There are a lot of ways to change the world, and I would certainly not want to say that one is the only way or the best way. But I am going to say that I think writing and publishing is a valid, enduring way of changing the world.
I have come to believe that many of the worst evils in the world are caused by thinking that “we” are, in fact, “us” and “them.” We make these binary systems up because they are easy, and then we read and experience so many stories that confirm them.
Germans vs. Allies in WWII
Men vs. Women in many romantic comedies
Straight vs. Gay
Religious vs. Atheist
Americans vs. Everyone else
But the best books, in my experience, are the ones that force us to see the world from the point of view of the “other.” They make us give up our old ideologies and make new ones that are more inclusive.
No, writing a novel isn’t going to end a war today or tomorrow. Probably.
But writing a novel might end the wars that will happen in another generation. It will change the hearts and minds of the future. It might not stop people from thinking in terms of a binary, but it might make them give up some of the old categories. It might make them think twice before creating new ones.
Writing a novel is the act of making a world. And if you can make a world where we see each other more truly, you are fighting injustice. If you make a world where heroes are not of one color, you are changing the soldiers of tomorrow. If you make a world where women have the same opportunities as men, where men and women work together and have equal parts to play, you are expanding the world that your daughters and sons will live in.
And that, to me, is enough. That will mean my work has done its part.
Picture book people! I’ve been asked multiple times to get a picture book conference going, and now we have one! On August 30, Jodell Sadler, an agent who is interested in finding picture book clients, will be at our Sundance One Day Writing Retreat.
“Think of yourself as an artist. Knowing your craft is essential, but you’re not a barrel maker. You’re not a framer. You’re not hammering little cabinets together. You’re a fucking artist, so take risks everyday. You weren’t put on this planet to follow rules.”—Jim Ruland (via mttbll)
1. People overthink queries. Okay, so they are the only thing that an agent or editor might ever see of your work. So they have to embody everything about your personality and your books personality in a single page. So you will get absolutely nowhere if your queries suck, no matter if you’ve…
I am a cautious person by nature. When I was a kid, my cousins had a trampoline in their backyard. One day, they got out a full-sized ladder and set it up next to the trampoline. Everyone climbed the ladder and then jumped onto the trampoline. It looked like fun. So I tried it.
I got to the top of the ladder and I looked down and I realized how far it was from the ladder to the trampoline and I couldn’t do it. So I climbed back down the ladder to the annoyance of everyone who was waiting below me who knew it would have been faster for me to just jump.
A second time, I climbed up the ladder after watching even tiny kids jump. I couldn’t do it again. I climbed back down.
The third time I went up the ladder, I stood at the top and was frozen. I couldn’t climb back down the ladder, either. I couldn’t move. Everyone was angry with me. They shouted at me about being a chicken. I could live with being called a chicken. What I couldn’t do was jump off that ladder.
Finally, someone started shaking the ladder in an effort to get me to either fish or cut bait, as they say. In fact, neither happened. I lost my balance at the top and instead of jumping in a controlled fashion toward the center of the trampoline, I hit the hard metal bands around the side of the trampoline and was knocked unconscious.
Some time later, I woke up in my aunt’s bed. She was terrified. She apologized again and again for the stupid ladder game. She promised me and my mother, who had arrived to pick me up and take me home, that no one would ever play that dangerous game again. She apologized also that I’d been shaken off the ladder.
The after-effects of this are that I am a bit queasy when it comes to ladders. Trampolines don’t bother me as much, but I’ve never had one in my backyard as a mother myself.
What does this have to do with the writing life?
Well, writing is a lot like standing on the top of that ladder. Sending something into an agent or an editor is like jumping off and hoping that when you land, you bounce in the middle of the trampoline and not hit the metal bands. It seems a really stupid thing to do, writing a book and asking someone to publish it. The risks are HUGE, and the returns seem tiny, even if you are lucky enough to get published eventually.
But eventually you have to jump. No one can do it for you. You can’t really wait for someone to push you off (and believe me, you don’t want to).
There are several seconds of free fall that are glorious. You can think about all the possibilities. You might make millions. You might be lauded by generations of college professors as the new Shakespeare. You might make enough to pay for the new computer program you bought.
And then you land. And it hurts. You think that you never want to do that again.
But you do. You get back on the computer and you write another book. And another one. You keep jumping. And why do you do it? Why do you take the kind of risks that other people can’t imagine taking? Why do you put your ego on the line every single time?
Because you’re a writer. And being a writer is as much about jumping as it is about the free fall and the landing. Take heart. We’re all falling, slow or fast. We’re all going to hit the ground hard. And we’re all going to try it again.
They’ll talk about diversity and anti-racism, but will interpret people pointing out whiteness and straightness as an insult rather than a fact. They’ll see it as an attack, because they’re used to comfy invisibility-as-default. They’ll praise “colorblindness” as though it’s something to aspire to. “Colorblindness” as an ideal has been criticized at length by many, many smart people—let’s listen. Don’t strive to make the marginalized invisible; strive to make the privileged visible.
It’ll make people uncomfortable. Trust me. They’ll live. The least the privileged can do is be aware of it.
Notice. Again and again and again, until it drives you to frustration because it’s everywhere. Until it drives others to frustration because they’re starting to notice, too, and now they can’t stop either.
