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?
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.
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.
I am having a day of doubt. You've probably had one of those days. You've probably had more than one of them. I know I have. But every time I have one, it hurts and makes me queasy as much as the ones before. And we forget so easily how many we've had, how often they come, and how necessary they are.
So today, I'm spending some time and looking back. Remembering those days in the past when I absolutely could not imagine what the future would look like, when I held so tightly to the present moment because I thought that my present then was the whole world. I didn't want to let go because I thought I couldn't let go, that I would fall, that there was nothing to catch me and nowhere to land.
And yet, I did land. I caught myself. I figured out how to make the future come and meet me. I learned that I am more flexible and more capable than I thought I was. And I learned that the future held great things for me, bigger and better than I thought possible at the time. I found that the reason I was having doubt was because I was becoming someone else and the old me was crumbling, not the whole world. I had to change because I didn't want what I had always wanted before.
So, if you're having a day of doubt, sit with me for a minute. Hold my hand. I don't like it, either. It's scary and I'm afraid and maybe we can just offer each other a promise that we'll be here until we're ready for what comes next, OK?
I got an email recently from a young person who wanted my advice on how to get published as soon as possible. And I shook my head a little, and then sighed, and remembered when I was that age, making it a New Years resolution every year to get published, and sure that when I was, I would finally feel like I had “made it,” that I had justified my existence to the universe, that people would take me seriously and that I would be treated like I felt I deserved to be treated by all those people who dismissed me.
Twenty-five years later, eight books published and another coming out in about a month, I think I would say this to my younger self:
1. Being published isn’t going to do what you think it will do. Most people will have never heard of your book. The others will still think it’s not important enough to treat you differently.
2. Being published isn’t something you earn by working hard. It’s something that happens organically, both when you’re good enough at writing and when you’re good enough at networking. Pushing the issue inevitably makes it take longer. The more anxious you are about it, the less likely you are to be working at the right thing.
3. The way to get the feeling of satisfaction in yourself and what you are doing isn’t through publication. It’s through finding work to do that has value.
4. We Americans in general are obsessed with getting results right now. We want to go on a diet and have lost weight by tomorrow. We want to start lifting weights and looked ripped in two weeks. These kinds of expectations end up backfiring and making us sacrifice the healthy habits that are long-term healthy for stupid short-term benefits. For writers, they lead us to signing contracts that are bad, giving up rights, taking a quick up-front payment, and publishing things that maybe should have been improved or shouldn’t have been published in the first place.
5. Writers aren’t writers because they’re published. If you’re a writer, you live life in a certain way. You write about life. Some writers write every day about everything. Some write when they feel pressed to. But it’s not a badge. It’s a way of living, seeing, breathing, interacting.
6. You publish a product. You don’t publish yourself. You will always be evolving and that’s a good thing. No book you publish will ever be perfect. You will always want to tinker with the end product. You will never think you really deserve what you get, either good or bad.
7. The best part of being a writer is finding other writers who are like you. This doesn’t require publication at all. You can find wonderful people around you who will inspire you and help you along your path right now. Don’t imagine that they have to be published in order to help you along.
8. You may have days you regret publishing one thing or another thing or regret ever being published at all. You may wish you had gotten a “real job” instead. That’s just part of the process. It’s messy.
9. You are never going to be happy with where you are. There will always be new goalposts, because that’s the way you think. There are always more and harder books to write. There are always things left to say, to get right.
10. Failure is part of the process, and not just because it leads you to success. Failure is part of a life spent trying, and if you can’t give yourself credit for failing, you’re going to struggle because there’s more failure than success and they don’t always feel connected. Just because you get through one failure doesn’t mean that you’re going to have success next. And no matter what the self-help books say, every failure isn’t taking you one step closer. It may or it may not.
Well maybe this isn’t the advice I would give to my younger self, after all. Maybe it’s the advice I need right now. My younger self probably wouldn’t be able to understand any of this. My younger self probably just needed to hear:
Keep at it. You’ll get there. You’re good enough. Working hard is all that matters.The nuances are perhaps best left to the older and wiser and more cynical—and more joyful. I refuse to take pleasure only in success. I refuse to only celebrate a book deal. I celebrate every day, every sentence, every word. I celebrate failure and I even celebrate doing nothing, regret, and bitterness. It’s all part of being a writer, even if it isn’t all part of being published.
1. You owe your publisher the courtesy of timely information. This means if you’re going to be late delivering a book, you try to give as much notice as you can. Which means giving updates to an editor about where you are in the revision process.
2. You owe your publisher your own efforts at self-promotion. This means if a publisher asks you to go to a local event and present there, you do it if at all possible. This does not mean that you have to pay for plane tickets and hotel to an event out of town your publisher wants you to do out of pocket. If you can do it, though, it would be nice.
3. You owe your publisher feedback. If you think the cover stinks, say so. If you’re having a problem with the copyeditor or with your main editor, say so. Be polite about it, and accept that it may not change because of you, but feedback is important on both sides. You need to be heard.
