Friday, March 27, 2009

Things I've Learned to Date

Ah, sweet Friday. This has been a weird and slightly hellish week, where good news masqueraded as bad news and I dealt with many more body fluids that I typically like to handle. But I'll leave all that alone. Instead, here are some of the things I've learned about publishing. Feel free to add your own ...

1) It's a marathon, not a sprint. And you run it alone. No matter who reads your stuff, no matter how much support you have, writing is a solitary pursuit.  
2) The only variable I can control in this whole process is the quality of my own work. I can't control trends, or the economy, or the acquisitions process, or editors, or agents ... so there's no sense in worrying about it or thinking about it.
3) Number 2 is easier said than done.
4) Critique partners are essential. And I mean absolutely essential. And the choice of a crit partner is crucial, because they're like dogs and spouses. Over time, you start to resemble each other a little bit, so you better pick people whose writing you really admire. In this regard, I'm very fortunate.
5) You should always be working on your next project. Don't wait on the business for motivation or validation. And be prepared to work very, very hard.
6) You have to confront your weakness. Let's face it: we unpublished writers aren't unpublished because of our strengths. We're unpublished because of our weaknesses, so that's where we should spend our energy. If you don't know your weakness, or don't have any, see #4.
7) Money should be way, way down your list of priorities. If it's near the top, you're in it for the wrong reasons and you'll be disappointed. 
8) Every writer is different, and no one's process or approach is superior to anyone else's. The ONLY thing that matters at the end of the day is words on the page. So be comfortable in your skin, be kind to yourself, find the process that works for you.
9) You will get rejected. Over and over, sometimes very painfully. To make it easier, see #5.
10) Talent is real, but it's also cheap. At some level, everyone in this business is talented, so talent alone will never be enough.
11) You can never compare yourself to other writers. It's like comparing your faith in God to someone else's faith, or comparing fingerprints. It's too personal, too impossible. No two writers will ever walk the same path, so envy and bitterness are just wasted energy that could be spent becoming a better writer. Besides, this business is hard enough without all that crap. We writers should be nice to each other.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

From a Place Called Pain

I keep having these epiphanies on character, and my next thought is, Well. Duh. Every dingleberry out there except me probably already knows that  ... 

But this is my challenge as a writer. I accept it.

When I think about my past characters in past books, I think I've been afraid to dole out pain. I don't mean I was afraid to make them confront challenges within the story, including painful challenges. I mean that I've been afraid to dole out imperfections before the story starts. I've been afraid to let them walk into the story already damaged. So they lack the core vulnerability that is the result of living in a hard world that can be cruel and uncaring. 

Why? Well, that's probably a question for another shrink's couch. But from a writer's point of view, this is a problem because no human alive lacks this kind of scar tissue, including myself. So the result was characters who were impossible to relate to because there was no sense of shared humanity. They were ciphers, untouched by the world, who came into the story flawless and blank … in a sense perfect.

Last night, as I was sitting up with a very sick three-year-old, I thought about the pain that we carry into our own stories, and I thought about a particular character in my current WIP and what kind of pain she might be carrying into the story, as opposed to what she will encounter once the story begins. And immediately, almost suddenly, I understood this girl. For the first time, I really saw her in my mind, saw the cornered, angry expression on her face, and then I had a rush of sorrow and protectiveness wash over me for her. She's mine, this character, but if she is to be true, then I can only wish to fix her, knowing that I really can't. Because isn't that it how it always is with the people we love?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sticking up for Setting

I've been thinking a lot about setting recently ... before I could get started on my new project, I wrestled a lot with the various settings. For me, it was essential that I "get" the setting, because I just can't go anywhere unless I know where it is. I wanted dark, dank, and smelly. I wanted a landscape that literally oozed ominousity.

I think setting gets a raw deal a lot of times. We hear again and again how we have to cut exposition and trim unnecessary words. And too often, I think this is translated into, "Cut the crap out of your setting." 

