There Is Only One Right Way to Write (This Title Is Intentionally Misleading)

A hundred trillion years ago, when I was an impressionable young man, someone older and wiser told me that if I didn’t have a regular quiet time every morning, I might as well invite Satan over for breakfast. Since I was Someone Who Always Wanted to Do the Right Thing, I decided I had no choice but to comply (besides, everyone knows Satan eats all the crispy bacon and only leaves you the floppy pieces).

Here’s what my journal would have looked like if I’d kept one in the days that followed:

Day 1: During my quiet time, I prayed. Mostly that I would have a good quiet time. Then I had breakfast.

Day 2: Quiet time cut short by smell of bacon. Thankfully, Satan was busy elsewhere. I got the good bacon.

Day 3: I know it’s late evening, but I was in the middle of a good dream this morning where the pretty girl smiled at me and not the handsome guy standing behind me and I’m pretty sure God would agree I need dreams like that to boost my self-esteem and because I woke up late I had to race to school and after I got home I had to fill the rest of the day with things that made me seem busy so I could put off homework until just before bed. But I’m here now and even though it’s time for my favorite TV show I have decided to…oh, wait…the power’s back on.

Day 4: Floppy bacon isn’t so bad.

Fast-forward a few years. More. Still more. Okay, you’re just about there…wait, back up one or two.

Close enough.

Now pretend this is a brilliant segue from the previous paragraphs (which, in case it isn’t clear, seem to hint that there is a difference between healthy spiritual discipline and Pharisaical, guilt-based behavior, though I didn’t develop the point very much because I mostly just wanted to say stuff about bacon) and the next paragraphs (which will be all about writing, so you can relax now if you were concerned I was going to turn this into a sermon).

Someone younger and maybe nearly as wise told me that if I didn’t write every day, I wasn’t a real writer. Someone else who might have been older and wiser or maybe just about the same age and possibly not so wise but it really doesn’t matter for the purpose of this blog post said “you absolutely have to write every day if you ever want to be a published writer.” And then someone else who I’m reasonably certain was clinically insane said, “I get up every morning at four and write for five hours…” after which his face froze in a creepy question-mark expression that asked “and what are your regular daily writing hours?” He probably would still be waiting for my answer if he didn’t have a 4 a.m. “time to write” wake-up call.

I don’t do any of those things. And I still have the audacity to call myself a writer.

Want to know my routine? Here it is:

Whenever. And wherever.

Sometimes I write for a couple hours sitting at my desk in my ergonomically-engineered office chair. Sometimes I stare into space and don’t write at all for days or weeks. Sometimes I write at midnight while practicing horrible posture in the living room recliner and listening to the cable TV Adult Alternative music station. Sometimes I plug in the earbuds and write as I disappear into movie scores while sitting (with horrible posture) in a chair at Starbucks. Sometimes in the middle of the night I write from my horizontal office (that would be my bed).

So, like I said, whenever. And wherever.

And I’m almost content with this non-routine routine. I say “almost” because I find I still wish I had a few more hours to write. (Don’t all writers wish they had more time?) I suppose I could schedule them at 4 in the morning. But I really love my sleeping dreams. Maybe I could chain myself to the ergonomically-engineered office chair for a few more hours a day, but sitting for too long with perfect posture just makes me grumpy. So instead, I guess I’ll just always wish for more time.

Don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. I believe a regular routine can be a very good thing. For some people, a disciplined schedule may be the best (or only) way to keep writing. If you’re one of these people, I salute you (from my horizontal office).

But if you’re not? Don’t beat yourself up about it. (Unless guilt is the only thing that gets you writing. Then self-flagellate all you want.) There will be times when you have to force yourself into patterns that might not be a natural fit (deadlines will do that to you), but otherwise? Just write the way you write. If you write best in your PJs, then slide into your bunny slippers and write away. If you write best at Starbucks, caffeinate your way to the bestseller list. (Just don’t steal my table.)

The point is this: there is no one “right way” to write. There is only your way.

So write.

Or not.

Do you smell bacon?

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?

Why Are You Reading This?

Most blog posts save the Really Important Lesson for the last paragraph. I’m just going to cut’n’paste it right here:

I write not because I “have to,” but because I want to be read.

Thanks for reading.

Skip to the bottom of this post and you’ll see the very same words.

Are you still reading? Why? Anything written between the first and last word will merely be used to support the Really Important Lesson noted above.

