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29 September 2015 @ 07:55 am
I know there are others who have written about this, and said that authors owe readers nothing, but I’m going to give a slightly different answer here. I think what authors owe readers is authenticity. To me, that means admitting honestly if the author isn’t interested in writing a series anymore. It means writing books that resonate with the author and writing them as well as the author possibly can, giving over completely to that project. Or admitting that there aren’t any words left right now and that there may never be, that it’s time to take a break from writing and see what happens. Most writers are writers for life—at least until they aren’t.

I suppose that in the end, what I am saying is that authors owe readers what they owe themselves, which is the truth. Yes, I know some readers are not happy with this answer. They feel the author owes the completion of a series in a way the reader wants. Or they feel that the author, once having begun a series, owes the reader continuing to write in that series a book a year until the author is dead—and perhaps beyond the grave if there are any notes or other hints about what the author might have written after death.

But is this really what you want? You want an author in chains to an idea formed nearly a lifetime ago, when the author was a completely different person? You want someone going through the motions, writing about a character they now hate or telling stories that don’t matter to them anymore? I don’t. I really don’t. There are characters I love who I would like to hear more about, but if the author isn’t interested in writing them, I can go find fan fic or write my own. And that’s often better than what the writer would have written if it’s not whole-heartedly engaged.

I’ve felt series and characters were ruined when authors kept writing after the spark had gone, so that’s the worst case scenario for me. I’d much rather an author reinvent their own writing and try something new than go on beating a dead horse. Or take a break and see if they have something to write about later that is going to fulfill them more.

Remember that one of the chief pleasures of reading is the anticipation. In some sense, reading to the end of every book is going to be a disappointment. It’s why as readers we all have the tendency to slow down as we come to the end. Some of us refuse to read the last page or the last chapter until we know there’s another book available. It’s because we don’t want it to end, right? So if a writer hasn’t written to the end yet, accept that’s a good thing. Yes, even if they die before writing to the end. It leaves it open. And open means anything can happen that you can imagine.

So go imagine. Go do the work of writing yourself, even if it’s without a pen. Dream about what happens next. And let it change every time.
23 September 2015 @ 09:45 am

  1. Are you telling the story you mean to tell?

  2. Are your characters acting in ways that are consistent and sympathetic?

  3. What characters need to be cut out to make the story tighter?

  4. What parts of the story are unnecessary?

  5. What parts of the story need to be deepened and expanded?

  6. Where is the backstory boring and confusing? Where is it too thin?

  7. Where is the pacing flagging?

  8. Where do you need to foreshadow better?

  9. Where do you tell too much?

  10. Which chapters are your favorite and how can you make more chapters like that?

  11. Where are you pulling your punches?

22 September 2015 @ 08:14 am

When I was a baby writer, I think I really did believe that my editor (and my agent) were my bosses. Now, I realize this is not true. While it’s also not true that I was a writer am the boss of my agent or editor (the relationship is more like a partnership), I’ve experienced several different editorial relationships.

1. The editor who knows everything (or rather, thinks that they do).

2. The editor who is trying to keep their head above water in the company.

3. The editor who somehow reads your mind and knows your book better than you do.

4. The editor who wants to shoehorn your book into a better selling form.

5. The editor who is a committee, and therefore never accountable for any advice or decision.

6. The tentative editor who suggests very, very gently and never insists.

7. The editor who never responds until ten minutes before the deadline.

8. The big-shot editor who is bigger and more important than you are.

9. The editor who inherited your book from a predecessor and hates it (and possibly you by extension).

10. The editor who is about to leave industry for something that pays better.

I’ve made accommodations to editors just to keep them happy. I’ve done revisions that I didn’t believe in because I hoped it would sell the book (and sometimes did). I’ve been terrified of a phone call with an editor because I was worried I wasn’t good enough. I’ve sent in revisions sure that they were perfect, and sure that they were terrible (neither was true).

But I think what I’ve finally come to is something like a real understanding of the way it should work between an editor and an author. I’m in charge. Sorry if that makes me sound like a diva. But it’s not a marriage. We are not equal parties. I don’t have to make my editor happy. I don’t have to listen to my editor’s advice. My editor is not always right.

Yes, sometimes a book will be cancelled if an editor doesn’t like the revisions you’ve done or if your vision and theirs are revealed to be completely different. This has happened to me and it is painful. It can be expensive. But there is really no other way around it and trying to make small changes to avoid it just delays the inevitable.

