Author-Reader Trust: The Key To A Great Book

This weekend, I went to the library’s annual book sale. Most of the books I bought, I’d never heard of – but the synopsis looked interesting, or they dealt with topics/genres that I’m currently involved in. The only book I was curious about previously was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend + Short Stories. I like that many of Matheson’s stories are about being alone, which is relevant to my NaNo novel, and he’s just a classic pillar of sci-fi.

Anyway, the book I actually started reading was Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. Knox is revered as an elegant author and the series has supposedly decent world-building.

I’m 40 pages in and I’m constantly editing her prose in my head. On the very opening page (of a prologue -_-), I’m like “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TREES. This description is awful! You’re just throwing pretty words into a run-on sentence with places and other Proper Nouns that you haven’t defined!” About three paragraphs in, she brings in a sentence with a setting’s name, a main character, what they’re doing, and some intriguing aspect of their situation, and I’m like there. Why isn’t that your opening line? Everything that came before this doesn’t matter, and THIS is your good sentence.

I have this problem with a lot of books. In fact, it leads me to abandon many these days, and almost table-flip reading entirely. While I recognize that Knox writes like a professional, I find myself overly critical of her. Why? I’ve never even heard of her. All I know is her writing in this one book. And I’m not enjoying it.

It’s not just because I write fast-paced commercial fiction. I’ve also read slow, cerebral novels I’ve enjoyed enough (like Never Let Me Go) because what they lack in action they make up for in intrigue. And there have been some recent reads that my mental editor did not mind. As much as I disliked Hazel and Gus in The Fault In Our Stars, I never mentally edited Green’s prose.  I also enjoy House of Leaves – and so far, I can’t think of anything that I would change about it. Just when you think Mark is going on some tangent about nothing for three pages, his concluding paragraph relates it all together and you’re just like “AHHHH.”

What does this come down to, really? Why can I be patient when Dashner takes his time setting up questions in The Maze Runner, but I’m desperately waiting for Knox to spell out her world in Dreamhunter? Why do I give Mark Danielewski the benefit of the doubt during his tangents, but in other books, I would skim such rants? Why can I look past the poor prose of some novels if I enjoy the characters and story? It’s because for some unexplainable, astral reason, the ‘good’ authors are the ones who gained my trust. They successfully created enough of the fictional dream – the verisimilitude – for me not to care about what rules they break.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl. The first chapter is awful. It’s boring. It’s clunky. The prose tries way too hard, making you far too aware of the author. The narrator, Nick, is just whiny cardboard.

Then, the second chapter switches tenses, time, and narrators, and suddenly the book is interesting. I’m left wondering why this isn’t the opening chapter, because Amy’s voice is actually interesting. It’s natural. There is motion. I’m less doubtful of Gillian Flynn now. I trust her a bit more, because chapter two proved that she can write. And that’s why I keep reading.

I can’t pinpoint what makes me trust an author. In the end, I can’t say I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go or The Fault in Our Stars, but I did finish them. I finished them because the authors kept me gripped enough by….something. Some sense of trust and investment in them. So, one of my continued exercises is to figure out how readers can trust me. My main tool is a strong opening and an attempt at strong voice. I also try to be really direct. I want to give the sense that the world is deeper and broader than what is on the page, but I don’t want the reader to ask questions every second line.

In the end, you can’t please everyone. My father and my friend Greg both read Paradisa. Dad complained about the book in a very specific way – a way that made me realize he did not trust me. He questioned everything from line one, while Greg kicked his feet up and just ‘went’ with it. In the end, Greg understood the novel nearly as well as I do, and Dad was left lost and bitter about ‘the worst thing he’d ever read.’ How can one truly be ‘right’ if the other one exists?

I think we all have different expectations out of an author we trust, which is one of the primary influences on our ‘taste.’ It’s the reason we gawk at how some books were ever critically acclaimed. It’s the reason we sometimes enjoy stories that most of the population scorns. For whatever reason, those authors gained our trust, and I believe that’s the foundation for a subjectively great book.

Writing To Blog?

