Impractical Magic

There is no magic formula, no conjuring spell. No eye of newt, and toe of frog. No wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

Oh, you’ll find a few who would claim otherwise – people quick to sell you the secrets to a guaranteed bestseller. But they are charlatans. Or fools.

There is no such thing as a magic formula for a guaranteed bestseller.

You can’t reverse-engineer J. K. Rowling’s books, find out what makes them tick, then build a better Hagrid. You can’t boil Hunger Games down to the bones then wrap new, equally tempting skin on it.

The secret of a bestselling book is mostly invisible, organic, unpredictable; a creeping vine that winds through the words then burrows under a reader’s skin and wraps around the heart. It’s a thing that never quite reveals itself, proving its existence only by the trail of impossibly enthralled evangelists left in its wake.

Of course, this doesn’t stop writers and editors and publishers and pundits from trying to define its shape. And why not? We all want it – even those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.”

We want people to love our words. We want people to buy our books. Not because we’re particularly greedy. (We’ll only buy one Tuscan villa.) But because we want our stories to matter. To resonate. To change people. To inspire people.

And, yeah, to pay the bills so we have time and inclination to write more books.

There is no magic forumla for success.

There is, however, magic.

It appears unexpected. In a sentence that brings a gasp. In a twist that spins you dizzy. In the spark and crackle between words, the infinite ache below them, the impossible buzz above.

It’s what happens when the characters suddenly become real, when the plot takes on a life of its own. It’s the surprise that draws us closer to the monitor, unsure what just happened but longing for more.

It’s the root of that creeping invisible vine and we wants it, my precious.

So we chase it. We try to understand it. Corral it. Analyze it. Engineer it.

Sigh. Will we ever learn?

A writer can’t invoke magic. Story is its only enchanter.

And that, my friends, is the end of the post.

Yes, really.

What were you expecting? A formula? Sigh. Okay, try this: the better the storyteller, the more the magic; the more the magic, the happier the readers; the happier the readers, the more likely they’ll become impossibly enthralled evangelists. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

Now go out there and become a better storyteller. In case you’re wondering it’s a simple three-step process:

Read. Write. Repeat.

Have a nice day.

How Do You Know You’re Growing as a Writer?

I’m not sure how to open this post. I thought about playing the simile card and saying something about how becoming a better writer is a lot like becoming a better other thing – a better architect, a better juggler, a better OPI color namer, a better human. That would have been entirely true. And entirely boring.

I also considered manufacturing a conversation between a beginning writer and a seasoned writer that could foreshadow the post’s inevitable wisdom. I probably would have included an exchange like this:

Seasoned Writer: I’m told you want to know how I got to be me.

Beginning Writer: Yes. Tell me what to do, oh wise sage.

Seasoned Writer: Was that sarcasm?

Beginning Writer: Sarcasm? I’m not sure what you mean.

Seasoned Writer: Never mind. You want to know how to grow as a writer.

Beginning Writer: Yes, master.

Seasoned Writer: First of all, stop attributing wisdom to someone just because he’s older. Secondly, learn sarcasm. But most of all, read a lot and write a lot.

Beginning Writer: That’s it?

Seasoned Writer: Yup.

Beginning Writer: It’s that simple?

Seasoned Writer: Who said anything about it being simple? If it were simple, writers wouldn’t feel compelled to add one more thing to this list.

Beginning Writer: One more thing? There’s another thing to do? Tell me. I want to do it. What is it?

Seasoned Writer: Drink a lot.

But that sort of opening would have a 70 percent chance of inviting the eye-roll twins of obviousness and pretentiousness.

So instead, I’ll skip the meaningless drivel and get right to a list of things that answers the question posed by the post title. Here, then, is some meaningful drivel. I mean here are some clues that let you know you’re growing as a writer.

  • You are finally beginning to understand why some of your writer-friends enter a meditative state of humble reverence whenever the name Marilynne Robinson is mentioned.
  • You recognize your progression from careless adverb abuser to adamant adverb hater to champion of whatever word works best even if it’s an adverb.
  • You remove the pins from the voodoo doll that bears a striking resemblance to your editor and start dressing it in only mildly embarrassing outfits borrowed from your daughter’s Barbie collection.
  • You know when you’ve written a brilliant sentence and this knowledge brings a moment of pure pleasure that quickly morphs into something resembling abject terror.
  • Your mother/husband/bff unintentionally reveals what she/he thought about all your previous writing when commenting with unchecked surprise about your newest work, “You wrote this? Really?”
  • You’re reading fewer “how to write” books and blogs, not because you exhausted them all (you tried) but because you find that these days you’re learning more simply by reading great fiction.
  • You thought about starting a writing blog because you want to help other fledgling authors but then scrapped the idea because you’d rather be writing your novel and, really, how much time is there in a day?
  • You notice beginner mistakes in published works and, after a moment to decry the sorry state of traditional publishing, find yourself wondering if “smugness” is really so terrible a thing to feel after all.
  • You embrace the revision process not because you read somewhere that you’re supposed to but because you know it’s necessary.
  • You’ve gained ten pounds and can rightly blame five of those on the siren’s call of your laptop. (Feel free to blame the other five on the donuts.)
  • You’ve traveled from “truly inspired by” through “totally depressed by” to “often challenged by” another author’s brilliant writing.
  • You have a love/hate relationship with everything you write and welcome this as the necessary push and pull of critical thinking.
  • You look back at your early writing and convulse in laughter.
  • You look at your current writing and know that someday you’ll look back on it and not convulse in laughter so much as smile a knowing smile.
  • You have no idea where your thesaurus went and you don’t care.
  • You’ve stopped saying “I want to be a writer.”

