The Buoyancy of Words

Fair warning: I’m going to stretch a swimming metaphor well beyond my non-metaphorical comfort level. Feel free to believe that this discomfort serves some greater meta-metaphorical purpose. Then let me know what it is so I can say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

Writers spend a lot of time going nowhere.

We start out strong enough, with a perfect swan dive into the ocean of ideas. [Already the metaphor is causing me gastric distress.] But after a few weeks or days or hours of swimming in a Direction We’re Absolutely Sure Of (Until Suddenly We’re Not), we find ourselves far from the dock and nowhere near the distant shore. Our confidence falters and our Olympic-qualifying freestyle pace devolves into draggy doggy paddle.

And then we’re just treading water.

I’m not a very strong swimmer. I’m also pretty bad at treading water, or as I call it, “pausing briefly before drowning.” You may be great at treading water. But even if you are, eventually you have to start swimming again or drown.

Did you know that drowning doesn’t look like drowning? I’m talking about actual drowning now, not the metaphoric kind. There’s rarely any thrashing, handwaving or cries of “Help! I’m drowning!” A drowning person can’t call out because it takes every bit of respiratory energy just to keep breathing. [The preceding message was brought to you by the American Lifeguard Association. And now, back to the metaphor.]

Two truths:

  • Writing, like swimming, is a solitary act.
  • Writing a novel is like swimming across the Atlantic.

Do you see a problem here? I’ll paint the picture for you: You know that scene from Titanic where the lifeboat returns to look for survivors? Remember all those floating frozen bodies? Novelists. Every last one of them.

We can’t swim across the Atlantic on our own. We need a little help along the way. Encouragement to keep swimming. Direction to send us toward the right shore. This can come from a spouse, a friend, a writing group peer, a mentor. It can come from a tweet or a blogpost. Or…from another novel.

Sometimes the best motivation to keep swimming is evidence that someone else made it to the other side.

I read The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green last week. It’s a heartbreaking, edgy, funny, beautiful novel – the kind that implores you by its brilliance to become a better writer. I grabbed onto it just in time. The novel I’m writing (ten words at a time between editing projects) had been dragging me under. But thanks to John Green’s words, I’m swimming again. I can almost see the shore.

And I can see something else. That familiar look of quiet panic in your eyes. I don’t want you to drown. I want you to finish your novel. Do whatever it takes. Call a member of your writing group and plead for help. Ask your spouse to toss a few kind words your way. Read an encouraging blog post. (You’re welcome.) Read a great novel. Just find a way to get to the other side.

Not just because doing this will make you feel good. (It will.) And not just because it’s an incredible accomplishment. (It is.)

But also because I’m still not a very good swimmer. Someday I’m going to need another great novel to grab onto.

I’d like it to be yours.

 

Better Than You Think

The first time you ran into a wall it came as a surprise. Not because you didn’t believe in walls, but because you didn’t know they could appear in the middle of a sentence.

But you broke through it like the Kool-Aid Man, with the same broad smile, the same blatant disregard for plaster and paint. Because you were a writer and that’s what writers do. They persist.

And persist you did. Through the next wall and the next, until one day you hesitated.

Do other writers run into this many walls? you wondered

Writing used to be about ideas and dreams. Once, you were an architect with an empty skyline and a pocketful of girders. But something happened along the way. You were demoted to demolition. Oh, you found certain strange satisfaction in the power to destroy with the press of a button. But it didn’t last. Before long you were staring at ten thousand craters where a hundred buildings should be.

On that day, and with dust-choked despair, you thought The Thought That Must Not Be Thought.

“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”

In that moment, the earth stopped spinning, the Walden woods grew dark, James Patterson put down his pen. Everything and everyone waited.

Would you walk away? Would this be the wall that defeats you? Would you give up your dream? Could you?

You sighed in resignation. No, not yet. Every other writer sighed in relief.

And the world resumed its spin.

You took stock.

This is not as easy as it once was.

You are not as good as you thought you were.

You have a lot to learn about writing. About re-writing. About trusting your instincts. About breaking bad habits.

You do not yet suffer in brilliance; you suffer because you’re not yet brilliant.

And so the wall looks at you. You look at the wall.

