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 Voices In Your Head

I suppose it’s possible to be a writer and not suffer from some variation of multiple personality disorder, but I haven’t yet met one who isn’t at least circumstantially Sybilic. I’m not talking about the characters you create who take up temporary residence in your gray matter, I’m referring to the diverse and often contradictory voices that all claim ownership of your publishing success.

There’s Clueless Cheerleader, for example. She’s always saying things like “You can do it!” and “Write, baby, write!” and “Every word you write is one word closer to ‘The End’!” Everything she says ends with an exclamation point and she doesn’t care what the other voices are saying. To her, writing is easy. Clearly, she doesn’t know much about writing.

Her nemesis is, of course, Self-Appointed Voice of Reason. It needs to be noted right away that Self-Appointed Voice of Reason is Self-Appointed for a reason: she’s not really the voice of reason. She’s a nay-sayer. A nattering nabob of negativism. A sourpuss. A party pooper. She has a ready response for every naive [her word] aphorism Clueless Cheerleader tapes onto the bathroom mirror. Her favorite rejoinder is “You’ll never be as good as Hemingway or as lucky as that writer who sold all those glittery vampire books, you know, what’s-her-name.”

Programmer’s voice is measured and calm. She can explain (in five succinct bullet points) exactly how to write a novel. This is because she studies all the how-to books and knows every system there is for turning a novel idea into a perfectly readable novel. She sounds smart because she is smart. She’s also a deadline’s best friend. But sometimes Programmer can get a little huffy. Like when Rabbit Trailer speaks up.

I’m sure you recognize Rabbit Trailer. Hers is the voice that encourages you to follow every stray thought. Sometimes she is certain the thought will lead somewhere important. Other times, she doesn’t think about where the thought might lead. She just tells you to follow it. When Programmer asks, “Where do you think you’re going?” she will usually reply, “I’ll know when I get there.”

Programmer’s cousin, Rule Keeper, also gets peeved with Rabbit Trailer. She’ll say things like “that’s not a complete sentence” or “kill all your adverbs” or “don’t you dare write a prologue” rather loudly [adverb added against counsel of Rule Keeper], not caring one bit that these sorts of things might hurt Rabbit Trailer’s feelings.

There are others, of course. Many others. Woe Is Me will tell you to seek out a new hobby/career, and fast. It’s Okay to Ask For Help will encourage you to seek the wise counsel of crit partners and professional editors. Don’t You Dare will tell you your words are spotless and golden and that if anyone even thinks about changing them that person should be forced to read [Name of book deleted by voice of If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Don't Say Anything At All] from cover to cover. Out loud. A hundred times.

Most of these voices have some merit. The real challenge of writing is sorting through them, managing them. What happens when you’re not managing the voices in your head? Error-filled query letters. Broken plots. Two-dimensional characters. Oh, and a little thing called writer’s block. All the stuff that keeps you from realizing your dream of being published.

Here’s my advice: acknowledge these voices. Let them know you appreciate their role in your publishing journey. But also let them know that if they don’t play nice, you won’t hesitate to grab the microphone and kick them offstage. At least until you need them again.

Okay, Brevity just whispered in my ear that I should bring this post to a close.

So, um…The End.

Good Agent, Bad Agent

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a really brilliant un-agented, unpublished writer and you’ve recently finished final edits on a truly brilliant novel. Yesterday you queried a bunch of agents and today you got five “The Call” calls. Don’t laugh. We’re playing “let’s pretend,” remember?

How do you decide which agent will share 15 percent of your inevitable Very Nice Deal?

By gleaning great wisdom from this handy-dandy agent guide, that’s how.*

A Good Agent…will have some difficulty managing her excitement about representing you, occasionally letting slip words like “amazing” or “lyrical” or “compelling” in the course of her comments about your novel. She will talk about your novel’s main character, Gabrielle, so eloquently you’ll forget for a moment that you made her up.

A Bad Agent…will talk mostly about all the money the two of you will make and will refer to your novel in generic terms until she’s skimmed enough of the manuscript on the card table in front of her to declare your post-apocalyptic novel of spiritual re-birth “better than Dickens and Nicholas Sparks combined!”

A Good Agent…will tell you the truth about how hard it is to make it as a new author, then describe in detail how she tackles that challenge with as-yet-unpublished authors she chooses to represent.

A Bad Agent…will either a) tell you your book is perfect as is and pooh-pooh the idea of spending any more time on it, or b) tell you you’re “almost there” except for a bit of editing that she’d be happy to help you with for $2000.

A Good Agent…will invite your questions and answer every one unless he doesn’t know the answer. In that case, he’ll say “I don’t know,” research the answer, and then call you back.

A Bad Agent…will answer every question that makes him uncomfortable with the nauseatingly hyperbolic details of his most recent spectacular author deal (which he doesn’t reveal actually happened back in the ’80s).

