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26 January 2016 @ 06:06 pm
List of People Whose Opinion on Your Writing Doesn’t Matter

  1. Your mother, father, or any of your siblings.

  2. Your spouse or your in-laws.

  3. Your own children.

  4. Your BFFs.

  5. Your high school English teacher.

  6. Your college English teacher.

  7. A fancy writer who said once in a talk you remember not to write about fairies.

  8. All the agents who have rejected you.

  9. Someone offering to take your money to give you a blurb, review, or to fix your grammar and “edit” your manuscript for submission.

  10. Your writing group.

List of People Whose Opinion on Your Writing Does Matter:

  1. You

  2. Possibly: your agent or editor.

05 January 2016 @ 12:38 pm
I think that writing groups and workshops are very useful. Teachers, editors, first readers, etc—invaluable. You need them. You really do. But you’re making a mistake if you think that anyone else can tell you what is wrong with your book or how it needs to be fixed. Feedback is useful, but mostly because of the times it chimes with your internal sense of what is right and wrong with your work. And thinking that all you have to do is take notes and just correct the “mistakes” that others point out is the wrong way to go about the long and difficult revision process—a lot more of which is thinking than it is changing words on the page.

One of the reasons beginners make the mistake of trusting too completely on others’ comments is that they imagine that other people have a better idea of how to write “the ideal book” (Platonic ideal of book, I wish you existed). They don’t. That is, they might know a little bit how to write their own books (but honestly, are probably reinventing this as well). But that doesn’t mean that they know how to write your book. No one does. That’s why it’s so hard.

After all, you’re not writing a book that is meant to follow certain “rules” of writing. Such a book would be of no interest to anyone to read, I think. As someone who comes from academia, I’m well aware that the writers who are read generation after generation are the ones who invent new ways of telling stories (though not necessarily new stories to tell).

I had a writer friend who once said that writing groups are only of value for a couple of years. After that, everyone starts saying the same thing over and over again, because the patterns have been in place and people can’t get out of them. So you need to get new people and make new patterns to help shake you out of your assumptions about what is good writing and what isn’t.

I’m not saying no one can give you useful advice about writing. But mostly that happens when you find someone whose path for the moment matches yours. And their advice will be less useful once you veer away from that path, which it should. You will always be outgrowing other writers as a reader and a writer because you’re headed in different directions. This is a good thing, I think.

Ultimately, I think that you don’t need a specific teacher to help you. If you imagine that your writing would be a lot better if you went to this workshop or that one, or if only you could afford to go to a conference, you’re probably wrong. While other people can spark new thoughts, they don’t fix your writing for you. You fix your writing because you’re learned something.

Mostly, the best thing other people can do is give you the courage to start throwing things out and do new things, to realize that your old ways of working aren’t appropriate for this story. But be careful not to get too much advice or to keep reworking a piece over and over again. The biggest problem I see in good writers is the inability to move on and try something else. The problem with books you’ve worked on too long is often that you’ve heard too many voices and incorporated all of them. A book needs a single, clear vision. It needs your vision.
29 December 2015 @ 12:14 pm
1. Your writing isn’t good enough (though this may say nothing about your concept or storytelling).
2. Your idea isn’t compelling (though your writing may be superb).
3. The agent has no idea how to sell this book, even if it is well written and the storytelling works.
4. The agent is clearing the desk before or after holidays and didn't read your query at all (It happens sometimes, I suspect).
5. The agent just sold something similar.
6. You misspelled the agent’s name (it can look sloppy) and/or have other typos in your query.
7. Your query is not compelling enough, even though your book is great.
8. You have invented a new genre of novel and no one can grok it. (Which may or may not mean it’s unsellable.)
9. You have a personally offensive facebook, twitter or other social media feed. (Yes, this can be a black mark against you.)
10. You have racist or sexist stereotypes in your book.
11. The last book of the type you are trying to publish was printed forty years ago, and times have changed.
12. The YA Mafia has blacklisted you. (JK, this isn’t really a thing.)