Do not allow the barrage of majority narratives to pass unremarked upon.
So you’re a writer and you have a demanding day job, or you have a family that needs you a lot of the time. You have lots of other commitments to your time. The PTA wants you to help them. You’ve got homework to deal with. Maybe you have an ill parent you are caring for. And your own health to worry about. I understand.
But if you want to write a book, you need to work on it as often as possible. Yes, there are people who write books in one week on vacation. There are people who write only on Saturday nights for a couple of hours. Somehow these people manage to write books and I’m not going to say they’re doing it wrong. But for most writers, writing is a regular thing.
I know people have said it before, but if you write 500 words a day every day, you end up with 100,000 words, likely a full novel’s worth, in 200 days. This is real. I have seen people do this, people who believed they did not have time to write a novel in their busy lives. It took them about 30 minutes a day.
But a key to this strategy is staying connected to your work. I think writing 500 words a day every other day might work. Every third day probably won’t. And once a week, no. Because you’re going to spend most of your time every week getting back in touch with the story, remembering who the main character is, rereading parts that you’ve forgotten about, and thinking about what is the best next step.
Even if you only write one sentence a day, you will stay more connected to your book. Even if you only reread what you wrote the day before, you will stay connected with the story. Your subconscious will work on the story for you, the rest of the day, if you remind it often that this story matters.
So don’t tell yourself you’re going to sit down next week and write 10 chapters. Or 30,000 words because you have a week off. Tell yourself you’re going to write just a little bit today. You will find yourself putting it off less if it feels like it’s less daunting. I mean, who can’t write another sentence in the book? You’ve got twenty four hours to think about what the next sentence will be.
But you know what will probably happen? Most days, you will probably find that you have more than a sentence to write. And if you don’t, if you’re writing for 5 minutes right before you crash into bed, and all you get is that one sentence, you’re ahead of the game. You’ve got that one sentence, plus you’re staying connected to your work. And that matters. It really does.
There are times when we don’t write. Sometimes there are touring dates and sometimes you’re letting your mind lie fallow. There are times when you have what I call life block and it’s not a good time to write. But be realistic with yourself and decide if the level of craziness you’re currently dealing with is really just the normal. And if it is, figure out how you can work around it and still do your work.
I think it’s easy to imagine, when you have worked really hard over a long period of time and suffered many disappointments, only to finally have the success that you’ve always dreamed of—that you are the author of your own success. *I deserve this!* It’s what you thought you would say when you started out on this path.
When you decide to be a writer, you don’t dream and hope for living in an attic, starving to death, writing a few pages here and there at midnight when everyone else working at your crappy job is asleep already. You think about the money rolling in, movies being made of your books. You plan out in your head elaborate launch parties, and what you will say to those people in high school who shunned you. Or how your parents will tell you that you were right all along, and it’s a good thing you didn’t listen to them when they told you to get a more practical, “real” job.
And maybe that all happens. If it happens to you sooner rather than later, I think you are more likely to think that you caused all the good stuff to happen. And I would say that’s a very sad result.
Because the longer I have been in the writing business, the more I see that there are a lot of writers who are just as talented or more so than the ones who get the fame and the big movie deals. There are no guarantees. You work hard and you write work that you really care about, but there are plenty of other people doing the same thing.
What makes the difference between the ones who really break out and make it onto the NYT Bestseller list? Is it pure writing skill? Genius? A talent nurtured from birth? A good education? Brilliant ideas? The willingness to keep trying again and again?
Sorry. It’s none of those.
It’s luck, pure and simple. I don’t think it’s false humility for me to say this.
I don’t think that luck tends to hit as many people who don’t work hard as it does those that do. But I wouldn’t bet my life on the outcome if someone wanted to go gather statitistics.
I’m not saying that people who make it big don’t deserve it, though it’s entirely possible that sometimes they don’t. I’m just saying that there’s no difference between the ones who do make it and the ones who did other than sheer luck. And when I say sheer luck, I include in that the thing that makes people connect to one author or one piece of work rather than another one.
There’s a Zeitgeist that is real, and when you hit it just right, good for you. But it’s not because you were smarter than other people. And it’s not because you’re nicer or kinder or simply more talented. It’s luck. It’s something out of your control and out of the control of the people who would like to have the success that you do.
Your work is great. It deserves to be studied in classes in six hundred years from now. But maybe someone else’s deserves that just as much. And maybe your books won’t be studied because you ticked off a certain professor of English at a certain college who turns out to have just enough power to get you taken off lists one year at that college and by a weird series of coincidences, that list ends up being reused for years afterward, and no one questions why your name isn’t on it.
Greatness is a weird brew. So is success. We don’t make them, though. Or at least, we don’t make very much of them.
Do you know how rare and wonderful a thing that is?
Do you know how many people say they are going to write a book and never do it?
Why don’t they do it? Because writing a book is a lot harder than it looks. Even writing a bad book.
I would argue that writing a bad book is like running a marathon. No matter what your time is, you’ve still run a marathon, which is an accomplishment. And why do people ask about your marathon PR anyway? Isn’t that rude? Like asking someone what their bank account numbers are.
Writing a bad book is the way you write a good book. I promise it is. Every good book was once a bad book. A bad book with promise, I grant you, but still a bad book.
