Part Six in the Book Coaching series by Jennie Nash
A coffee shop: the writer’s office. It’s almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, and for good reason.
There’s an annoying thing that happens to writers, artists, and other creative types. Namely, that ideas rarely come at convenient times. They don’t like to show up for their appointment at 7:15 am when your freshly-scrubbed hands are poised on your keyboard, your coffee is still warm at your elbow, and your schedule for the day has not yet been hopelessly derailed. No, ideas like to show up just when you’ve laid down to go to sleep, or when you’re in the shower with no way to jot them down, or twenty minutes into a yoga class (far past the time when you could slink off to make a note without girls with OM tattoos giving you the stink eye).
The reason for the terrible timing of epiphanies seems pretty clear, and I’m reminded of it every time I go into my favorite brewery. It’s my favorite because they make a delectable brown ale, a swoonworthy stout, and they print targets on their cans so you can shoot them when you’re done with your beverage (a must for an Idaho microbrewery). But they also have a terribly apt quote at the top of the mirror in their ladies room:
In other words, relax and the muse shows up.
Which sounds perfectly intuitive, until you remember roughly 600,000 other motivational posters you’ve seen in your life about how hard work is the only path to success.
After all, few people quote the mirrors of pubs in their lifetime achievement award speeches. So which should you be? Working hard to get your book done, or taking a more winding, zen path to finding your muse? Working hard or hardly working?
The answer to the conundrum, I have decided, lies in watching how people kill zombies.
No spoilers for the greatest show on television (because you should all get to enjoy the modern wonder of storytelling prowess that is The Walking Dead) but I happened to notice that the stars of TWD got a lot better at killing zombies in Season 7 than in Season 1. Part of that was because they obtained a lot more machetes (another key to happiness in life, but that’s a topic for another blog post). In Season 1, a single zombie fight would leave them breathless and staggering, trembling and blood-spattered.
But in later seasons, they’d take on an entire herd with a casual swagger and possibly a joke or two.
Why? Because they were using a lot less energy fussing about it.
Instead of being scared of the outcome or tensed against failure, they relaxed and only spent energy on the actual motions required for the task. Which freed them up to be far more effective against the rotting hordes of enemies.
Writing is the same way. The more time you spend checking your email or tweeting about your writer’s block, the less time you have to spend honing your craft. The more emotional energy you spend worrying that you’re a hack and a fraud, the less emotional energy you will have to fill out the highs and lows of your own characters.
So give yourself permission to relax about it. Yes, still sit down to your computer at 7:15 am, but release that iron hold on your own brain and let it meander, the way it does when you’re trying to sleep and instead you’re madly scribbling notes and annoying your significant other by having the light on.
By letting go of what’s not important, you can conserve your energy for what is. And maybe, just maybe, finally get that pesky muse to show up at a more convenient time of day.
I just came back from four days at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I played a number of different roles: authoraccelrator.com was an event sponsor; I taught a featured course and participated in two panels; and I did 1:1 consultations with about 60 writers throughout the conference. Like all writing conferences, this was an event filled with so much energy and so many opportunities for writers – and while I met a great many fabulously well prepared and well-intentioned writers, I was struck at the way others writers squandered their opportunity by making easy-to-avoid mistakes.
Here are 9 common ways writers squander writing conference opportunities – and what you can do to make sure you don’t follow suit.
1. You think you’re going to get “the answers.”
At several of the presentations I gave, writers expressed dismay (and even outrage) at the fact that they were hearing different advice from different experts. Some experts said a synopsis should be 500 words, others said 750. Some experts said a query letter should be personalized, others said not to bother. Some experts said you should finish a rough draft before you stop to edit, others said to stop to edit at regular interviews as you write forward. “What are the right answers?” the writers demanded.
The answer is that there are no right answers – and if you go to a writing conference to try to find them, you will be disappointed. If you troll the Internet looking for the right answers, you will also come up short.
Writing a book is a very complicated process, and publishing a book is a very complicated process, and all of it is an art, not a science. I suggest that what you look for at a writing conference – and in the online writing universe – are two things:
- a path forward that resonates with your goals and your style
- and should you need a guide, an expert whose advice you trust.