A Good Agent…will return all of your calls within a day or two, or will shoot you an email letting you know when she can get back to you if she’s currently focused on meeting a critical deadline. But she also won’t hesitate to tell you if you’re calling too often. She’ll say it nicely.

A Bad Agent…will use the following excuses to explain why she didn’t return your last six calls: my cell phone died; my grandmother died; I was busy negotiating a huge deal for you and it was taking forever and I didn’t want to jinx it…but it fell through anyway; my cell phone died again; my other grandmother died.

A Good Agent…will graciously accept gifts of chocolate or Starbucks gift cards from current clients only.

A Bad Agent…will require gifts of chocolate or Starbucks gift cards before deciding to offer representation.

A Good Agent…will custom-select publishers for each book proposal, matching the books and authors to the publishers’ needs and interests.

A Bad Agent…will load proposals into a shotgun and fire it in the general direction of a zillion publishers, regardless of “fit,” just so she can say “hey, I sent it off to 25 publishers” when you ask for a status update.

A Good Agent…will not give up on an author he believes in just because the first round of submissions doesn’t net any offers.

A Bad Agent…will tell you no one is interested in your book after getting just one rejection.

A Good Agent…will be a cheerleader, a coach, an advocate, a negotiator, and a shoulder to cry on, sometimes all in the same day.

A Bad Agent…will do as little as possible to earn his 15 percent.

A Good Agent…will share a bottle of fine wine with you when celebrating the signing of your contract.

A Bad Agent…will share a bottle of fine wine with you when celebrating the signing of your contract…then deduct the cost of that wine from your first royalty check.

A Good Agent…will know when to make the difficult decision of tabling a current project due to publisher disinterest. Then she’ll help you turn your attention to the next one.

A Bad Agent…will keep re-submitting the current un-sold project until editors around the globe start to refer to you as “that annoying author.”

And finally:

A Good Agent…will still make mistakes. You can count on it.

*I’m not an agent and I don’t play one on TV. But over the years I’ve gotten to know a few of the good ones in my little publishing niche and some of them seem to like me.

Publishing: 10 Years from Now

You’ve read everybody else’s predictions. You’ve heard from the experts. The insiders. The pundits. Well, goody for you. Those  prognosticators may have knowledge. They may have expertise. They may even have credibility. But what they don’t have…is a really good imagination.

So forget all those boring predictions and trust mine instead. They’re based on years of…okay, fine. They’re not based on anything at all.

I just made ‘em up this morning.

In ten years…

  • Those infinite monkeys with their ubiquitous typewriters will have successfully written Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and subsequently declared it “notably inferior to The Tempest.” Then they will throw feces at each other.
  • 73 percent of people who own computers will have written a novel. The other 27 percent will have written two or more novels. 99.9 percent of all those novels will be crap.
  • A group of recently-out-of-work literary agents will form a rock band and call themselves The Query-Spammers. They will be terribly ironic. And terrible.
  • Apple will finally release its tablet computer. Steve Jobs will declare “the end of e-ink-induced headaches.” He will then reveal the two available configurations of the iTablet: Extra Strength and Sinus Congestion. Only Apple COO Tim Cook will laugh at his joke. Jobs’ famous “one more thing” will turn out to be the long-rumored, much maligned iTurtleneck. Promising to revolutionize corporate casual wear, the iTurtleneck will feature one less hole than traditional turtlenecks. It will come in black, and black.
  • Oprah will start a new network television show dedicated solely to talking about books. Unfortunately, she’ll only talk about East of Eden, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Road.
  • Hemp will replace wood pulp as the source of paper for traditional books. Traditional books will suddenly become popular with a new demographic: young people who think hemp is the part of the plant you smoke.
  • Ray Kurzweil will introduce an e-reader device that beams content directly into your brain. Within days of its release, hackers will find a security hole and vanity presses will begin flooding the Kurzweil CorTex(t) with crappy self-pubbed books. A month after its release, millions of readers who thought they downloaded the latest Stephen King novel, Everything In the World Is Evil and I Mean Everything, will be more disappointed than usual with his increasingly verbose prose, completely unaware that they’re actually reading a rambling collection of spam headlines cobbled together by a bored hacker in St. Paul, MN.
  • The racy novelHermione and Me, by David Gordon Rowling Murray will be released by Simon, Schuster, Hachette & Scholastic, LLC and sell out of the 10-million copy first run within seconds of its release. In an unrelated story, J. K. Rowling will purchase ten million copies of an unnamed book and bury them in a Montana landfill.
  • President DeGeneres will declare December 9th as Read-a-Real-Book Day. Most people will choose something by Dr. Seuss.
  • “Fiction” novels will still account for 100 percent of all novels.
  • Guy Kawasaki will finally accept that his enduring popularity is due almost entirely to the fact that people think he invented the motorcycle.
  • TwitterPrint, the book publishing arm of the Twitter Collective, will hit the top spot in the last print edition of the New York Times Best-Seller list with its first published work, Someday I’ll Wish I Hadn’t Said That, by millions of uncredited authors.
  • I still won’t have a flying car.