Every great book has once had someone reject it. Someone once shook her head and said—this will never be published. Someone once told the author to give up and do something else more productive with his life.
Reread your bad book and decide for yourself if you want to revise it. You don’t have to. You can choose to write another one and revise that one instead.
But know this: writing a book from the first sentence to the end, with the same characters throughout, who go through experiences that affect them, where the events lead to some sort of climax however half-assed it is—this is an accomplishment that not many people can say they have done.
Eat and drink and be merry.
And then get back to work. Because of the one in a hundred people who write novels who say they want to, only one in a hundred of those finished novels will ever be worth reading.
Leading figures in cinema are calling for steps to improve diversity in the industry as a damning study exposes the severe lack of women at all levels of film production over the past 20 years.
Figures seen by the Guardian have revealed that gender disparity is entrenched in the film industry, where more than three-quarters of the crew involved in making 2,000 of the biggest grossing films over the past 20 years have been men, while only 22% were women.
The report, compiled by the British producer and writer Stephen Follows, noted the gender of many employees, from make-up artists and animators to sound engineers and directors, who had worked on the 100 biggest box-office blockbusters each year since 1994.
The statistics, Follows decided, meant that he would “challenge anyone to read them and not feel that our industry has a problem with gender equality”.
“It’s OK not to be a genius, whatever that is, if there even is such a thing…the creative life may or may not be the apex of human civilization, but either way it’s not what I thought it was. It doesn’t make you special and sparkly. You don’t have to walk alone. You can work in an office — I’ve worked in offices for the past 15 years and written five novels while doing it. The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.”—
The more I am in the business, the more I am aware of this truth.
The more I read manuscripts, the more I find myself giving advice to other writers cautiously.
Which isn’t the same as saying that there is no bad writing. There is bad writing. Bad writing does these things:
1. It fails to convey the author’s meaning to the reader.
2. It fails to evoke the right emotion in the reader.
3. It meanders.
4. It repeats sentences again and again, and has words that echo unconsciously—sometimes with an unintentional humorous effect.
5. It is boring even when it thinks it is interesting.
6. It has character who do not have motivation in their purpose.
7. It uses clichéd language and stereotypical character behavior.
8. It feels like a lot of different writers all mashed up together.
9. It is confusing.
10. It does not have purpose or direction—it feels like you don’t know where it is going or it is going in a million directions at the same time.
Good writing, however, can be so many, many things. Good writing can break all the rules on purpose. It can refuse to tell you the age or gender of the MC. It can neglect to mention the setting. It can defy the rules of the universe as you know them. Good writing is fresh. It is distinctive. A good writer will never be confused with another good writer. It has voice. It does new and different things.
The main difference between good writing and bad writing is purposefulness. I think you can tell the difference between a good writing who is choosing to defy rules and a bad writer who doesn’t know what those rules are quite easily.
“We have lost phone conversations, because talking on cell phones is no fun at all, and it’s harder than texting or typing. I do think we’ve lost that, but we’ve gained a lot with the internet. I feel like the internet has turned us all into letter writers. I think of my mother when I was a kid, she never wrote down anything but a grocery list. People didn’t write, because you’d call. Why would you write anything? But now we’re all writers.
So when people complain about grammar and punctuation, I think it isn’t that our grammar and punctuation have gotten worse, but that it used to be that only writers wrote. Only people who were in education wrote, but now we all write: we all text, we all post. I feel like we’ve lost phones but we’ve gained this whole different type of correspondence that hasn’t existed since the age of letter writing.”—Rainbow Rowell interview on Den of Geek: Landline, fangirls, the internet (via bethanyactually)
“Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things—erased, and yet without us—we are essential.”—Junot Díaz, “The Junot Díaz Episode" (18 November 2013) on Fan Bros, a podcast “for geek culture via people of colors” (via kynodontas)
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists” (via vintageanchorbooks)
You know that feeling you get when you’re reading an old manuscript and you think—“this is crap! Why did I not know this was crap when I was writing it?”
And you know that feeling you get when you’re reading a different old manuscript and you think—“this is amazing! Why didn’t I finish writing this? I love this”—and you start working on it again.
(This is related to the feeling you sometimes get when reading galleys or sometimes printed books and you have what is almost an out-of-body experience where you don’t remember writing this, but it’s so good and you think you might be in love with the writer, only that’s weird to say since it’s yourself.)
Have you ever had the experience where a manuscript you reread and thought was crap is suddenly transformed into the manuscript of brilliance? Or the reverse?
I do not know what causes this. It probably just means that I’m having a bad day or a good day. But when you are this subjectively swayed by the quality of your own work, it’s a good time to sit down and realize that hating a novel written by someone else or loving it—it’s all equally subjective. You found those books on the wrong day—or the right day. You read them at the right age—or the wrong age.
It has nothing to do with the book. It’s you.
Except, of course, when it’s your book. Then when you think it’s crap, it really is crap.
This took me some time to figure out. Maybe I’m still figuring it out. When I started writing I loved it so much nothing else mattered. You could even say I was an addict. I would get high on my own little world inside my head and all the imaginary people that lived there.
And then I started…
I feel like this is a distillation of what I went through a couple of years ago, as well. Same solution: focus on the writing. Ignore everything else.