2. You think you already know all the answers
Worse than looking for the “right answer” are the writers who believe they already know everything. I was baffled on several occasions when people had the chance to ask me for 1:1 advice and their response was to argue with what I suggested or to defend what they had already written (which had already been proven not to be working for them). If you think you know everything – and you don’t really want to hear otherwise – don’t go to a writing conference. Also don’t go to a writing workshop, don’t take an online course, and don’t seek out a coach or an editor or an agent.
Writing is a solitary endeavor to be sure, but at many key points, it also becomes a collaborative endeavor, as well. Learning how your work hits your reader, and listening to their feedback, and adjusting the work accordingly, are skills that will serve you throughout your career.
If you truly think you know it all, and you don’t want to take anyone’s advice on anything, stay home.
3. You forget that reality that writing is a business
Publishers make their living by acquiring books they believe they can sell to the reading public. Agents make their living by selecting writers whose books they believe they can sell to publishers. Freelance editors and book coaches make their living by helping writers bring their work up to a commercially viable level so that readers will love it. No one is doing this work just because it’s fun. It’s totally fun – no question – but at the end of the day, publishing professionals are in the business of helping people write books that will sell.
It’s a business – and yet I was shocked at how unprofessional some writers were. They were pushy and demanding, and in a few instances, actually rude and obnoxious. Many of these people felt they didn’t have to follow the rules the conference had set up, or the rules of our profession, or the rules of polite society. I suppose they thought they were above all that – but none of us is above all that.
It’s fine to be persistent – but imagine that everyone you interact with at a writing conference might one day be a customer or an investor or a business partner or a mentor, and behave accordingly.
I had one writer tell me that he didn’t think the advice I had just given to an audience of 75 people was valid and then asked if I could give him feedback on his book pitch right then and there – which was an odd way to ask for a favor. When I politely explained that I couldn’t because I had 8 minutes to get to another room for another presentation, the writer stood in my way, shoved the written pitch at me and said, “Take it and you can email me what you think.”
I actually looked at the pitch later out of curiosity for what kind of person would do such a thing – and I was not surprised that the pitch didn’t hang together. It didn’t follow any of the clearly defined rules for pitching, didn’t deliver what a pitch needs to deliver, and was unfocused and poorly written. Of course I didn’t take the time to reach out and tell the writer this – but I feel certain that the universe will let him know in the way that the universe so often does. He will be rejected time and time again – and along the way will probably complain about how mean and unhelpful experts at writing conferences are.
Most people who are trying to get their work into the world are doing it as a side gig. You have other jobs and other responsibilities. I get that. Your writing is an “extra-curricular” activity today, but treat it as if it will be a profession tomorrow – and your odds of having that actually come to pass will increase exponentially.
4. You pitch before you are ready
Don’t plan to pitch at a writing conference unless you are ready to pitch. I know some writers believe that a conference is a good opportunity to “try out their pitch” on experts and agents, or to “just see what might happen,” or to “get a sense of whether their idea is any good” – but this is a waste of everyone’s time.
Agents and editors do not take on good ideas or nice writers or promising concepts. They take on ideas that have been awesomely executed and are ready to go out into the world. Yes, of course, they might help a writer take their project over the finish line, but you have to actually be steps away from the finish line, not back at the starting gate, or just rounding the first bend.
What does it mean to be ready to pitch?
- You have a finished, polished manuscript that is ready for agents to evaluate. It doesn’t have to be ready to send tomorrow, but should be close enough that you can feel confident sending it within a few months. You should, in other words, be in the final stages of your final edit or poised to get feedback that will get it there.
- You know your genre, your audience, your word count and your title. In other words, you understand the marketplace and how your book might fit into it.
- You know what your story is about – what it’s REALLY about. For fiction, this is NOT just the plot. For non-fiction, this is NOT just whatever your area of expertise is. You need to know why anyone would care about your story and you need to be able to articulate that.
- You know what you are looking for in an agent. You know what agents do, how they work, what they need from you, and you have done your homework on these agents in particular.
I’m all for practicing your pitch – but do so with your writer friends, your roommates, your colleagues, or your workshop buddies. If the conference offers the chance to hone your pitch before you give it, by all means take advantage of that. But wait to pitch until you are ready to pitch.