Of course, your editor can be a huge advocate for you at your house. Of course, you may end up being friends with your editor. But this does not mean that you should ever as a writer do what your editor says if it isn’t right for your book. If you don’t have that sense of–”Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant in the first place” or “What, you mean that wasn’t already in the text?” or “Wow, that’s the truth that I wasn’t willing to dig at quite yet,” then stop making changes.

Maybe you’re thinking that I can say this because I have more clout than a beginning author or that I can say this because I’ve gone through years in the industry and I’ve developed enough of a sense of where I’m headed that I trust myself more than I trust other people. And maybe that’s partly true. But I do wish sometimes I could go back and just tweak a few things in some of my early books because I changed things an editor thought I should change without really believing in it one hundred percent. And I was right.

So, your editor can be your ally, your friend, your soul mate. Your editor can be brilliant. But your editor is not always right. And your editor is most definitely not your boss.
I go to conferences all the time and the most commonly asked questions are those about publication:

How do I get an agent?
How many words should my manuscript be?
What’s hot right now?
What about ebooks?
How do you self-publish well?
Who do I need to know to get an “in”?
What does an agent want on the first page?
How do I get blurbs from famous authors in my book?
How do I get people to review my book on amazon/goodreads?
How do I find the names of editors to submit to?
What do I do if someone else’s book title/idea is the same as mine?

I admit, I get tired of these kinds of questions. It’s not because they’re not interesting questions to ask. It’s not because people don’t need to know these kinds of things. It’s because the people asking these sorts of questions display a level of ignorance that to me indicates I should withhold the information because they need to figure out a lot of other things first.

Me telling you how to submit to editors and where to find names and addresses so you can do so isn’t going to help you get published if you don’t have a good manuscript. And my experience has been that people who spend the number of years it takes to write a good manuscript mostly also pick up the information along the way to know how to contact the people you need to know and what the rules are for submitting.

More useful questions for beginning writers to ask are things like:

How likable does my protagonist need to be?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in third person versus first? Or past versus present?
How do I find a writing group and make it a useful experience to have one?
Whose advice do I take when I’m revising?
How do I know if I’m making it better or worse?
How do I make the reader feel like this is happening to him/her?
What are ways to increase the stakes?
Where do I put in world building details to make sure I don’t slow the pace?
When do I know a book is ready to submit?

I’m not intending to come across as arrogant, but I think that I sometimes when I feel like people are putting the cart before the horse. When people ask me how many words are in a MG book or in a YA book, I tell them that they should be reading a lot of books and finding the answer out to that themselves and they’d have a good sense of it. I tell them that when you read enough books, you start noticing which house publishes what, you read acknowledgements pages and see agents’ and editors’ names mentioned as they are thanked.

Parents ask me about how to get their children’s books published. I say the same thing: don’t. I really don’t consider it a favor to your child. I think most children should not be published. I think it’s exploitative. If your child is one of the three teens who is ready to be published, you don’t need to do the work for them. They do it for themselves. They show they’re ready by acting as adults and figuring it out on their own.

When people spend so much of their time and energy on trying to make money from writing, I feel like they are trying to live the dream instead of the reality. Writing is a lot less about publishing than you probably think it is. There are a lot of things about being a published author that you will need to know when you are published, but if you don’t learn how to focus on the work without paying attention to the furor of the publishing world now, you will be swallowed up and never seen from again when it happens. If you don’t love sitting down and writing all by yourself, you won’t get the work done when you’re under deadline and there’s no one there to help you along.

Yes, there are people who are doing great work and never sound it out because they lack confidence in themselves. There are a thousand times as many who are sending work out before it is ready. I’m not saying never send your work out. I’m just saying make sure that you care more about your work than about the dream of being an author, making lots of money and being lauded by millions. That may or may not ever happen, but even if it does, it will end up being a distraction to the work itself.

You and the words on the page, making them the best you possibly can. That’s your job. The less you see it that way, the less likely it is that you will be published. Because publication generally follows naturally on the heels of good work.
11 September 2015 @ 09:30 am
When I go to conferences and people ask me what the latest “trend” is, I have to admit, I kind of turn off and decide that these people don’t really want to hear the truth about writing. I mean, what’s the point of going deep and telling people the hardest lessons of my life if all they want to hear about is what is selling right now not because it is good, but because it is a trend? Do you want to know how to write well or do you want to make money? There are a lot of ways to make money that aren’t as hard as writing. Porn, for instance. Why not go do that?