“Amazon’s math of “you will sell 1.74 times as many books at $9.99 than at $14.99″ is also suspect, because it appears to come with the ground assumption that books are interchangable units of entertainment, each equally as salable as the next, and that pricing is the only thing consumers react to. They’re not, and it’s not.”—
But I agree with you. It bothers me that I’m always told that I do strong female characters. When in reality, I look at my characters and I feel like they were all broken. They all came from a very devastating past. They were trying to achieve something, they had hope, and they wanted to get someplace, like everything other character that has a meaningful and relevant arc in the story.
It’s because we don’t really know women. We don’t write women accurately. We don’t see women the way that we should see women as a society, as a human race. When you see a real woman, you shouldn’t be saying she’s strong, you should be saying she’s real.
I’m not saying that Gamora is an exception, but you look at my character in Columbiana, and she’s stealthy, she’s agile, she’s physical. But even if I wasn’t physically agile, she would still carry the baggage of whatever happened in my childhood. And I handle myself in the way that I feel a woman should be. I don’t create it. It’s just something that comes natural.
So when people think they are paying me a compliment, in reality what we are saying as a society and as an art society, is that we need to focus more on the real aspect of what a woman is, and not the superficial cosmetic features of a woman as a muse to inspire us to create calendar girls. To create bombshells. To create serviceable characters, beautiful paintings of the girl with a pearl earring: if there’s nothing there behind it, it’s just her face - what’s the story?
Zoe Saldana, speaking to Den of Geek. These musings in particular are so wonderfully expressed. (via pixiegrace)
She hesitated. “I think he does. But I guess this makes me wonder if he really does. Or if he loves only some part of me that’s the part he’s always seen when he sees me. Or if it’s worse than that, and the thing he loves isn’t really me. It looks like me, you know, but it isn’t really me. It’s some fantasy version of me that he’s invented because he can’t really handle the real me.” She had just put into words the thing that I had been afraid to put into words. I had been married over thirty years, and I wondered the same thing.
Of course, to be fair, Kurt and Brad might justly wonder that. Maybe we humans were incapable of actually loving each other fully in this mortal world. Maybe we were incapable of bearing the full sight of the reality of each other, and so we saw only what we could see. Mormons believed that you had to be transformed into something greater than mortal stuff in order to bear the sight of God as Joseph Smith had, as other prophets in the Bible had.
How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (via observando)
What are some things you think a writer should keep in mind before beginning revisions on their manuscript?
This is a great question! I’m surprised nobody has asked it yet.
Revision is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of courage, chutspah, and balls/ovaries of solid granite to rip something to shreds after you slaved over it for months. But it is a necessary part of the writing process and to skip it is to say good-bye to your dreams of publication. Why?
Because first drafts blow.
Seriously. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. It is a mythical creature native to the magical land of Wishfulthinkia. I don’t care if your name is Virginia Woolf and you can spout better prose in your sleep while wearing a mouth retainer than most authors will write in their lifetime. Your first drafts still suck.
And that’s why we revise. So stop arguing with me and just do it. Now, without further ado, here are some things I think writers should keep in mind before they dive into their revisions:
No change is permanent. You can try a particular scene nine different ways before deciding on which way works best. You can change a character as many times as you want and eventually go back to the first iteration. So if you’re terrified that something new will actually be worse than what you had in the first place, fear not. You are not locked into any changes you make. You have no excuse not to try something crazy or experimental.
No one is reading over your shoulder. It’s just you and the words on the page. So don’t be afraid or embarrassed to try something freaky. If it doesn’t work out, no one has to know it happened. No one has to know that you named a character “Dr. Sexy” for 78 pages before you picked a name for him.
Save each draft as a separate document. Not only is it smart to make back-ups, but if you delete something that you end up wanting to keep, you will have only to go back and pluck it from an earlier draft. Some authors even start writing the next draft from scratch, rather than copying and pasting from the original.
Join a workshop/get a writing buddy/hire an editor. Outside feedback is essential to the writing process. If you’re writing in a vacuum, you will have no idea if your story actually works for an audience, or if it’s just an echo chamber of stuff you like. Writing buddies will also help identify flaws that you never noticed because after reading your own work seventeen times, it starts to look like ancient Aramaic. Don’t make the mistake of hiding away in your basement for draft after private draft. Get feedback after every draft, or even after every chapter of a single draft.
Don’t ignore feedback just because you don’t like it. In fact, if you recoil in horror at a particular bit of advice, that’s a sign that you should probably examine it further. Question why you react to certain advice. And if you find that you only accept advice that sounds nice, well then you’re a spineless coward who should have her word processor taken away.
Work on a schedule. Writing and revising is work. Act like it. Schedule regular breaks and commit to set time periods in which you will work on your writing. Not only will this make you more serious about the revision process, it’ll help you avoid needless procrastination.
"Kill your darlings." If you’ve ever read a single blog or book about the art of writing, you’ve heard this one. For the uninitiated: it means you need to be willing to sacrifice parts of the story that you love or that you worked really hard on in order to benefit the story as a whole. Really like that random flashback you wrote about Dr. Sexy’s time in med school, but it doesn’t actually provide any insight into the character or further the plot of the book? Cut it. Just love that plucky sidekick who is actually pretty useless and only serves to muck up already dense conversations? Give ‘em the axe. Then forget about them. Your story will be better for it.