5. You ignore the other writers.
The writers who get the most out of writing conferences are the ones who pal up with other writers. They sit and have coffee with them, they share their woes and their words, they go out to dinner and help each other strategize. The people who only focus on getting “face time” with the experts and agents miss half the fun – and half the power of a conference. You could find a critique partner, a writing group, a mentor, a mentee, or just a friend who gets your particular obsession with words and story.
6. You compare yourself to other writers and come out feeling “less than.”
It’s easy to look at other writers and think they have made in the shade – especially when everyone is gathered together in a room to pitch to agents and some writers are getting showered with attention and you’re not. It’s easy to feel that those writers are the popular ones getting all the party invitations and you are the outcast no one wants to invite to the ball.
Luck and timing play a role in publishing success to be sure and it may well be that at this conference, luck and timing are not going your way. Instead of comparing yourself, think instead about one thing you can do to improve your craft, or improve your connection to your audience, or improve your odds of success. Think of one thing you can take away to make you a better writer – and forget the comparisons.
Remember that everyone is on the path to becoming the writer they are going to become, including you. You have no idea how many setbacks other writers have faced, how hard they have worked at their craft, or what else they have going on in their lives that might make them poised for success on the day of the conference. Similarly, you have no idea if you will find success today or tomorrow or next year or in ten years.
Your path as a writer is unique to you, and the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep growing, keep working, and keep moving forward.
It probably wouldn’t hurt to celebrate the other writers you meet along the way (reference #5, above.) One of my favorite moments during this conference was when one writer who had bombed in her pitches gave a new writer friend some advice for how to avoid that fate, and then said, “I’ll be sitting right here waiting to hear how it goes for you. Good luck!” It was lovely and supportive and sweet and kind. I have no doubt that some good writing karma will eventually come to her.
7. You step out in your PJs – or worse
During one of my presentations, there was a young woman writer sitting in the front row with a shirt so low cut, it was alarming. I don’t care if she was writing about the history of décolletage or a steamy romance, it was flat out inappropriate. During the Q&A, no one called on her. I think we were all afraid what might have happened if she stood up to take the mic!
Contrast that woman’s appearance with another young woman I met who gave the most fantastic pitch during a practice pitch-a-thon. She nailed the pitch, but when I suggested one way she could make it even better, she nodded, confirmed what I had said, and thanked me for the advice. She was, in other words, acting professionally.
I was betting that she was going to KILL it at the real pitch event on the last day of the conference, which was set up like speed dating. Sure enough, when I saw her after the pitches, she was bouncing off the roof about the positive responses she had received – and of course she looked put together and polished in a great dress that was age-appropriate and professional.
Just because we write in our PJs doesn’t mean you get to go out in your PJs.
8. You don’t seize the opportunities you have earned
I met a writer at this conference who had also been to it the prior year and received 11 agent requests. Over the last 12 months he had acted on none of them. He was too scared to risk getting it wrong or getting rejected and so he took those requests and just sat on them.
This is the flip side to being ready to pitch. This is being paranoid.
If you have done good work, and received invitations to send in your work, by all means send it in! Seize the chance! Do your final edit, and send it off!
No one wants to hear no – but as hockey great Wayne Gretzy said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”
9. You believe that one day can make or break your career
A writing conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect to agents in person but it is not the only opportunity you will ever get. It’s just one moment, one day. There will be other days to shine if this opportunity doesn’t go your way – so there’s no reason to panic.
I had writers coming up to me all weekend who were paralyzed with nervousness about pitching their book to agents, and after the pitch, they were freaking out that they’d blown it, or missed their chance, or failed. If you think your writing career can be made or broken in one day, you have the wrong idea about a writing career. It’s not a one-day thing or even a one-book thing. It’s something that unfolds over years, with many ups and downs, just like any other career. One day is not going to make or break it, and panic will only decrease your odds of success.
Landing an agent at a conference is only one path to writing success. There are many, many others – including the fact that you may decide that an agent and a traditional publishing deal is not the best choice for your book.
Take the long view of your writing career and you’re much more likely to have a long and fruitful one.
I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.
And it’s still snowing.
If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.
As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.
Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.
Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up. Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.
Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way. It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.
