There Is No Good

Everyone* knows there’s no magic formula for writing a book that’s destined to become a bestseller. (Did you notice I didn’t write “there’s no magic formula for writing a bestseller“? I did that on purpose. Pause for a moment to think about why I did that.) But that doesn’t stop you from trying to find such a formula – or at least discover a few tricks that can improve your chances of such success.

So you reverse-engineer the bestsellers. You study the themes, the characters, the pacing, the writing style. You examine the publishing processes, the marketing tricks. You take everything apart and look for pieces that might fit your novel. You puzzle and ponder until you’re cross-eyed and confused and in the meanwhile, neglect the one thing that has the best chance of setting you apart from the crowd: finding and developing your unique writing voice. (How? By writing. A lot.)

But let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve refined your voice and improved your craft and as a result, you’ve written a good book.

I’m going to have to stop you right here. Because I know what’s coming next. You’re about to compare your novel with a best seller. You’re going to employ some common writer’s (il)logic and whine, “If [insert name of current bestseller here] can sell a ton of books, mine ought to sell even more. Because my novel is actually good.”

I have some news for you: There is no good.

The word is meaningless in this conversation. Here’s why:

1) Good is relative. What you call “good” I might call “bad.” Neither of us would be wrong except according to the other.

2) Good is not a quantifiable measure of anything. (See above.) Therefore, there is no direct correlation between “good” and “sales.”

So what makes a novel a best seller if it’s not how “good” it is?

Connection.

I’m not talking about the “it’s who you know” or “how many you know” kinds of connection, though admittedly, those continue to play a role whether you’re self-publishing or pursuing traditional publishing. As a bonus, here’s the entirety of my post on that topic: Networking and social media are good for you.

I’m talking about the connection a book makes with its readers.

A book doesn’t have to be good (or well-written or brilliant or whatever other phrase you like to overuse) to connect with readers. It just has to make them feel something they want to feel. Hope. Or excitement. Or wonder. Or surprise. Or fear. Or comfort. Or even dismay.

An intriguing plot can do that. So can a clever twist on a tired, old plot. Or, for that matter, a tired, old plot.

Compelling characters – whether superhero or everyman, do-gooder or do-badder – can do it, too.

Sometimes beautiful prose does it. Often, plain and simple does it.

Connection sells books. Readers call many of the books they connect with “good,” but let’s not forget all those “bad” books readers happily devour, too. (We call them guilty pleasures to minimize embarrassment.)

There are other factors, of course. Like simple curiosity 0r our strange cultural fear of being left out. Book buyers are happy lemmings.

The bottom line, though, is this: if a book connects with enough people, it will sell a lot of copies.

I opened this post with a claim that there is no magic formula. We’re at the end of the post and that’s still true. There’s no easy way to craft connection, nor would I encourage you to attempt it.

Every story has the potential to connect with a lot of people or a few. But if a novel doesn’t connect with one person in particular (I’m talking about you, the writer), chances are far greater for the latter than the former. So the simple lesson here is this: Write a novel that makes you feel something you want to feel. Then pray lots of other people want to feel that, too.

So what about writing well? Is that still important?

Well, that’s kind of up to you, isn’t it. I’ll take a wild guess though.

Yes.

 

*By “Everyone” I mean all writers who are smart enough to know that people who guarantee they can make you into a bestselling author are just trying to take your money. 

Once Again, With Feeling: The Empty Page

Life happens. And then it keeps happening. And by the time it starts to happen a little less – by the time you might actually have a little mental space for thinking thoughts and time space to write them down – you realize you’re used to the empty page, at peace with the simplicity of having written nothing.

The blog light grows dim, the empty page becomes an empty stage. There are no actors in the wings. No orchestra in the pit. No director pacing back and forth scribbling notes in his head.

But there are people in the audience. Some are regulars, virtual friends who visit every day just in case. Others are strangers who wandered in off the street because the door was open. And then there’s that creepy guy who lives in the balcony.