It's true that long, purply paragraphs about sunsets and frothy waves are often wasted space, but there's another side to this story. Your setting is nothing less than the personality of your story. What would Wonka be without his factory? Dumbledore with Hogwarts? Jack without that island and its pink rocks? Inman without that damn mountain? These settings aren't just wasted paragraphs of exposition and adjectives ... they hover over the whole story, they breathe life into the events by assuming the characteristics of the story itself.

To me, this is how setting should be done. I want setting to be another, invisible character. I want it to tell me something, not merely exist as a backdrop. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, either. A setting is a few well-chosen details. When you describe a house, it might be less important how many feet wide it is, or how many windows it has, or what color it is ... than whether or not the gutters are sagging and overflowing with last fall's leaves. I want it to say something about the people who live there, not the mortgage officer who approved their loan.

Because ultimately, your setting is an extension of the characters themselves. The details they notice are the ones that make it into your book, and those are the details that define these people in the physical space they inhabit. It strikes me that setting isn't an afterthought, or an annoyance ... how you choose to describe your setting is more than physical -- it's central to the characters themselves and it hangs over your entire story like a vapor (my new favorite word).

So I'm sticking up for settings, and I'm sticking up for writers who take time to think hard about the little details that matter in their settings, and then take the time to include these important clues to the world they're creating.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Internal Conflict in LurkerLand

Have you ever had the feeling the world is trying really hard to teach you something? If I was a religious person, I would say that God/Buddha/the White Stag or whatever is working on me ... that somewhere, somebody who is made up of mostly vapor and good ideas is knocking desperately on my skull and shouting in my ear: "WAKE UP, YOU TWIT!"

What am I talking about? Oh, jeez. I can't really say -- or, I guess I don't really want to say. But the last 24 hours in LurkerLand have been like falling through the rabbit hole. No, I didn't get The Call. That would be straightforward and simple. And no, I didn't get a rejection. What I got was a Message. More details to come. Maybe. 

Anyway, in light of all this, let's talk about conflict in stories. I have a tendency to write characters who are deeply internally conflicted, or who are willfully self-delusional. My characters are always in conflict with external forces, yes, but the real conflict -- the meaningful one -- is internal. They have to overcome whatever is inside of themselves, or learn to tell themselves the truth, before they can adequately defeat whatever external forces are arrayed against them.

Now, when I put it in writing like this, it sounds good, right? It does to me at least. Because maybe I take a dim view of humanity, but I tend to think that most people are internally conflicted or not exactly honest with themselves. Just speaking for myself, I know it's a constant struggle not to start buying my own bullshit, and I know that I'm deeply conflicted about some very fundamental things. Here's a quick example: I'm basically a pacifist at heart. I think that war is wrong, that there is no such thing as an "honorable" war, and that violence can never be done in the name of justice. I think that all militaries target civilian populations, no matter what they say, because that is the nature of warfare: to break your enemy by destroying him and his way of life. However, I also recognize that some threats are existential in their gravity -- that fascism posed an aggressive, violent threat to everything I value. How to reconcile these values?

But here's the thing: THIS DOES NOT WORK IN MG FICTION.

It just doesn't. I spent some time thinking about this last night, and I couldn't think of any significant lead characters in MG fiction who are deeply morally conflicted or self-delusional. They might be misguided; they might be self-destructive; they might be immature and willful and stubborn. But they're aren't morally conflicted or wrestling with their own misbegotten psyches. And the best protagonists in children's literature are simple and sure ... they are brave without thinking about it, good by nature. They are models for the rest of us. In short, they are fictional.

This naturally brings up character motivation. In a kid's book, it doesn't work to present false or misleading motivations for a character, even intentionally. Even if you double back on it later and show why it was false. Readers just aren't conditioned that way. The motivation has to be on the page. It's that simple. The reader has to understand at any given moment why the protagonist is doing whatever they're doing ... and this reason has to be the real reason, not an incubating lesson on which you'll pull the trigger in 50 pages. I've tried to pull this off twice now, and the truth is, even very savvy readers still come back and say, "But ... why did he do BLANK? I just don't get it." 

I hope this makes some kind of sense. Even to me, it seems like a weird issue. But I think I can say that I've earned my insight into this issue. So from now on, when I sit down to work on my kid's books (my favorite kind), I'm going to stick with a rule my mom taught me in my own childhood: Keep It Simple, Stupid. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why, oh why?