But then I try to calm down and remind myself that a lot of writers are confused, and that I used to be one of those writers. I used to think to myself that hey, I’m flexible, I am a great writer and if I need to steer myself a little in this direction to get published, well, I can do that. I can write to a trend and still write well. Yeah, like I said, I was deluded. Or maybe I just became a little less patient with the world and decided that I was right more often than other people are.

I certainly give different advice today than I used to. If you want to write to trends and you think that you’re going to feel better about yourself if you make money writing, who am I to tell you that you’re wrong? Maybe that works for you and if so, go for it. Figure out all the trends, write a computer program to tell you where to make money this year and next year. Maybe you can plug in book titles, movie numbers, and current events and be able to get out hot topics to write about.

For me, I spend most of my time trying to keep people from looking over my shoulder while I’m writing. That means that I don’t share my ideas for books with other people until they’re written. I don’t ask my agent or my editor what they think about my latest idea until I know myself what I think about my latest idea and am ready for critical feedback on how well I achieved my goal with words on the page. I literally close my computer if one of my family members comes to sit by me on the couch because I don’t want any feedback at all while I’m writing a precious, vulnerable first draft. And I certainly don’t talk about my drafts on social media on-line.

The hardest work of being a writer is, in my opinion, the mental work of keeping at it. It’s telling yourself that your words matter. Because there are too many other things that are easier to do, and really, who knows if they aren’t just as fulfilling? One of the best writers I ever knew gave up after years of publishing because he decided that he had better things to do with his free time. And that idea just keeps niggling away at me. There are a lot of things to choose to do besides writing and plenty of people find them satisfying. So why am I doing this very hard thing again? Oh yeah, it matters. It matters to me. It matters to my soul. So I don’t take it lightly. I don’t sell myself short.

Looking at what this writer is doing is a distraction to my work. Obviously, I don’t mean you shouldn’t read books by other writers. I read a lot, for pleasure and also to see how other people do things. There are great lessons in other authors’ works. But I feel that’s distinctly different than peeking at someone else’s work, so to speak, comparing my work to theirs and seeing if I measure up. Letting myself imagine that maybe I should be doing what that person is doing, because look, they’re having a lot of success. That’s the point that you need to stop reading and get on with your own work.

I’ve stopped caring about what’s hot and it’s done something to my work that I think is extraordinary. I used to think that as a writer, you should listen to feedback from readers about what you’re doing. You can learn from that feedback, right? Make a better widget. Well, I’m not making a widget. I’m not writing a book to fit into someone else’s niche of entertainment. I’m writing out my heart and soul, and I’m really the only one who can decide if I’ve gotten it right. I don’t think this makes me a narcissist. I think this makes me an writer, and a damned good one.
10 September 2015 @ 01:27 pm
For writers and creative types needing a boost today, here's this youtube video from perhaps the best Doctor Who episode of all time (that didn't have David Tennat): Vincent and the Doctor
"He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and pain and joy and magnificence of our world. No one had ever done it before; perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world's greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived."

I think this is what all of us want to hear. Not necessarily that we are the "greatest artist to ever live," but simply that we did one thing extraordinarily well, that our legacy lives on, that people remember us and what we did, and that we lived our lives well, even beyond our art.

09 September 2015 @ 08:04 am

I write for my own purposes. I do not write to make my religion look good. I do not write to persuade people to one viewpoint or another. I do not write to please my family or my publisher. I do not write to make money, though I will certainly complain about it if I don’t. I do not write to give people a warm feeling when they close the pages of my book, nor to give them a sense of “closure.”

I strive for the following when I write:

1. To express myself as precisely as possible in the moment.

2. To express opposing viewpoints as fairly as I possibly can.

3. To reject the idea that any narrative is simple or that any person can be reduced to a stereotype or to a single aspect.

4. To show all characters as heroes in their own worldview.

5. To be as fair as possible to those with whom I disagree violently.

6. To challenge myself.

7. To use words both deliciously and directly.

8. To have fun.

9. To create characters who haunt me and others who read about them.

10. To make sense of the world, and to make nonsense of the world.

I demand for myself the right to change my purposes of writing at any time and without any warning. I will write and discover my purposes as I do so. I am who I am and my writing will reflect that. I will write the stories that I want to write and will only write a series so long as it serves me as a writer because I still have something to say using that vehicle. I will take editing where and when it enlightens me and makes my own purposes clearer and more piercingly accurate.

I will learn as a writer, throw away old strategies and develop new ones, and be experimenting all the time. I will doodle with my words and throw out doodles when they are not what I wish them to be. I will keep working on projects that are doomed if I choose to, because I choose to. I will believe that an audience will be found for every finished piece of work, even if it is an audience of one. And if I am no longer pleased with writing, I give myself permission to find other ways of expressing myself either publicly or not. I am in charge of my words and ultimately, I will always take the heat for using them as I have, for good or ill.

