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17 September 2014 @ 07:33 am

Have you thought about taking your own life?


Have you thought about how you would do it?


Have you made a plan?


How often do you struggle with these thoughts?

Every day.

Read the rest of the essay here:

16 September 2014 @ 08:42 am

When I was a teenager, I wrote tons of fan fic. I wrote a Star Trek novel, a Perry Mason novel, a Sherlock Holmes story. This was excellent practice. No one told me that I couldn’t write those things, that they wouldn’t be published because of copyright issues. I wrote when I wanted to read.

There was a point in my 20s when I realized that I still hadn’t figured out what my “voice” was. People talked all the time about how important voice was, and I believed it was true. I could see voice in the writers I read and reread. I could hear it in my head when I put the books down. Those characters were alive beyond the words on the page.

But how to do that myself? I couldn’t figure it out. I wanted to have a voice like that, which of course, you can never do. You can’t borrow another person’s voice. Occasionally, I’d hear people say that you can’t write until you’re older, because you don’t have “important” things to say about life until then, which I thought was typical adult crap, devaluing the things that young people do.

Maybe there is some truth to the reality that you get older and you find voice isn’t such a struggle anymore. But if so, it’s because you stop caring what other people think. It’s not that you stop trying to do what other people do, or that what you have to say is suddenly more important, though.

Some tips to finding your voice:

1. If you’re angry, write while you’re angry.

2. If you’re sad, write in that moment, with tears dripping down your face.

3. Write up your most embarrassing moments. Every detail.

4. Make fun of writers and writing you think is ridiculous.

5. Write about food. Or about running. Or about your children. Write about what makes you passionate. Write about things no one else cares about.

6. Write endings to stories that finished wrong. Write better versions of things that you wanted to love.

7. Write dangerous things.

8. Write about the things you don’t want anyone to know about yourself.

9. Write about people no one else sees.

10. Write mashups that no one likes but you.

13 September 2014 @ 12:59 pm

If you haven't heard of my birthday curse, you may not know me very well. I hate birthdays, but not because they indicate me getting older. I hate them because I have a bad history of crap happening on my birthday. My husband thought it was ridiculously superstitious when we got married, but has since decided that perhaps I am right. Today, I was supposed to do a race with him. But the birthday curse struck again. I had a crash.

Let me describe what happened. I was about half finished with the bike and my swim had gone better than any swim had ever gone before in my life. I was pretty happy, after struggling with asthma all season. I felt well within my limits and had my inhaler, but was watching my breathing to make sure I was OK. Then I came across two racers who were riding right together, which is completely illegal. I noticed the motorcycle with the race officials coming up behind them. I suspected they were being written up for this. A turn was coming up and I figured I could easily pass them before it.

I called out "On your left" to indicate to them not to move left while I passed. They were taking up most of the middle of the road, and I would have been fine if the male counterpart who was all the way to the right, hadn't decided I was calling out to him that he should turn left. He crashed directly into me. I flew over the handlebars and landed hard. There was some blood. I was in pain, obviously, but was still pretty stunned. The guy rode off as the race officials stopped to help me. My bike wheel was ruined (almost $1000 to replace it) and I was in bad shape. I had a big hematoma on my right arm, road rash everywhere, and several fingernail tips were shredded, which is where the dripping blood was coming from.

It took me about 10 minutes to realize that I was going to have to give up on finishing the race. I was shaking uncontrollably and an ambulance came to take me back to my car. They checked me out, told me to go to a hospital or my doctor, and tried to bandage me up. I was SO angry, and SO sad. This was my last race of the season, and I had so much wanted it to go well. Not only had I not gotten that, but I was going to have pay a bunch of money to fix the bike that I love and have ridden for 6 years now. Plus I was in pain and shaking uncontrollably.

I packed up my bike to take it to the shop in hopes that it would get fixed as soon as possible. As I drove, I was filled with anger. That guy should have been forced to abandon the race, just like I was. He should be forced to pay for my bike to be repaired. And for my race fee. And for my hospital bills. And for my pain.

But of course, he couldn't pay for my pain. He couldn't do anything to take it away at all. That's the way that life is. We humans hurt each other in ways that we cannot take back or make up. I hate that about life. I really do!