This Could Be a Problem

I like languishing in obscurity. Languishing is my love language.

This could be a problem.

Well, not yet. But it will be if I reach any of my writing goals for the year, which include: a little book based on my #thewritinglife Twitter updates; the first novel in a YA series; a contemporary adult novel that’s been six years in the making; a few more blog posts; at least one provocative tweet.

You can’t have a successful writing career unless you embrace marketing and self-promotion.

I get it. If no one knows about you or your book, the book won’t sell.

In my past life as an editor in a traditional publishing house, I spent many hours in marketing meetings. I understand the rationale, the importance of planning, the risks and potential rewards. I find marketing fascinating. Nothing tests the creative process like trying to come up with ways to make every book a bestseller when your dollars are limited. Marketing meetings may be rooted in reality (“this is our marketing budget for the book”), but they’re fueled by big dreams. Even when pressed down by the weight of that reality, the air in most of my remembered marketing meetings was always thick with hope.

I inhaled that hope. I wanted each book to sell a million copies. I wanted each author to become a household name. I wanted to walk into Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes and Noble to see eager readers holding the books in one hand and open wallets in the other, their expectations high and about to be exceeded.

It was easy to believe this for other people’s’ books. But now I’m closing in on the reality that I soon will have a book (or three) of my own to unleash upon the masses. The closer I get, the more I long for obscurity.

This isn’t because I hate or fear marketing (see above). Nor is it some lame attempt to apply reverse psychology to my publishing dreams. (Unless it works. Then it was my intent all along.) I wish I were high-minded enough for it to be about letting the words stand alone, untainted by the evils of self-promotion. (I’m not.)

It’s just that I like obscurity. Obscurity is my favorite pair of pants.

Experts will tell you that marketing and self-promotion are games of chance you can’t afford not to play. They’re right. Absolutely right. Especially if you want to sell books.

I do.

This could be a problem.

Welcome to the Club

Sometimes I watch the Twitter-stream and think the New Digital World is a beautiful place. A place of generosity. A place of kindness. In the Sometimes you can almost hear people listening, nodding, patiently waiting their turn to add to the chorus. In the Sometimes, the digital shell dissolves and we’re in a small room together, face to face.

You mention a book. I say I know that book. You say isn’t it the best? I say it’s brilliant.

I sip my orange juice (it’s morning here). You sip your wine (it’s evening there).

How’s that novel of yours coming along? you ask. Slowly, I answer.

Loved your last blog post, I say. I needed to hear that today, you say.

I sip my orange juice. You sip your wine.

We quietly slip back into our lives.

And then there are the Othertimes. In the Othertimes the New Digital World is an ugly place. A place of easy exclusion. A place of selfishness. In the Othertimes I hear silent pronouncements, judgments, snide asides. In the Othertimes the digital shell becomes a wall and we’re only in a room together if I qualify.

You haven’t read Faulkner? Exluded.

You’ve read Twilight? Really? Excluded.

You don’t have an MFA? Excluded.

You don’t have a book deal? I mean a real book deal? Excluded.

It’s pledge week and you weren’t invited. It’s high school and you aren’t cool enough. It’s junior high and you buy your jeans at WalMart.

Oh, there is a cursory kindness. And there are moments when the wall comes down – but instead of a small room it often reveals a stage and they’re on it and you’re not.

In the Othertimes, an excluded novelist (blogger, agent, editor) smiles politely, accepts the Otherness and continues on. But there remains an ache. We don’t want to examine it for fear it’s stamped “jealousy,” but it’s there. Instead, we wave it off as nothing or employ a familiar safety protocol: cognitive dissonance.

We didn’t like that club anyway. They’re snobs. They’re elitists.

They’re successful.

Okay, maybe we do like that club.

A little.

Or a lot.

Maybe we wish we were invited to their literary soirees and their Seurat picnics and their balconies overlooking the sunset Seine. Or maybe we just wish we could sit in a small room and talk face to face. Have you read The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes? you might ask, and you wouldn’t change your opinion no matter what they said; you would say how much you loved it.