We have not had electricity at work this week because our plant is going through a shutdown. So, I haven’t had much focus or ability to post new entries on my blog. At home, I’ve been focused on my Gamora cosplay, which is actually turning out pretty well (I might devote one day a week, probably Fridays, to posting progress for anyone following the Gamora cosplay tag. Might help them build their own). I’ve been outlining the NaNoWriMo novel some too, which I have to ask myself some hard questions in order to finish. Like yesterday, I made a brainstormed list of “Why Are People Afraid of Death?” just to keep my themes straight and my plot propelled. Tough stuff, yo.

Anyway, today I propose a simple observation that’s cropped up in the past few weeks: when I don’t write, I don’t feel like blogging. Most of my blog entries spring from thoughts I’ve had on my writing journey – thoughts about the editing of my book, the beta process, the character development, outlining, marketing, etc. Every day I work on my book, I walk away with more questions. And even better, I walk away with more concrete awareness of my Personal Writing Philosophy, which I enjoy sharing.

I like to think that my blog covers topics that you don’t see much on writing blogs. For instance, I am not going to write entries about “How To Write A Hook” or “The Three Act Structure.” Not only have such topics been beaten into the ground by hundreds of bloggers before me, they’re also common knowledge. Or, at least, very accessible knowledge. Even more, it’s knowledge given by people with credibility, whereas I am still unpublished. The best I can give are my opinions and philosophy.

Instead, I cover topics like why writing full-time isn’t that obtainable, why I write with my mind instead of my emotions, why I never delete my work, and defending unpopular topics like present tense and book-to-film adaptations. None of this comes out of the blue. A lot of it comes from other people’s posts that spark ideas in me, and a great deal of it comes from working on my book.

I’ve been lax on Paradisa lately. It’s just such a massive revision, and it’s one that I have faith in, but that doesn’t make it easy. I have other artistic priorities tugging at me this month. I have another book I’m outlining. But I’ve noticed that the more I put off Paradisa, the more my blogging suffers. The less I have to say on here, because the less experience I’m having as a writer.

Do you feel the same way? Is your blogging interest directly proportional to your writing strides?

Adding Diversity To Your Story Correctly (Maybe. Sort of. Hopefully.)

I’ll start this one honest – I don’t know. I don’t know the right way to do it. We could type back and forth until our fingers ache about whether white people can accurately portray people of color, if it’s okay for straight women to write a gay male romance, if men know how to actually write women, or if it’s more ignorant to omit diversity entirely. These are tough topics with valuable arguments on each side. And while I’m not in a position to answer these debates,  I am in a position of writing diverse characters…so it’s something relevant to my work. I am still unsure about a lot of this, mind you, and this is one area of my writing philosophy that is constantly in flux.

Paradisa includes POC characters, a cast of about 50% women, a disabled character, a gay character, and a literal pantheon of pantheons. In addition to showing real minorities the respect they deserve, I have to present a few thousand years worth of revered gods and spirits in the proper light. In other words, I’m being very careful not to give all the glory to the “white world” deities. Gods from all faiths must show that they can be equally heroic, or toxic, as the next.

Here is my universal approach to diversity in fiction: Anyone can be a hero. It doesn’t matter your race, your age, your gender, your sexuality, or your health. It is important that minorities and women have characters they can look up to, relate to, and say “hey, she’s like me!” It’s important that POC aren’t cast as villains 90% of the time. It’s important that bisexual characters aren’t just portrayed as sluts. It is important that minority and female actors can find good starring roles in Hollywood, and not constantly be reduced to “the terrorist” or “the girlfriend.” It is important that women have stories of their own instead of stories that just prop up male characters. It’s also important that minorities and offbeat women are included in our societal standards of beauty.

And as an author – even a white, straight one – I feel a responsibility to contribute to this. Cause if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate problem.

One of my protagonists, Clara, is a 21-year old girl, half-Iranian and half-Irish. And yes, Clara’s journey does include some people thinking that she’s weaker for being a girl, and she does tackle a few Middle Eastern stereotypes. But for the most part, this is about representation only. What happens in this story to Clara is truly not dependent on her race or gender because it could happen to literally anyone. The important thing is that Clara’s diversity is simply evident, and that she proves heroism is not defined by your appearance or heritage. I try to do the same with Connor, whose attitudes, heroism, personality, and choices are the important parts of his character. These may be influenced by the disadvantages his skin color or sexuality have impacted upon his life and shaped his perspective, but that’s background stuff. Much like I do not walk around thinking how my experience as a woman has shaped my every bias, Connor doesn’t contemplate it either. Like any person, he simply is who he is.