I will encourage all other writers and creative people to find their own way in the world, whatever that may be, through my internet words, my public persona, and my private encouragement. We are not one, but many, and the more of us there are, the more we matter. I matter. My words matter. My world matters.
08 September 2015 @ 09:01 am

When I was in high school and college, teachers would talk to us about revising papers and focus us on fixing sentences, rearranging paragraphs, and choosing better words. Which is definitely revising on one level. The problem was that when I became a professional writer, I realized that this was the very last stage of revision, basically the copy-editing level. This was the easiest kind of revision. And no one had ever taught me about the real revision that went on before that stage. I don't know if that was because no one in high school knew how to do that kind of revision, or if it was so frightening that they didn't dare talk about it. I'm going to dare to talk about it.

The revisions that I do before I get to copy-editing are massive. MASSIVE. Like, every single word of the manuscript changes. Sometimes all the scenes are in the right order (Ha--this is never true, but we'll pretend it is for a little while). It's just that I have the voice wrong. Or the point of view. Or I change the rules of magic. Or I have to tweak a character's motivations. Or the setting is now historical--or isn't historical anymore. Or I'm now writing a series instead of a standalone. Or a thousand different changes that probably sound like they're small in terms of scope, but in fact change every single word of the book. Because my descriptions are going to change based on how my character changes. And how I introduce the magic or offer setting details changes if the point of view is different.

And then there are even bigger changes. Like when your main character gets written out of the entire manuscript because it turns out the best part of your first draft wasn't her. Or when the whole reason that you wrote the novel in the first place turns out to be untenable, but there are parts that you're still interested in and you've decided to try to salvage them by writing a completely different first draft. Or your magic system doesn't work at all and you can only fix it by telling the novel that you were thinking maybe would one day be the prequel, about a shadowy character who no one knows about in the future but turned out to be vital to the formation of the magic system in the first place.

I know that some writers manage to figure out these kinds of problems before they start writing a first draft, but I'll tell you honestly, not many do. Even writers who outline extensively find a ton of problems that require massive, massive revisions. And the writers who aren't finding their problems by writing drafts are spending just as much time (IMHO) figuring out the problems in their heads.

Almost always, when I see a writer who isn't making progress from draft to draft it's because they aren't either willing or able to make these kinds of revisions. They hold tight to their original vision of a project because they think that's what people mean when they say to "write the book of your heart." Or they honestly don't know how to reimagine everything from the bottom up and let everything go in order to rebuild something that's even better. And do it again and again and again in order to get a manuscript that's ready for publication.

I really wish that culturally, we grappled more with what being a creative type is like because I feel like we show in movies and on television that being a writer is about getting this "inspiration" and then sitting in a room and just hammering things out and then playing with words. In my experience, writing is about playing with ideas, scenes, characters. It's about reconsidering everything. In a way, it's a science in which you are experimenting and your drafts are the way to figuring out all that's wrong with your hypothesis, and sometimes are about reformulating the hypothesis and redesigning the experiment a thousand times. (And well, being ready to give up on it a lot, too, because you feel like you've reached the end of progress and you're just going in circles or making things worse--that's part of the process, too.)

When I read a book that is brilliant, I feel like I get a bit of a glimpse of all the other drafts that went into it because it is so layered and it hints at all the other possibilities and shows why they weren't the right one, if that makes any sense. Books that tend not to hold my interest are books that end up feeling like one draft that was polished but doesn't have the depth of a book that went through a lot of revision. These books aren't failures, but they just don't see the tiny mistakes within them and don't address them as they go along.

Sure, there are brilliant books that are written in a hot fever of a few weeks. It happens, but often it happens because the writer has been doing those other drafts elsewhere. And yes, there are books that are piercingly simple and that show no hint of other drafts but still work in their single, great layer of purpose. Writers work in many different ways and my way is not "the one true way," but if you're getting people interested in the idea of your book but not the manuscript itself or if you aren't getting offers on the book even though a lot of editors are reading it, you might consider that it needs a really big revision, a complete new draft that enables you to re-conceptualize everything in a new and better whole.

03 September 2015 @ 08:48 am

Once upon a time, I was the perfect author for all my editors. When they sent me letters, I dealt with every query. I didn’t always fix things the way the editor suggested, but I satisfied my editors questions about projects. I made sure that my book was something my editor felt they were part of and that they were proud to sell. I wanted to be the kind of author that editors wanted to work with. I wanted to make sure I was never thought of as a “diva” or as someone who needed special attention.