Notice that some of these mean that the solution is to stop querying, work on your writing, and then resubmit. To some of these, the solution is to fix the query and send it out again. And to others, the solution is, keep sending it out but to a wider group of agents because the ones you’ve hit so far aren’t the right ones to represent you.

I would say it’s also always the right solution to keep writing. Whether or not this is a good book that’s being rejected, you’re a better writer than you were with this book now. So keep writing, keep submitting, and keep looking to the next book which will always ALWAYS be better because you’re learning and growing as a writer who reads other stories, right?
09 December 2015 @ 08:33 am
As I was teaching my college class about Hamlet, we spent some time making a list of “how things could have happened differently,” basically all the moments when Hamlet made a choice that he could have made a different choice and had different consequences that were not so tragic, ie. everyone dying.

Now, some of the choices didn’t “work” for me, because I felt strongly that Hamlet’s character was already set by the time the play begins, and he has qualms about cold-bloodedly murdering Claudius, no matter how much evidence he has against him. And I don’t believe he would have gone off with Ophelia no matter how much you want Hamlet to be a kinder, gentler version of Romeo and Juliet. But there are other moments when things might have changed. If he hadn’t killed Polonius, if he’d challenged Claudius directly to a duel, if he’d spent some time talking to his mother, and so forth.

Why does Hamlet matter to you writing your novel? Well, it turns out this kind of analysis is excellent for creators of story because it allows them to see the novel in a condensed way. It’s one thing to talk about a novel in terms of scenes or to be working with a 7-point plot structure. But if you think about it as a series of choices and consequences, you can make a neat little list and then stare at it and ask yourself what other choices might be possible, which might lead to other consequences.

You do this when you’ve had readers report back that they don’t like the ending, or they feel like things went off track at a certain point. Sometimes this doesn’t pinpoint exactly where things went wrong, and you have to go further back. You can think about your novel as a tree of diverging choices. Your novel only goes down one line, but what about all the other lines? There are dozens of others stories, maybe hundreds that you could tell, beginning with the same characters, the same world, and the same unfolding dilemmas.

You, as the author, get to decide which ones happen because you are in charge, even if you’re trying, like most of us authors, to disguise how much of a hand you have in how the story plays out. Sometimes the choices are tiny ones, the butterfly’s wings that change the course of the hurricane two thousand miles away. But you are choosing every branch of the tree that follows from the setup. You must acknowledge this to be able to effectively revise. The ending is not inevitable, nor is every unfolding consequences. You as the author have a certain worldview and your story reflects that. But you can also change your worldview and change your story.

What if Hamlet had gone back to school in Wittenberg? What if there hadn’t been pirates that boarded the ship and brought him back to Denmark? What if he’d landed in England and had to figure out what to do then? There are always ways to do things differently and still keep true to the characters and the story. Look behind the words to the mechanics, and your revising will be transformed.
30 November 2015 @ 09:49 am
People have been telling me for a while now that I am “brave” for speaking out about problems I see in the Mormon church, and about my own faith journey, which has not been pretty. I am seriously uncomfortable with this label, but have been trying to figure out what people mean when they say it to me. It is part compliment, part-awe, them thinking they could never be like that. Well, maybe you could.
Bravery has come to me because it was more difficult for me to keep silent than it was to face the consequences of being honest. My guess is that almost everyone is like this. We try to hide the truth about our flaws, our doubts, our anger, and we think that it won’t matter, that we’ll get along fine because everyone hides a little bit of who they are in social situations, right? That’s the way the world works. You don’t just spill out your most noxious thoughts onto other people and expect to make friends. So give a little, take a little.
Until you reach a point where you have given up all of yourself and what you have been given in return doesn’t matter to you because it wasn’t given to you, who you are, because no one around you knows who you are—because you’ve been so successful at hiding it too long.
That’s when people become brave. When being honest is the only way to survive, when you realize that having a stable life with no confrontations and no risks turns out to be the most dangerous life of all. Because it is killing you, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well. It turns out that for most humans, lying in the long-term is soul-sucking. It separates us from those around us who are trying to love us. It isolates us profoundly and humans do not do well when they have no social interactions, not even introverts like me. We need some kind of mirror of ourselves looking back at us or our souls are starved to death.
But this is a post about writing, and isn’t writing always lying?
No. Writing is not about facts. It’s a way to get at deeper truths without using facts. Every writer tells different truths. Every writer sees and experiences the world differently. But to tell a story is to offer yourself up to the world. And even when you are spat at or hated, at least you are seen. It turns out that is perhaps bravery, but it is also simply the way that all of us must live.
Whatever you are writing, give up the impulse to disguise reality, to protect certain people from certain truths you have learned from them, however ugly or beautiful or painful they are. Resist the need to write safely. There is no safety. Writing is a striptease of the soul. It is the worst and best of yourself, and if you only poke fun at others or you only criticize them, you are not doing your job. Your work will always ring a little hollow.
To write true, you must show your deepest weaknesses. You must admit that you know you have strengths, however socially awkward you feel that to be. You must see others truly and fairly, not merely as puppets in your play of the universe in which you are the hero. Writing is practice for living, I think. Be brave because to be anything else is to be less than yourself. Be brave and be true.
23 November 2015 @ 09:09 am

