Listen Carefully, Your Manuscript Stinks

Your manuscript doesn’t speak English. (Or American. Or Australian. Or Esperanto. Or whatever you call your native tongue.) It speaks Manuscript.

This is why all the threats you sling at it in your native tongue go unheeded. (Well, that, and the fact that it doesn’t like being threatened. It can read your tone even if it doesn’t understand your words.) And while yelling at your manuscript may help release existential angst (Cue “Shout” by Tears for Fears), increased volume still doesn’t result in increased comprehension.

When you’re having a novel crisis, it could be simply because your novel is truly awful. (Give it hemlock.) Or it could be that you’re overwhelmed by life and those things causing your overwhelmed-ness (work stress, heartache, parenting challenges, more heartache, lack of wine, still more heartache) are making the writing process harder than it needs to be. (Give yourself hemlock. Wait, don’t do that. Hemlock is a poor substitute for wine. Just take a break from writing until your real life stuff settles down a bit.) Then again, it could be a million other things, but for the sake of this blog post I’m going to pretend there are only three possible reasons for your crisis and that the third one is a simple case of misunderstanding.

You need to learn Manuscript. (You can call it Story if you like. Or Novelish. Or Splargenslap. Whatever. It’s not a real thing, so I don’t care what you call it.)

Manuscript isn’t easy to learn. There is no Rosetta Stone program for it. Editors waste spend their entire lives learning it. But you don’t have that kind of time. So I’m offering you a handy translation guide. Did I mention that Manuscript is a language of metaphorical scent? No? Well, it is. And it’s terribly fickle.

When your manuscript starts to smell (metaphorically) like rotting fish, it’s saying one of the following things:

  • You’re falling back on those pet words and phrases again. How many times can our heroine nod her head before physics demands that it fall off? And who “swipes at their eyes” anyway? Stop it or I’ll delete myself from your computer.
  • You’re using similes to distraction. I’m as tired as a tired thing is tired of things that make it tired. Please vary the way you describe stuff. Thank you.
  • Hey, it’s not me. I’m fine. You just forgot to put the fish in the fridge.

When your manuscript starts to smell like a moldy orange, it’s saying one of these two things:

  • Nothing is happening. Nothing. Is. Happening. Kill somebody already. But first, delete the last 30 pages.
  • Hey, put some words on the page. Yes, I might just tell you to delete them tomorrow. Trust me on this, just put something here so I don’t go mad from all the white space.

When your manuscript starts to smell like burning rubber, it’s saying:

  • This is probably a good time to release the clutch on some of those plot points. I mean, they’re all great and everything, but there comes a time when it’s no longer suspenseful to “wait for it” – it’s agony. Not the good kind.

When your manuscript starts to smell like paint, it’s saying:

  • Step away for a while and let the words settle. I think they’re good, but if you keep messing with them you might screw things up. Work on something else for a few hours – like a blog post or a bag of M&Ms.

When your manuscript starts to smell like some kind of flowers but you aren’t sure what kind of flowers because it’s just some generic floral smell, it’s saying:

  • Get specific, friend. If our protagonist’s pet weasel smells like flowers, just tell me what kind of flowers. I don’t know what “floral” means. And about that “beautiful” sky? Really? That’s all you can come up with? Beautiful is a stupid word. It’s practically meaningless. If you can’t find the right words to describe a thing, write a shape around it instead.

When your manuscript starts to smell like chocolate, it’s saying:

  • Send me to your agent/editor already. We’re good. I like myself just as I am. I’m not just saying that. Stop revising or you’re going to give me a complex. Would you send your agent/editor a chocolate bar with bite marks?

When your manuscript starts to smell like coffee, it’s saying:

  • You just knocked over your venti white chocolate mocha. I hope you remembered to back me up to the cloud.

There you go. Sniff away, writer-friends.

[Insert scent of bacon here.] This is Manuscript for “We’re done here. Go eat some bacon.”

 

The Shiver

It goes by many names. The Tingle. The Aha. The Wow.

I call it The Shiver.

It’s that moment when you know you’ve written something good; something worthy of sharing. The words themselves aren’t anything special. They’re common words, words you’ve used before.

But this time it’s different. The words…they…you have no words to describe it. They. Just. Work.

For half a second you wonder if you actually wrote them. Are there writing elves? No, it was you. Surely not the you who labors over every sentence and struggles to put a thousand words on the page. Could it be the same you who daily considers trading your laptop for a job at McDonald’s?

It has to be some other you – a better you, a more talented you.

This is what it means to be a writer, you think, to put words together in such a way that they become something more.

The Shiver is evidence of beauty, proof of God. It is writerly bliss.

For a sentence or a paragraph or a whole chapter you were brilliant. This isn’t arrogance, it’s the most humbling of  truths. You just created a “third place” with your words – a place where your story breathes on its own, the place readers will someday fall in love with a story and its author.

Do you feel it? No, not the bliss. The other thing. The nasty thing hiding behind it.

The Shiver is writerly panic.

