novel. Feel free to apply the wisdom found here to your own writing. I trust your interpretation. After all, you’re Very Clever. (And Possibly Quirky, though I’m not sure how that applies here.)

On Imagination:

She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted.

On Plotting and Pacing:

“Um, could you tell me about the painting?”

“Oh, I am so glad you asked, dear,” replied the little old lady, spit flying out of her mouth. “It is of an uncharted island, somewhere far out to sea. Now I don’t know if you know about the tale of Alistair Steele and the Infamous Wigpowder…”

“Yes, I do – very well,” she said quickly. She hated it when people took too long to get to the heart of the story.

On Predictability:

Because of all their warnings, Alex half expected a cage to fall from the ceiling and trap her. But nothing happened, not even an alarm, and Alex went quickly over to the secret door.

Without waiting – as she knew well enough that, in stories, if you wait or think for too long, you get caught – she pushed the button, and the door opened.

On Showing Vs. Telling:

Philosophy is sort of silly like that. We spend all this time wondering why things exist, instead of dealing with the fact that they do.

On the Value of Interesting Words:

Coffee-table books are written to be so extremely dull that you can’t do anything but give up and look at the pictures. And you always start by reading the book, you always really, really, try, but it is no good. No matter how hard you focus, your eyes will start to glaze over, your mind will begin to wander.

On Problem-Solving:

Alex crossed the hall into the dark library. She looked out the window – again a steep drop down. She could see the town twinkling in the distance. It was so infuriating how close she was to escaping, and yet so far! There must be a way. There was always a solution to any problem. You just had to find it.

On The Importance of Setting:

Now sometimes, and I don’t know how it knows, the weather decides it wants to help with a certain situation by creating Atmosphere. At this moment, it decided to blow a gust of wind that rattled all the nonbroken windows and properly attached doors of the buildings along the bridge.

On Believably Imperfect Characters:

And what made one person good and the other one bad, anyway? In her long journey she had met good and bad people alike, people who were not pirates, but who had respectable jobs and were well-liked within their communities. And yet these same people could get away with the most reprehensible behavior. Couldn’t there be good pirates and bad pirates?