When I was an undergrad I had this English professor whose expertise was on Shakespeare and he used to say that if he could go back in time and tell Shakespeare one thing, it would have been that Shakespeare should have written less. Because his opinion was that Shakespeare was super prolific, but there were just a number of plays that were kind of meh, and some that were just plain bad. And so, well, Shakespeare would have been a better author if he’d never done those.

At the time, it seemed a reasonable thing to say. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but I was a college student and I basically figured my professors knew a lot more than I do. Looking back on this as a creative person now, I think this guy was an idiot. And he’s the kind of idiot people often are who have never written anything themselves and have no idea how the creative process really works.

Creativity isn’t about editing carefully. It’s not about getting your punctuation and grammar right. It’s not about figuring out who your audience is or what’s selling right now. It’s not about doing your best work so that someone gives you a good grade. It’s not about reviews and it’s not about sales numbers and it’s not about awards. It’s most definitely not about thinking about the future of “Literachur” and professors teaching your lesser works in the future.

Creativity is about unleashing the possibilities. It’s about everything is allowed in this space. It’s give me whatever you’ve got, good or bad, let’s throw it in here and see if it works. Creativity is writing even when you think it’s probably bad, and letting go of the judgment while you’re in the moment because how you are feeling when you are writing is not necessarily indicative of how good the writing is.

Creativity is taking risks. It’s trying out different ways to solve a problem, even if your experience is that none of those solutions is going to work. Because sometimes you have to go through all of the failures to get to the success. Your brain needs the time or the process or something. And creativity is letting yourself have time to think things over, to be lazy, to try out other kinds of art that aren’t yours for inspiration, to go on a walk, take a shower, or sit on the toilet for a while because normal life and lack of pressure to write, write, write right now, something good because it HAS TO BE GOOD.

I think if this professor actually went back in time and whispered into Shakespeare’s ear that there were a few of his plays he should just give up on, what he’d really end up doing would be to make a Shakespeare who also didn’t write some of his masterpieces because he lacked the confidence to try them. Or maybe we’d live in a world where Shakespeare never wrote anything at all because he was never sure if they would be good enough for the future.

Don’t let your own fear of not being good enough keep you from being the author you are meant to be. You don’t know what you are capable of. You may never know it. Shakespeare didn’t know he was going to be considered the best author in the English language, possibly the best writer in the history of the world. If he’d known that, it might well have crushed him. Just focus on unleashing the creativity, following where it leads, and letting it not be perfect to begin with. Let yourself write Troilus and Cressida. Write something you don’t know how to write that is destined to be bad. Being bad is, in my opinion, a way station on the way to being good.

