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.

Sticks and Stones and Words

Thick skin.

That’s what they say you have to have if you’re going to be a writer. Because someday someone will skewer your novel. NotĀ may skewer it. But will.

It’s a given. A law. A little like Murphy’s law. A lot like the law of gravity.

Someone is going to hate your book. Really, truly despise it.

This will inevitably make you want to do one of the following:

a. Dig a hole. Climb into it. Stay there.

b. Push the writer of that review out of a helicopter without a parachute because anyone who can’t see the subtle brilliance of your prose needs to learn a lesson about great writing and what better way to prove your point than to reenact a scene from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.*

c. Hack into Amazon.com so you can replace the offending review with one your mother wrote in the family Christmas letter 27 years ago about the ashtray you made for her in kindergarten. “It was wonderful! Amazing! Made me want to take up smoking!”

But, as the theory goes, if you have a “thick skin,” the review won’t bother you at all. As you read how your protagonist “wouldn’t even be believable playing a stiff on a soap opera” and that your plot “drags more than J. Edgar Hoover” you’ll simply smile while the scent of lavender fills your nostrils and images of puppies and kittens frolicking in a field of poppies fill your mind.

There’s only one problem with this “thick skin” theory. It’s bullshit.

If someone calls you ugly, it hurts. Even though we both know you’re totally not ugly at all. In fact you’re quite good looking. Especially today. Did you get a haircut? It really suits you.

It’s no secret that we all want to be liked. Apparently, this is some absolute truth of the human condition. And what is your novel? It’s you. Pieces of you at the very least, and all of you if it’s your first novel. (Yes, we all know Ex Plus One Equals Love is actually a thinly disguised memoir chronicling that fifth year you spent in high school when you fell in love with your algebra teacher.)

So when someone says your novel sucks, it elicits the same response as if someone called you ugly. (No, you’re still not ugly. We already went over this. You’re cute and/or handsome and seriously sexy.) Thick skin is a myth writers made up because they desperately want it to be true. “All I have to do is wear the Thick Skin of Protection +4, and I will feel no pain.”

It doesn’t work that way. But…that’s okay.

Pain is good. Even the pain that comes from being lambasted by a clueless critic who wouldn’t know Wouk from a wok. It tells you you’re alive. And it also tells you something else, something critically important for a writer – it tells you that you care about your work. Yes! You. Care. About. Your. Work.

Forget trying to grow thick skin. Besides, you’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe. In a larger size. And don’t swing to the other side of the pendulum and complain about how thin your skin is. That just sounds like whining.

Write your book. Invest yourself in it. Do the best you can. And when someone says “your book is ugly,” go ahead and wince. Or scream. Or cry.

Then write another book. Not to prove that naysayer wrong. But because you wear the skin of a writer.

And that’s what writers do.

*I may not have remembered that right. I read Angels and Demons when I was suffering from both a deep depression and a nasty flu. Everything I read during that time was seen through a filter of Ache and Puke. I think that’s also the name of a book by Chuck Palahniuk. But I could be wrong about that, too.

How to Increase Your Novel’s Word Count

Word count is the devil you have to love, or at the very least, respect.

This is a true statement if your goal is to be published (through traditional methods) someday. Those of you who don’t care about traditional publishing can leave the room now. Go play cricket or bake a souffle or save the whales. Then write about it. Use as many words as you like.

The rest of you, please select an abacus from the abacus cabinet and have a seat.

Unless you’ve already had significant publishing success or your last name is Rowling or King, you’re going to have to pay close attentionĀ to The Count. You’re picturing that vampiric puppet from Sesame Street, aren’t you? Now you’re thinking about vampires. Now you’re thinking about Edward Cullen. Now you’re either drooling glitter or you just threw up a little in your mouth. Can we get back on topic now? Thank you. (Go team Lestat!)

If you’re like most new writers, your manuscript is too long. You never intended it to grow to 150,000 words, but it just sort of took on a life of its own. Like a garden of beautiful wildflowers!

No, like a plague.

