Saying Goodbye to Old Ghosts

One of the things I repeat most frequently to beginning authors is that they need to let a manuscript go and start a new one. But I know it can be really hard to let go of a book. Why? Because there are so many favorite lines that you’ve perfected, so many great dialog scenes, such perfect worldbuilding, such a great magical system, and all those characters you love so much you want to spend your life writing sequels and prequels about them. I understand this. I really do. It’s one of the hardest things writers have to learn to do. But you do have to do this.

It's not just when you’re giving yourself permission to start a new book, either. You have to say goodbye to old ghosts of drafts of the manuscript, too, if you’re hoping to make it better. This is one (but not the only) reason that I tell people to put something aside and start on a new book. Especially when you’ve spent years and years working on a manuscript (or if it’s something you spend your childhood fantasizing about), you can’t see it clearly or objectively. Parts you loved at one point in your life may not work at all compared to other more modern books that are being sold today. And some writers end up contorting themselves so desperately to save this piece of that piece of a project that they are better off letting it go completely and starting something new.

I have a couple of drafts of published novels where I find it difficult to remember which is the “real” version that readers get to. There are characters in my head in books that got written out for good reasons, but somehow they still live in my brain.
Here’s the reality: Sometimes as a writer, you have to say goodbye to a character or a direction the book is headed in because you’re going to make it 1% better. Only 1%, and it takes a lot of work, sometimes months or years of revision to get the rest of the book back to the point that it was at before you started revising. That can feel terrifying. It’s worse for so long, and only 1% better. But I guarantee you, that 1% could well be the difference between being published and not being published.

I just read a manuscript by a friend that seemed this close to being ready for publication. But my friend had bravely done almost a complete rewrite with her villain because the original version was just a bit confusing. The new draft was better. Maybe only 1% better, but definitely better. It was worth doing for just that much improvement. I promise you it is.

On the other hand, sometimes people recommend drastic changes to your novel that don’t really help it. Sometimes those people are agents or editors. And you have to try out the possibility that they are right. This can feel like a waste of time. Let me say from an author who’s been in it for longer than you have: it’s not a waste of time. You will learn things about yourself and about your book that you need to know to keep going. Maybe you will give up on the book. If that happens, it’s for the best. I swear it to you. It’s painful to hear, but some books aren’t right and can never be made right. But you have to keep trying until it’s absolutely clear it can’t be fixed.

If you need to say goodbye to the old ghosts of your novels, let me suggest a couple of things:

  1. Keep all your drafts. I am not joking when I say that a local university will one day contact you to ask for anything you have on hand, for future posterity doing research.

  2. You can print out a copy and burn it and say a few words in a kind of funeral.

  3. If it’s a character you need to say goodbye to, write a few words about what the rest of that character’s life might have been like, if a different version of their universe had unfolded. Give them a good death. And move on.

  4. Make a little cheat sheet of ideas, lines, or any bits of the book you really love and want to use again. If you’re ever at a loose end for new ideas, go back to this list. You will be surprised to see how you are able to resurrect old things and make them new again.

  5. Make a list of reasons you are making this drastic change to come back to when the going gets tough and you begin to doubt your choice.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Good luck out there in the trenches. This writing this is hard!

Creativity and Depression

I was depressed and often suicidal for five years. During that time, there was little decrease in my production of words as a writer. You'd think if you were just checking up on how many books I was writing that I was fine. I looked fine in many ways. I continued to manage daily chores: laundry, dishes, food preparation. I exercised six days a week and competed in a lot of races, including some Ironman distance races. But I was still depressed, and I knew I was depressed. Maybe this helped save me in some way. I'm still figuring things out.
What I can see very clearly now is that what was wrong with my creativity wasn't my ability to make books or craft scenes or envision new worlds. My creativity worked fine on that level. Writing actually allowed me to get out of my own head and was therapeutic in certain ways. But the problem was that because my brain was broken, and in particular, because my judgment was broken, I couldn't make good decisions about what books to work on. I couldn't make any decisions myself about my life or my career because I knew my judgment was compromised. I kept delaying making decisions because I didn't want to make a big mistake, and I didn't trust myself.
People who imagine that depression is good or even necessary for creativity can't have really being either depressed or creative. There may be a correlation, but it isn't causative. When I see depressed creative people around me, they don't always have the same problems I had with depression. Many of them simply stop writing at all. Whatever joy they had in writing is gone and they can't find a good reason to deal with the other difficulties of writing when that's gone. There are also the creative types who try to keep at it, but then burn everything in despair, because they can't see anything good in what they've done. I've seen this and it is heartbreaking. It happens a lot, though.
If there is a correlation between creativity and depression, it may be simply that creative people often feel things more deeply, both good and bad. And also, creative people are often isolated, which is something that causes depression in pretty much everyone, creative or not. There are risks to being a creative person. Creative people invite more criticism. They also lay themselves on the line more in their writing. This is painful in ways that perhaps only other creative people can understand. But depression isn't good for your creativity.
If you are depressed, please get help. Maybe you need a group that meets regularly to talk about the work. Maybe you need a therapist. Maybe you need medication. Maybe you need some life changes to help you see the world and yourself differently. Please, don't imagine that any of these solutions will do anything but improve your creative output. Depression isn't what makes you you. It isn't the way you really feel the depth of human emotions. It's an obstacle. Your creativity should improve when you deal with it. If you think it won't, just remember, depression means your brain isn't working right. It's not giving you the right information about itself, or about anything else.