What if you never feel it again? What if this was your only taste of the transcendent? What if you never write another sentence half as beautiful? What if that better you never shows up again? What if…what if…

Stop it. You’re ruining the moment.

Enjoy The Shiver. Bask in it. Parade your Shiver-words in front of all your writer-friends or hold them tight like a secret treasure, whichever makes you happiest. But enjoy this moment. The Shiver is all yours. It doesn’t come from some better version of you – it comes from the same you who labors over every sentence.

Then get back to writing. Get back to work. If you’re lucky, The Shiver will have a long tail. Eventually, though, it will fade and you’ll start to feel the struggle again. The blank page will mock you. You’ll litter your desk with bribes for writing elves. You’ll see McDonald’s every time you pick up your laptop. When this happens, and it will, repeat the following statement: This is what it means to be a writer, to keep putting words together even when they don’t become something more.

A writer who only believes himself a “real” writer when he feels The Shiver is bound for failure. A writer’s gift is acknowledged in The Shiver, but the writer is made by the all writing in between.

 

Note: There were no Shiver moments in the writing of this post. I’m okay with that.

 

The Other Authors

Writing is a lonely business. This does not come as a surprise to you. Whether you write in the midnight quiet of a room lit only by the glow of your laptop, or in a crowded coffee shop exploding with sound and color and scent, you do it alone. No one shares your headspace when you’re trying to choreograph the tapping of fingers on keyboard with the spin and leap of ideas.

A writer, while writing, dances alone.

There is exhilaration and debilitation in this truth. That a man, woman or child can organize words gathered from a thousand places into a story that exists in no other place is nothing short of magic. That it is among the most challenging of tasks to turn that story into something another can love is nothing short of soul-defeating.

We write alone because there is no other option. Yes. I know about collaborative writing. Two heads better than one and all that. [Hi Tosca and Ted. Hope the third book is going well.] But even if you share the process with another writer, you’re still the only person who can live in your head at any given time, multiple personalities notwithstanding. This means that you and only you are responsible for taking what’s in that head and making it presentable for the rest of us who don’t live there.

This is where you take all the knowledge you have about writing, – all the education and experience and earned intuition – and pour your story through it. As you press the words through that sieve, you pray what drips to the final draft is as pure, perfect and lovely as the idea that sparked your writer-brain in the first place.

When you hand the story to an editor, you find out your fingers missed a few things that your brain meant. When you hand it to a copyeditor, you discover your editor missed a few things that your brain meant, too.

And then you’re done. The story is as good as it’s going to get.

Except it isn’t. You’ve forgotten about the other authors.

Some people call them readers.

But they are authors, too. They write between the lines. They hear the characters’ voices. The protagonist sounds like Hugh Jackman. Did you know? They taste the wine on page 37. It is surprisingly sweet. Like the wine they had that one time in that restaurant. They see the freckles on her neck. How had you missed this?

The other authors aren’t as skilled as you. They haven’t studied the craft. They haven’t wrestled the demons of writerly doubt. They don’t know there’s a civil war raging between the semi-colon apologists and the semi-colon abolitionists. But if you’ve done your job well – if you’ve given them enough – theirs is easy. Because they don’t have to write it down.

They write only in their heads, and it’s only there that the story you started in your own finally finds completion.

The other authors finish what you started. And if they call you brilliant, it is their fault, too.

Thank God for the other writers.

 

 

 

When Real Life Gets in the Way of Good Writing

You’ve heard it said, “write what you know.” In the past, I’ve suggested a variation of that, “write who you are.” However you say it, I think we can all agree that fiction resonates best when it comes from a place of truth – a place we understand because we’ve lived it in some measure. But our real life experiences aren’t always a boon to our writing. Sometimes they get in the way. Here’s how:

“But That’s How It Really Happened” - I hear this a lot from writers. They offer it in response to my editorial notes explaining why a certain section isn’t working. The author’s reasoning seems sound enough: “If it works in real life, surely it can work in a novel.” But that’s not entirely true. Real life doesn’t have to be interesting and compelling. Fiction does. Plot lines in real life don’t need purpose and direction. Plot lines in fiction do. Real life doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction demands believability. Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean it works in fiction.

“Hey, That’s Funny, I Wear My Hair Exactly Like Your Book’s Evil Antagonist” - All writers collect templates for their fictional characters from real life, but sometimes they forget they’re writing fiction and transfer a Real Life Person directly to the page. These direct-to-the-page characters are surprisingly inflexible, defined as they are in the writer’s mind by real-world experience of them. This means the writer must bend the plot around them – even when it doesn’t fit. Real Life People forced into fictional stories often paint themselves into a corner. The key is to draw inspiration from Real Life People (character traits, speech patterns, belief systems, facial tics, inordinate love for bacon) – not copy them note for note.

“I Have Bills to Pay” – If writing is your business, you want to get paid. Soon. Knowing that your dog is going to need expensive dental work can push you in a good way – forcing you to make writing a priority when it might otherwise be relegated to “whenever.” But it can also press you in a bad way, tempting you with shortcuts that serve only the clock, not the story. Of course, typing “the end” doesn’t mean you get paid any sooner anyway if your story isn’t up to snuff. It just means you’ll be seeing more comments in your editor’s revision letter. And if you’re self-publishing? Well, sure. You can hit “publish” on a rushed project if you want. But if it’s not your best work, you may be killing your long-term success for the sake of a quick buck.