Well, if you’re one of these sorts of writers, you’re in the wrong classroom. Overlong Novels and How to Trim Them Like a Bad Mullet is in room 242 down the hall. Don’t forget to put your abacus back in the abacus cabinet on your way out.

The three of you who remain? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: you suffer from Anorexia Novelosa. You missed your goal of 80,000 words by 25,000, didn’t you?

There, there. No reason to cry. Well, there might be a reason to cry, but we won’t know that until after you try some of these ideas for increasing your novel’s word count:

Introduce a Brand New Character. Not just any character, but someone who is significant enough to throw your protagonist’s plans a little out of whack. Some stories come up short because they’re a bit too linear. Good guy pursues a goal. Bad guy interrupts good guy’s plans. Good guy overcomes bad guy. The end. But what if there’s another good guy pursuing the same (or a conflicting) goal? Or another bad guy who wants the joy of ruining the good guy’s day? Or someone who could be either good or bad depending on the way the wind is blowing? Yes, adding a significant character to a “fully operational Death Star”…er…I mean a “complete” first draft can really mess with the plot you so carefully worked out. One change on page 45 could have an impact on every page that follows. And some that precede it. But a brand new character can also add depth and texture (and words) to your story.

Give a Minor Character More Lines. You know that neighbor who appears once or twice because it gives your main character someone to talk to on the way out of his apartment? What if she had a bigger role? Look at each of your minor characters. Perhaps a couple of them are just begging for more ink on the page. Give it to them. Let the crazy uncle be even crazier. Follow the mother and her daughter into the train station instead of just observing them from a distance. Cross the street to find out why the dog is barking every night at eleven. Every character in your story has a full, complex life, even if all you see of them in your current draft is captured by a single sentence.

Fill in the Calendar. I’ll bet you have more than a few places in your novel where you write something like “three days later” or “later that night.” Sometimes there’s an entire chapter just begging to be written about the “three days” or the space between now and “later that night.” Note: I said sometimes. We don’t need to know what’s happening every minute. Choose these new scenes carefully. And be aware that any additions to your story will affect not only the plot, but also the pacing and rhythm. If an addition “feels” off, it probably is.

Further Develop a Subplot. Subplots are “sub” for a reason. They are meant to enhance, not compete with the main storyline. But some of your subplots might benefit from a few more words. Perhaps the rainstorm that never seems to end not only threatens the dam, but also floods a local school, forcing teachers and students to hold classes in a nearby abandoned train station. Maybe the grocery store clerk who is always singing to customers decides to try out for American Idol.

Beef Up Your Description. Let me give you the caveat first: don’t just add description for description’s sake. There’s nothing worse than having to slog through page after page of details that add little or nothing to the story. That said, there might be places where the story would be enhanced by more detail. Don’t just mention the fading color of the baseboard paint in the haunted house, tell me that the room smells like mold and dead mice and how the floorboards seem to cough with every step. Don’t just tell me there are wind chimes hanging on the back porch, tell me the song the protagonist hears when the breeze blows. Provide details that increase tension or reveal more about a character.

Find a Better Ending. I know, you already have the perfect ending. Or do you? What if the ending you have now is just a pause before the actual ending? What else could go wrong that might send the story in a (logical) new direction? Think about it. Or maybe there’s a “false” ending you forgot to write – one that fits rather perfectly in the timeline just before the actual ending.

What if you consider all these ideas and nothing seems to work? It’s possible your novel is un-expandable. Perhaps 55,000 words is exactly the right length for your manuscript. If so? Confidently shop it around to agents and editors. A great story is a great story is a great story. If it’s really just right at 55,000 words, a savvy agent or editor will realize this. I’ve seen more than a few novels get picked up for publication because they were “just right,” even though they fell outside the word count guidelines.

Okay. That’s all for today.

Class dismissed. Don’t forget to return your abacus to the abacus cabinet. I know you didn’t use them. I just wanted to write “abacus cabinet.”

Have a nice day.

[This post is 1103 words long. On purpose.]