You won’t be surprised to discover that I have a few theories on why you’re still reading. Feel free to skip these:

  • You think I’m trying to trick you. You know from the past that I sometimes mess with your mind in this space and wonder if I’m doing it again. Even now you’re reasonably certain this bullet point is merely a clever tease of something Yet to Be Revealed. You believe there’s a surprise coming. A punch line. Also, someone is following you.
  • You understand the value of the process. This is sort of like saying “I’m in it for the journey” even though you know ahead of time where the journey ends. How many of you saw Titanic. Spoiler alert: the ship sinks. So why did you go? And why do you read a book you’ve already read? Because you expect (or hope) to enjoy the trip. And unlike cruises on doomed superliners (and, apparently, stays at the Hotel California), you can leave any time you like. So are you still enjoying this little journey? Then read another reason below. Or close your browser. Go ahead, I dare you.
  • You don’t want to miss anything. It’s not just the journey that keeps you glued to the page, it’s the possibility that you’ll uncover something you didn’t expect, or better still, something only a select few others will find. When we discover something hidden between or beneath the actual words, we feel pretty darn good about ourselves. We feel smart and clever and are immediately ushered behind the curtain into an exclusive club that earns us at the very least, a knowing wink from the author, and sometimes a secret decoder ring. (But not this time. Sorry. My secret decoder ring supplier went out of business. I blame Dan Brown.)
  • You’re stubborn, an optimist, or a stubborn optimist. You haven’t met a terrible book you didn’t still read from cover to cover. Maybe you hold out hope it will improve. Maybe you hold out hope you’ll actually understand half the words the author uses. More likely you have some mild form of literary OCD and leaving a book unfinished is impossible for you. Did your parents tell you to “clean your plate” every meal, too? Yeah. I thought so. Please add “guilt” to this reason.
  • You like the way I write. Hey, stop laughing. It could happen.

Does it matter why you kept reading? Maybe to your therapist. But not so much to me, the writer. Yes, I’d like it very-much-thank-you if you kept reading because the beauty and rhythm of my words and the compelling intrigue of my narrative gave you a particularly satisfying literarygasm. But if you kept reading because of OCD tendencies or lingering guilt? That’s okay with me, too.

It doesn’t matter if we’re writing a query or putting the final touches on an epic novel that spans ten generations and gives Proust a run for his money, we write not just because we like the sound of pencil scratching on paper or fingers tippy-tapping on laptops, but because we want other people to read our words. Some of you might be queueing up an argument right about now that includes the words, “I don’t write for others – I write for myself.” If you mean, “I’m writing what I want to write, not what others would have me write,” then good for you. I have no argument with that. But if you’re trying to tell me, “I don’t want or need anyone else to read my words,” all I have to say is, Really? Then why are you reading this blog post?

I write not because I “have to,” but because I want to be read.

Thanks for reading.

Writer Vs. Self-Editor

Once upon a time, there was a writer…

Whoa, hold on there. Wait one darn minute, mister.

Excuse me?

“Once upon a time”? Really? Where’s the originality in that? Surely someone who calls himself a “writer” can do better.

There was a writer…

Pa-thet-ICK.

Look, I’m just trying to…

“Was.” Passive verb, my friend. You should know this by now. Passive verbs suck. Spice it up a bit. Put some life in your words or you’re going to put your readers to sleep.

I appreciate your concern, but I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel. It’s just a blog post on…

Just a blog post? Attitudes like that are the clumsy sausage fingers pulling the Jenga blocks from the very foundation of literacy today.

What?

Here. I’ll give you a little help. Kick off the opening with something surprising. Like, “First she broke his heart, then she broke his kneecaps.” Or maybe, “Melinda dove into the water a girl, but came out a mermaid.” Wait, I’ve got it, “The tornado-ravaged mobile home park lay before them like a toppled Jenga tower.”

What is it with you and Jenga?

I like building things and taking them apart. And then re-building them. Sometimes I knock things down for the hell of it. And, no, this sort of behavior does not fit the clinical definition of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and therefore is considered perfectly normal. My therapists all agree.

Do all self-editors have multiple therapists?

Yes.

Well, thanks for your help, but  I can’t use any of those opening lines.

Why not?

They don’t make sense. Not with the post I’m trying to write.

Okay, fine. What’s the topic?

It’s about silencing your self-editor when writing first drafts.

Ouch. That hurt.

You asked.

First drafts are the bane of my existence. They’re the windless sky to my kite of purpose. The decaffeination in my coffeepot of determination. The upside-down-shake of my Etch-a-Sketch hope…

Okay, okay. I get it. You hate first drafts. And you overwrite. How did you ever get to be an editor, anyway? Don’t answer that. Please be patient. You’ll get your say. Just not yet.

Fine. But make your first pass better this time, okay? I’m still feeling nauseous from the “Once upon a time” bit.

Then you might want to get a bucket.

You wouldn’t…

Once upon a time, there was a writer who couldn’t finish a novel because his self-editor kept interrupt…

I’m going to be sick…

…because his self-editor kept interrupting him before he could get the story on the page. But then one day, just as his self-editor was preparing to correct his spelling of “qeue”…

Arggh…ugh…please…gag…fix…urp…

…he kicked his self-editor in the groin and plowed on ahead. He wrote his story without stopping to fix spelling errors or labor over perfect words or even solve gaping plot holes.

…can’t…breathe…

And wouldn’t you know it? He actually finished that novel. And it was perfect.

Wha????

Kidding. It wan’t perfect. It was better than he expected, but there were still lots of problems. So…he helped his self-editor to his feet and said, “Have at it.”