That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.
What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.
Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.
Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).
But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.
I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:
Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.
Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.
Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.
Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.
I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.
For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself. Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.
You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.
And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!
Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.
A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.
The description of the episode reads:
What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.
Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.
When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.
First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.
And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:
- it includes working with an experienced teacher
- you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
- it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
- “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
- “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”
Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.
One of our current students in the Story Genius novel writing workshop is a successful indie non-fiction author. Beverley Courtney is the author of seven books dedicated to improving communication between owners and their dogs, including Why is My Dog So Growly? and the amazon bestselling book, Calm Down! Step-by-step to a Calm, Relaxed, and Brilliant Family Dog. I don’t have a dog (as anyone who has been following along my slowly developing new novel knows!) but if I did, those titles would delight me. Just the words Growly Dog delight me!
Writing dialogue is important. Unless you’re doing a novel on a mute Russian burlesque group, in which case, all the luck to you. For the rest of us, even if you have the best worldbuilding ideas or the hookiest of book hooks, unnatural dialogue will be enough to make someone put your book down.
Dialogue must do three things:
- Sound like a real person
- Convey information quickly and naturally
- Tell us something about your character (ie dialogue has to sound different for each character)
That’s a lot to ask of every line that comes out of your characters’ mouths, but lucky for you, I have a secret weapon.
No, not a chainsaw slingshot (I wish).
My secret dialogue weapon? Fanfiction.
Write fanfiction, preferably of TV shows, but books work, too. Every book and TV show out there already has a cast of characters with their own personalities, backgrounds and quirks. By watching closely, and then trying to emulate those patterns, you can learn a lot about what makes people’s speech sound different from each other. Now, grab a notepad and the remote control and get to work (you so love me right now, don’t you?)
As each character speaks, try to analyze HOW they sound different. Walter White from Breaking Bad doesn’t sound a bit like Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, but why not? Here are some potential things to watch for:
- Unique words that one character uses
- Regional inflections or wording. Like y’all (apostrophe between the y and a, not the a and l’s, my southern belle CP informs me)
- Sentence length (do they speak in long or short sentences)
- Speed of speech
- Patterns. Do they trail off a lot? Do they interrupt? Are they interrupted by others?
- What about a character’s speech tells you their age? Is it their formality? Word choice? Pop culture references?
Now take your list of character-distinctive-dialogue qualities and TRY THIS AT HOME! Because believe me, all the pattern-noticing in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice (just ask Dr. Frankenstein).
Another thing you can learn from writing fanfiction of a TV show is how to convey information in dialogue. You don’t just want your characters running around, thinking bulleted lists of things you need your reader to know.
- Emily is bisexual
- The coven of beaver-toothed witches lives two houses down
- My mother ruined my self esteem by criticizing my shoe choices.
Instead you want them to get what they need to know by watching your characters go about their normal business. This makes it seem natural and doesn’t remind the watcher/reader that HEY THIS ISN’T REAL I AM TELLING YOU A STORY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?
Some shows are better at information transfer than others. The Vampire Diaries, as much as I love them, are a great example of DON’T DO THIS verbal info-dumps. Info-avalanches. Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be good examples of subtle info transfer (sometimes too subtle), and shows like Better Call Saul are masters of using a prop or a conversation to show you what you need to know. Saul doesn’t say, “Well, parking lot attendant man, my law practice isn’t very successful.” Instead, you see an argument between him and the parking lot attendant over a few cents extra in un-validated parking time. A pointedly long argument. Saul doesn’t tell you he’s attracted to his friend, Kim. He just invites her over and then paints her toenails. In a self-deprecating, funny, totally manly way, of course.
Now that you’ve tried all this at home, test yourself (don’t worry, there will be cookies at the end). Call a friend who is also a fan of the book/TV show you wrote fanfiction for. Read them a couple lines of your dialogue out of context. Do you get a long pause, like, “Who would ever say that, Michelle? Seriously? I mean, when was the last time you used the word ‘pernicious’ when ordering Chinese takeout?”
Did you pass the “natural” test? Good.
Now can your friend name the character who is speaking without you having to tell them who it was? EVEN BETTER!