But also remember that writing isn’t just about the product. It’s also a process. It’s not just about selling books. It’s also about learning who you are and becoming a better person. Writing is a kind of meditation. It is a gaze inside yourself. It has value in itself, and not just as a result that brings you money. The more you think of it that way, the more you will be happy with your writing, and the more you will connect with your creativity.

20 November 2015 @ 08:22 am
One of the things that has happened to me in the course of becoming a published and then a veteran writer is that I no longer see my favorite writers as gods. It's kind of sad, but it's an important part of believing in myself and my own writing. The better you become as a writer, the more you see the process behind the scenes in other writing.
I was one of those kids who used to read at all possible times. I would read while walking to and from school, on the playground, and hiding from chores on Saturday in the leafy tree in our front yard. I would read under my bed, or in the furnace room. I didn't need quiet. I just needed time and a bit of light. I loved books with a passion that other people reserve for food.
But when I try to read those same books as an adult to my own kids, it rarely works. Many of them just haven't stood the test of time. Others just aren't to my kids' tastes. And even the ones my kids still love, I find myself seeing the seams between one scene and the next. I can't lose myself in the story because I can hear the nails being pounded into the walls and can smell the paint still drying. I can see how the house was made because I've made houses, too.
One of the best things about becoming an author is feeling as if you've now entered into the hallowed halls of your idols. Meeting them in person, going to dinner with them and hearing stories about their past, sending them ARCs and getting blurbs--these are all wonderful things. They are parts of becoming an author that I didn't ever anticipate, really. And in some ways, they are the things that I most cherish.
But the reason they are possible is that the worship I once felt for my idols has disappeared. I admire them still. I sometimes still read every book as it comes out. But I don't imagine those books are perfect anymore. I don't lose myself completely in the storytelling. And I still feel a kind of sadness about that. Sometimes I find a new author and for a little while, I am caught again in the spell. Until I see the tricks and learn how to use them for myself. Because as a professional, that is what I always do. Everything is a chance to steal and become better at the art.
Thinking about it now, I think it really is a step of becoming a professional to give up the idea that other writers are perfect and above you. You have to realize they are just people, doing their best, putting words on a page day by day, not knowing if what they're doing will work, not knowing if the next book will be a huge failure or not, not sure really if their last book was as brilliant as they hoped it would be. They don't sit down and think--today, I will be brilliant. They don't know--this is the book everyone will remember me for.
They just sit down and do their best and are frustrated because it's never exactly as good as they had imagined. They're just like you, and seeing the flaws behind the words doesn't mean they're not as good as you thought when you were a kid. It means that you got better than you ever thought you'd be. It means that writing is something that you learn to do well like any other skill.
It means that the magic is something you're part of now, that you're a wizard yourself, and that your part now is making the magic for others, even when you know it's not real. Because it is real, even if you know the words to the spell. And never wanting it to be easy is part of your pact with the universe. You're going to be rewriting the spells yourself now. Because you know they're not good enough. You know they never will be.
18 November 2015 @ 03:15 pm

I just got back from a critique session with my awesome writer’s group. They finished the last of three sections of my transgender science fiction YA set in the far future on another planet. And they were confused. What did this part of the plot have to do with that part of the plot? It seemed like I had suddenly come up with a cool idea halfway through the book, but I’d foreshadowed it in no way in the first section. Then there was this awesome character who appears in the middle of nowhere and does cool stuff, but it’s like he’s his own story. And all this made-up religious stuff that was fascinating and great worldbuilding, but also sort of took over things. Plus the problem of what felt like the main plot taking backseat during the last half of the book and me not ever really letting the emotional consequences of the major plot points early on be dealt with narratively.

So why does this matter to anyone else? Well, my guess is that many, many writers who are doing NaNoWriMo are experiencing some of these same problems. Many, many writers who are pantsers are probably very familiar with this list of complaints. Why does it feel like a great idea struck me halfway through the book? Well, because it did? Why does it feel like I forgot about following through on emotional consequences for a character? Because I did. Why does it feel like I thought of a cool new character and let him take over the book? Because that’s what happens when you’re a pantser.