I knew that I would be better off if I could let the anger go. But I was also angry that it was my birthday and it was turning out badly. Again. I drove and thought about a conversation I had with a friend this week whom I admire for changing. I thought about myself. Had I changed? I thought about the fact that about 10 years ago, I had an experience that made me realize that I had no idea how to forgive. I had spent my whole life learning how to understand other people, so that if they did something stupid or hurt me, I could understand why. I thought that was forgiveness and discovered that it wasn't.

I have spent a good deal of emotional work since then to learn how to forgive and I can say with confidence that I have forgiven exactly one time in my life. It was a really momentous occasion. I forgave someone who had asked for forgiveness and who was sorry, but it took months for me to give up the pain that I felt and accept the plea. I felt strongly that this was a gift to me, not a gift to the other person. I felt so clean and strong afterward, and it didn't like something I could have given to myself.

As I drove home this morning after the race, I felt the same feeling of clean wash over me. The anger disappeared. The physical pain was still there. But the rest was abruptly gone. I realized that I had the capacity to pay for my bike repair myself. I had already paid for my race fee. It wouldn't be easy to do that, but I could do it. This man whom I do not know and have never met except in this crash had not asked for my forgiveness, but I was giving it anyway, and it was a powerful experience.

I thought of the one time in my life that I felt that I could not be forgiven. I know that other people have told me again and again how illogical it is that I blame myself for my daughter Mercy's death, but I know that in my subconscious I do. I have nightmares often about killing the people that I love, not the murder itself, but the realization of what I have done, and the knowledge that I am waiting for the consequences of being taken to jail and humiliated, revealed not to be the good person I think that I am. I spent a lot of time in the last years trying to forgive myself and I'm not sure that I've ever managed it. The most I could do was just accept it and move on.

But today, the realization that *I* could forgive someone who was, as far as I know, undeserving of it, that I could forgive someone because I had the reserves (financial and emotional ) to do so, was overwhelming to me. I am such a small person emotionally. The fact that I have only really been able to give forgiveness twice in my life seems to me to prove that. But if I could forgive this, then how much easier it must be for someone who has greater emotional reserves than mine to forgive me for something I feel terrible about and have carried guilt about for years. It might not just be possible; it seemed likely.

This man who ruined my race cannot give it back to me, just like I cannot give my daughter back her life. That is the mortal world we live in. But I can have forgiveness. That's not the same as moving on. It's not the same as understanding. It's not the same as letting go. Those are all useful things to do. But forgiveness is something else entirely, and for me, the most difficult forgiveness to give is the one to myself.

I did not get the great race I wanted to give myself as a gift for my birthday today, but maybe I've been given a greater gift than I had ever thought to ask for.

10 September 2014 @ 02:36 pm

I am a bloated writer. My manuscripts always end up 20-30% longer than my publisher wants them to be, and that much longer than they need to be or should be. So after a first draft, I go back through every manuscript and I cut 20-30% of the words before I let anyone else read it. Here are the things that I cut:

1. Extraneous scenes. This is the biggest bloater of manuscripts. I like my characters to stand around and talk. I think I’m good at character development. Nonetheless, when your characters are sitting around saying, “What should we do next,” it’s a good hint that it’s you, the author, coming through and that though it might have been necessary for you to write that scene to get to the next one, your reader does not need to read it.

2. Rambling. I admit it, I ramble. My characters tend to ramble. I get into their heads deeply and they take control of my fingers and type the words that they/I think. If the rambling is a sentence or two, you can let it stay. If it’s longer than that and doesn’t reveal important character information or hint at plot development, take it out.

3. Repetition. You’d be surprised how many words can be cut from a manuscript simply by taking out words that mean the same thing or sentences that echo the same meaning. I swear, I write a lot of things twice and I’m hitting the reader over the head. There is no need to assume they are too stupid to get it the first time, just because I was too stupid as a writer to formulate it right the first time.

4. Information from a second pov character that we already have from another pov character. If you’re doing multiple povs, be careful that each one says distinct things. And really, resist the temptation to retell a scene just because another character has a fun take on it. You only get to tell a scene once.

5. Too much too soon. Sometimes when I edit for word count, I find that I’m also doing wonderful things for my tension. Just because I revealed to myself what a certain character’s motivations are, that doesn’t mean that I need to reveal that to the reader at the same point. Lots of the time, it’s better to hold back.