Congratulations, you can now graduate to trying your newfound fanfictiony brilliance in your original fiction, using your new tool box to make all your characters sound distinct, unique and (obviously) witty as hell.
And because I promised:
I love contests for writers. When I was in the query trenches, they were like an online party for those of us dying slowly while waiting for news. Once I stepped up into the mentor level of contests, I was shocked at how much was going on behind the scenes.
I don’t know what weather is like in your part of the world, but here in Winnipeg, we’re in the midst of extremely cold temperatures, and have just had four blizzards in the course of five weeks. Thus, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors and am grateful to finally have a desk for a proper ergonomic chair in my office now. Days spent editing are often accompanied by a recording of a yule log, with a space heater keeping me warm.
The holidays have come and gone and, like a lot of people, I’ve made a few resolutions for 2017. I try to keep my resolutions achievable, but still lofty. If a resolution is easy to achieve, then it’s not a challenge. However, if a resolution is impossible to reach, then it just becomes frustrating.
One of my resolution is to keep my weekends devoted to writing time, while focusing the week days on honing my professional editing skills. I will finish writing the second draft of a novel by March with this discipline, and plan to keep the weekends free for meaningful writing projects after this. This way, while I continue to hone my professional skills as an editor, I continue to improve my skills as a writer. There is personal value in this for me, but from a professional standpoint, becoming a better writer makes me a better editor as well, because I believe that one necessary quality of a good editor is the ability to empathize with the writers I work with.
Many writers make finishing their book their resolution for a new year. While this is good, it can sometimes be a trap because it’s a goal, and not necessarily the definition of a solid process by which that goal will be attainable. So instead of saying, “I want to finish my book this year,” try exploring answers to the question, “If I want to finish my book this year, then what regular discipline will I try in order to do this?”
Be experimental! Some writers must write every day. Some writers set weekly milestones (myself included with my weekend routine). I didn’t arrive at my routine until after I tried writing every day, writing in bursts, then finally separating work weekdays from writing weekends and realizing that was just right for me.
In answering the question on HOW you are going to create a regular writing practice through which you will get your novel written, you might notice a shift away from finishing your novel. You might realize that, when you begin a regular writing discipline, you’re on your way to getting your novel done, but guess what? That’s just a milestone, a midpoint on a bigger journey.
For 2017, see if you can find the writing discipline that will not only help you finish your novel, but kickstart a writing habit that will be the cornerstone of your writing career.
One thing that many writers (and other creative types) with day jobs kvetch about is finding the time to write. How the heck are you supposed to write the next Great American Novel (or Young Adult Dystopian Adventure Set in a Not-So-Distant-But-Bleak Future Where Kids are Pitted Against Kids and Centers Around an Empowered Teenager Girl Who Not Only Has Special Powers but also Has Cancer and Must Choose between the Two Boys Who Don’t Know How to Live and Love and only Learn to Do So Through the Limited Yet Caring Time Spent with her in Her Final Days) if you work 9-5 and juggle other responsibilities like a spouse and kid(s)? I mean, it’s hard enough to squeeze in exercise and home-cooked dinners, let alone find time to write a book. I can’t say I have the end-all-be-all answers to this dilemma, but I know what works for me. At least, I know what works for me today. If I can find at least one, quiet hour a day to devote to a writing project, that’s a win. But it’s a struggle for me, a target that refuses to stay in one place. I try to write every day, even on weekends, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve
1) Write early. As my semester progresses, I get slammed with papers to grade. That’s not a bad thing—I love that my students are completing their work, but it means all of my daytime hours are monopolized by grading. To get my writing in during these times, I’ll start early and write before Josh and Virginia get up to start the day. For me, this means a 5 AM wake-up, which takes some getting used to. My New York Pitch Conference friend, Monique, who not only works full time, but is also a mom to four kids and a wife. She’s writing a memoir and is up and in front of her computer, coffee in hand by 3:45 AM. Mad props to her—that takes a level of commitment and discipline not shared by everyone including myself.
2) Write late. My husband can do this. He’s a night owl and can often get as much or more accomplished after dinner than a lot of people can during bank hours. And often this strategy can work for many writers. Like writing early, the house gets quiet after everyone else goes to bed. This can be an ideal time to concentrate and rack up your daily word count. If I wasn’t nodding off to Dancing with the Stars by 8:30, I might be scribbling something down, too.