On once memorable occasion, my (junior) editor got back to me just weeks before my book was supposed to go to printing, after I had finished copyedits and looked through what were to be final galleys. She wanted me to change something because the sales crew at the publisher had decided there was a problem with my book. Specifically, they wanted me to make up some names for the use of magic in my book that weren’t ordinary English. Because that was what most other YA fantasy books were doing.

I was annoyed. I really dislike making up words when we have perfectly good English words already. It’s partly my linguistic training and partly my sense of uniqueness as a writer. I didn’t add froo-froo in any part of my life. I didn’t think my book needed this change. More to the point, this was the last book in a series and none of the other books had special words for magic, so it would make this book an outlier.

But I talked myself into make this change anyway because of sales and blah blah blah. I wanted to be a good author. I wanted to keep working with this house and with this editor. I had a short phone conversation with the editor, assuring her I wasn’t upset about the change (when I was). I even sent her a box of chocolates to prove to her everything was good between us.

Long story short, the book sold terribly. Numerous readers of the series noted the sudden change and called me on it. The editor I’d been working with threw me under the bus and I had my next contract with the publisher cancelled. The editor left the company, as well. While I will never know what would have happened if I had stuck to my guns in terms of books sales, it was one of the best learning experiences of my life as an author.

Most recently, a junior editor sent me some queries about my latest book. She told me that the main character wouldn’t do certain things in the book and asked me to change them. I smiled a little to myself, reminded myself I know the main character of this series better than anyone, and let her do the things I knew she would do. I said “no” to an editor.

And guess what? The world didn’t collapse. No one told me they never wanted to work with me again. I didn’t lose my contract with the publisher. And I felt good about myself. Honestly, truly, good about my work. I stood up for myself and my vision for my book and I am confident that this time, reviewers will feel the authenticity. I’m not going to expect any kind of book sales (because that’s just a clear ticket to insanity), but it doesn’t matter because I know that this book is my best work. It’s me to my deepest soul, and there’s nothing that can compensate for not doing that when you should have.
31 August 2015 @ 11:15 am
At some point along the path to publication (or after), you're going to realize that no one cares that you are a writer. It may happen when

1. your new neighbor asks where you can buy your book, never imagining it might, well, be in a bookstore.
2. your brother jokingly says he'll read your book when it's made into a movie.
3. people talk about your other hobbies as if they are your job.
4. people talk about your writing as if it were a hobby, perhaps even asking you if you would like to submit to a talent show.
5. people ask what your job is, and you say you're a writer, and they ask the question again.
6. your children beg you not to make them go to another book signing to be your talk buddy if no one shows up.
7. your spouse points out that you spent more last year on buying other people's books than you made on your own.
8. your book comes out and it's not in your local bookstore to get a photo to post on line to celebrate.
9. you never earn out
10. your book is remaindered and out of print (OP) before it's been out a year

While this can be very depressing, I have decided it is also liberating. It teaches us writers a very important lesson: the writing is for us. I know, I know, people are always saying that we write to be read, that we write for readers, that readers make the books real. But actually, they don't.

I don't trust writers who tell me they write for their readers. I also worry for them because what happens when their next series or the one after that doesn't have readers? Are they going to give up writing then? Maybe they will, and maybe I'm crazy because I just keep writing whether people are reading me or not. I know because I've gone long years without a contract and nearly decided my career was over. And I was still writing.

No one cares about your writing more than you care about it. Or at least, that's the way I think it should be. You're the last word on every edit. You're the one who ultimately decides when it's over (and don't let other people pretend to take that role, because it belongs only to you). You're the one who decides if something isn't good enough, if you're going to give up on an idea forever, and if something is so good you can't let it go and you're going to keep pushing it until something happens with it.

No one cares about your writing because it's yours. It's your world, your viewpoint, your characters, your plot to die for, your favorite everything all combined in one. Yes, there are people out there who will hopefully like it as much as you do. That's nice when it happens. But it's not the same as the fire that burns inside you. It has to be a fire or else it will never get written. Writing is damn hard, and revision doesn't make it any easier.

If they haven't heard of you, or think writing is useless, that's not your problem. Maybe it's even a relief. You don't have to explain why you did this or that. It's your book. Your fans may complain about where you took it, but you are the only one who can take it there. And if doesn't find a single reader, it's still the best book you could make it, and that means it has a value to at least one really smart reader: you.