6. Less is more. If you’re giving details about a physical description, a history, or anything else, just the right detail. A lot of the time, a single word that is precise is better than a vague paragraph.

7. Cut adverbs as ruthlessly as possible. If you’re using a shortcut in dialog, telling the reader the character’s emotion through adverbs rather than through the actual words of the dialog, cut the adverbs and then rewrite your dialog better. Which brings me to dialog.

8. Characters in a book have snappier dialog and more meaningful conversations than most people in real life. Get to the meat of it. You don’t need all the chatter and small talk that you’d feel necessary if you were there (or I would). Think about it as the movie version, which can only be 90 minutes long.

9. Don’t feel obliged to make whole sentences. If a fragment works, take out the rest of the sentence. This is true in dialog, but it can also be a great way to get voice. People who think in full sentences are often boring narrators.

10. Combine sentences when possible. Commas are your friend. Semi-colons and colons to put sentences together rarely are. I’m not talking about making longer sentences here, really. Just see if your two sentences can be put together into one shorter sentence by using just a phrase from the first or second sentence.

03 September 2014 @ 01:31 pm

So my daughter, who is a student at Berklee School of Music, is home for a few days before the start of classes, and told me that one of the best things about Berklee is the number of practice rooms available for students to reserve on a regular basis. For two hours, she can go in, close the door, and SOUND BAD.

That's the main thing she loves about the practice rooms. If she's at home, with her keyboard, she rarely practices. Not the good kind of practicing, anyway. Because people are listening and she's supposed to be a musician and that means making good music. So she "fiddles around" instead of practicing.

Because practicing is about doing all the nasty parts that sound crappy and that you skip over when you're running through pieces for fun. Practicing is about the nitty-gritty, the parts you're crap at. You have to confront them head-on, no glossing over them. Do it wrong again and again until you get it a little better, and then a little bit better.

And that kind of practice doesn't happen unless the door is closed and no one is listening.

I'm sure writers can see how valuable this analogy is. We try so often to write "well" to begin with. We want our first drafts to be beautiful and they aren't. So we work on the same first chapter again and again, afraid to go on until we get it "right," afraid to "practice" the tricky parts of the book, the middle section, the sad parts, the parts where we're unsure what is supposed to happen.

My advice? Find a practice room. Or make one.

You need a space where you're safe, where it's quiet and there are no distractions to keep you away from just being bad. You've got to be bad. There's no way out of it. You have to practice writing just like a musician practices music. And if you've never heard a musician playing badly in practice, that's just because you're not in the practice room and they're really just "fiddling around."

Don't fiddle around with your writing.

Don't let people see what you are working on. Don't share it while it's crap, at least so long as it's crap you know is crap and you know how to fix. When you get to the crap you can't figure out, sometimes you have to share and invite another musician into your practice room. But until then, keep the door closed and make sure it's sound-proofed.

Be real inside the practice room. Don't fiddle around. Play the hard parts. Dig into them. Make it hurt. And when you're finished, you fling open the door and you leave the practice room behind until the next day, when you come back in, close the door again, and let the bad music commence!
First of all, pat yourself on the back.

Seriously, if you’re getting conflicting advice about revision, that means that you’re showing it to lots of different people, which is a courageous step and is really healthy for you becoming a better writer. It also means that you’ve found people to read your work who are giving you real feedback and not just “It’s great!” that family and friends often stop at.

Second, welcome to the real world.

If you go and look at reader reviews at amazon or goodreads, you’re going to see how varied the opinions are. Some people love Twilight with a holy passion. Other people hate it so much their minds explode. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that people react differently to your book, in its first stage.

I’d suggest making sure that you take notes if you go to a writers’ group to get criticism. Write down anything that immediately chimes with you. If you think—that’s what I meant to do or—of course, I should have thought of that, highlight or star or underline or box these comments. And then don’t work on the book immediately. Let it sit for a month and then go back to it and you will probably be able to see more clearly what *you* want to do to make your book better.

I say this as someone who has tried several times to write a novel based on a committee of feedback, trying to please everyone. A little distance can help you see things more clearly and gives you time to forget exactly what other people said. You don’t need the voices of other people in your head while you work. What you need to do is make an action list of things that *you* want to fix. If that happens to coincide with a few items on other people’s lists, that’s fine.