SHOULD I write POC characters like Connor and Clara if I am white? Is mere representation enough when that representation is glossed by a situation that doesn’t entertain the struggles of race and sexuality? Well, I don’t know for sure. All I know is that I’d rather be critiqued for doing diversity wrong than for whitewashing the world. And in my case, I think the diversity errors would be rather subtle, and would perhaps be described as “your characters get through life as white straight people do. They don’t encounter enough of the challenges that real POC/gay people do.”

That being said, I’m careful not to overstep boundaries….because if you go too far in the other direction, then you get too close to home. I would be very, very bad at writing a book like Push (the movie version was Precious). A story about the minority experience, which is meant to represent true-to-life struggles, would be inappropriate for me. I feel like if a man tried to write a story about a princess who learns to ride dragons and save her kingdom, because ~*Girl Power*~, fine. If he decides to write about a woman who deals with sexual harassment and the wage gap at the workplace…maybe not. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. It has been done, and done well. But often, quality can’t save you from everything. People still debate whether it was Tarantino’s place to write Django Unchained. Even people who think it was a good film are sometimes uncomfortable with the idea that a white dude made it.

I would not feel comfortable tackling that. I would not feel comfortable writing about, say, a gay teen’s struggle with coming out to his parents. I barely feel comfortable writing from the POV of an anorexic character in my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel. Yes, I know we write about things we haven’t experienced all the time – what it feels like to get your arm cut off, for instance. Or how it feels to be in a car accident. How it feels to have a loved one die. But those things still could happen to us, and we could consider what we’d do in that situation. I cannot be a man, or black, or gay. Try as I might to truly empathize, to truly put myself in those shoes, I cannot. I cannot turn off the privileges and disadvantages I’ve carried in my perception for my entire life. I can recognize the bias, but that does not mean I can accurately see through it. Additionally, misrepresenting something like a broken bone does not harm anyone. Misrepresenting the life of a minority would bring me great shame.

It’s also important to make diversity feel natural…which brings me to Cassandra Clare. Just about every character in the Shadowhunter universe has some element of diversity. There’s a part-Indonesian part-Dutch bisexual warlock. One of the main Shadowhunters is gay. The protagonist is a redheaded female.   Jewish. Another is biracial. I’m sure at least one of her characters is overweight/curvy/something promoting body positivity.

But something bothers me about Cassandra Clare, aside from the whole fan fiction plagiarism thing that I will never let go. Her diversity feels forced.  Arbitrary. It feels like she’s trying to be cool and edgy by making every character diverse to the point of being, frankly, unrealistic (which is pretty darn hard to do when you’re writing about NEW YORK). It’s like for every character, Cassandra reaches into her “hat of diverse traits”, pulls out at least two, and smashes them together. But I think the real issue I have is that she flippantly writes about social issues like racism, coming out, slut shaming, etc, from the perspectives of her diverse characters….and it all comes off rather tacky and cliche. Very close to the “overstepping your boundaries” thing I mentioned earlier.

A  final point – invisible representation does not count. No one cares about finding out Dumbledore was gay after the fact. If a tree fell in the woods, and all. Mostly, I’ve  encountered this in Artemis Fowl. In Holly Short’s opening description, her skin is mentioned as brown. For the next eight books, her skin color is never mentioned again. For that, most readers assume she’s white. This is a really common problem, actually, like when people who read The Hunger Games thought Rue was white for some reason (I’m not even getting into Katniss’s race. That’s murky. Rue is specifically described as having dark skin). You almost have to beat people on the head with your character’s lesser-represented elements in order for them to truly absorb that the character they’re reading is not “white/straight by default.” I blame readers for this more than I blame the author…but as authors, we should be aware. Make this stuff visible.

