Dear Younger Me

Dear Younger Me,

What are you doing awake at 4am? Writing, you will answer. I know you think that just because you’re pouring your heart out at all hours of the day and night onto that Word document that you are “writing”, but I promise, what you are doing is mostly learning. You are discovering how words fit together, how characters come alive on the page. You’re mentioning things like the fact that the girl is wearing purple mascara because you probably read that somewhere else and it appealed to you – nevermind the fact that your character would never wear purple mascara in a million years. You will spend a full page trying to get the description of the “aluminum hills” right, while breezing over the emotional content of the climax. In the future, you will be happy that nobody else has read these little stories. Embrace your newbie status – it will never be as much fun as it is right now.

That’s okay. This is what you should be doing. Just this weekend, the One told me that I have unrealistic expectations of myself, and as I mull that over, I think it is a chronic condition. I can remember at age fourteen, writing my first novel, believing it would be a world-wide best seller just because I wanted it to be that way. But you won’t know success for a very long time. You will be rejected by many literary agents. But even then, you’ll get notes back with good advice, little pieces of encouragement, and it will keep you returning to the page. Cleaning up your prose. Putting more thought into the plot. Trying to find the angle.

The first time you get an agent, don’t shriek in her ear. Nevermind, shriek in her ear. Be happy about your successes.

When you get an editor and she buys your book, don’t shriek in her ear. Seriously, don’t.

When she “un-buys” your book, don’t cry on the phone. Just thank her for her time. Calmly accept it, and move on. Write a new novel.

Don’t fall in love with it too much. Remember you’re making a product, like a shoe on an assembly line. It has to conform to certain quality assurance standards, and it has to fit a broad swath of the public. It’s good you love to write, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. For now, quit trying to create a new market. Just write something to fit in an established market.

It’s not the only novel you’ll ever write, after all.

You’ll know more rejection. You’ll keep the important ones – the ones with personalized encouragement – the one from a top agent who said you could be a “very commercially successful author”, the ones who asked to see the next thing you wrote.

You’ll eventually find the real reason you write, and all those ups and downs will seem like buoys in the dark water, keeping you in the lane that will bring you right where you’re supposed to be.

There Are No Shortcuts In Publishing (Or Life)

I just sent my manuscript to my agent, which he will send to the editor who requested some changes. I’m actually pretty cool right now. If you were a silly, impatient little catfish when you begin writing a book, you probably won’t be when you finish. Publishing moves like Mississippi pond water, and there is nothing you can do but sit and wait. Of course you can, and should, start writing something else. But the freeze-out when you’re waiting to hear about your manuscript can only be endured, not manipulated.

So today I was glancing through a forum where authors and wannabes chat about all things publishing, and one question completely infuriated me. A person asked if you had to have a full manuscript before you query agents.

My feeling is that sure, go ahead and query with just an idea. Those of us who actually write the four hundred pages, and re-write and scribble and think and write and edit and write and agonize over every word and try to do things the right way are utterly cool with someone who has never written anything suggesting to an agent that he/she represent a nonexistent book — or that an editor publish the nonexistent book.

Publishing doesn’t work this way. It is not a dream factory where you have an idea and the whole industry rallies around you to make it happen. I can’t remember who said it first, but writing is blue collar work. You have to do the work. You have to learn the craft, write it, and it has to be good enough to justify publishing. There are no shortcuts.

I think once you reach about thirty, you should understand that success requires actual effort – not just thinking about the effort, but the effort. Nobody gives you credit for having a great idea. If you were a pastry chef, nobody is going to pay you for the world’s most amazing cupcake that you’ve never even bothered to make. Writing is no different. The act of writing is valuable, even if you don’t get published. It teaches you how to write. It shows you what works, what doesn’t, how to craft a whole story with plot and focus and momentum. Just sitting back daydreaming doesn’t require any effort.

The people who do this kind of mental masturbation will never succeed simply because they refuse to do the work. They’re lazy, and thus no threat to those of us who actually do the work.