“I’m Hungry” – Some writers write better when they deny themselves the basics of life: water, food, Tweeting, watching Mad Men. Other writers can only find a writing rhythm if they’re eating regularly and experiencing an abundance of the non-writing life. While changing your normal routine can help snap writer’s block, more often than not it will send you to that place where laptops fly. (This isn’t as pleasant a place as it sounds. The laptops only fly as far as the wall.) The key is to know yourself – your body, mind, spirit – and do the things that make you feel most like a writer. If you write best when life is happy, then eat lots of chocolate and play with puppies every day. If heartbreak makes you brilliant, well, yeah, about that…

“Ouch” – Sometimes real life just hurts too much. Maybe you recently went through a breakup or lost a loved one. You don’t even want to get out of bed, let alone write that scene where your protagonist…goes through a breakup or experiences the loss of a loved one. As a writer, you know instinctively that the intensely-felt emotions you’re experiencing now will eventually make you a better novelist. (There’s a sick sense of satisfaction in that.) But the word “eventually” matters here. A lot. Even a writer’s heart needs a break once in a while. Besides, when you’re suffering in real life, your writing can suffer too. It can become overwrought with emotion, pouring pain onto every page because that’s all you know. Or it can become bereft of emotion because it hurts too much to feel, causing your unsuspecting characters to suddenly go numb when they ought to be joyful or sad or afraid or whatever. Take a break from writing fiction and pour your heart out in a journal instead. In a journal, the plot and characters don’t matter. Then, later, when you can embrace the diversity of emotion that a novel demands – go boldly back to the page. Accept the new truths you’ve learned, and let them inform your writing only where it’s appropriate.

What are some other ways real life can get in the way of good writing? Yes, I’m actually asking a question here.  Feel free to fill the space below with words.

 

 

Acknowledgments

According to Degree of Difficulty, it’s right up there with the first sentence of your novel, the query/love letter to your agent-crush, and the recommendation letter for that former employee who slept with your husband but really is a damn good accountant and shouldn’t be denied a job just because she’s a horrible waste of skin.

I’m talking about the dreaded Acknowledgments page.

I’m here to save you some pain. Because that’s what the courts tell me I have to do in order to compensate for all the damage I do as editor. (It was either this, or work at a morgue. But I’m afraid of…wait for it…Lindsay Lohan.)

The Acknowledgments page may be the greatest work of fiction you’ll ever write. To make it easier for you, I’ve provided a template below. Simply replace the bracketed descriptions with the appropriate info, then send this to your publisher mere minutes before your book goes to press. You don’t want to send it too early because at least three people you’ve thought about listing will say something stupid and lose their thank-worthiness between the deadline your editor gives you and the last possible moment you can actually turn it in (which is just after the publisher says, “We’re going with ‘I’d like to thank Kanye West and God’ if you don’t send the information in the next five minutes”).

So, here. And you’re welcome. And please sign my time sheet so I can count this toward my community service.

Acknowledgments

Wow, what a ride. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the help I got from the great team at [name of publisher], including [list of people you don't know personally who apparently had something to do with the production of the book, like the cover artist, copyeditor, proofreader, coffee monkey, that creepy guy with the blue goatee  from the marketing department]. Gosh, guys – you’re all the best!

I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my [mother; father; spermbank; alien host]. Thanks for [birthing me; empowering me; locking me in a closet for seventeen years so I'd have plenty to write about]. I’m proud to be called your [son; daughter; demon spawn; alleged murderer].

Thanks also to my writing group friends, [list only those people who said nice things about your book and not that woman who said it was like Twilight only not as well-written]. Your [hard work; encouragement; hopelessness as writers] inspires me.

This book would be [marginally readable; ten times as good; like Twilight only not as well-written] if it weren’t for the tireless work of my editor, [editor's name goes here]. I still think you’re wrong about [deleting the prologue; changing the POV; re-writing the entire novel in your voice]. Just kidding. All your advice was brilliant. You deserve a [raise; vacation; bloodletting].

What can I say about my agent, [agent's name goes here]? No really, what can I say [that captures the magnitude of thanks I owe him/her; that is defensible in court]? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Then, of course, there is the one person who not only believed in me, but also endured my [late nights; whining; lack of personal hygiene; constant swearing]. I’m talking, of course, about my [spouse; significant other; puppet-master; imaginary childhood friend]. You are [the yin to my yang; the moon and a million stars; the reason I wake up in the morning; the reason I drink]. This book is for you.

To all my readers – past, present and future – I love all of you more than [Downton Abbey; Nutella; the Downton Abbey episode where everyone was eating Nutella; Rob Lowe; that feeling you get when you're about to be stabbed].

Above all, thanks be to [God, Buddha, Aslan, Kanye West, my cleverly-named dog Hemingway].