So in summary, my philosophy (again) is 1) representation matters above all else, 2) don’t overstep your boundaries, 3) don’t make it arbitrary, and 4) make it visible. I’m not sure if this is a functional philosophy yet. It’s still a work in progress and I’m sure it’s flawed. When it comes down to it, we’re all problematic. But the world is a diverse place and your book should be too.

You Don’t Need To Write Every Day – Just BE A Writer

Yesterday, I was a bad writer. Since Saturday, I’ve been logging 1000+ words into Draft Five each day, but I failed to write anything on Tuesday. My evening was instead spent in a movie theater, seeing The Maze Runner (side rant: it was really awesome and I have lots to say about it, but if you’re curious, you can ask me in the comments. I will remain spoiler free).

Anyway, I think it’s important to remind myself, and ya’ll, that being a writer is not just about how many words you log daily. There’s a lot more to the process. It’s not about writing everyday as much as it’s about BEING a writer everyday, and thinking like a writer. And perhaps engaging in one of the following 10 activities –

1. Reading. Not only does reading develop your vocabulary and grammar, but it can offer a wide variety of other tools. Read within your genre to get a sense of tropes and commonalities – stuff that’s both cliché and necessary to sell your book. Read books about writing to gain a better grasp on your craft. Read the classics to get a good sense of language – the masters of old may be telling boring stories, but they’re lyrical wordsmiths. Read “fad books” to see what the world is devouring, and try to figure out why. And then maybe do the opposite. After all, Twilight is the anti-Harry Potter and Hunger Games is the anti-Twilight.

2. Watch movies – the good and the bad. Yup, I’m going to advocate for movies again. Movies are still stories. They tell of characters who struggle against an opposition. Movies tend to spawn some really memorable characters, in part because of the actors who portray them (Heath Ledger’s Joker is the only Joker that matters to me), but also because of brilliant writing. Movies also tend to add surprise endings more so than books, so that can be inspiring as well. Equally, watching a bad movie is a lot easier than getting through a bad book. You can bring your friends over and heckle. It usually lasts less than two hours. And it’ll show you what *not* to do in your story. (as a side note, I don’t really advocate TV viewing. It’s just too far removed in format from a novel. You can still learn stuff about character, but a lot of TV shows have filler B-plots or an episode-of-the-week format that doesn’t lend itself well to fiction writing.)

3. Research. No matter what kind of book you’re writing, you’re going to be writing about something you don’t know. It might be minor details, or research could form the backbone of your entire novel. I think research can be as inspiring as it is useful.

4. Plotting/Outlining. This one is a given. I think prep work is just as important as prose. Giving yourself a good sketch of your characters and a solid pathway will save you loads of time down the road. Be careful in overplanning though. Don’t plan every detail of a world you haven’t even written in yet, and don’t nitpick every character detail. You will learn more about your characters as you write them. Most details I write into my book are on an “as needed” basis. Like “oh, I want them to encounter a Babylonian god here. Better open Wikipedia and pick one.”

5. Listening to music. Kind of random, but this always inspires me. I like making playlists for my characters and designing a mental soundtrack for my book. I’ve come up with most of my ideas for big scenes while listening to music.

6. Making art. Again, sort of random, but this often inspires me. Creating some headers/faux book covers/fake trailers jumpstarts my creativity if I’ve been away from writing for a while.

7. Observing. How will we know how real people behave, how the real world functions, if we spend all of it inside writing? ;) I’m an introvert, so being social isn’t natural to me. But the more social we are, the more likely we are to meet some really fascinating characters out there. They could even be people who can help us on our way to publication (“hey, my sister-in-law is a literary agent”).

8. Editing/Revising. This is, quite honestly, how I spend most of my time now. A lot of revision IS writing new scenes, but most of it is rearranging old stuff to fit into my new outline. And quite obviously, this is a necessary step whenever you’re developing a book.

9. Researching the industry. Reading tips about query letters, researching agents in your genre, etc – or if you’re self-publishing, researching e-book platforms and indie promotion sites – may be premature. But that info will still be useful someday.

10. Visiting a critique group. Taking a night off to have drinks with your local writer’s group, assuming you’ve found a good one, can be a really strong use of your time. Bring some flash fiction or a short story, or even the first five pages of your novel, and hash it out with some fresh eyes.