There’s no such thing as “perfect,” only “good enough.” You’re never going to get it exactly right. That way lies madness. But you can get close. And that’s what you should be shooting for. If you embrace perfectionism, you’re never going to get the damn thing in the hands of a publishing house. You’ll just be revising till the day you die.
There is a difference between revising and copyediting and you should not do them at the same time. I know it’s hard to ignore typos in your work. You want to correct them as soon as you come upon them. To resist is painful. But you know what? Don’t. The process of editing naturally flows from the macro to the micro. Start with the big-picture editing: rewriting scenes, adding characters, revising whole conversations, changing the ending. Then work your way steadily down to the nit-picky edits: consistency of character names, making sure you’ve got your timeline straight, making sure your geography makes a lick of sense. Next work on your prose: making it sound pretty and poetic, using your writing tone to reflect the mood of a particular scene. Then and only then can you start editing for spelling, grammar, and syntax. If you start out by copyediting you’ll be wasting time in two ways: 1) You’ll be spending extra time reading line by line to catch errors that you could spend reworking the meat of the story, and 2) You run the risk of perfectly editing a chapter only to realize you need to rewrite 90% of it. So resist the urge to copyedit when you start revising.
"But that’s how it happened in real life"/"But that’s how I first imagined it" is no excuse for shitty writing. The truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. So if the plot seems far-fetched, or if it strains belief, or if your readers say it just doesn’t make any fucking sense, don’t be afraid to change it. In fact, you must change it. I don’t care how sentimentally attached you are to the original version. The exception to this rule is of course nonfiction, in which you should never deviate from the facts because that is called lying.
I now open it up to the whole class: what do you guys keep in mind before you start revising your manuscripts? How do you prepare for the arduous task?
When I was an aspiring author, I remember hearing other aspiring authors spending a good deal of time complaining about how this or that NYT best-selling author had just published a piece of crap, and how publishing was all totally about who you knew and once you had it made, everything you wrote would be published, no matter what. Yeah, I actually still hear that part a lot.
But here’s what I believed then and repeated whenever I was given the chance:
You have to write a book that’s not as good as what is being published right now. You have to write a book that is better. In fact, you have to write a book that is so good people find themselves unable to say no. They just love it so much they can’t think of a reason to say no.
Because editors and agents are looking for reasons to say no.
How do you write a book that is so good that people can’t say no?
1. You learn the skills of writing. Usually this means writing a lot of words. Sometimes they get published in smaller magazines or by smaller presses. A lot of the time, they don’t. I’ve said it a lot of times, but I wrote 20 really bad books before I got published, so yeah, that was at least 1 million words.
2. You tell a story that is yours to tell. That means giving up on following trends. If you happen to hit a trend, that’s not why you hit it, so I’m going to insist that’s not following a trend. Sometimes you’re mad about what isn’t out there being published already. Or you’re mad because what’s being published on a certain subject isn’t the truth—and you know it. Sometimes you write the story that’s yours because you are so much in love with a certain genre or story or character that you couldn’t NOT write it, even when people told you it wasn’t ever going to sell.
3. You get feedback from other people. And somehow (believe me, this still eludes me on occasion), you figure out how to hear the useful advice and how to ignore the other advice.
4. You revise the crap out of your book. You do the delicate dance that is truly the art of writing, in keeping what is good and throwing out what is bad. You leave it when the revising is done. But you don’t leave it before then and go work on something shinier. Although if there is something shinier, it makes me wonder if this is really the story that is only yours to tell. Maybe it is and you just lack any self-confidence. That’s not unusual, come to think of it. But look at every word, every sentence, every scene, every chapter. Be willing to do the big changes if they are necessary. Listen to your heart or your gizzard or whatever you believe in.
5. You do the work of meeting editors and agents however you can. Sometimes it’s by forming a relationship by sending manuscript after manuscript in. Sometimes it’s by going to conferences that are nearby. Sometimes you volunteer for something writing-related, and stuff happens. I don’t believe that bad writing is going to be published just because you know someone (it happens, but I wouldn’t count on it), but you learn a lot from these connections. People tell you things about the industry that’s useful to know, for now and for the future. And also, it’s always good to have friends to get advice from. And to hang with.
I’m not going to pretend this is an easy formula. It’s not. You’re signing up for a long apprenticeship and there are no guarantees.
I will admit that I have become more cynical about the publishing world than I once was. Maybe that’s me or maybe it’s that publishing has actually changed. But I still think it’s good advice to write a better book than the one you see published today that you hate. I also think that every book has a lesson to teach you, bad or good. And I think it behooves authors not to diss other authors, however easy it is and however good it makes you feel temporarily. We’re in this together. Let reviewers and readers diss us. They do it plenty.
"Starting in infancy, parents tend to give boys more process praise, an advantage that results in a greater desire for challenge, and a growth mindset, later on. In the classroom, teachers give boys more process feedback, inviting them to try new strategies or work harder after a mistake. As a result, boys learn to see challenges and setbacks as things they can tackle with the right plan.”
