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.)

The Blinking* Cursor

You know how it goes. You follow your inspired muse to the page and start writing and everything’s going great, then 1000 words in, you hit a wall. A big fat concrete wall with barbed wire strung across the top. Maybe the wall is a plot hole. Maybe it’s a character who is suddenly acting out of character. Or maybe you’re just really, really tired because you stayed up all night reading Anna Karenina so you can honestly say “Yes, I’ve read Anna Karenina” should anyone in your writers’ group ask if you’ve read Anna Karenina because that’s the sort of thing you imagine writers in writers’ groups ask whenever there is a lull in the conversation and you’re certainly expecting lulls at the next meeting because you’ve been asked to read an excerpt from your incredibly boring work in progress.

So what do you do when you hit a wall? Well, the best advice I’ve ever heard is this: change your environment. Get up out of your chair. Run the washing machine again since you forgot to put the washed load in the dryer last night (blame Anna) and the laundry is smelling more like Mountain Man than Mountain Spring. Pick up a book and read a chapter. Walk the dog. Walk the ferret. Walk the goldfish. Re-introduce yourself to your children. Pick lint off your significant other’s sweater. Knit a sweater. Go for a run. Call your mother. Kiss your spouse. Kiss your neighbor. Chase a rabbit. Eat a cookie.

Just do something other than stare at the blinking cursor.

This is excellent advice. Yes, there are some writers who can bore a hole through any writing wall with sheer determination (usually prompted by a looming deadline of “yesterday”). But most of us aren’t Cylopsian like that and we hate those people anyway so instead we must get up out of the chair.

I don’t know the science behind it, but apparently when we walk away and do something totally unrelated to the problem at hand, the brain feels emotionally secure enough to back up and re-consider the problem from a different perspective. (This is sort of like what happens when you’re trying to remember the name of that movie – you know, the one with that actor who did that other movie with that actress – and you can’t for the life of you remember it no matter how squinty your eyes or how furrowed your brow, but then it comes to you three days later during the silent prayer time at church and you’re so excited that you accidentally blurt “What Dreams May Come!” really loud and a split-second later as you re-play your prayerful exclamation you realize you might have pronounced “What” as “Wet” and no wonder people don’t invite you over for dinner after church.)

I run into walls a lot. (Insert Toyota joke here.) Want to know how I deal with walls? Do I flip down my Scott Summers sunglasses and burn a hole through the concrete? Nope. So that must mean I get out of my chair and do something else, right? Um…no.

I stare at the blinking* cursor.

I might still try to write, but it only takes a few keystrokes to discover that I’m facing one of those Escape from New York walls you can’t get over without Snake Plissken’s help and Snake’s retired, so good luck with that.

So instead? I just stare at that blinking* cursor.

Three hours later, I get up out of my chair and declare myself a complete failure as a writer, having added nothing to my novel except an impenetrable obstacle that fittingly resembles a very wide, very tall tombstone.

Here is where I’m supposed to spin this unflattering picture of the writer’s life into some kind of inspirational lesson. Um. Nope. Can’t do it.

Because sometimes writing is impossible. Sometimes trying to put a word on the page is like trying to staple a wasp to a jackrabbit. And sometimes, you waste hours of your life staring at a blinking* cursor.

I’m sorry smelly laundry. I’m sorry obese ferret. I’m sorry neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale**. I suck.

What can I say? I’m a writer.

*Please feel free to replace the asterisked instances of “blinking” with your favorite swear word. I did.

**No, I don’t have a neighbor who looks exactly like Kate Beckinsale. But this is my blog and my daydream so I can pretend whatever I want. Like right now? I’m pretending that Kate Beckinsale’s people will happen upon this post during routine “checking for unflattering web content” Googling and decide it would be great PR if she were to suddenly show up in Colorado and invite me out to dinner where I’d be happy just to listen to her talk in that sexy English accent even with her mouth full of P.F. Changs’ Oolong Marinated Sea Bass.

7 Writing Myths I Just Made Up So I Could Debunk Them

Yes, there are lots of actual writing and publishing myths out there worthy of review. But everyone else writes about those. Surely you’ve stumbled across a post or two debunking such common myths as “literary agents are out to kill your writing dreams” and “first-time novelists don’t have a chance in hell of getting published.”

You don’t need yet another post about those myths, do you? No, you don’t. What you do need is this post in which I make up some writing and publishing myths of my own. Just so I can debunk them.

Isn’t this more fun anyway?

Oh, and I might have tried to stuff some actual helpful advice in this nonsense. I say this only because if you learn something, I want it to seem like I planned that all along.

The Myth: If you misuse “its” and “it’s” in your manuscript, you’re screwed. No one will represent you. Not even really bad agents.

The Debunking: While it’s true that agents tend to prefer writers who know basic grammar skills, a beautifully-told tale with a compelling author voice and commercial potential is usually enough to make them forget the fact that you can’t spell “pulchritude.”

The Myth: If you pitch an agent the same book more than once with the argument “I fixed all the stuff that was wrong last time,” they’ll put a curse on you and you’ll never get published.

The Debunking: Not true. You’ll probably need to look for a different agent, but just because the one you’ve been annoying isn’t interested in your much-improved novel doesn’t mean it’s unpublishable. And while it is technically true that some agents still place curses on writers, most these days merely block your email address.

The Myth: There is a higher incidence of liver failure in writers.

The Debunking: Actually, this one is true.

The Myth: If your novel includes vampires, portals or sullen teenagers who’ve recently lost a parent and are having a hard time coping and so they turn to drugs or cutting or sleeping around until one day they are awakened by the epiphany that “life is hard – just deal with it,” agents will draw a big red “x” across your manuscript (virtually, of course, because a Sharpie would really screw up their computer monitor) and reject your proposal out of hand.

The Debunking: If you’ve found a unique way to write about vampires or portals or sullen teenagers, you might just get representation. Here’s the deal: while it’s stupid and naive to follow trends in order to get a publishing deal, if you tell a good story that just so happens to also be a trending topic or theme, you’ll still have a shot at being noticed.

The Myth: All first novels are essentially autobiographical.

The Debunking: Well, that would explain why Stephen King is so creepy. But, no. Not all. Just most.

The Myth: If you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer, every article about you will refer to this behavior in a way that makes you look like a self-important jerk.

The Debunking: Nope. But if you write with a pen and legal pad instead of on a computer and you make a point to tell everyone you meet that this is the way real writers write, then every article about you will (quite rightly) refer to this behavior in a way that make you look like a self-important jerk.

The Myth: Only crappy books are getting published and that’s why your book hasn’t been snatched up by an agent yet.

The Debunking: Both crappy books and great books are being published and the jury is still out as to which category yours falls under.

There you go.

You’re welcome.

Have a nice day.

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.