And you know what? I’m very happy that I finished this draft, even though I’m going to end up lopping off most of the last half of the book (I’ll tell myself that it can all be part of book 2 when book 1 does so well that the publisher begs for a sequel to satisfy reader demands). This is why I’m a pantser. I have nothing against outliners. They seem way more sensible than I am and I often wish I could be an outliner. I’m not. I love the process of a first-draft writing. I love how new ideas strike me. I love that my creative side feels so safe that it just throws anything into the pot to see how it works.

Sure, I have a lot of work to do now. I have to do the real work of writing a novel, since what I have right now is a bunch of ideas in scenes. But I love those ideas. I may not use them all for this book. I may not use them for any book. But I’m still glad I wrote them down. I’m glad I have this trust with my creative self that it spews out lots of unworkable ideas. This is why I am so prolific, because everything flies when it’s first draft time.

I can be a ruthless second draft editor. I’ll cut 50,000 words in one fell swoop and then fill them in with something else. But what a ride I was on! No one but me will probably ever go on that ride (except for my writers group). Maybe no one but me will enjoy it. But connecting into the source of my creativity is mind-blowingly huge and inchoate. It’s beautiful and scary all at once
You don’t have to do that, I guess. You can be a writer without taking every risk in the book. Actually, maybe not. You may just tell yourself that you can do it the easy way or you don’ t have to expose yourself, so you’re getting started. But soon enough, you’ll be throwing everything in with the kitchen sink, too.

There was a theme that my group could see once I explained to them how things fit together in my mind. But it was honestly just too much for one book. I had a lot of story in there, causing friction as its corners banged up against other story corners. Characters are fighting to stand out in my little novel. They all want my attention. They all want to be the star of the show. I will rewrite it and pare it back. It will have a cohesion that people will understand without the author having to explain it. But I like this weird, dysfunctional, five-armed beast of mine, too. Sometimes I wonder if we work too hard to tame things.

Maybe I can figure out a way to put in just one extra arm in this book somewhere, yeah?

04 November 2015 @ 10:22 am

The biggest barrier to writing well is not skill, education, time, or talent. It is fear. Fear is what keeps people from practicing writing until they gain a skill. Fear is what makes people believe that they don’t know enough to write, or to start writing. Fear is what subconsciously often makes people put off writing until they have more time, until they are ready, until they’re older, until they have more to say, until they are in a different stage of life. Fear is what makes people believe in talent, an unseen, unmeasurable thing that may or may not exist, but the belief in makes people give up doing what they really want to do, without any proof.

Why are we afraid of writing?

1. Writing is hard. Any grand pursuit is hard, and writing is setting yourself against history itself.
2. Writing feels like competing with the biggest heroes in your life. And it does mean that. It also means seeing that your heroes have feet of clay, recognizing their flaws. It means sometimes giving up your favorite books as a child. It means never reading purely as a reader again.
3. Writing means sacrificing other things and prioritizing writing. It means insisting that your life revolve around writing.
4. Writing takes practice. Dedicated practice. Some of this practice comes from reading. Some of it comes from writing. Sometimes writing badly. Sometimes writing well, but only in a moment, and in that moment, you will realize how badly you write at other times and you may wish you didn’t have the glimpse of brilliance that makes you doubt yourself even more.
5. Writing demands you be vulnerable. It means exposing yourself in the deepest way possible, being naked in front of the whole world.
6. Writing requires a courage to speak truth, even when other people don’t agree with you, even when you hurt them. Writing means sometimes that you realize that you were wrong and that you have to change.
7. Writing takes time. Time you might use for other things. Things you might enjoy more. Things that might give you a better return on your time. Things that
8. Writing takes focus. It is genuinely difficult to sit down, focus intently on words, and find a story to tell. Focus is not the same as time. Focus is something you must save up energy to expend all in one place. Focus takes practice.
9. Writing often means doing nothing when other people are doing something. It may look like you are lazy. It may look like you are taking time off to be selfish. And yes, writing is often selfish.
10. Writing is risky. Every time you sit down to write, you are risking failure. This book might not be the right one. It might not sell. No one else may ever like it. It might get terrible reviews even if it does sell. It might never make any money.
11. Writing may make people hate you. Friends may realize that you are more talented than they are. They may become jealous of you. Family members may feel that you have depicted them unfairly. Community members may think you’ve sold out your faith, your country, or your past.
12. Writing requires you to learn skills, even when they are tedious things like grammar and punctuation. You may be afraid of becoming like those disagreeable teachers you once had who are tempted to correct everyone.
13. Writing is bigger than you are. You will never feel big enough to contain all of the stories you want to tell and all of the dreams you have for the future. You will always be inadequate. You will always be trying to be better and you will never reach it. You will always read your books and wish you had done just a little better.