The Impulse to Perfection

Many artistic types are perfectionists of one breed or another. I hate it when people call me a perfectionist because I don't think of myself that way. I'm capable of ignoring things that aren't perfect, but this is really only true if they are things I have deemed "unimportant," so, like cooking, my physical appearance, housecleaning, things like that. When it comes to writing, it can be very difficult to turn off the perfectionist impulse.
On the one hand, it's actually important to be a perfectionist. If you're a sloppy creator and you send things out constantly without them being ready, you're not going to get very far. You may or may not get better, but I suspect you will get better less quickly than the people who just have to look at their piece one last time before they submit it or those who can't stand to see a spelling error in a final book and send a list to their editor of changes they want made to the second edition.
Being a perfectionist means that you're going to be measuring yourself against the best of the best, and that you're always going to be striving for more. This is a very good thing. It means that you have a sense for what is good. You have an "ear" for good language and plot, that you demand your characters feel real on the page. It means that you really listen when you get feedback, and that you're willing to do more than fix a couple of comma splices. You can start all over and really make all the changes necessary to address the problem.
Being a perfectionist can also be the death knell for a creative career. I've seen perfectionists who simply can't send anything out. Ever. They're too worried it's not perfect enough. They are always waiting for someone to point out how much it's like this thing or that thing, and it's not as good. Or it's just too derivative.
I've seen creative perfectionists who literally delete everything they've ever written (or burn it, in the old days) and I want to shake them (or just save what they're throwing out). I've seen creative people give up on careers entirely and do something else where they can turn off the perfectionist bent because it doesn't matter. (Everyone has a choice, of course, but this still makes me sad.)
Being a perfectionist can also mean that you end up never starting. You sit down and you think about how great you want this to be, and then every sentence you imagine in your head doesn't live up to your imagined perfection (or your imagined painting or music or anything else) and so you shake your head and stand up and you keep trying for a while, but eventually you give up.
Being a perfectionist sometimes means that no matter how many people tell you that this is good, you don't believe them. Even if you get good reviews and you're published and making money, you don't consider yourself a true artist, you're a "hack" instead. Someone is always doing something better than you are, and you always compare your worst to their best.
I observe these tendencies in myself and others and all I can say is that we have to find a way to keep it in balance. We need that perfectionist tendency to strive for better every day and to make the creative leaps that people who don't take risks will never make. But we also can't let it destroy us.

Distracted Writer Life

I miss a lot of things as a writer. I suspect that no matter how many things you try to get to, to try to have a real life as a writer still, you will always miss things as a writer. And it's weird to make excuses sometimes because you know, I control my own schedule.
Why did I miss that important thing? Well, I was sitting at home, writing. Did I have a deadline? Well, sort of. It's not always like that. Sometimes there's a deadline imposed by other people. Sometimes the deadline is imposed only by need to get this story down, to finish this scene, to do right by this character who came to me and trusted me to get her voice right. It's not always a book that will ever be published. And yet, I'm still committed to the writing of it. Because I'm a writer and that's what I do. I sit down and write.
My kids laugh at me because they leave in the morning and I'm sitting on the couch, writing. When they come home from school, there I am, still writing. I DO leave the couch. I take a shower. I exercise. I get dishes and laundry done. I sometimes run errands if I can't avoid them.
But mostly I'm just doing those things with the rest of my body. My head is still writing, always writing. Always distracted, Always in another world. Always thinking about using dialog real people say in my book, or how to describe that expression or what that experience feels like from the inside.

Whose Opinion Matters

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.

No One Can Fix Your Book For You

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.

Reasons You Are Rejected By Agents

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?

Choices and Consequences

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.

Be Brave

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.

Shakespeare Should Have Written Less

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.