Impractical Magic

There is no magic formula, no conjuring spell. No eye of newt, and toe of frog. No wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

Oh, you’ll find a few who would claim otherwise – people quick to sell you the secrets to a guaranteed bestseller. But they are charlatans. Or fools.

There is no such thing as a magic formula for a guaranteed bestseller.

You can’t reverse-engineer J. K. Rowling’s books, find out what makes them tick, then build a better Hagrid. You can’t boil Hunger Games down to the bones then wrap new, equally tempting skin on it.

The secret of a bestselling book is mostly invisible, organic, unpredictable; a creeping vine that winds through the words then burrows under a reader’s skin and wraps around the heart. It’s a thing that never quite reveals itself, proving its existence only by the trail of impossibly enthralled evangelists left in its wake.

Of course, this doesn’t stop writers and editors and publishers and pundits from trying to define its shape. And why not? We all want it – even those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.”

We want people to love our words. We want people to buy our books. Not because we’re particularly greedy. (We’ll only buy one Tuscan villa.) But because we want our stories to matter. To resonate. To change people. To inspire people.

And, yeah, to pay the bills so we have time and inclination to write more books.

There is no magic forumla for success.

There is, however, magic.

It appears unexpected. In a sentence that brings a gasp. In a twist that spins you dizzy. In the spark and crackle between words, the infinite ache below them, the impossible buzz above.

It’s what happens when the characters suddenly become real, when the plot takes on a life of its own. It’s the surprise that draws us closer to the monitor, unsure what just happened but longing for more.

It’s the root of that creeping invisible vine and we wants it, my precious.

So we chase it. We try to understand it. Corral it. Analyze it. Engineer it.

Sigh. Will we ever learn?

A writer can’t invoke magic. Story is its only enchanter.

And that, my friends, is the end of the post.

Yes, really.

What were you expecting? A formula? Sigh. Okay, try this: the better the storyteller, the more the magic; the more the magic, the happier the readers; the happier the readers, the more likely they’ll become impossibly enthralled evangelists. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

Now go out there and become a better storyteller. In case you’re wondering it’s a simple three-step process:

Read. Write. Repeat.

Have a nice day.

How Do You Know You’re Growing as a Writer?

I’m not sure how to open this post. I thought about playing the simile card and saying something about how becoming a better writer is a lot like becoming a better other thing – a better architect, a better juggler, a better OPI color namer, a better human. That would have been entirely true. And entirely boring.

I also considered manufacturing a conversation between a beginning writer and a seasoned writer that could foreshadow the post’s inevitable wisdom. I probably would have included an exchange like this:

Seasoned Writer: I’m told you want to know how I got to be me.

Beginning Writer: Yes. Tell me what to do, oh wise sage.

Seasoned Writer: Was that sarcasm?

Beginning Writer: Sarcasm? I’m not sure what you mean.

Seasoned Writer: Never mind. You want to know how to grow as a writer.

Beginning Writer: Yes, master.

Seasoned Writer: First of all, stop attributing wisdom to someone just because he’s older. Secondly, learn sarcasm. But most of all, read a lot and write a lot.

Beginning Writer: That’s it?

Seasoned Writer: Yup.

Beginning Writer: It’s that simple?

Seasoned Writer: Who said anything about it being simple? If it were simple, writers wouldn’t feel compelled to add one more thing to this list.

Beginning Writer: One more thing? There’s another thing to do? Tell me. I want to do it. What is it?

Seasoned Writer: Drink a lot.

But that sort of opening would have a 70 percent chance of inviting the eye-roll twins of obviousness and pretentiousness.

So instead, I’ll skip the meaningless drivel and get right to a list of things that answers the question posed by the post title. Here, then, is some meaningful drivel. I mean here are some clues that let you know you’re growing as a writer.

  • You are finally beginning to understand why some of your writer-friends enter a meditative state of humble reverence whenever the name Marilynne Robinson is mentioned.
  • You recognize your progression from careless adverb abuser to adamant adverb hater to champion of whatever word works best even if it’s an adverb.
  • You remove the pins from the voodoo doll that bears a striking resemblance to your editor and start dressing it in only mildly embarrassing outfits borrowed from your daughter’s Barbie collection.
  • You know when you’ve written a brilliant sentence and this knowledge brings a moment of pure pleasure that quickly morphs into something resembling abject terror.
  • Your mother/husband/bff unintentionally reveals what she/he thought about all your previous writing when commenting with unchecked surprise about your newest work, “You wrote this? Really?”
  • You’re reading fewer “how to write” books and blogs, not because you exhausted them all (you tried) but because you find that these days you’re learning more simply by reading great fiction.
  • You thought about starting a writing blog because you want to help other fledgling authors but then scrapped the idea because you’d rather be writing your novel and, really, how much time is there in a day?
  • You notice¬†beginner mistakes in published works and, after a moment to decry the sorry state of traditional publishing, find yourself wondering if “smugness” is really so terrible a thing to feel after all.
  • You embrace the revision process not because you read somewhere that you’re supposed to but because you know it’s necessary.
  • You’ve gained ten pounds and can rightly blame five of those on the siren’s call of your laptop. (Feel free to blame the other five on the donuts.)
  • You’ve traveled from “truly inspired by” through “totally depressed by” to “often challenged by” another author’s brilliant writing.
  • You have a love/hate relationship with everything you write and welcome this as the necessary push and pull of critical thinking.
  • You look back at your early writing and convulse in laughter.
  • You look at your current writing and know that someday you’ll look back on it and not convulse in laughter so much as smile a knowing smile.
  • You have no idea where your thesaurus went and you don’t care.
  • You’ve stopped saying “I want to be a writer.”

This Could Be a Problem

I like languishing in obscurity. Languishing is my love language.

This could be a problem.

Well, not yet. But it will be if I reach any of my writing goals for the year, which include: a little book based on my #thewritinglife Twitter updates; the first novel in a YA series; a contemporary adult novel that’s been six years in the making; a few more blog posts; at least one provocative tweet.

You can’t have a successful writing career unless you embrace marketing and self-promotion.

I get it. If no one knows about you or your book, the book won’t sell.

In my past life as an editor in a traditional publishing house, I spent many hours in marketing meetings. I understand the rationale, the importance of planning, the risks and potential rewards. I find marketing fascinating. Nothing tests the creative process like trying to come up with ways to make every book a bestseller when your dollars are limited. Marketing meetings may be rooted in reality (“this is our marketing budget for the book”), but they’re fueled by big dreams. Even when pressed down by the weight of that reality, the air in most of my remembered marketing meetings was always thick with hope.

I inhaled that hope. I wanted each book to sell a million copies. I wanted each author to become a household name. I wanted to walk into Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes and Noble to see eager readers holding the books in one hand and open wallets in the other, their expectations high and about to be exceeded.

It was easy to believe this for other people’s’ books. But now I’m closing in on the reality that I soon will have a book (or three) of my own to unleash upon the masses. The closer I get, the more I long for obscurity.

This isn’t because I hate or fear marketing (see above). Nor is it some lame attempt to apply reverse psychology to my publishing dreams. (Unless it works. Then it was my intent all along.) I wish I were high-minded enough for it to be about letting the words stand alone, untainted by the evils of self-promotion. (I’m not.)

It’s just that I like obscurity. Obscurity is my favorite pair of pants.

Experts will tell you that marketing and self-promotion are games of chance you can’t afford not to play. They’re right. Absolutely right. Especially if you want to sell books.

I do.

This could be a problem.