They’re here because of you. They want to see what you can do. They want to be entertained and informed. They want you to confirm and erase their fears with clever wordplay. They want you to shake the rafters with brilliance and break their hearts with unresolved chords. They want to feel. They want to applaud.

They get it, of course – they understand that life happens. It happens to them, too. They’ll give you grace for that. But now…now they’re beginning to wonder where you’re going with this.

And so are you.

So you cut the lights and exit the metaphor, stage left.

The regulars smile knowingly. The strangers wonder why you didn’t just edit the metaphor out of the blog post in the first place. The creepy guy who lives in the balcony falls to his knees, stunned to tears by the wisdom hidden so deep within the metaphor even you can’t see it.

And then you’re back to the empty page. Staring at it.

You’re tired of trying to be clever. You’re tired of trying to be wise. You just want say something small, something simple, something true. And so you begin…

The empty page is a curious thing. It seems to have a mind of its own.

It cajoles. It demands. It threatens. It pleads. It heaps guilt.

But that’s not the empty page. The empty page doesn’t care what you do.

The empty page doesn’t feel lonely.

The empty page doesn’t ache for meaning.

And, no, that’s not the blank page crying out to be filled.

It’s you.

Safe Distance

[Usually I write about writing. But what is writing about if not life? This post is a window into mine. Don’t look too hard for the writing wisdom here. Sometimes the story is enough.]

Like so many others, we couldn’t turn away. At first we eyed it with simple curiosity, my 18-year-old son and I – the fire teasing above the horizon, peering down the foothills at the houses below. But then the wind picked up the fire dripped down the mountainside like angry red tears and the curiosity fell away, replaced by unvoiced fear.

We had been watching from a ridge a half-dozen miles away – a safe distance – snapping pictures with our cell phones; held and repelled by the surreal beauty of nature’s fury. But in that quiet moment, we knew. This was going to be bad. Really bad.

A family of four joined us on the ridge. They would be strangers in any other circumstance. We shared a story in this one.

“Pretty wild, isn’t it,” said the father. His wife was pointing to the west, their young children straining to see something they didn’t quite understand.

“Yeah.”

Just a few hours earlier I had collected my son from rehab. Twenty-eight days after he’d been delivered there at his request.

It was his second twenty-eight days.

As we drove back to Colorado Springs, watching smoke trails from the Waldo Canyon fire drift skyward in the distance, we had talked about our plans for his move to Michigan – a move away from Colorado Springs, the city where he’d both found himself and lost himself.

“You can’t run away from drugs.” They were my unspoken fears, but his wise words. “It would be naive to think that,” he continued. “And dangerous. I know who I am. I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned. Still…I’m looking forward to a fresh start.”

Twelve hundred miles from here.

Later that evening as we watched the breaking news, we tried to disbelieve the images of a mountain on fire.

“It looks like the end of the world,” said my son.

“Yeah.”

We already knew what that looked like.

An hour later I got a call from a friend.

“We’re being evacuated. We need a place to stay.”

As my friends arrived with the belongings they had quickly grabbed in escape, we continued to pack my son’s things for his cross-country move. Boxes and bags crowded the small apartment. Some were filled with important things. Some with unimportant things. Most with missing things.

Days and nights blurred by, adding stress to the surreal. And then, some good news.

“We’re free to go back. Our home is safe!” said my friend.

It was a small joy, muted by heartbreak. Three hundred and forty six families would not be able to say the same thing.

As the losses were solemnly mourned and the heroes were quietly celebrated, the mayor spoke these words: “We will rebuild, we will come back stronger.” They were sincere words. True words. But there are no guarantees. Fires will burn again someday. Literal fires. Figurative fires. Life is full of ’em.

There is no safe distance.

My son has been clean and sober now for 33 days. We look forward to 34. There are no guarantees. But he is determined to rebuild, to come back stronger. His words are sincere. True.

This afternoon I drove by the ridge where my son and I had watched the fires burn. If you keep walking along that ridge you will come to a park. There you’ll find a baseball diamond. A BMX track. A playground. A grassy field for playing soccer or flying kites. To the north, apartments. To the east, a high school. To the south and west, single family homes. You can see a shopping mall from that ridge. This is a residential neighborhood.