3) Write anytime, anywhere. An opportunity to write can spring up when you least suspect it, and it’s often in our best interest to know when to take advantage of these moments. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like I come up with my best ideas when I’m running, a time I don’t carry around a notebook and pencil. Instead, I jot or record ideas down into a notebook app on my phone. Although I look like I’m talking to myself, more than a few times that notebook app has been my savior. An old writer friend of mine said that she used to write in her car at stoplights. She was a single mom of an infant and chipping away at a master’s in journalism. Car trips were the only few times she would be able to be alone with her thoughts, because that’s when her daughter would nap in her carseat. She’d have her spiral notebook open on the passenger seat next to her, and when she’d come to a stop, she’d scribble down a sentence or two before moving on to the next stop. That’s some bad-ass determination.
A lot of this is tied to me just trying to keep to some sort of a writing schedule, even if my kid comes down with the stomach flu, or the hot water heater conks out and I’ve got to scramble to find a plumber. It’s a commitment to fitting in time for all the work that goes into creating something you hope to share with an audience at some point. When Josh and I lived in L.A., we knew a handful of unemployed actors who sat around complaining they never got any acting jobs because they didn’t have an agent. They weren’t doing anything in the meantime, i.e., auditioning, putting together a reel, taking improv classes. They simply pointed to the fact that they had no agent and used it as an excuse to do nothing and whine about it. We were also friendly with another bunch of actors, who hustled every day and put themselves out there relentlessly so they could make themselves available for their big break. They just went for it.
Sometimes I think that a big difference between creative people who eventually make it and those who fall by the wayside is a sense of stick-with-it-ness. Going for it even when there is no tangible reward other than the work itself. There’s no easy way to do it. You just work harder at it and become better, find the time because it won’t necessarily find you. And with a bit of talent and a dash of luck, eventually it’ll pay off. Fingers crossed.
From Michelle Hazen's blog:
Right now, YA is the blonde cheerleader of the publishing world. We all hate her a little bit for being so popular, even though we don’t want to admit we love her just as much as everyone else.
The evidence is clear: The Young Adult shelves in our local bookstore growing from one stand, to two, to an entire aisle. The movie theaters are full of lovely 20-something actors pretending to be in the first acne-flush of puberty.
There are some incredible, standout stories in the category, but wait? Who decided that teens, who frequently communicate in language like: OMW, gr8, tfnt, u, and <3 would drive the literature market? We don’t think they’re mature enough to choose to drink, join the military, get married, get a tattoo, or pay their own bills, but we ABSOLUTELY think they have the right idea about what to read. How did that happen?
First, let’s look at the numbers. YA wasn’t always a thing.
In 1997, The Atlantic reported that only 3,000 YA books were published. By 2009, that had added an important zero to jump to 30,000. By 2014, that trend had only gained strength and started to eat into every other major category. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Adult fiction had lost 8% of its market share in the last year while Juvenile fiction had gained 12%. Adult is still selling more units overall, but YA is closing that gap fast, as is evidenced by what is being turned out by not-yet-published authors. The popular Twitter pitch contest #PitchWars was 47% YA entries in 2015, compared to only 23% adult entries.
What did I just say? Fiction for a single demographic of ages 13-17 might soon sell more than for all people aged 18 to 100? How on earth is that even numerically possible?
Turns out, what we thought looked like this:
Looks a whole lot more like this:
That’s right. 55% of YA books are bought by people older than 18, and the vast majority report they aren’t exactly buying for Junior.
Which brings me to my main question: what draws us about YA?
Are the kiddos just doing a lot more interesting things than those of us who have to fit laundry, diapers, or a 9 to 5 into our daily to-do list? Do we like the idea of stepping out of our responsibilities and into a simpler life, when we just had to worry about doing well on our history final and if Jimmy thought our training bra was attractively padded enough?
I would argue no, since the fastest growing segment of YA is sci-fi and fantasy. Hard-hitting, fast paced stories like Hunger Games, Divergent, and the brand new Illuminae, where responsibility for saving hundreds of lives or the entire world rests on some very young shoulders. Most argue that the YA trend started with some big names that attracted more attention to the genre, especially now that they’re all getting movie deals.