Beware of doing everything anyone tells you to do. Yes, even your agent. Yes, even your editor. Beware of doing nothing other people tell you to do. While I would read an editorial letter a few times during the process just to keep touch with the comments, don’t read it every day. That’s my advice anyway.

Conflicting advice during revision may make you think that no one knows anything. I remember when I was in high school, there were a bunch of students who thought that anyone who graded an essay was doing it completely subjectively because there were no objective standards for a good essay. Au contraire! The same is true for novel writing.

I would pay more attention to people who say things like:
1. I was confused by . . . .
2. I thought this part was boring. . .
3. I didn’t understand why this person did this . . .

I would pay less attention to people who say things like:
1. I really didn’t sympathize with this character. . .
2. I think you should add more of this . . .
3. I wish you would take out this part because it annoys me . . .

And here is something to remember about any critique that you get, paid for or in a writers group or anywhere at all. Your book is *your* book. No one (not even your editor) can MAKE you change something. I’m not saying to be stupid and refuse to listen to people who are trying to help you make a better book. But if you have a reason (even if it’s only that your gut is telling you something), talk it over with an agent or editor. And with other people, you don’t need to convince them. They shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder while you write. They give you feedback. You decide what to do with it.
I can answer this with a zen comment like, “If it *feels* right, then that means that you should go with it.” I’ve heard people say that if it chimes with you automatically, then it’s the right way to go. Or that if you envision the book with those changes and it is closer to the book you wanted to write, then they’re good comments.

Here’s the reality:

No editor is ever going to see the book in exactly the same way that you do. And this is a good thing.

Yes, I have seen people make changes that an editor suggested that I thought were a mistake.
But most of the time, what happens between an author and an editor is a collaboration that ends up with a book that is better than what either of them would have produced separately.

That means that the collaboration isn’t just a compromise kind of situation, where you get some of what you want and the other person gets some of what she wants. It means that you are bouncing ideas off of each other and sparking brilliant new ways of solving problems that you couldn’t do yourself. The best kinds of collaborations between authors do this same thing.

But with an editor, it’s a little different because an editor has a sharp eye for what is working and what isn’t working. Editors also have a bit of an idea (if they’re experienced) of how to get an author to think about something differently, or how to approach a problem in a new way. Sometimes other authors don’t always know how to do that.

So I would say that it’s less important if you immediately feel a zen peace with your editor’s comments and more important if you and your editor work well together. If you can call up your editor and start pinging ideas off of her, that’s a great thing. If she has ideas for you, also a great thing.

I know some people don’t like editors suggesting something. They only want critical feedback of the sort that says—this needs to be fixed. I’m a little more loose about what an editor does. I tend not to mind if an editor (horror!) adds a sentence here and there to my manuscript. I don’t feel possessive of my words that way.

I feel like a novel is a collaboration between an author and a reader, as well, and I have much less control over that. Having an idea in the first place, writing it down and then going through multiple drafts on my own—that’s my first step. But letting other people see it, writers groups, friends, agent, and editor, doesn’t make me feel like the novel is less mine.

That said, I would beware of you as the author feeling resentful about changes you feel “forced” to make. That should never be the spirit of the relationship. And if you feel like you’ve lost the sense of the novel being yours, that’s a problem you’re going to have to work out. You may need some time without the editor seeing the book to play with and get your touch back for it. Same thing with multiple drafts with a writers group or an agent.
Everyone is going to answer this a different way.

Some choices:

1. You’re done editing when your deadline hits.
2. You’re done editing when you say you’re done and you shouldn’t let anyone rush you.
3. You’re never done editing and you are going to keep editing a book in your mind every time you see the words again.
4. You’re done editing when you’re ready to write the next book.

No one can tell you the answer to this question. You make the answer to the question by your own actions.
Does that mean there isn’t anyone who can offer you useful advice? No. Hopefully, you have writing friends who can give you general rules of thumb. An agent can be useful if s/he can say, “Now it’s ready to go out,” which isn’t the same as being done being edited.

But ultimately, there is no expert about this. There is no one who can say, “You edit it six times and then it’s done. The first time, you edit for character. The second time, you edit for plot. The third time you edit for pacing. The fourth time you edit for time scale. The fifth time you edit for language. The sixth time you edit to get details right.”