As I drove by, I looked up at the ridge. Silhouetted against a cloudy sky there was a six point buck. He was out of place, far from home, but standing tall. Lost, but determined.

I don’t know the rest of his story. It’s still being written. But I do know this: There is no safe distance.

And that is how it should be.

 

What To Do When You Get Your Editorial Memo

Ping.

An email just arrived. The one you’ve been waiting for. The one you’ve been dreading.

The subject line is three words long.

Your editorial memo!

The exclamation mark almost makes those words seem benign. Cute, even.

But you know what the words are hiding.

Red ink.

Six weeks ago you sent your finished manuscript (the seventh draft, if you don’t count the first five) to your editor. And now it’s back. With notes. Comments. Suggestions. Demands.

What’s a writer to do? Here. I’ll help.

Step 1: Stare at the email without opening it for at least 10 minutes or until just before your hands begin to shake uncontrollably.

Step 2: Get up from your chair, walk to the liquor cabinet, open it and stare for another ten minutes or until you realize it’s not yet five o’clock.

Step 3: Return to your chair. Sit down. Stand up and stretch. Sit down again. Open the email.

Step 4: Save the attached file to your computer without opening it, then start reading the email. If you see phrases such as “There’s a lot of good stuff in here” and “I really like where you’re going with this,” this means the memo is 27 pages long. Briefly consider giving up your dream of being a writer. If necessary, go back to Step 2 until it’s five o’clock. (You know what to do there.)

Step 5: Warn all family members and pets within shouting distance not to bother you for the next three hours. If they’re sensitive to strong language, suggest they go out to dinner.

Step 6: Open the editorial memo. If it’s more than ten pages long, revise your family suggestion from “go out to dinner” to “go out to dinner and a movie and bowling and for that matter maybe you should just find a hotel somewhere for a few days.”

Step 7: Start reading. After one page, pause, take a breath and remind yourself that you really do want to be a better writer and that even the best authors get editorial notes.

Step 8: Continue reading. Somewhere around page seven, pause, take another breath, then go ahead and voice the question that’s been forming in your brain. This one: “Who does [insert editor’s name or more descriptive word in lieu of name here] think she is? What a [insert an even more colorful descriptive word (in gerund form) here] idiot!”

Step 9: Get up from your chair. Pace. Slam at least three doors. Cry. Slam another door. Throw your dog-eared copy of On Writing against the wall.

Step 10: Press the creases out of your dog-eared copy of On Writing. Apologize to Stephen King. Go back to your desk.

Step 11: Finish reading the memo. Close the file. Walk away from your computer. Do not open the file again for at least 24 hours.

Step 12: Liquor cabinet.

Step 13: [At least 24 hours later. More if you spent those 24 hours near the liquor cabinet.] Return to your computer. Pause to remember that your editor is probably a person, too, with a family and maybe even friends. Read the entire memo. Afterward, if you still feel like slamming doors and throwing writing books, shut down the computer and don’t come back for 48 hours. (If you only feel like throwing writing books, you can come back in 24.)

Step 14: Open the file yet again, but only after you tell yourself these four things: 1) yes, you’re still a writer;  2) writing is all about re-writing; 3) your editor is trying to help and her wisdom is worthy of consideration; and 4) your editor isn’t perfect. Now read through the note again…and this time, listen. Listen to your editor’s intent. Listen to your objections. And most of all, listen to your future readers. Will they have reason to wonder why you didn’t listen to your editor?

Step 15: Start making changes to your manuscript. Trust your editor, but don’t be afraid to question her suggestions. A good editor can provide a reasonable explanation for every suggestion. If it’s not clear in the memo, ask.

Step 16: Send an email to your editor, thanking her for the great suggestions. Begin a conversation about concerns or disagreements. Refrain from using any of the descriptive words you used in Step 8.

Step 17: Finish your revisions. Own them. If you’re publishing traditionally, send the manuscript back to your editor with further thanks and a promise of chocolate. If you’re self-publishing, hire a copyeditor. You’re going to need one.