But it still grinds my gears that someone can be so utterly clueless and disrespectful. How could you even look at yourself in the mirror knowing you’re asking the world for more than you deserve?

Literary Agent Publishes Query Fails

I have to admit, I kind of love this. An agent has begun to post snippets of the worst queries he gets from writers.

Classic:

Writer: Greetings agent. I have written the most important book on earth.

Agent: Will someone, for the love of God, please kill me.

And this one:

Writer: I’d like you to consider representing my fictional novel.

Agent: Oh, whew. For a second there I thought you were going to ask me to represent your nonfictional novel. For some reason those are performing really poorly in the market today.

I actually think this adds to the body of knowledge about how to write queries so perhaps the general quality will increase over time. Or maybe I’m just an optimist.

On a personal note, one of my verbal ticks is to say “true fact.” I say it a lot, and I cringe when I say it. It started out being silly and now it’s a habit. I said it on the phone to my agent and he deadpanned, “All facts are true.”

So I said, in a snarky way, totally in control of the joke, “I wrote a fiction novel.”

Fiction novel is the absolute worst thing you can to say to anyone who writes, publishes, or represents novels. If you learn nothing else, learn this: all novels are fiction.

So my agent said, “When people send me inquiries that say they’ve written a fiction novel, I hit delete.”

I dream of a world where all queries are beautifully written, for books publishers will clamor for.

But I know it will never, ever happen.

A Writing Exercise

A few months ago, I was terribly blocked. I’m never blocked, so I was just beside myself with frustration. Then my friend Tracey gave me a writing exercise. She made a list of people, places, and things, and told me to mix them up and write. So I did. But the exercise was too successful – I almost immediately abandoned the exercise and got back to my novel. Anyway, I took pictures of the little chits of paper I mixed up to help with the exercise. Nancy Pelosi?

How To Write A Novel

I write novels because a character (usually female) jumps in my head and won’t leave me alone. When that happens, I know I’m about to fall in love. My love letter to her is a novel. This is how it happens.

1. I follow her around for a day or two. I think about where she goes, and most importantly what she wants. I watch her try to get it. I watch her fail and fail and fail.

2. Then I go to my lovely MacBook Pro and start writing. I used to begin anywhere, with any scene that jumped out at me, but lately, since I’ve been writing two novels per month, I just start at the beginning and go.

The second step seems to be the hard one for people, the hump they just can’t quite get over. I have a great idea! is not a novel. A novel is writing out 300-400 pages of good, readable text that tells a story. To do that, you must actually create it. There is no short cut.

I once when on a date with a guy (a Capitol police officer, interestingly enough) who had an idea for a book. He told me about it all through dinner (the punchline: the FBI agent investigating the crime was the dude who did it. Um… no.) When I asked how far along he was, he confessed it was still an idea, but when he wrote it, David Baldacci and Vince Flynn better watch out because he was going to knock them right off the best seller lists.

Oh. Really?

Writing is damn hard work. Sometimes I look back over the content of this blog and I’m amazed I’ve actually had the time to do this. But I do it because I love it. I write several blog posts a day for this blog, and the Enron blog. I use Twitter. I write so many emails it will make your head spin. I write in my journal every day. I also write about between 30 and 70 pages of fiction per day.

I write because I have to write. If you are like that, you don’t need to be told how to write a novel, other than, you know, figuring out plot points or whatever. You write because you have to write. You know it instinctively. (As I typed that, I wanted to write the lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Elm”, I know the bottom/ I know it with my great tap root. You know writing with your great tap root.)

The only people who need to know how are the people who want to have written a book. The actual writing of the book seems too daunting; it is too complicated, or, my favorite, they don’t have time. But they want the result.

Writing is a verb. You can’t just think about it. You must commit to write the words. It is simple, but oh my Lord, it can be hard.

Write Fast, Edit Slowly

I finished my final edits for my novel last month and my agent (who is just terrific, I can’t say enough good things about him) sent it off to publishers.