But now that YA is well-established, we’re stuck trying to decide between these two things:
Do we love YA on its own merit, or do we love YA because that’s where great authors are writing if they want to get publishing deals?
YA differs from adult in some major thematic ways: it tends toward fast-paced, immediate narratives, often told in first person present tense. It takes place in a time in life where EVERYTHING is new. The characters are just discovering romance, drugs, their own identities. That kind of novelty is fun to experience all over again through books, and everything is brighter the first time vs. the thirteenth.
However, I’ve also noticed that some of the incredible writing in YA isn’t YA at all. The lyrically written, epic-in-scope Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor is about an angel who fell in love with a devil, and how the fate of the entire world ended up hanging in the balance. Of course, the MC is 17 and going to a special art school that she never really has to attend. There’s not a parent in sight, she has her own chic apartment in Prague where she can have boys stay the night and throw other boys through the window with impunity.
Maggie Stiefvater’s superlative Raven Cycle has similar issues. The plot is so gripping I’d read it until I went blind, and the writing is so good I wish my Kindle had the ability to double-highlight. But it’s about a bunch of teenagers who live together in this gorgeous, hipster old Warehouse. One character has parents, it’s true, but they’re a bunch of psychics who don’t exactly give her a curfew. High school is mentioned, so I suppose there’s that. But they’re off looking for ley lines and a lost Welsh king’s grave, a plotline more suited to a paranormal researcher or an archaeologist than a motivation for a teenager.
Which begs the question: are we all reading YA now because publishers are aiming their best authors toward a category they already know will sell? I read a YA ms the other day where the chapter opened on the character drinking cynically in a dive bar. That’s not YA. I don’t care how many times you type the number 17. And this kind of fudging isn’t all the publisher’s fault: they’re just guessing at what might sell a year from now when they make their contracts. Nobody wants to see great writing lost in a category no one is going to look at.
So what are those of us supposed to do when we love the gorgeous, immediate, honest style of YA, but we want to get out of high school and deal with some of the bigger issues that we adults ACTUALLY face? Turns out, there might just be an answer. Stick around for my next post to find out more.
Guest post from Lisa Cron
How’s this for irony: the two things that writers focus on first and foremost are the exact two things that tend to keep their stories from getting out of the starting gate: Beautiful writing and a well-structured, dramatic plot.
Sure, beautiful writing is a plus, and yes, a well-structured, dramatic plot matters. But they are handmaidens of something far more important: the story.
Why don’t we already know this?
Because our experience as readers seems to say something else. After all, when you read a great book, the two things you see on the surface are the beautiful language and the plot. So it’s insanely easy to assume that they are the elements that hook and hold you, and thus are what you should focus on when you set out to write a book.
What actually hooks you – what your brain is wired to crave, hunt for and respond to in every story it hears -- is the story itself. Without that, neither the writing nor the plot, regardless how well executed, have any power at all. Except, maybe, the power to bore.
Beautiful writing is merely the vehicle that conveys the story. By itself, language is an empty vessel. What gives language its life-changing power is the meaning it conveys, and that comes from one thing only: the story.
And the plot, by itself, is merely a bunch of external things that happen. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that writers are often so focused on the plot that they spend countless hours pouring over “story structure” manuals, as if by creating a rigid one-sizefits-all exoskeleton a story will magically appear.
Now for the million-dollar question: If the story is what hooks us, what is a story, exactly?
In a nutshell: A story is one single, unavoidable external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.
The story is about what it costs the protagonist emotionally to change internally, not what happens to her externally. The plot is created to force her to make that change (or not).
I think you see where this is going: how can you create a plot to spur that change if you don’t know what the change is, or why she needs to change?
You can’t. Nor can you express any of it in beautiful language until you know what it is. Until then, beautiful language just gets in the way, and starts to take precedence over figuring out what you’re actually trying to say in the first place.
All of which means that there is a whole lot you need to know before you get to page one.
So, what does “writing well” really mean?
It means digging deeply enough into your story – before you even think about writing page one – so that when you get there, you have something meaningful to say.
And – one final irony, a good one – the more meaning you have to convey, the more beautiful the writing becomes.