02 November 2015 @ 09:41 am
I know there are tons of books out there that are designed to give you tips on how to write a good plot and how to make your characters likeable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading them and learning from them.

I also think that if you are going to become the best writer you can be, you have to throw those books out. Those are the old way of writing. Those books teach you formulas that you’re going to move past. The history of literature is about people doing new things. Not just using words in different ways, or making up new forms of poetry, but telling different kinds of stories, refusing to give in to reader expectation, and going beyond formula. That’s what you’re going to do ideally.

So here are some rules:
1.    In a murder mystery, the body has to be discovered in chapter one.
2.    The hero needs a sidekick that is goofy and makes him look more competent.
3.    The romance is never resolved until the bigger plot elements are.
4.    The heroine should always look hot, no matter how hard she is running.
5.    The white people are the stars of the show, but you can add some POC around the edges.
6.    No one cares about real physics. Just have stuff blow up when you want to pick up the pacing.
7.    If the detective can’t figure out who the murderer is from the first body, just pile them up to increase the suspense.
8.    The villain always explains his reasons right before he kills the hero.
9.    Things should always look darkest before the dawn.
10.    There must be a secret reveal that makes the hero reconsider everything before recommitting to the quest and finding triumph.

You know you’ve seen all of these a thousand times. You know that on some level, the audience expects these things. And those books on how to write often tell you to do just this because it’s the “formula for success.”
Well, F#$%^&* that.

The best formula for successful writing is to write stuff no one has written before. And to do it well. Tell stories that take twists and turns that are unexpected. Write about real people who think about the world in different ways. Write the way only you can write. That means including all the weird stuff you wish your favorite stories had in them, the stuff you are an expert at that all your friends laugh about. That’s the good stuff. That’s your genius. Not the things you grudgingly put in because “all the other books have it.”

I am so tired of writers asking what the new “trend” in publishing is. I don’t care. I don’t follow the rules like that, if you believe in such rules. If you want advice about that, I guess you should probably find another writer to read, not me.

When I read, I want to enter a world I’ve never seen before. I want things to happen in a new order. And then I want stuff to happen I never would have guessed at. I don’t want J.J. Abrams. Yeah, sorry J.J. He isn’t completely hopeless, but the clichés are just too much for me. I don’t need to have the girlfriend held by the villain at gunpoint in every single story I read. I don’t need to see the child threatened by the terrorist to put the father in motion.

Tell me a story I haven’t heard before. Tell me one that crosses genres, that defies the rules, that thumbs its nose at reader’s expectations. Tell me a story that turns me upside down and makes me wonder if I’ve ever seen the world right side up before. Tell me a story that makes me wonder why I am still reading it. Tell me a story that I can’t put down. Tell me a story that my mother would be shocked at. Tell me a story that would get banned because it pushes too many buttons.

Tell me a story that makes me want to throw it across the room, and then scramble up, pick it back up, and start reading it from the beginning all over again, so I can learn your tricks and maybe, just maybe, start making up a new rulebook about how to write so people learn to steal from someone new.