They would sip their champagne. You would sip their champagne.

No. You don’t like champagne.

You would sip your tea.

And you would feel better. Cooler.

Accepted.

Would you?

Or you could forget about the Othertimes. Ignore them. Glide right through them. Perhaps you could stop, look around, and realize you’re already in a pretty good club. A club that matters.

Do you write? You qualify. Do you edit? You qualify. Are you an agent? A blogger? You’re in.

Have a seat. We talk about books here. Books and writing and publishing. And chocolate.

We don’t care how many followers you have or where you live or what you’re wearing. You can even use adverbs and sentence fragments here. Freely.

Sometimes the New Digital World is a beautiful place.

Like right now.

So…how’s that novel of yours coming along?

Your Book Reviews Are In

I’ve been to the future. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Quintuple-stuff Oreos. The reanimation of Walt Disney*. Laundry robots. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

And the reviews for your novel. No, not the one you’re writing now, the next one. The one you’re certain is the best possible work you could ever do. (Wait, don’t scrap the one you’re currently writing. It’s the best possible work you could ever do. For now.)

The Time Lords wouldn’t let me bring back a laundry robot, but they couldn’t stop me from memorizing what people will say about your novel. Here are just a few of the reviews. Most came from Amazon.com. Yeah, they totally own the future. I can’t tell you more or they’ll suspend my Kindle-reading privileges in the now.

_________

[Five Stars] Brilliant!!!! The best book I’ve read in like, forever!! I mean it, seriously. The plot is perfect. The characters are perfect. The font is perfect. It’s like, if Twilight (remember that?) had been written by Hemingway or Steinway or whatever that guy’s name was. It is totally. That. Good. Buy it. Right now. Did I mention how brilliant this book is?

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by a total stranger who said I could keep it only if I promised to give a totally unbiased review. I’m pretty sure “unbiased” means “really positive.” But if I got that wrong, well, then I’d probably rate it three stars. I didn’t like the font that much.

 

[One Star] Don’t. Bother. The characters were thinner than the paper books used to be printed on. The plot has a hole bigger than the one in the ozone layer. (And that’s really big, because this is the future and the ozone layer is practically depleted.) I really wanted to give the book a chance because of all the “unbiased” five-star reviews, but apparently all these five-star reviewers think “un-biased” means “totally inaccurate and obnoxiously hyperbolic.” Check out this excerpt from page 49:

She grabbed the wheel from Jack and held on like she’d invented it.

I mean…seriously? Who writes this crap? I’d have given this zero stars, but I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge the hard work of writing a book. The author probably gave up an entire November to write it. One star for commitment. Zero for content.

 

[Four Stars] Loved this book. After a strong start (the scene by the newspaper kiosk was perfect), I was completely taken by Hannah and Jack. They reminded me of my real life story (apart from Hannah killing her father and all the time-traveling, of course). When Hannah lost Jack the third time my heart started racing and I just had to check and see what percentage of the book I’d read. I was praying there was at least another ten percent – enough for Jack to come back. Thankfully, I was only at 83 percent. The next seven percent or so was probably the weakest part of the story, but the last ten percent? Totally worth it. I can only hope this wasn’t the best possible work the author ever will do. I want more. Oh, and I almost forgot: spoiler alert.

 

[Zero Stars] The file I got was all screwed up. I couldn’t even read it. Digital books suck.

 

[Three Stars ] Solid, if unspectacular novel. I mean, it was good for what it is – a time-traveling love story. But nothing will ever be as good as The Time Traveler’s Wife. While this one might have had fewer factual errors (everyone knows you can’t meet yourself in the past – that just screws everything up), the characters didn’t do it for me. I believed Jack’s story, but Hannah seemed more like a petulant child than a heartbroken lover. The action scenes are great, though. The author really knows her way around Union Station. I felt like I was right there. Overall, it was a decent escape, worth the price of digital but definitely not one I’d get in heirloom paper.

 

[Five Stars] Best book I’ve ever read. And I don’t even like time-traveling romances!

Disclaimer: I’m the author’s mother. She’s almost exactly like the character Hannah. Apart from the time traveling, of course. Her father would have been proud. We miss him.

 

[Two Stars] I haven’t read it yet, but from what I hear, it’s like Twilight except without vampires or werewolves. So what’s the point?

 

[Four Stars] Actually, four and a half stars. Wonderful story. Creative plot. Characters I actually care about. What else could a reader want? It did get bogged down in unnecessary details at about the halfway point, but I can accept a little Crichton-ization if the overal story is compelling. This one is. And the writing? Check this sentence out:

She grabbed the wheel from Jack and held on like she’d invented it.

I dare you not to fall in love with Hannah.

Highly recommended.

_________

 You’re welcome.


*Walt was visibly upset when told about Disney’s purchase of Miramax but calmed down after he learned about Pixar.