You lift your fingers, set them gently on the keyboard. And you begin again to write.

Meanwhile someone is watching from a little ways off. She looks a lot like you, only older. She smiles, then whispers, not quite loud enough for you to hear…

You’re better than you think you are.


True Stories

They tell you to tell the truth and this sounds reasonable but you’re not quite sure how to do it.

They also tell you to do other things. Kill your adverbs. Kill your semi-colons. Kill your darlings. Kill your prologues.

Oh, you say, those I can do.

So you set the truth aside and head to the killing fields.

You reach for your metaphoric fountain pen, dip it in metaphoric red ink, and prepare to earn another metaphoric belt in the ancient art of Strike-Thru. At first you move cautiously, uncertain, fearing that you might condemn words just because of the clothes they wear. But it’s not their clothes, it’s the way they strut in them, commanding unwarranted attention like peacocks in a henhouse.

This isn’t a story about peacocks.

You find your resolve. (It was buried under a pile of metaphors.)

Quietly is the first to be silenced.

A semi-colon is decapitated; the comma slinks away and the dot falls. Period.

So much eye-rolling is plucked from the page.

And then, oh the humanity, an entire page is attacked. Words scatter, some find safety in later chapters, others are relegated to a losing game of Words With Friends.

That hurt a little – like the tingling needles that wake a sleep-fallen foot. But it wasn’t so bad.

So now, about that truth-telling thing. What does it really mean? Your invented character kills someone. Cheats on a spouse. Battles cancer.

Perhaps you haven’t done those things. Yet. How do you write about them truthfully?

Most writing advice is about what you do. Cut this. Replace that. Move the other thing.

Telling the truth is about who you are.

This is where writing gets real. Because to write about the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler, you’ll have to access the thoughts and emotions that most closely match the character’s. You’ll spend time in uncomfortable places. Bad memories. Secret fears. What-ifs. Temptations. Mistakes. Regrets. This is where you find the raw material to make the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler come alive.

Time for some potentially disheartening news: You may not have the necessary raw material. You may not have any relevant experience to draw from. [You can thank God for this now if you like. Or you can ask Him for more trials. But really? Do you want a harder life just so you can be a better writer? Who do you think you are? Me?] Can you write honestly about a woman who leaves her husband if you haven’t left yours? Can you write honestly about what it’s like to attempt suicide if you’ve never swallowed a bottle of pills. No. You can’t. (Feel free to argue with me here.) You can come close, of course – you can write about what it’s like to ponder those things if you’ve pondered them, you can draw from similar life experiences and try to extrapolate truth from those, and you can learn from others who have made those choices. But you’ll still be circling the truth, writing about it instead of revealing it.

And now some better news. Circling the truth will still satisfy most readers. That’s because most readers haven’t done those things either. They key is to circle as close as you can. Readers know when you’re faking it – when you’re trying to tell a truth you haven’t spent time with yourself. But when you get it right, or nearly right, readers will feel that truth on a primal level. Then you’ll be one of those authors readers can’t wait to tell their friends and neighbors about. “The author just gets it” they’ll say, not quite sure what “getting it” means.

But you’ll know what it means. You told the truth.

No matter how you get there – whether by looking closely at your own experience or examining the lives of others – it’s going to hurt. You will see things you don’t want to see, feel things you don’t want to feel, ponder things you’d rather not ponder. And then you will see them and feel them and ponder them again as you write the first draft, the second, the third.

One of my jobs as editor is to push a writer to dig deeper, to discover that well they can draw from to craft characters who reek of truth. I’ve worked with a few who couldn’t do this. Some just didn’t have the life experience to draw from. (This is why so many novels from young authors fall short of brilliance – the authors just haven’t lived enough.) Some had plenty of raw material but didn’t want to go there. (It hurt too much, or they didn’t think it was necessary.)

What about you? Are you willing to suffer a little (or a lot) so your writing doesn’t?

Can’t I just delete more adverbs instead?

Sure. If that’s what you really want. Is it?

Tell the truth, now.

When to Ignore Your Editor

I’m not a member of any elite editorial clubs. I don’t dine with editors who have touched the Manuscripts of the Gods. I don’t have an MFA or a PhD or a WtF in Writing/Editing/Pontificating. I don’t play tambourine in an all-editorial band and I haven’t been contacted by the The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or NPR to do an interview on what it’s like to walk with literary giants or play the tambourine in an all-editorial band.