Don’t get me wrong – it IS important to write frequently, and you shouldn’t use these 10 options above as a way to stall. The worst novelist is one who just talks about writing books instead of actually writing them. But we all wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes, or we go home with a skullsplitting headache, or time slips through our fingers before we can even say “9 PM!” If that’s the case, put the writing aside and spend your time on the above instead. You might not be writing that night, but you can still feel like a writer.

Writing About Your Hometown

Stephen King writes about sleepy New England towns. Candace Bushnell writes about New York. Audrey Niffenegger wrote about Chicago. And the bestselling authors I’ve shared a zip code with – Bret Lott and Sue Monk Kidd – write about Charleston. When writers “write what they know,” setting is often the first thing they zoom to.

On the other hand, Robert Jordan lived in Charleston all his life, but The Wheel of Time didn’t involve Rainbow Row. Between Lott and Jordan, I’m the latter. Not just because I’m a fantasy author, but because there’s something awkward about setting my books in Charleston. It feels too personal, too self-inserty, especially because my characters can be very different from me. They could experience a side of the city that I’ve never seen. I have enough friends and coworkers to know that Charleston is what you make of it, and you can find any adventure you wish to have. Charleston can be the setting of a cozy, beachy romance, or it can be the setting of late-night college hijinks.

(Personally, I’d like to see the wild side of Charleston in books/movies. Nicholas Sparks does not have a monopoly on this town! Then again, I guess that’s what Southern Charm is, and we all wish that show would go away.)

I feel like I simultaneously know Charleston very well and not enough. I don’t know Charleston as much as I know “Michelle’s Charleston,” a subjectivity that does not lend itself well to setting. Plus, I think it would be distracting for my local beta readers, the same way it is for actors to watch themselves in movies.

At the same time, I am tempted to start off Paradisa in Charleston for one perfect reason – Clara. Clara is an engineering student. She is the daughter of a retired Marine commander. Her brother Connor was a Navy SEAL. The girl has soldier veins, yet I don’t want to put her in the military. I want her to be technical minded with mere undertones of that gung-ho spirit.

The only engineering school in Charleston is The Citadel.

It would be the perfect school for her to go to, and it would give her character an excuse for resilience that she sorely needs. She could have that soldier spirit instilled in her while still being the “smart” one, and not being hampered by actual military service. After college, she could become an officer, or she could leave the military life behind. She hasn’t chosen which, and that internal struggle could be a subplot. Simply changing the setting to Charleston would solve so much of Clara’s character that I can’t resist. Plus, since Connor is a chef, it’s more believable that he could eek out a bearable living at one of our award-winning restaurants downtown.

Connor and Clara’s hometown is mostly irrelevant because they leave it in Chapter Two. I think my knowledge of Charleston does more good than harm in this case. But I could never set an entire book here. Making a few references to street names and schools in the opening chapter is one thing, but navigating my characters through the Peninsula for 300 pages would grind my nerves. I’d be so worried about getting minute details wrong, or presenting my town in some incorrect or negative light. It’s funny how I don’t have that problem when writing about places I’ve never even been, but maybe my attachment to Charleston means I handle its presentation with extra care.

Do you enjoy writing about your hometown, or do you prefer to play in a setting that’s foreign to you?

In Defense of Present Tense

Most defenders of the present tense say “it makes things more immediate” or “it makes the story more suspenseful.” Those are fine reasons, but they’re not mine. I could give a hoot about whether the story happened or is happening. As a reader, I don’t care. On the first page, I want an author to 1) show me someone interesting, 2) doing something interesting, and 3) write it well.

Reason #3 is why I write in present tense – it makes me a better writer. When I write in past, my mental mouth is full of cotton. It’s garbled, it’s clunky, I use too many words. Present tense cuts through the noise and modifiers.

Present tense is just “real” tense. Some say “I don’t like when present tense slips into past, it’s jarring!” Sometimes that’s a legit mistake, but sometimes it’s necessary. If your characters are working in the present, that means they still have a past. Like real people, your characters can have a ‘now’ and a ‘then.’ If you’re flashing back to their childhood, or even earlier in the story, you almost need to weave in past tense.