Here's a horrifying experience for a writer: as you're working on your current project, you ask yourself, "But why does the bad guy do that? I mean, why is he there at all?"

And there is nothing but the sound of crickets chirping in your brain. 


This past week, I've been combing my book with why's and wherefore's. Pretty much at every scene, I'm asking the characters, "Why are you here?" And it's been illuminating, mostly because of how often I had absolutely no idea, or the answer is a muddled "garr." 

Maybe in real life people do things randomly, but in novels, I don't believe they ever should. Random action is the enemy of a tight story or a good plot. So with every scene, there has to a defensible reason why every character is present and why they're doing what they're doing. 

The cool thing, though, is the more I stress test the story, the deeper I go. With every round of questioning, I find myself building it out a little further, and the themes become clearer, the characters become clearer. But it does make for slightly slower going than I'm used to ... 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What the #$%!

I've got a book out on submission now. It's MG, technically, with a 12-year-old protagonist who's something of a rebel. Throughout the book, he does all kinds of bad stuff. He runs away, he breaks into businesses, he steals things, and he almost burns down a school (but in context, it doesn't seem that bad). And yet, there's one particular exchange I'm worried about. Here it is: 

Murph stalked down the sidewalk, heading back toward the train station. He knew a lot of bad words, and he used all of them to describe Hermit. He used his four-letter ones, his seven-letter one, and even uncorked a twelve-letter whopper that was the worst word he knew. 
"Murph! Murph!"
Cherry and Henry were chasing him down the sidewalk. He stopped to let them catch up.
"Hey," Henry said, panting. "Why'd you run away like that?"
"He's an asshole," Murph said. 
"Murph!" Cherry said. "Don't say that! That's a horrible thing to say!"

Before I sent the book out, a few readers suggested I remove the word "asshole." I almost did, but in the end, I just couldn't. It was absolutely true to the character and the moment. And I don't know how many 12-year-olds you hang out with, but these kids today ... I'm sorry, I mean these whippersnappers today are pretty advanced. When my 13-year-old kid is telling me about the movie Saw -- which he hasn't seen, but almost all of his friends have -- then obviously things have changed. 

They say YA is getting edgier, but I'm not sure if this is a chicken-and-egg argument. Maybe YA is getting edgier because the kids are getting edgier, and the books just reflect that.

Whatever. The fact is, I told myself I'm not striking that word until an acquiring editor tells me it has to go (one can hope, right?). And even then, I'll probably squawk weakly in protest. As far as Murph is concerned, Hermit is an asshole. Simple as that.

So what do you think? If you're writing for the younger motherfu$#@rs, when is it OK to swear? And when will it hurt the book's prospects?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Unctuous Draft

Woo hoo! I'm writing again. Finally. I'm first-drafting the new series. I'm not completely done with the three-book outline, but I'm close enough that I can muddle along. I'll, ah, you know, make it up as I go. The series is called The Rose Morphus. This book is Flight of the Silver Dragon. It's YA fantasy.

There's nothing like that rush of a first draft. When you're not concerned with the little crap, you just plow along, laying down markers and finally building the world that's been in your head for so long. I know this euphoria won't last forever, but for now, I can just lie to myself. 

I know everyone has a different process. I love to know how other writers create. For me, it's detailed outlines and thinking and thinking and thinking, and then the writing begins. I can't imagine any other way, but I've been around long enough now to recognize that there are ten million valid ways to produce a good book. Shoot, as long as the final book is good, the process doesn't matter at all. If you have to write in blood on Kleenex by the light of the fourth full moon while drunk, I'm on board if the book is good.

It's taken me a few years to recognize my own process. Once I start, I hate stopping. For anything. I aim for 1,000 words a day, more or less, every day, seven days a week. I type fast, and because I've already plotted the story, this doesn't take long. Usually about 45 minutes a day. I'll first draft this book probably by the Fourth of July.