4. You owe your publisher what is written in your contract, such as a book 2 or a sequel. But if they reject it, you don’t owe them every book you write from now until eternity until they get one they like.
5. You owe your publisher an attempt at being a non-asshole in social situations. If you think you might have a problem with this, you might try asking your publicist and then humbly seeing if there is anything you can do about it. Like, um, practicing not saying whatever crosses your mind at the moment that you think it.
6. You owe your publisher some patience. This means don’t constantly harass your publisher about book sales or information about money. You can ask if you’d like and they may tell you or not.
7. You owe your publisher keeping silent about secret information if they ask you to keep silent about it. Then again, if you don’t, your publisher will simply stop sharing secret information with you, which also works.
8. You owe your publisher to give them the time frame in the contract to publish the book. You do not owe them more than that.
9. You owe your publisher talking to someone from another publisher about translation issues or about audiobook issues. Briefly and succinctly.
10. You owe your publisher your best work. That doesn’t mean that you owe your publisher your first born child, your health, or your marriage. That means the best work that you can do, under the circumstances. If you need more time, look at #1.
Other things you don’t owe your publisher:
1. The return of an advance if your book doesn’t sell out. In case you didn’t know this.
2. Apologies if your book didn’t sell out or didn’t do as well as expected. (In fact, it’s entirely possible that the publisher owes you an apology for this, but don’t expect that, either.)
3. Apologies if there are bad reviews. Trust me, there are always bad reviews.
4. A guarantee that you will continue to write for them on the same basic contract as always. You sold them one book on that contract. You do not have to sell them others if you choose not to. Make a decision based on all the factors (not just on advance $ offered) and then move forward with what is best for you. You are allowed to be self-interested to a certain level. This is a business.
5. The promise that you will continue to write in this series forever, or that you will write in the same genre forever. Some writers want to do this, and there are reasons it is beneficial to a career to do so. But you don’t have to. If you are the kind of writer who is always inspired by weird things and is interested in writing in just about every genre, you may simply not be suited to a career writing the same series or genre and that’s OK.
6. Your life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. If you need time off, your publisher may have to wait. Writers sometimes need time off for weird creative reasons that don’t make sense to noncreative types, but we are what we are. I’m not saying be a special snowflake here, but I AM saying that you shouldn’t go crazy trying to do what your publisher wants you to do.
7. Exhausting yourself or damaging your mental health. This has to do with offering your publisher information that matters, but if you simply can’t do certain events, if you suffer from massive social anxiety or you have a physical illness that means travel is nearly impossible, talk about this and make sure your publisher knows to use your time sparingly if at all.
8. Being on a social media platform because you think the publisher wants you to be on a social media platform. Honestly, it’s a nice thing, but it’s not a make it or break it thing. If you’re not comfortable there or it’s interfering with your writing schedule, don’t do it.
9. Taking crap from rude people, even if they are people from the publisher. But especially if they are other people, even if they are people who could help your book promotion efforts.
10. Your friendship. If you want to be friends with your publisher, great. If you don’t, that is also fine. I honestly do not think that this affects anything about your book. Your publisher’s job is to sell the book no matter what your personal relationship is.
11. A loan. If your publisher is struggling financially and asks for more time to pay your well-earned royalties, call your agent or a lawyer. It may not get you your money (which is probably gone by now), but make it clear you don’t consider this fair.
12. Undying loyalty. I’ve said it before. This is a business. If the publisher has changed or your editor has left, you are not obligated to stay if you are not happy with the new situation.
13. Information about your private life if you want to keep it hidden. This includes details about a divorce or a diagnosis. You may feel you should share this information at some point, but take your time. It’s all right if you need to process. But do warn people about not meeting deadlines even if you don’t explain why.
14. Not discussing your deal with other people negotiating with them. Unless you’ve signed something to that effect.
I was done. I was going to do something more meaningful and less painful with my life. I was going to get a "real" job and actually earn money and be treated with respect by people in the business I chose to work in. I was going to stop banging my head against the wall.
Except I had one more little book to write before I gave it all up. One book I was writing just for me. One book that no one cared about and no one would ever read because it was too controversial. I was going to do it while I still had the skills and still had the time. And then, that it was it. I was finished. My career was over.
The last book I wrote was The Bishop's Wife, which has turned out to be more successful than any of the other books I wrote and I do not think it is a coincidence that it was successful because I was giving up writing when I wrote it. I was giving up pressure to write for other people. I was giving up caring about whether I made money off it. I was giving up caring about making a career. I was giving up writing for any other reason than my own pleasure in self-expression.
There is a kind of freedom that comes when you give up writing that is creatively brilliant. I didn't realize how much I needed it. I thought I was writing just fine. I honestly did not see how much I was trying to cater to other people in my writing. I thought I could make compromises with commercial tastes and my art. I'd done it for years and it had worked in the beginning. I couldn't understand why it wasn't working anymore, and that's why I was giving it up.