I can also show character growth by working in this “real” tense. In an early draft of Paradisa, my characters Clara and Hephaestus become instant friends upon meeting. In the first half of the story, the narrator explains that “Clara trusts Hephaestus.”

Later in the story, after Hephaestus betrays Clara’s feelings, the narrator explains that “Clara trusted Hephaestus.”

That distinction is much more profound when you start in the present and can play with some past tense verbs. If your whole story is in past tense, the best you could say is “trusted” and “had trusted”….and I have a personal aversion to putting “had” in front of any verb.

It’s not the tense and it’s not a gimmick – maybe it’s just bad writing. Those who turn their nose up at present tense often construct paragraphs like the following, in order to show how staccato and unnatural it is –

  • Anna crosses the room and opens the door. She looks out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She goes to the mailbox and grabs her mail, then goes back inside. She hears the phone ring. She picks it up.

Yeah, I’d roll my eyes at that too. That paragraph isn’t bad because it’s present tense. It’s bad because it’s poorly written! If you read the same paragraph in past tense –

  • Anna crossed the room and opened the door. She looked out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She went to the mailbox and grabbed her mail, then went back inside. She heard the phone ring. She picked it up.

– it’s almost equally abysmal. The past tense does make this piece of drivel a little more tolerable, but should past tense be desirable because it masks bad writing? Or perhaps, present tense is just harder to convey effectively. The first paragraph sounds distinctly like someone is giving you a play-by-play, because that’s what you get when present tense is butchered. The second just sounds like a weak narrator.

Play with psychic distance. But it’s also very obvious that the second paragraph was converted from present to past. Many authors think differently when they’re writing in present tense, and therefore they write differently. This is largely due to psychic distance. When you’re new to present tense, it’s easy to set your psychic distance over-the-shoulder for the entire story. Don’t do that. Remember you can still get inside a character’s head, or step very far back into the corner of the room. You can reflect on what a character is thinking and feeling, not just what they’re doing. You can also reflect on previous feelings and future worries. It doesn’t have to be constant “right here, right now, action.” The story world is still your three-dimensional oyster, in both time and space.

I’m no expert, but here’s a paragraph from Paradisa. I think it’s a decent example of how to avoid the play-by-play mistake of my “Anna” paragraph, mostly because I avoid standing over Connor’s shoulder moment-by-moment. (A little ironically, I also managed to talk about the past here while still using the present. But if I did it this way too many times, I think it would get tiresome.)

  • He doesn’t remember the moment of impact. Just before – listening to his younger sister prattle about her thermodynamics homework – and after – airbags exploding like popcorn, lap belts clinging, their car spinning with a screech. Now Connor stands outside the wreckage, somehow, unable to recall jumping out.Night swallows the edges of his swarthy silhouette. Before it makes him disappear, Connor’s words regain decibels.

Point of view matters. Finally, we should acknowledge that Third Person and First Person make a big difference.

First-person present can fall into the play-by-play ditch or it can be flawlessly conversational. In order to achieve FPP, your character needs a good voice. A boring character talking about their day – “I pick up the phone. It’s my best friend, Jenny. She asks me if Johnny is going to the football game tonight” – is an awkward snooze. But if your narrator is Holden Caulfield – “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – the tense is invisible.

Third-person present is my favorite way to write. To me, just write it like you would past tense. My thought/creative process doesn’t shift with either. The present tense just allows me to say what I would in past, except more succinct and rhythmic.

So, that’s my weird rant on present tense. Of course it can be done poorly, but I’m sick of the detractors using poor writing as examples of why present tense fails. Like anything, it just depends on how you use it!

Style Errors That Make Me Say AAARGH!

Some grammar rules, like discouragement about starting sentences with “And”, are so last century. Others, like dangling participles, are invisible to the average person. Even writers aren’t too bothered if they’re used outside of fiction or journalism. I’ve never scoffed at someone’s  Facebook post because they used a dangling participle.

And others, like misuse of homophones, cause such universal revulsion that we jump to assumptions about the error-maker. “What an ignorant buffoon! Who could confuse your and you’re!?”