Finally.

Feel better now?

I will after I fix your crappy  post. Okay, first of all it’s spelled “q u e u e.” Now, about that “Once upon a time” thing…

10 Reasons You Don’t Have an Agent

  1. Your writing is unremarkable. You may have worked hard to craft a good story, followed all the rules – trimming unnecessary prepositional phrases, chopping adverbs, replacing passive verbs with active verbs – but the result is indistinguishable from any of a hundred other novels the agent has reviewed in the past month. Solution: Find your writer’s voice and pray it’s a good one. A writer’s voice is that unique stamp that sets his or her words apart from others. There’s no simple (or universal) definition for “writer’s voice,” but typically it will be revealed in such things as an author’s word choice, writing rhythm, and that intangible thing called “tone” or “color.” Best way to find your voice? Write. A lot. If you have a unique voice hidden in there somewhere, it will eventually appear. And if not? You might be one of the lucky ones who gets an agent anyway and maybe even ends up selling a ton of books. But just in case, be prepared for rejection. Sorry. But that’s just how it goes.
  2. Your story is unoriginal. What’s that? There is no original story? In a broad sense, you’re right. But there are infinite variations to the basic plots that give structure to stories. How you handle the familiar is what will set you apart from the rest of the wannabes. Here’s a tip: Create characters with depth and dimension. Flawed, richly-textured characters provide you with all kinds of plot opportunities.
  3. Your story has no conflict. Guess what? If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. If there are no obstacles to overcome, no one cares what happens to your protagonist, least of all your protagonist himself. Throw challenges at your characters from page one to the very last page. If your protagonist isn’t moving toward something, agents (and, therefore, readers in general) will grow impatient with the story and give up on it.
  4. You can’t spell “query.” Will this really prompt a Pass letter? Well, it depends on the agent. And whether or not she’s had her coffee. And how many bad queries she’s seen before yours appears in the queue. And whether or not your opening line is brilliant enough to make her forget your spelling error. Point is – if you want to increase your chances of being considered, don’t make this stupid mistake. And by “this stupid mistake” I mean, do a spell check on everything you submit to an agent. And by “spell check” I mean review what you’ve written multiple times by reading it aloud – don’t count on Microsoft Word to know you meant “guilt” when you accidentally typed “quilt.”
  5. You think you’re the next Stephen King. Persistence and confidence are good things, but when they cross the line into arrogance, you are at risk of becoming the punch line for a #queryfail joke. Seriously, if you’re really the best thing since Hemingway, your writing will do the shouting for you.
  6. Your novel isn’t finished. Yeah. I know. This seems like a no-brainer. But some of you are trying to apply the non-fiction rules (which allow writers to submit a proposal for an as-yet-unfinished work) to fiction. Don’t do that. Just finish your novel. By the way, your novel isn’t finished when you first type “The end.” It’s then that you must put on the editor’s hat, revising, re-shaping, and improving the story until it’s really the best work you can do. If you send a first draft you’re just asking for a Pass letter.
  7. You haven’t done your research. If you’re pitching a novel about a sex-crazed wizard who takes over the world one kinky tryst at a time to an agent who only reps Amish Christian fiction, you’re an idiot. Okay, that was harsh. But please, friends, take the time to review what the agents represent – and also, what they’re currently looking for (the latter is typically a smaller subset of the former). In most cases, everything you need to know about an agent’s interests and current needs can be found at their website. Don’t be the guy who shows up at the formal dinner party wearing a toga because you didn’t look at the invitation carefully enough.
  8. You’ve sent out too many poor queries. Don’t send a single query until you understand what a good one looks like. (There are a ton of websites out there with examples of good queries. Guess where you’ll find some of the best info on how to write a query? Yup. At literary agents’ websites.) I know you’re anxious, but there is no benefit to “getting there first” if what you’re submitting is less than great. You can actually blow your chance at a second (or third) chance by flooding agents with bad queries. I know that seems unfair, but keep in mind there are hundreds of other authors vying for the same limited “eye time” agents can give to queries. Learn from others’ query mistakes as much as possible before you have to learn from your own.
  9. You can’t handle rejection. If this is you, well, you probably should look for a new dream. Because if you pursue a dream of being published, you’re going to experience rejection. If not by an agent, then by a publisher. If not by a publisher, then by a reader. Someone, somewhere down the line will think your writing sucks. It’s okay. Really. Every writer experiences this. Every. One. Submit. Feel the sting of rejection. Wipe your tears. Glean what you can from the experience. Then get back to the task at hand.
  10. You’re simply not meant to have one. Yeah, this is a bit of a downer. But it’s just reality. You may never get an agent. You may never publish a book. Does that mean you should stop trying? Maybe someday. But probably not today. However, if your only goal is “to be published,” you might be going about this all wrong. Oh, it’s perfectly fine to hang that goal in front of you (just as it’s fine to self-publish if that’s your dream) – but don’t miss the writing journey along the way, okay? It’s a good journey.