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.

First Impressions: Common Sense Advice for Writers

Long before Twitter made the under-140-character limit de rigueur for quotable quotes, someone said “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

This is good advice. What it means in practical terms is that if I greet my new boss with “I sure hope you’re not the same as the old boss – she was a real witch, and I don’t mean witch but I’m trying to be polite by replacing the letter ‘b’ with a more acceptable letter” or “Is it okay if I drink heavily on the job? Because I can only work drunk since this place really sucks” I’ll probably miss out on that promotion I was hoping for.

First impressions matter.

This is especially true in publishing, where you’re competing for headspace and shelfspace with a squillion other writers. In publishing, you don’t have just one first impression to make. You have a bunch. Here are some to consider (and a tip or two on how to make your impression memorable for all the right reasons).

The elevator pitch. Strike up a conversation when it’s appropriate and be concise when you talk about your book. Don’t pitch to an agent who looks especially burned-out. Don’t pitch to an agent who is snarfing her lunch while standing at a deli counter between conference appointments. And even if she invites conversation by asking if your stall has any toilet paper, do not pitch an agent in the bathroom. Oh, and be yourself. Practicing your pitch is good for learning what’s important about your book – but use your own voice when talking with an agent.

The conference appointment. Arrive on time. Get to the point. Don’t stay late. And somehow, yeah, be yourself.

The query. Study the agent’s guidelines and, without losing your writer’s voice, tailor your query accordingly. Also, don’t query agents who don’t rep your genre.

The sample chapter. If your best writing begins in chapter four, you’re not ready to query agents. Keep editing until your first three chapters are brilliant. Seriously. If you don’t capture readers with the first chapters, you’ll never capture an agent either.

The publishing industry googler. Tweet a hundred times a day. Update your Facebook status hourly if you so choose. Blog every day and comment all you want on other people’s publishing-related blogs. But never forget that an agent (or editor) who decides to google you [why does that phrase always come across as creepily sexual?] could run across any of your words. If the first words she reads are “agents are stupid” you just made a bad impression. Unless you’re referring to secret agents. But why would you do that? That would be stupid. Secret agents are the epitome of cool. Stop badmouthing secret agents, okay? Thanks.

The editor. So you get lucky and land a publishing contract. Good for you. Now, make nice with your editor. She’s not just someone with a red pen, she’s your collaborator. You don’t want your collaborator to hate you. Not right away, anyway.

The marketing and sales staff. Be enthusiastic about your role in the marketing and sales process. If you give the impression that you’re expecting them to do all the work, you’re shooting yourself in the [book] spine. Announce your availability and willingness to do whatever it takes during your very first conversation with these fine, under-appreciated folks.

The reader. Some readers will love your words. They’ll fill Amazon’s review section with high praise and high fives. But some will hate you for wasting a few hours of their lives. Resist the urge to slap back at these people. Just smile and say “thank you” to all who comment. And learn what you can from both the fanatic fans and the determined detractors.

The booksigning visitor. Unless you’re intentionally going for that “lives in a dumpster” look, make a tiny bit of effort to look good for the masses who will hover at your table, eager to meet a successful writer in 3-D. And bring breath mints. Lots of them.

[Thanks to my older brother for suggesting this blog topic. I can't be certain what his first impression was of me. After all, I was just a few days old at the time.]