I’ll admit that homophone butchering, when repeatedly committed by the same person (we all make a few late-night mobile typos), bothers me. But there are some grammar and style conventions that, when ignored, really make my skin crawl. Honestly, if I see them in a published novel, I will wonder if the editor was on a mental vacation.

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Beating The Publishing Odds

1 in 1000.

That’s a commonly cited rate for an author’s odds of publication.

But those odds don’t scare me. I’ve already beaten those odds. I’ve been the 1 in 1000 before. I’ve actually been the 1 in 50,000 before. Chances are, you have too. Everyone has had something extremely unlikely happen to them, something monumentally unusual (my dad survived a place crash when he was 19. I like flying with him because the odds of him experiencing that twice in his life are astronomical). Everyone has accomplished something despite life being stacked against them.

I got into my NASA internship by the skin of my teeth. Sure, I had a good teacher recommendation, which probably helped me get into the top 50 candidates (out of about 1500, I’ve heard). But the SC Space Grant can only send 6 people per year to NASA internships. It doesn’t matter if NASA program wants you if SC’s funding runs out.  And by the end of March 2012, when I was selected, all six slots had filled.

Literally fifteen minutes before Marshall called SC Space Grant to request me, one of the slots freed up. A Citadel student revoked his acceptance. I was pulled out of Physical Chemistry to chat with the Space Grant ladies upstairs, who told me I had to make the choice immediately. If I didn’t take this slot, another student would probably be summoned by one of the Academies to replace it. Some luck, huh?

As for the 1 out of 50,000, I placed 2nd in a pool of 100,000 students when I was in 7th grade. I had the 2nd highest score on some national math competition. I still think that was a fluke, and just a result of daily practice (thanks Mr. Derrick), but hey, I’ve still got the plaque. (I also think that I may have that ratio wrong, but I’m going with the “odds of placing 1st or 2nd in a pool of 100,000” line of thinking. Which I suppose would be 1 to 50,000. As you can see, I was better at math when I was 12 :P)

Let’s also consider that the odds of getting a novel published, for skilled writers who actually know their craft, is not far off from the odds of getting a job any other field. I’ve heard that “1 in 20” is the magic ratio for “full requests per group of queries.” If you send out 20 queries, at least one agent should request a full….and that’s how you know you’re on the right track and have a publishable book. After 50-100 queries, a marketable author should have an offer of representation.

I’m amused to say that those odds are identical to how my chemistry job search went after college. My odds were almost consistently  “1 interview per 20 job applications.” By the end of my 5 month search, I submitted about 60 applications. I ended up with three interviews, two of which turned into job offers.

They want you to believe that publishing is competative…and it sure is. But so is everything else! No one approached me and threw dollar bills at me to be a chemist. I had to bust my butt to find a job, particularly because chemistry is a scarce field in my town. There are maybe two dozen chemists in Charleston who aren’t Ph.D professors or managers. And you can bet that The Citadel, CofC, and CSU all graduate a few dozen chem majors every year. I certainly beat the odds and came out on top in this field….so why not writing too? All I have to do is be as marketable an author as I was a chemist. ;)

Don’t get it right, just get it written.

The title of today’s entry is one of my favorite quotes about writing (credited to James Thurber, author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”). It’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow if you’re trying to overcome ‘writer’s block.’

As a plotter, traditional writer’s block is virtually nonexistent for me. I almost never wonder what to write about next, or where the story should go. The road is already paved for me – I just have to walk it.

So, the only two things that ever prevent me from getting out words are 1) laziness and 2) lack of confidence.

The laziness is pretty easy to fix, although I’ve been perpetually tired and sickly the past couple weeks. I’ve still managed to push out at least a few sentences every day…and hey, if I keep doing that, I’ll eventually have a book, right? I can cure laziness with a nap, or listening to music to jazz myself up. Or I read some encouraging beta feedback, which gets me hyped to finish the next iteration of this book. Getting motivated is often a result of made-up deadlines that I don’t want to miss, or the simple thought of someone reading (and enjoying) the finished product.

Overcoming a lack of confidence is far more difficult. I repeat Thurber’s quote to myself like a mantra when my fingers stall. “Don’t get it right, just get it written. Black on white. Get black on white.”