Although it might sound like it, I'm not simply transcribing notes from an outline. Despite all that prep work I do, the real, undeniable quality -- the magic -- always happens during the writing. That's when the words are actually there, when I can finally access the pace and flow and phrasing for the story. But I need the outline and the prep work to provide structure to my work. I need to not worry about the big direction so I can spend time on the little embroidery. 

I love first drafts. I really do. I'm always surprised, though. Because the first draft usually feels like butter. Smooth. Unctuous. Fun and readable. But weirdly enough, very little of the first draft will probably survive the editing process. 

Go figure. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

So Bad It Burns

I've lately had the opportunity to evaluate and edit an increasing amount of unpublished or self-published fiction. This means two or three novels a week ... and I'll be honest, it's left me a little ragged and a little freaked out.

The first thing I noticed was that as soon as I opened one of these books, as soon as I was in a position to professionally evaluate fiction, my standards went through the roof. All of a sudden, good enough wasn't good enough anymore. Books I would have praised from family and friends were subjected to a level of criticism that surprised even me ... and this was instructive. It was like I suddenly looked through the window that agents and editors see every day, and I understood, in a way I never had before, why a book has to be nearly perfect before they'll commit.

The second thing I noticed was this: if I was an acquisitions editor, I would have passed on every book I've read recently. Every. Single. One. And I would have done it quickly, often within the first 10 pages. As an editor, I'm paid to finish, so I do, but it's amazing how quickly you can tell it's just not there. My friend Erica calls this the "meh" factor, and that's as good a word as any.  

In a few cases, I think I see potential. The next question is: will the author do the work? And a surprising number of times, the answer is no. Many people seem unable to confront the professional, solid advice that's staring them in the face. I can't tell you how many times I've left detailed editorial comments on a manuscript only to have the author ignore every single one or write an equally detailed defense. I can only hope I'm not unwittingly among that number ...

My last thought was this: exposure to this seemingly never-ending flow of hopeful, often clumsy, but occasionally authentic fiction is like standing too close to a fire. You can feel all that burning desire out there, the thinly disguised traces of desperation in the Introductions and author e-mails, and it's just a little ... overwhelming. I often say that I wish all of my writer friends and I could get seven-figure contracts and retire to a tropical island forever. But when you really see the volume out there, you realize that the island would be the size of Greenland. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Nirvana Behind Door Three

I'm reading this book now ... OK, I'm being paid to suffer through this book in which the author pretty much telegraphed on page 20 what was going to happen on page 200. I imagined him sitting in the pool of light from his computer monitor late at night, chuckling, "Ha ha! Don't them fancy pants editors call this furshadowing? 'Cause that's what I'm doing now! Furshadowing! And NO ONE will ever figure it out!"

Ugh. Please pity me. On page 180, I had a wild hope he had tricked me after all. That I was wrong. That I hadn't guessed the ENTIRE book in the third chapter. But alas, no. It played out exactly as I dreaded. 

Which, of course, got me thinking about telegraphing your plot, foreshadowing and all sort of other goodies. I can think of three kinds of telegraphing as far as plots are concerned:

1) Clumsy. You give it all away like a drunken sailor. You think it's clever, you think no one will see it coming, but the truth is, it's obvious. You know why? Because THERE'S NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE. If you have a story with three people, and one is the good guy and one is in a coma, well ... you do the math. The other one is the bad guy.

2) Inevitable. Oh, this can be delicious. You know the train is heading for the cliff. You know it will head off the cliff.  But it cannot be stopped. The story is grinding inexorably toward its stomach-churning destiny. All that remains is for your characters to deal with the awful truth. Handled well, this can be magnificent. After all, who doubted Luke would confront Darth? But how, lovely readers, therein lies the magic.

3) Brilliantly. OK, this is plot nirvana. First, you have telegraphed multiple endings. But only one is the real ending. The rest are red herrings (a most delicious fish). And the real ending is shrouded in ambiguity and doubt even as it's being revealed. Can it be? Is that even possible? But doesn't that mean ...? It's a shock when the moment is unveiled, when your masterpiece is finally seen in full. Rebecca does this. The Sixth Sense does this. 

I'm usually aiming for door 3, but I'm perfectly happy to hit door 2. And if I suspect I've passed through door 1, it's time to tear the whole thing up and start over ...