When I’m really done with a book, I always get the blues. Blues as deep as the Marianas Trench. I wonder what the point of life is, and I listen to Nirvana, and I don’t want to talk to anyone. So instead of putting my friends through that, I decided that this time, I would fill that empty space with a new novel. I’d write a novel in two weeks. That was the goal.

And somehow I accomplished it. I’m sending it to my agent in a few days, after I finish editing it.

Then I decided I’d write another novel in ten days. Tomorrow, I will accomplish that (As I write this, I am about fifteen pages away from completion.)

The novels obviously need some editing. My process is to throw words on the screen as fast as I can, getting the ideas down. Almost like a 300 page outline. “He went”, “he felt”, etc. Not good writing – it’s rough and needs the edges smoothed. The editing is enjoyable work for me and since the book is whole, I know what I’m aiming for, I know what I need to fix.

It seems to me if I can just say what I want to say, and then worry about cleaning it up later, the process is greatly streamlined.

Odd that when I am under a deadline, I can write an almost perfect manuscript. But if I dawdle, time expands to fill all the anxiety.

The key is to write like my life depends on it. Don’t get too caught up in the details, just write.

What Not To Do In Publishing or Life

In my morning googlings, I found the most annoying query letter I’ve ever read in my life, and, on second thought, I might want to remove the qualifier, “query” because I think this is one of the worst pieces of communication I’ve ever seen in any context.

What bothers me so much about the letter is the same thing that bothers me in real life. The sense of entitlement, arrogance, and flat-out stupidity. The person who wrote the query obviously believes the rules do not apply to her (why?).

I’ve discovered that the untalented are the ones who think this. The untalented, misguided, and really awful writers are the ones who believe they are doing you a favor by asking you to edit their query letters and manuscripts. They just assume you’re dying to get your hands on that craptastic piece of muck.

You see this in real life too. You see people who cut in line at the bank because they’re “in a hurry.” Or they “are having a bad day.”

There is a fine line between being a nice person and giving the other person a break, and deciding that you’re just not putting up with people’s crap anymore. I once saw a woman who was about nine and a half months pregnant who literally walked right in front me at the self-check out at the grocery store. I politely told her that I was here first. She pointed to her basketball belly as if to say “um, this is a pass to be a total bitch”.

Maybe I was heartless, or maybe I just don’t think being pregnant gives you a right to be a total douche. So I said no, fatty, get to the back of the line. I too have a life. I want my fucking Haagen Daaz just as badly as you do. If she’d only asked me, and explained she was in a lot of pain from the Braxton-Hicks contractions and her husband was in Iraq… I might have been a little more accommodating. But she wasn’t. She didn’t acknowledge the process. She didn’t say, look, I know this is unusual but could you help a sister out? If she’d just shown more respect for the norms, I’d probably have a better response.

This is what bothers me about Enron. People say that “he got off on a technicality” or whatever. Well dude, those technicalities are there for a reason. You must respect the process. And it’s the same with publishing. Show your respect for the process: write a simple, business-like query. Don’t just presume an agent wants your breathless, deathless prose. Don’t assume a publisher will want to publish it.

And for god’s sake, don’t tell them how to do their jobs. I don’t want anyone telling me how to write (though I’m open to critiques by people I respect.) Thus, I won’t tell you how to do brain surgery, or how to pick up garbage from curbs or teach a first grade class. Setting deadlines (“before my birthday”, as in that query) is just infuriating.

In life, as in publishing, one must be polite. But for me, the big thing is to respect the process. Don’t overstep boundaries. Don’t expect more than you deserve.

This should be known to anyone over the age of twelve, but it’s not. Reading that query letter has put me in a bad mood. It violates my sense of fair-play.

And oh yeah, I haven’t that moron’s books on shelves, so my instinct must be right that her “work” is probably crap.

Where Is God In Sex?

Something that has always intrigued me is the resistance for Christian publishers and authors to integrate sex into literature. As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a failed Christian. I believe, but not consistently. I go to church once or twice a year. I respect the faith, but I some parts just don’t make any sense to me. So my observation about sex springs from a spirit of genuine curiosity and exploration, not criticism.