It helps. I have  to repeat it to myself a lot, like every day I sludge through chapter seven, hating my voice, hating my lack of inspiration, hating the pointless dialogue and redundant movement expressions and utter lack of creative juices, and at a loss about this new segment of my story world I’m venturing into.  I know it’s just for this road block. I’m not burned out on the entire story, but this one piece is just like banging my head on the desk. And you may say “Michelle, if you hate writing this part so much, what makes you think anyone will want to read it? Isn’t that a sign that you should cut it?”

Not always. Truly, some of the best scenes are the hardest to write (more on that tomorrow. I abhor writing action, and it usually takes me weeks to do it, but action scenes are the most complimented part of my writing). Additionally, if I force out a crappy scene, it’ll be way easier to rewrite or edit that scene than to keep staring at a blank page waiting for magic to happen. And a lot of times, I go back and  think, “hey, this scene really isn’t that bad.” Writing it takes ten times more mental energy than normal, like I’m barely staying afloat…but I am staying afloat.

Mostly, writing new places in my book trips me up. In my outline, I express my plot at length, but I do no service to physical descriptions or mechanics of setting. In this fifth draft, I’m taking my characters to a location I’ve never taken them to before, and figuring out how to describe such a place is the number one culprit.

So perhaps I should meditate on it. And for next time, for the next book, in outlines soon to come, I will be sure to give new settings more attention. For now, I’m just trying to get it written, so later I can get it right.

Writing With Heart or Mind?

I’m a pisces, but I only inherited the creative flake side of that zodiac sign. I did not inherit the over-emotional weepy side, or much semblance of emotional depth at all. I’m logic-oriented, which strikes most people as being cold, aloof, or even clueless about human interaction. For example, people wonder how I could consider something like a pre-nup, or why I always add the “if we broke up” caveat when I talk about my relationship. To an emotional person, my caution to trust my finances and future with my partner of four years means that “I don’t really love/trust him.”

Bollocks. It’s got nothing to do with love or trust. When I consider marriage, all I see is the 50% fail rate. Both my parents have been divorced twice and I’m not naive enough to think it can’t happen to me.  But with all aspects of my life, I always have a Plan B. I don’t trust life to go right the first time. And because I hold others to high standards when it comes to their life choices (as in, not making dumb mistakes), I expect myself to do the same.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well, my logical objectivist mind doesn’t seem like a great conduit for creativity, does it? As I said yesterday, empathy is necessary for an author. To make readers have an emotional response, we must know how that response should feel. We must know what makes US feel that response. What makes us cry? What makes us angry? What makes us feel beauty?

I struggle with this sometimes. It’s not my nature to write from the heart. I write a web of plot from my mind. My characters are designed logically, featuring personality traits meant to manipulate the audience into liking and relating to them. I do try to create high emotional climaxes, as well as emotional depth in my characters, but it often misses the mark. Either betas don’t “get” that I was going for their heartstrings, or I made the characters emotional to the point of being whiny.

But emotions do inspire me. They might not result in full-length books, but they do result in ideas. My revulsion upon visiting Space X, and my fear for any future astronaut friends, is what inspired me to write my short story Goliath. When I was in a long-distance relationship, I wanted to write a story about longing. About being in a relationship that was very far apart, but perhaps not by physical distance (this turned into a plot bunny where one member of the couple slowly goes blind over the course of their life. The eventual lack of shared sight becomes a distance that creates longing). Fear is one of my most powerful emotions to draw from, because fear and anxiety are the two emotions of which I’m most capable. I rarely get angry or ecstatic. I rarely get melancholy. But I’m a worrier. And it’s the things I worry about that inspire pretty good stories for me. Many of my story ideas have a sense of “uhgh, hope that never happens to me…”

And don’t underestimate the emotion of caring. I love the projects I work on. I care about them deeply. That’s certainly an emotion, and I hope it’s obvious that my book is a labor of love. Perhaps it’s not an overt emotion on the page, but that love is subtext beneath the print. Most of my favorite works of fiction have an obvious amount of love put into them (Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent example) and it’s amazing how much quality that gives a story.

So I don’t think you need to be a bleeding heart in order to write good stories. If you have enough emotion to care about what you’re writing, that’s all the reader will see in the end.