Step 18: Recall that you have a family staying at a hotel somewhere. Rehearse your explanation for the dent in the wall, then ask them to come home.

Step 19: Celebrate. (Liquor cabinet optional.)

Step 20: Get back to that other book you were writing.

Go Away Publishing Industry. I’m Writing.

It’s entirely possible that what you know about the publishing industry is killing your chances of being published.

I’m not referring to perky and/or snarky agents* who tease you forward with a one-in-a-thousand opportunity they call “querying,” or clueless editors* who wouldn’t know brilliant literature if it bit them in the Franzen. I’m not talking about the endless hoops writers have to jump through whether chasing the graying hope of traditional publishing success or the shiny silver promise of self-published glory. I’m not talking about the dearth of bookstores or the preponderance of ebooks or the utter unpredictability of bestsellers.

I’m talking about the thing that lies beneath all these other things.

I’m talking about information.

It’s ancient news that technology and the Internet Age (social media in particular) have changed and are still changing the publishing game. Not long ago the industry was the privileged child of Monopoly and Aggravation. Now it’s the bastard son of Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Trivial Pursuit. Imperfect board game analogy aside, the biggest difference between then and now is what we know (or can know, provided we have great web-surfing skills).

Logic seems to tilt in a writer’s favor here: Information leads to knowledge. Knowledge leads to power. Ergo, writers who know lots of stuff are powerful.

Yes.

And no.

Yes. We know more. Lots more. We know who stirs the waters and who tries to still them. We know where to find writing advice that makes a difference. We know what it takes to self-publish a book. We know the kinds of bribes agents definitely can’t accept because that would be unethical but as long as you brought that bottle of wine to the conference, sure, I’ll take it.

We know a lot because most of what there is to know is available on the Internet. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. What knowledge really affords us is opportunity. Power comes from knowing how to take advantage of that opportunity.

And don’t forget that with opportunity comes responsibility. Try querying an agent without first studying her query guidelines and see what happens. (No. Don’t. I hate to see a writer cry.)

And no. When everyone has access to the same information, none of us is more powerful than the next. In many ways, it’s even harder to get noticed, now that everyone with a computer, an iPad, a smart phone, or a heartbeat thinks he can write a novel.

About that novel…

Did you forget about your novel? You’re not alone. Most writers I know struggle to stay focused on their story, and it’s not just external distractions (children, spouses, Kardashians) that have them wedged between the rock of industry knowledge and the hard place of writing.

The abundance of publishing information (and easy access to it) may well be the number one cause of writer’s block. When writers should be listening to the protagonist’s plea for conflict, instead they’re worrying about whether or not the book is marketable. Or they’re praying for the perfect agent. Or they’re suffering the metaphorical flop-sweat of query-fear.

But there’s an easy solution. Right? All you need is one of those writing programs that can go full-screen with the click of a button. Or a legal pad and a pen. And maybe a writing spot without Internet access.

No distractions.

Apart from all that you know (and don’t yet know) about the publishing industry. You know a lot, remember?

This isn’t going to get easier. The publishing industry is shedding more and more of its clothes every day. It’s all there for everyone to see. Not quite naked, but still NSFW. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

Except that to write well, that’s exactly what you must do.

The publishing industry needs to go away while you write.

Maybe you write in short bursts between games of solitaire. Maybe you prefer day-long marathons. Whatever your mechanics, you must not let the publishing industry intrude on the mystery of storytelling. While you write, the industry no longer exists. It’s just you and your characters and all the things they do.

When you’re not writing (I don’t mean in the pause between sentences), go crazy on the Internet. Read the agent blogs, the writer blogs, the industry blogs. Surf and search and study and worry all you want. Become powerful.

But when you’re writing? Let it go.

Your characters have no idea there is such a thing as a publishing industry. Don’t screw up their story by distracting them with it.

 

*I actually have lots of love for agents and editors. This was just me playing with a popular notion for the sake of an interesting sentence.