How about you? Where does telegraphing fit into your world?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Outfoxed Again

A recent lunchtime exchange with my 3-year-old:

Jake: "I want a banana!"

Me: "You can't have a banana until you eat everything else. Then I'll give you a banana."


Me: "I told you no." 

Insert "I want a banana" about 25 times, then me again: "If you say that three more times, you're going in time out."

Jake: "I want a banana!"

Me: "One."

Jake: "I want a banana!"

Me: "Two. Say it one more time and you're going in your room."

Jake (thinking hard): "I WANT SOMETHING YELLOW TO EAT!"

Pause for my suppressed laughter and his howling. After I collect myself, me again: "No. And if you even say the words 'I want' three more times, you're going in timeout. Just eat your lunch and I'll get you a banana."

Jake: "I want something yellow!"

Me: "One."

Jake: "I want something yellow!"

Me: "Two. I told you, if I hear those words again, you're in trouble. I'm done with this. I'm losing patience with you."

Jake (thinking, then bursting into crocodile tears): "I want a HUG!"

Oh, jeez. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Courage is a Beard

I've got a thing about facial hair. It seems that big, bushy beards are coming back in. I see a lot of twenty-something guys now sporting the kind of mountain man beards that can hide whole families of birds. This is pretty radical. I grew up the 1980s, when facial hair on rock stars was totally out and mascara and lip gloss was in. Naturally, this was in reaction to the 1970s, in which huge, furry lip kittens were all the rage. 

But for me? I never had any guts. Even in the 1990s, when every other guy I knew was sporting a goatee, I never went there. Truth is, I just didn't have it in me. At the time, I said I didn't want to be just another guy with a soul patch, but it was really because I was a wimp.

But part of me -- oh, sweet rebellion -- is just aching to grow a full-on, crazy-ass Joaquin Phoenix beard. 

The closest I came was a few years ago. I sort of did it! I grew a full beard, and I'll be damned if it didn't come in red. Red! It was like looking in the mirror one day and realizing you're actually Asian. 

Then, the downfall.  

My son's piano teacher came over. Great teacher, but a very mousy individual. He was just the quietest, nicest, most soft-spoken guy in loafers you ever met. He was always hesitant, like he didn't want to disturb anything. And he had a beard. It looked just like mine. So when he saw me, he said, "You're growing a beard! Now we look just like each other!"

My heart sunk. I shaved it off that night. And I've never gone back, because here's a hard lesson for a thirty-something guy to stomach: when you think you're being a crazy rebel, more often than not, you're just a mild-mannered piano teacher.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Why Publish?

I've got this friend ... well, not truly a friend as much as someone I knew many years ago. She maintains a blog that I read occasionally, and I don't know really know anything about the circumstances of her life, but I know that I truly enjoy her writing. She's got talent -- and I tend to believe that real talent is pretty rare. She's got a great voice. It's funny. It's heartfelt. It's even sad sometimes. 

I once considered writing her, just to touch base but also to say, "I really enjoy your writing. You're supergood. You should write a book ..."

But I didn't. Because it crossed my mind that maybe she doesn't want to write a book. Maybe she's perfectly happy expressing herself on her blog. Maybe her fabulous voice and wonderful writing bring her a quiet pleasure, and she has no need to push the envelope and subject herself to the mill of rejection and criticism that publication requires.

And is this so bad? 

I wonder, what makes some people so hell bent on getting published, while others could really care less? I can think of two very, very successful writers who both decided one day they wanted to be writers, so they started writing. Nearly obsessively. And today, they've both sold tens of millions of books and are among the most well-known names in publishing. But I also think it's pretty obvious that neither is reeking with talent. Their prose is OK. Their stories are, you know, good. But it's not earth-shattering stuff, and it won't survive the ages. These two authors became writers through sheer force of will.

So what is it? Why does it matter so much to some people, while for others it's a passing diversion? 

I can't even answer this question for myself. I just know that the drive to publish has been hard-wired into me since I was little. Even when I kept a private journal, I considered it exercise for "real" writing. It just is. 

What about you? Do you need to be published? Why?