This is a follow up, which I think provides a representative example of why so many women who experience harassment don’t report it. This happened to Elise at the “world’s leading feminist science fiction convention.”…
This is important stuff. I wasn’t harassed by the editor involved, but spent an hour in his company and was sufficiently creeped out that despite his offer to read anything I wanted to send to him, I decided to stay far away. But the problem here is that we don’t yet have as a society a way to deal with this problem.
“George Bernard Shaw said, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” Yikes. Soul revelation. That’s a big job, probably more than most artists signed up for. But maybe if we get more comfortable with how similar all kids are in heart and soul, we’ll get more courageous about revealing – and reflecting – their differences, the things that make them not just unique, but interesting. Art-worthy, even. And then maybe, finally, we’ll end up with a little piece of glass for each and everyone to see themselves in. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”—
"Back in the day, Walter would, every once in a while, forget how to draw. Remember?" Louise said.
“Oh yeah,” Walter agreed. “That still happens occasionally. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, nothing I’m drawing looks any good anymore. My life is over as an artist.’ And what I realized, because I was an editor at the time, and had seen a lot of work go past me, was that when you hit this phase where suddenly your stuff, which looks just like it did yesterday, doesn’t look good to you anymore, it’s because your mind has made a leap. Your brain has gotten farther than your hand has learned to do it yet. But eventually, give it a few weeks, keep it up and you’ve made a leap in your own craft. That was a big help because it was so depressing when you realize you couldn’t draw anymore.”
1. The author writes a book. This may take anywhere from a month to many years. 2. Agent sends book to editors who might be interested in it. This may take anywhere from a couple of weeks to years. 3. Editors make offers on the book. Can happen in a day. Can take years. May never happen. I have many books that have never made it past this stage. For whatever reason, no offer was ever made. 4. Contract negotations occur. If you have a good agent, this will take a couple of weeks at least, and can drag out for several months. 5. Editorial letters are written and sent to the author. Author has a chance to decide whether to agree with editor about making changes or to refuse to make changes or to make other changes the editor has not necessarily suggested. This usually takes about a year, but can go more quickly. It can also end in a book that never comes out because agreement is never come to between editor/publisher and author. 6. Book covers take months to create, even if they are done with photography. The publisher’s art director will have input, as will the editor, and other people from the publisher. The author is sometimes given a chance to say something about the cover (though not always). This will often happen in tandem with the editorial process, but not always. Problems with cover art can occur, and then the art department has to start all over again. Takes months. 7. Often ARCs are created at this stage, when an editor feels confident enough about the manuscript to think it is ready to be sent to reviewers. ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) are paperback, cheaper versions of the book, sometimes even without the final cover on them. They are free (even though you sometimes see them for sale on ebay) and they will have errors in them. 8. Manuscript goes to copyediting. Usually takes a couple of months for copy editor to go through manuscript with fine-toothed comb. Authors often are given a deadline at this point to get manuscript back to publisher. Sometimes the author has only a week to make final changes, sometimes several weeks. 9. Copyedited manuscript is turned into a “galley” which is typeset the way the final book will look. Authors often get a chance to make final changes, though contract will limit exactly how many changes are allowed. This isn’t the time for major alterations. Takes a couple of months. 10. ARCs are sent out to major reviewers and publicity for the book begins. Reviewers needs at least a few weeks to read the books and write reviews, though they will usually get a couple of months. Also, ad copy for ads needs to be written, and ad campaigns have to be managed. (Some books have virtually no publicity, but for others, it may feel like the book is being talked about long before it will be available in stores. This is to make people aware of the book so they rush out to buy it soon after it arrives, so bookstores will bring in even more books to sell in subsequent weeks.) 11. Books are printed, often in China because it’s cheaper, and the slow boat wait begins. Can take months.
Hopefully, this explains why it takes about two years for a book to move from an acquired manuscript to a finished product, and why it may take much longer than that.
"Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see."
"Common stereotypes about “right brained” versus “left brained” people notwithstanding, this parallel makes sense. Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects."
"One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol."
Fascinating scientific study about creative people and mental illness.
“Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better. Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.”—Ira Glass to Lifehacker. I’m Ira Glass, Host of This American Life, and This Is How I Work.
So, we writers complain a lot that writing is hard. And it is. It can be really, really hard. It can be so hard we think about quitting. Maybe more than sometimes. Our dearest companions sometimes may suggest to us that we do something other than writing, temporarily or permanently because of our bad moods about writing.
But when writing goes right, and by that I don’t mean being easy, but by that feeling of satisfaction you get when by God—you captured something in words that no one else has been able to write before—writing is such a joy.
There is a time to commiserate with writers about the terrible pay, the lack of control of creative people over our own work, the grind of writing to deadline, the pressure to do more than write by having a “presence” on the internet, the emails, the cover art issues, the business end even when you are getting paid, and of course, the
I’m not going to write anymore about that now, though. I am going to write about the sheer, unadulterated pleasure that is writing on a good day, on the right day when it turns right because you got that sentence right or you figured out who the murderer is or because you know now why your main character does that thing she does.
Why I love being a writer:
1. Writing in my pajamas, whenever the notion strikes me.
2. Eating food while writing.
3. Sitting down and rocking the world.
4. Reading a note from someone who “got” your book in just the way that I one day hoped someone would.
5. Finding out a truth about myself that I would never have known if I hadn’t been writing that character that day.
6. The light that goes off in the middle of the night and you know how you’re going to do that revision and fix EVERYTHING!