So please feel free to take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. Or a bottle of wine, whichever puts you in the proper mood for receiving questionable wisdom. Ready? Okay, here you go:

Your editor isn’t always right.

A good editor is mostly right, of course. And it practically goes without saying that a bad editor can be mostly wrong. But even the very best editor – the one who plays lead guitar in that all-editorial band – is wrong sometimes. So how do you know when your editor is missing the mark (or making unnecessary ones with her red pen)?

*Listen to your editor’s language. If she says “This doesn’t work” that means she’s certain about the need for change. If she says “I think this might work better” that means she’s reasonably confident with her suggestion, but is open for discussion. If she says, “Does this change work? Do you have a better idea? Do I look fat in this dress?” she’s probably just received an unsettling text message from her boyfriend and is suddenly questioning everything she does and you probably should too.

*Look for clues that your editor is truly invested in your story. If she comments that Blargh the Wanderer needs to tell Hiccup the Occasionally Pretty he loves her in order for the exchange on page 93 to make sense, and you know Blargh does this seven chapters earlier, this could be one of those clues. It’s possible that your editor merely missed that exchange or that you didn’t write it as clearly as you thought you had, but her error could indicate she isn’t reading your novel as closely as she ought. If you find numerous inaccuracies (of the factual kind) in her notes, she might be (gasp) skimming your book. This is the mark of a Very Bad Editor or at least a Very Sloppy One. Go back and read the section where Blargh proclaims his love and if you’re confident it satisfies the editor’s concern, ignore her comment. And by “ignore” I mean politely point your editor to the page where Blargh carves “I love you” into the dead orc and Hiccup faints at his declaration. Or at all the blood. This gives your editor an opportunity to say “oops, missed that” or explain why that particular declaration of love doesn’t cut it. (Did you see what I did there? With “cut it”? I know. Hilarious.)

*Be clear about the story you’re trying to tell. A good editor is loyal to the story first and you, second. As long as the story you’re presenting on the page is the story you’re trying to tell, that’s not a problem. But sometimes the story you want to tell is not the story that wants to be told. A good editor will see this and offer suggestions that favor the story’s needs above your desires. If you don’t mind telling a different story, do what she says. She’s wise, your editor. But if the new direction isn’t somewhere you want to go, then boldly say “no” and look for a way to write the story you want to tell. Keep in mind this could mean starting over, or risking putting out a less-than-stellar novel. But ultimately it’s your book. Your name is on the cover, not the editor’s. If you have a good editor, trust her, take her advice as seriously as she did in the writing of it, then follow your heart.

*Know your voice. This one is tough for inexperienced writers. It takes a lot of words for most writers to find their voice and if you’ve only completed one novel, you’re probably not there yet. When you do find your voice, you’ll know it like the back of your hand. [Really Steve? You went with cliché? "The back of your hand"? Who really knows the back of their hand? I suggest you change this. Clichés really don't fit your voice unless you're being ironic or sacrificing them for a greater good. Wait...er...never mind.]  Good editors learn your voice and wear it like their own throughout the editing process. But not-so-good editors and inexperienced editors (and, okay, even good editors on a bad day) sometimes reshape your writing so it sounds like them. This isn’t always intentional – they like what they like and expect you should too – but it’s almost always wrong. You’ll usually see this in the little things – changed words and phrasing that seems almost arbitrary. Now, if you like the changes and they still sound like you, go ahead and accept them. If you don’t – if they don’t sound like you – change them back. And if you’re unsure, ask a friend who knows you (and your writing style) to weigh in. Your voice is important. Find it, and then fight for it.

*Count the number of times the editor references her own brilliant novel in comments about yours. If that number is greater than zero, ignore all her notes and find a new editor.

A good editor has a reason for everything she does. If you aren’t comfortable or clear about an editorial change or suggestion, ask. Give your editor a chance to explain and campaign for her change. Or a chance to admit she was wrong.

The editor’s job is to help you tell your story the best way possible. Most of the time, she’s right. But not all the time.

Learn to know the difference.


Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.