Christianity teaches that everything has to do with God. Yet when I have been abused and hurt, preachers tell me that had nothing to do with God. I’ve heard it said that God wept when the Twin Towers were struck, yet he had the power to stop it.

Even allowing for free will, this makes no bloody sense. Either everything has to do with God and comes from God, or not. And sex+love is the highest possible joy on earth, which one must assume is delivered from God. So why the squeamishness?

Out of curiosity, I checked the submission guidelines for several Christian publishers, and without exception, they requested no sex, no sexual tension, perhaps kissing and embracing was allowed “if tasteful.”

If I were a Christian publisher, I’d encourage Christian erotica. I’d say bring it on. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to thank God for the privilege of being alive than to celebrate sex in all its messy, funny, sensual, silly, beautiful glory.

There are huge gulfs of doctrine that I’m sure I’m missing. I’m positive the body of Christian thought has encompassed this subject, but to my knowledge it has never resolved in favor of celebrating sex and love. The sweat, the supple heat, the silks and velvets, the closeness, the total unity achieved in the best of sex seems to be a vast unexplored reservoir in Christianity.

I’d like someone to educate me about this. Why is sex off limits in Christian fiction?

Romance Writing For Profit

I admit, I actually laughed out loud at this. I know I should be a bit more jaded and just roll my eyeballs whenever I see something stupid /outrageous /ridiculous on the net, but I still have the ability to actually react to things instead of just wear a facade of indifferent irony at all times.

This time I’m just amused.

Some moron is selling some top-secret information about how you can write a romance novel and make fast money. FAST MONEY – GUARANTEED!

The average advance for a category romance is between $5,000 and $15,000 – and you usually get royalties on top – say, $15,000 to $50,000 – for just ONE book!

Wait. You usually get royalties on top of an advance? Wow! This guy doesn’t know that an advance is an “advance on royalties”. But that’s okay, apparently even stupid people can use his program!

Sales of romances are guaranteed. You don’t need to be a big name author. Romance readers will buy your work anyway – simply because it’s out there!

Right! Because romance readers are morons! They’ll read anything!

But okay, let’s forget the condescending tone for a moment. Sales of romances are guaranteed? By whom? You don’t just print a romance and voila! it’s on book shelves. An actual editor must read it, like it, and buy it. Or was that just skipped over?

All YOU have to do is find out how to write EXACTLY what the romance publishers want – and that, my friend, is the bit I have made SO easy for you!

Oh! That’s all you have to do! Write exactly what publishers want!

As someone who reads and writes romance, I take exception to this whole idea.

While I agree very strongly that writing can be learned, one should never be enticed to write a romance or anything else. If one is meant to be a writer, one will write. You don’t need any get-rich-quick schemes to motivate you. Also, the only money I have ever spent on my writing career is a computer, and books that I read for pleasure and from which I learned to write, first by mimicry, then later, by seeing how to develop characters. I would never pay money for this kind of scheme.

Allow me to address the misimpression that many people have that writing romance is somehow easier than other books. It is not. Romances are the exploration of emotions between two people – people who are as different, varied, wonderful, annoying, flawed, marvelous, and beautiful as you and I. That takes some actual skill. It takes honesty and reflection – something that just doesn’t get enough credit by those who sneer at romance novels.

Lastly, it’s an old canard that a writer should have a very rich spouse because it takes a very long time indeed to get published. According to one poll I saw, on average it takes eleven years from the time you start writing to the time you get published. Then once your writing is in shape, you must get an agent. Agents take anywhere from a day to three months to get back to you. Once you find an agent, the agent submits the book to publishers. That takes anywhere from a day to three years or longer to find a publisher.

So you too can be an overnight success writing romance novels in just fourteen years!

The Bernadette Peters Approach To Career Development

I once happened to see Bernadette Peters on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Peters was never a favorite of mine. I always found her disturbing to look at. Her bow lips bothered me, and her voice was too high. But for whatever reason, my remote stopped on that channel and I watched. It was a life changing moment. I hesitate to say that about a television program, a show with a Broadway actress I didn’t even admire, but it’s true. That was the day I embraced the fact that I am a writer.