7. When I’m cooking dinner and my characters talk to me about what they would be eating instead.
8. Cutting out the weight that was holding my book down and now it feels so free, so clean, and so pure.
9. Surprising my editor and making her say, “Woah! That is awesome!”
10. When people tell me the part they loved about the book, and that they wanted more and were sad when they reached “THE END.”
11. Figuring out what the next chapter is going to be about.
12. Writing dialog that makes you want to read it out loud.
13. Taking out a notebook when your brain is on fire and writing words down with an actual pen.
This is something that one of my early therapists told me. She was actually pretty smart, but I didn’t keep seeing her for very long because I wasn’t ready for some of the things she had to tell me. In this case, I told her all these things that had crushed me and when she said that her job was to help me get stronger, I was so furious. I didn’t want to get stronger. I wanted the world to get easier. Basically, she was saying that I was going to have to change, to do work, and I was too depressed to think about any of that.
This is a frequent problem with depression. If someone in your life is depressed and you find yourself thinking up brilliant suggestions for them which they hate, well, you’re not doing the wrong thing necessarily. It’s just that often you have to wait for the depressed person to initiate movement toward change. I’m not sure you can do much to push them forward except standing by them and giving support—sometimes even when it seems ridiculous. Say “yes” and nod a lot, make sympathetic noises. And eventually they may get to the part where they have enough energy and enough clarity to change.
That change may include medication or it may not. It may include therapy. It may include weird things that you think are stupid. Diet changes. Exercise changes. Sleep changes. Relationship changes. They may change things that didn’t need to be changed and they regret them. But at least they’re trying something. Of course they can’t see clearly, but the energy to do some change is a good thing at base.
And the truth is, my therapist was right. There was nothing she could do to make the world less cruel, to take away the pain that I was suffering. There might be people around me doing things that hurt me more. But she and I couldn’t change them. I wanted to point fingers and say everyone else was doing everything wrong, that they were the problem. This is pretty common in depression. And I’m not even saying it wasn’t true. It just didn’t matter that much. Because when you’re the one in pain, you’re mostly the one who has to change—even if the only thing you can change is getting rid of the people in your life who are unable to stop causing you pain.
“Johnnie Phelps, a woman sergeant in the army, thought, “There was a tolerance for lesbianism if they needed you. The battalion I was in was probably about ninety-seven percent lesbian.”
Sergeant Phelps worked for General Eisenhower. Four decades after Eisenhower had defeated the Axis powers, Phelps recalled an extraordinary event. One day, the general told her, “I’m giving you an order to ferret those lesbians out. We’re going to get rid of them.”
“I looked at him and then I looked at his secretary who was standing next to me, and I said, ‘Well, sir, if the general pleases, sir, I’ll be happy to do this investigation for you. But you have to know that the first name on the list will be mine.’ “
“And he was kind of taken aback a bit. And then this women standing next to me said, ‘Sir, if the General pleases, you must be aware that Sergeant Phelp’s name may be second, but mine will be first.”
“Then I looked at him, and said, ‘Sir, you’re right. They’re lesbians in the WAC battalion. And if the general is prepared to replace all the file clerks, all the section commanders, all the drivers-every woman in the WAC detachment-and there were about nine hundred and eighty something of us-then I’ll be happy to make that list. But I think the general should be aware that among those women are the most highly decorated women in the war. There have been no cases of illegal pregnancy. There have been no cases of AWOL. There have been no cases of misconduct. And as a matter of fact, every six months since we’ve been here, the general has awarded us a commendation for meritorious conduct.”
“And he said, ‘Forget the order.’””—
Phelps tells this story herself in the excellent 1984 documentary Before Stonewall, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube (she’s at 19:30, but really, watch the whole thing): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX7AxQd82H8
It’s easy to get depressed when you get rejection letter after rejection letter. Knowing that it’s part of the process helps a little, but doesn’t take away the sting completely. And there are other parts of the writing process that are even more painful. Giving up on a manuscript and putting it aside. Rewriting a manuscript so that large chunks you love are gone. Realizing that a manuscript you’re working on is derivative—or that something far too similar has just been published by someone you never heard of.
When you are feeling like this sucks and there is no point in writing another word, I hope it’s helpful to hear things like this:
1. This is all going to make a great book someday. Either a book about a writer or a book about someone who is rejected in ways that are like a writer.
2. I’m making that editor into the villain in my next manuscript.
3. The people who rejected me are going to wish they hadn’t. (Sometimes this actually does happen.)
4. Anger and despair are just more fuel for the creative fire.
5. Now that I’ve suffered, I really get what other artists are talking about.
6. I can write characters who have been through bad stuff a lot better now.
7. If I can figure out why people do these things that hurt me, I can write better villains. And make them suffer even more when I take away everything they care about. Mwahahah!
8. I’m going to devise a fantasy world in which things like this don’t happen. And I’m going to spend a lot of time worldbuilding to show how it can be done.
9. I get to the god of my next novel and I will make all the people I create suffer the way I’ve suffered, and it will be delicious!