Yes, there are lots of people out there who will tell you a very specific answer to this question. To me, hearing people pontificate about a specific answer to something like this is really useful to me because then I can add them to my list of people that I don’t ever want to talk to about writing (or politics, either) again.

As a kid, I remember that when adults told me that the answer to something was “it depends,” I got really frustrated. I didn’t want to be part of the adult world where everything was gray and there was no black and white. That’s why I liked math, see? There was an answer and the teacher knew what it was.

But the adult world of writing is even more full of gray than I had imagined. No one knows the answer to my questions. And as an adult, I’m actually really happy about this because the questions I’m asking are only interesting to me because there aren’t any answers.

The reason that no one can tell me when I’m done editing my book is that I’m writing a book that no one has written before, not even remotely. If someone else had written it and there was an answer so that you knew when it was done, I wouldn’t be writing it.

(And as it turns out, after talking to my mathematician friends, this seems to be true in math as well. Mathematicians are not at all interested, once they are on a certain level, in working on problems with obvious answers for the rest of us. They want to deal with questions no one knows the answer to yet, too. So they find problems that are really, really hard. And spend sometimes their whole lives working on them. And this makes them happy. Go figure.)
25 August 2014 @ 02:46 pm

A lot of writers will ask me a variation on the following:

How do I know if this is the right book for me to be writing?

I want to kind of laugh, but really, it would be mean. Because I know it’s a real question and I know that someone is hoping that another person has the answer to it.

I suspect what they’re hoping for me to say is something like, you know it’s the right book because you have a feeling inside that just chimes. Or, you know it’s the right book because when you talk about it, everyone is super interested in it. Or you know it’s the right book because your agent keeps bugging you to write it.

But that’s not really the way that it is. Sure, there are ideas floating around and some are probably better than others. Some are hackneyed. Some are so overused that at the moment, it might not be a good idea to spend a whole bunch of time on a book idea that might feel to an editor that it’s been overdone.

On the other hand, who would have guessed that it was time for vampires to come back when Twilight was published? Did The Hunger Games anticipate a new trend for dystopia or create one? Why is Harry Potter the school with wizards book that made it big when there are arguably better school with wizard books out there already?

No one can tell you which book you should write. And there’s no magical sense of “rightness” that’s going to make you sure that this is the one. Asking for that is basically asking for a time machine.

All I can say is this:

You make a book the right one by refusing to give up on it.

You make a book the right one by revising it again and again until it’s so good that people love it.

You make a book the right one by pouring yourself into it in ways that make you squirm and embarrass you when people who know you too well, including your parents, read it.

You make a book the right one by pushing aside thoughts of success and writing the best book that you can write.

You make a book the right one by becoming the right author to write that kind of book.

You make a book the right one by refusing to ask yourself if it’s the right one because you’re not going to work on another one until this one is finished, by gum!

20 August 2014 @ 04:40 pm

There are a lot of ways to change the world, and I would certainly not want to say that one is the only way or the best way. But I am going to say that I think writing and publishing is a valid, enduring way of changing the world.

I have come to believe that many of the worst evils in the world are caused by thinking that “we” are, in fact, “us” and “them.” We make these binary systems up because they are easy, and then we read and experience so many stories that confirm them.

Germans vs. Allies in WWII

Men vs. Women in many romantic comedies

Straight vs. Gay

Religious vs. Atheist

Americans vs. Everyone else

But the best books, in my experience, are the ones that force us to see the world from the point of view of the “other.” They make us give up our old ideologies and make new ones that are more inclusive.

No, writing a novel isn’t going to end a war today or tomorrow. Probably.

But writing a novel might end the wars that will happen in another generation. It will change the hearts and minds of the future. It might not stop people from thinking in terms of a binary, but it might make them give up some of the old categories. It might make them think twice before creating new ones.

Writing a novel is the act of making a world. And if you can make a world where we see each other more truly, you are fighting injustice. If you make a world where heroes are not of one color, you are changing the soldiers of tomorrow. If you make a world where women have the same opportunities as men, where men and women work together and have equal parts to play, you are expanding the world that your daughters and sons will live in.

And that, to me, is enough. That will mean my work has done its part.