I’ve been writing since I was six. In school, I only wanted to write so when I should have been doing algebra or whatever, I was writing stories. I got in trouble for this constantly. But I couldn’t stop. All I ever wanted to do was write. The compulsion was so strong that no threat of punishment was enough to make me abandon my current story.

I’ve written six novels, and some of them I don’t even remember writing. They seemed to write themselves. Those moments when I read the prose and I don’t really recognize myself in them, those are magic. Better than sex, better than a million dollars, better than anything in the world. Those are what I live for.

I never had a way to organize this though. Never had a way of thinking about it. I only knew it made me different from other people who had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives.

Then I saw Bernadette Peters and I knew what I was. Bernadette Peters told the story of how she took some career test (maybe in high school?) and the administrator of the test was shocked because he’d never seen anything like it. He told her, “According to our test, the only possible thing you can be … is… a Broadway actress.”

I love that. I love how it showed up on some bureaucrat’s test. But the point was, it was the only thing she could do. Suddenly, she had some personality. I have liked her from that point on.

Writing is the only thing I can do. College was a failure, though I did eventually graduate, and I’ve done many things for a career. But none of them really took. Because all I wanted to do was write. I got fired from one job because I spent all my time writing. When I figured out I couldn’t stand working for some else, I started my own company. Several of them, in fact. But even then, I’d sit in my office with “real work” stacked to the rafters and write. I just could not get away from it.

The fiction world for me was always as real (more real, even) than the real world. It was the world I occupied, even in the day to day world of work, washing dishes, and relationships. I don’t even mean that I had a rich inner life (which I do). I just mean that the act of writing, of defining the story and then sharing it, was always more important to me than whatever was happening to the person who actually wrote the stories. My life was meaningful only inasmuch as I could write. It was the thing that gave me definition. It made me happy.

My experience with agents and publishers has generally been very positive. I do love my agent – he works as hard as I do on my books, he’s sensible and smart and funny, and just a great judge of books. But even if I didn’t have him, or publishers, or people to read the things I want to say, I would write. I did, for many years, when I was still learning how to put books together. And even after my first book was bought – then unbought – it didn’t sway me from the act of sitting with my computer or my journals, and writing.

I don’t really understand why this had to be my thing. I would probably have been happier if I were just a normal lawyer.

But I’m not. And I won’t ever be.

Only recently did I finally face this fact about myself. There’s nothing else I could be. Nothing that would have worked in the long term, because I’d always be fighting the impulse. And so I gave in. Now all I do is write. When I get nervous and think what if I’m wrong about this? or I get that sick feeling in my stomach when I realize that a certain opportunity has passed me by, I remind myself that it’s not just a random chance that I find myself in this position.

New writers or people new to publishing tend to think that publishing is a miracle. They read the statistics and they are grim. It feels like the entire world has odds stacked against you and so when a book is actually bought, it’s like a huge accomplishment – like you’ve conquered an entire industry. I don’t think that’s true. I think that there’s a good chance to get published if you are meant to be published. If you actually write instead of dreaming of have written, if you care more about the story than the book, if you turn down other opportunities so you can write – not because you’ll be rewarded but because in your soul, that’s what you want to do, then I think your odds of being published are very good. Likewise, I don’t believe that Bernadette Peters was guaranteed success just because that test said she had to be a Broadway actress. But I think the tendency for her to be one, to bliss herself out by practicing, singing, dancing, hanging out with other actors, studying, giving up dates to practice… those things add up. And those things ultimately contributed to her desired outcome.

When I get nervous – and I do, because I have no safety net, I don’t have any backup plan – I just remember that there are at least two people in this world doing the only thing we can do: Bernadette Peters and me. She is now one of my favorite actors. I find her thrilling to watch now, knowing what went into every performance. When my strength is low and my frustration is high, when I can no longer depend on myself to cheer me up, I always think of Bernadette Peters working on her craft somewhere, because it’s the only thing she can do, and I get right back to work.

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