Telling myself that no one would ever read this book, that it was just for me, that it would never be published because no one would want it--that gave me a safe space to write a book I could never have written otherwise. Telling myself that this wasn't a book that would make money gave me the courage to write something that people would and do hate (read my goodreads reviews if you doubt me).
So my advice today to writers out there is to give up. Do something else with your life. Stop banging your head against the wall. Get a real job. But write just one last book before you do that. One last book just for you. One book that no one else will ever read. One book that isn't for money and that will never be published.
See what happens. You may be surprised at what you write once you give it up.
- Do not read the jacket copy of your book.
- Do not read blurbs of your book or reviews of your book.
- Basically, don’t read anything, even something you have written about your book.
- Don’t spend your precious presentation time thanking people for help in getting to the publication of your book. This is not an awards ceremony. It is a promotional opportunity.
- Don’t apologize for not preparing something in advance and ramble.
- Don’t tell your life story (I’ve done this). Again, this is about your book, not about you. You can say a sentence or two about why you wrote this book, but that’s it.
- Don’t give some of your time to other presenters. Use it all yourself. Be selfish.
- Don’t apologize. And don’t spend the whole time talking about how long it has taken you to get published and how many books you wrote before this one.
- Don’t tell people you have copies of the book available to sell.
- Don’t say the name of your book title and your own name repeatedly. Once should be sufficient, especially if the information has already been written down for them to look at (which should happen).
- Don’t hold the book up in front of your face and talk behind it. You are not in fourth grade, giving a book report.
- Don’t eat or drink while talking.
- Don’t speak in the voice of a character from your book. You may think you are good at this, but just—don’t.
- Don’t curse in your presentation, even if there is cursing in your book and you feel it is “authentic.”
- Don’t dance or sing or otherwise ham up your presentation even if you dreamed something up in the bar the night before.
Now, what do you do?
- Practice. A lot. If you have a time limit, practice over and over again to make sure that you can keep within it easily.
- Look at the audience. You are a person, not a book.
- Speak your own words about the book. Give yourself a few points you want to get to.
- Pretend to be confident even if you are shaking like a leaf.
- If you get tongue-tied, just move on. Don’t waste time making a fuss about having said the wrong word.
- Stick to the time limit. Once the bell has sounded (or whatever), finish your sentence. Ideally, you would be finished before then, but don’t keep going just because you feel like you have more you want to say.
- Be courteous to other presenters. That means staying through all of the other presentations, even if you think you’re not interested.
- Say thank you to the organizers, either after you’ve finished or in an email later.
- Be available to talk to people after the event is over about your book if they have further questions. Sound interested in their questions and eager to talk. Don’t look or act like you have far more important things to do.
- Be prepared to be asked to do this all over again. It’s a compliment and you should take it as one. (Though if you’re simply not available, you are simply not available).
Writers, how many times have you pushed away an idea, thinking that you didn’t have time to get to it next? And then realized a year or so later that the universe gave that idea to someone else after you turned away (or possibly at the same time as some kind of cosmic challenge) and that person did a great job with it, and now you feel like it’s been done and you have nothing else to say? It is truly painful to realize that you gave up an opportunity.
Of course, as writers we do have limited time. We can’t write everything. And sometimes when we push away an idea, we do it because we are already doing our best with other ideas we are working with, and we are doing our best to choose the thing that we are uniquely suited to and that we are throwing our heart and soul into. There should be no regret in that.
The regret comes when you realize you were writing something trendy instead, or that you were letting someone else give you an idea instead of looking within—or listening to that little whisper in your head and your heart that told you to have a bigger vision, to be braver, to let yourself try something you might fail at.
You know what I mean, don’t you? You remember the times that you said, I can’t do that idea now because I’m not ready. I can’t do it now because I have to have better skills. I need a degree. I need to do research and I don’t want to do that right now. Or I can’t do it right now because I’m scared of telling that much truth of myself, of making myself that vulnerable.
Those are the real regrets of the writer’s heart. When you turn away in cowardice, not because you are genuinely doing the best you can with the limited resources we all have.
Please, writers, don’t push away an idea because you think you’re aren’t ready for it. Don’t reject some deep, unconscious need of your own because you are focused on a book you think will sell, or will make other people happy. It’s a cheat, and even if you do make money, be conscious of the regrets.
I’m not trying to say that you’re a bad writer if you have to put food on the table and you make a commercial choice for that reason. I get that. Sometimes that’s a reality of life. But maybe you can save an hour once a week then to work on the thing that is just for you? I think that writers and all creative types sometimes need to have a secret project they tell no one about because it’s too vulnerable and they need to keep it safe. But don’t keep it so safe that you never do it.
Don’t regret the books you didn’t write because you were afraid. In the end, you’re most afraid of yourself in this, and you’ll be chasing your tail if you try to run away from who you really are and what you can really do.