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.

Inspiration, Perspiration and Aspiration

Thomas Edison is famously known for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Some folks hovering in the shadows of the publishing industry have glommed onto this quote as a rallying cry for aspiring authors. “It’s not about talent – it’s about hard work,” they say. Well, they don’t actually say “it’s not about talent,” but the implication of Edison’s statement when recklessly applied to creative genius is that anyone with even a penny’s worth of an idea can work hard enough to someday achieve their publishing goals.

Nope. Not true.

I’ll wait while you take a moment to quote examples of “no-talents” who have worked their way into successful publishing careers.

Done? Yeah, I hear you. We could easily turn a corner here and start talking about what “talent” is, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that even the “worst” published writers have something to offer the reading public. [Oh, and that Edison fellow? He didn’t actually invent the light bulb – he improved on other people’s work. His “inspiration” was about refinement and revision and re-invention. Sound familiar, writers?]

Edison’s quote has been so misused that I sometimes feel sorry for the light bulb. But did you know Edison had more to say about “genius”? Perhaps as clarification for his “1/99″ comment he allegedly said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”

Ah, yes. Now we’ve got something usable for aspiring authors. It’s gonna take work. This is no surprise to any of you who have been studying writing books and agenting blogs and attending conferences in search of publishing wisdom. Keep at it. A lot of hard work can make a good idea into a great one.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) all the hard work in the world won’t turn an uninspired novel into an inspired one*. If your story is boring or unoriginal or badly written, if your idea (or your re-invention of someone else’s idea) isn’t the least bit interesting, your chances of being published are slim.

This isn’t the sort of message I like to deliver. I’d much prefer to say “all aspiring writers have an equal chance of getting published someday if they just work hard enough at it.” But that would be a lie.

I simply can’t downplay the importance of inspiration. Of a good idea. Of a great story. Of a compelling voice. Nor should you.

Do you have it? Do you have the inspiration or talent to set you apart from the rest? I don’t know. Maybe. (This is where you can be thankful for the role of subjectivity. One agent’s “I don’t see it” is another agent’s “you’ve got what it takes” when it comes to identifying inspired writing.)

However, let’s remember: Edison was no idiot. He was gifted with a highly capable brain. Likewise, some people have a natural gift for writing. (If you’re one of them, lots of folks secretly despise you. Oh, they don’t wish you harm. They’re just upset that God didn’t spread the inspiration a bit wider and feel it’s particularly unfair that through some processing error in the Brilliance Distribution Department you ended up with their share.) Every idea they exhale dances like Baryshnikov. Of course, if those folks never do a lick of work with that inspiration, they’re as unlikely to be published as those who are all work and no inspiration.

Which leads me to a suggested revision of Edison’s quote, specifically tuned for the writing community. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly impossible math, you might want to look away. Here goes:

“Finding success as a writer is 100 percent inspiration and 100 percent perspiration.”

Think about that for a moment. Actually, you know what? Think about it until my next post.

Peace.

*Please note, I’m not saying you can’t find new inspiration for a novel in the process of working through it. I’m simply stating that any book that is completely void of inspiration is most likely unpublishable (by traditional means, anyway).

10 Reasons I Don’t Want to Be a Bestselling Author

1. I’ll have to purchase a whole new wardrobe from somewhere other than Wal-Mart so people don’t accuse me of wearing my false modesty like a neon sign.

2. Jerry Bruckheimer will want to add explosions to the movie adaptation of my bittersweet love story.

3. I’ll be the guest who gets bumped from Letterman when his lovefest interview with Julia Roberts runs long.

4. Struggling authors will hold quarterly “Hate Stephen Parolini” days to coincide with the receipt of their royalty statements.

5. An interviewer will ask me questions like “Did you know you had written a bestseller?” and “What’s your secret to writing a bestseller?” over and over again until I finally lose the very patience that helped me to complete a novel in the first place and I’ll snark my response to her and ask “What’s your secret to asking such inane questions?” and then she’ll get all huffy and accuse me of calling her “insane” and when I correct her and say “No, the word was ‘inane’ and I was referring to the questions” she’ll get even huffier and yell “So are you calling me stupid?” to which I’ll reply, “Not, ‘stupid’ per se, but possibly ‘vocabulary-deprived’” and I might giggle a little at that but she’ll have already started swinging the microphone toward my head and when it lands with a dull thud against my skull I’ll fall limply to the ground (all the while, chiding myself for having fallen in collusion with an adverb) and wake up days later in the hospital with temporary memory loss and blindness that last just long enough for readers not to care about any subsequent books I might write.

6. I’ll have enough money to afford a new laptop. This will trigger a six-month season of writer’s block while my muse considers whether or not she wants to move from the old one.

7. People will ask me all kinds of questions about my writerly influences and quiz me about famous authors and their books and stuff. I can only get away with saying “I like Tender Is the Night even though it lacks the brilliance of The Great Gatsby and occasionally reads like Fitzgerald’s thinly-disguised memoir” so many times before people will realize just how under-read I am.

8. I’ll never be able to go to the grocery store again without being swarmed by adoring fans. Er…wait, I’m an author, not Robert Pattinson. No one knows what I look like. Cool.

9. Everyone I know will ask me “So, which character is based on me?” and when I offer a generic response they’ll be immediately disappointed that I didn’t say “the beautiful protagonist” and will think instead that they were the inspiration for the shrill, selfish, tramp and then they’ll stop talking to me. Which, I suppose, could give me inspiration for another character in my next book.

10. Oh, yeah. I have to write another book.