10. I am going to work on my inspiring talk on how to keep working hard, no matter how bad the rejection gets, and aspiring authors are going to one day give me standing ovations.
We tell ourselves as writers that this is how it works to write a book:
1. Write a crappy first draft.
2. Get some feedback on it.
3. Revise it.
4. Get more feedback.
5. Revise it again.
Which isn’t untrue, but sometimes I think it feels more like this:
1. Write a crappy first draft.
2. Despair that it will never be any better and put it away.
3. Try writing another crappy first draft.
4. Decide to go back to the first crappy first draft because it seems better.
5. It isn’t better, but at least it’s finished.
6. Ask for feedback.
7. Reread notes on feedback and realize that people are telling you completely different things to fix, and that you could go off in at least six different directions.
8. Try to make everyone happy.
9. Get more feedback. Everyone hates it and tells you to go back to the first version.
10. You give up and move onto the next book, because this one CANNOT BE FIXED.
If you haven’t been through this process at least once, I don’t believe you’re a writer.
I was with a great writer’s group for years, and I improved for a long time. And then I stopped improving. I started using the comments of the other writers as a Bible rather than as guidelines. I took too many notes, and I heard their voices in my head as I revised. This was not their problem, really. It was mine, but the only way I was able to fix it was to stop going to a writer’s group for several years.
The problem is that when you hear feedback from people, especially from other writers, you are likely to hear a lot of—this is what I do when my book has that problem. Which makes sense, right? I mean, how else do you offer advice except by using your own experience as an example?
But the best teachers of writing are the ones who see what you are trying to write and show you how to do it better. Not how to be them. They strip your work down to some basic parts and show you how to play with those. They don’t take away anything that matters to the piece and somehow, they manage to keep what makes your piece unique while also making it better.
This is nearly impossible. Really, I don’t think we realize how difficult it is to do this. You have to be not only a superb writer, but a well-read writer. Someone who understands many different kinds of forms, voices, and stories. You have to be able to be humble enough to realize that not every book is a book that you could write. There are wonderful books that don’t appeal to you at all. And yet you must learn how to help someone else write a perfect book that is not your kind of book. How many writers are this smart and humble—and care enough to learn this skill? Not many.
The wrong kind of writing teacher teaches you not how to write your own book better, but how to write like everyone else. And this is tragic. I’ve seen this all too often. Someone who writes a quirky, unique book, and it is “critiqued” or “edited” by the wrong person and ends up being something that almost anyone could have written. Sure, it has the edges knocked off so that it might appeal to a wider audience. Only it doesn’t really appeal to anyone anymore because the passion is gone out of it.
If you feel like this has happened to you as a writer, my advice is to let the piece sit for 6-12 months and come back to it with fresh eyes. Even that is sometimes not long enough to fall back in love with what was going right in a piece.
The worst risk of revision is always that you will end up abandoning a piece completely because you lost the part of yourself that wrote it. I don’ t know how to get that back. I know there are some writers who claim that they never give up on a piece of writing.
I am a little envious of this, because I feel like those writers have more confidence—or something—than I do. I give up on books. A lot. I forget what it was I was doing when I talk to too many people about my book, and that is something that I have begun to guard a little more closely against. Maybe it sounds like a superstition, but I believe too many eyes on a book takes something away from it.
A man I used to know only a little used to introduce himself to everyone he met with this story: He was driving from California to Utah because they were moving and he had three children in the car. The youngest child, about 9, was sitting in the front seat. It was dark and the youngest child fell asleep, so he reached over and undid the seatbelt so his son could be more comfortable.
A few minutes later, he fell asleep at the wheel, bumped off the road, rolled the car, and his son was catapulted from the car because he did not have a seatbelt on, and this son died. The man felt so much guilt for his part in the death of his son that he had to tell it to everyone he met, to get a kind of up-front forgiveness or maybe to feel like he wasn’t getting their friendship or kindness unfairly.
I have never forgotten this story, and when I think about creating characters, I often think about what is the story that this character would tell to everyone. What is the deep loss in their past that they cannot forget or forgive themselves for? And are they the kind of person who tells that story again and again or are they the kind that can never speak of it, that buries it deep, hoping without hope that it will go away?
I was a little nervous going into this book because I’m not Mormon and I’m not even that religious, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there’s some Mormon terminology that isn’t explained in-depth, but the important terms were briefly summarized by the author (which I greatly appreciated).
While the main character, Linda, is the wife of a bishop, she isn’t a blind follower. She questions her husband’s actions and decisions and also those of other people living within their ward. I liked that Harrison explored both the upsides to religion and the downsides. There are people living in the ward who have extremist beliefs and those who are more conservative and this shows how easy it is to interpret the same religion in different way.
As for the plot, the beginning of the book started off a little slow for me, but that can sometimes be accepted as a lot of set up can be involved. About midway through, it really picked up. Whenever I thought I knew what had happened, new information was revealed that said otherwise. It was also interesting to read a mystery from the perspective of a seemingly normal woman with no background in law enforcement or investigative services. All of the actions she took and all of the conclusions she drew were what I would assume that I would do if I were in her shoes.
I’m sure some people will be put off by the religious tones in the book, but I didn’t find them overwhelming at all. The characters were interesting, the plot kept me guessing and the ending was satisfying.