There are a lot of places where I and everything else in sight don’t make for a comfortable fit. Where the drummer has one rhythm going and my feet twitch to some other cadence entirely. Most people will eventually cop to the same. Once we drop our pretenses, we’re all a bunch of square pegs staring at a world of round holes.
The fun begins when you stop looking at this as something to overcome and instead start embracing it as a bonus. Maybe even a career requirement. Artists of all stripes do this all the time: reframe their inability to mesh as just another life-enhancement quality.
“I passionately hate the idea of being with it; I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.” — Orson Welles
I’d love to know the greater context for that quote. I’ve only ever managed to find this much. (If you know, please, do tell.) The phrase “with it” makes it sound like a product of the 1960s or early ’70s, but the principle that Welles appears to be espousing is timeless: that one’s art shouldn’t merely reinforce the status quo, and bob along pushed in the direction of the prevailing winds.
It seems valid to extend this principle beyond what your work conveys and into the day-by-day backdrop out of which that work emerges. Parting company with the world’s habits, the better to see it and reflect it more clearly.
(1) Leave the earbuds out of your ears.
If future archaeologists were to find hieroglyphics from our age, they’d surely wonder what was up with those white cords unspooling from everybody’s ears. There was a stretch when I wore my iPod out for most solo trips — post office, grocery store, wherever — so I could listen to books and podcasts. Seemed like an expedient use of time.
I gave it up. Because I noticed that when I left the iPod at home I had a higher number of pleasant random encounters with people. Encounters that might not have occurred if those white cords had been telling everyone, “Leave me alone. You’re not as important as this recording I can listen to anytime.”
Art and the soul that brings it to fruition are shaped by random events. Be open to them.
(2) Stash the laptop computer for a change. Along with the Kindle, iPad, and smartphone.
Same deal, different technologies. A couple years ago I heard about a coffee house in … San Francisco, I want to say … distinguished by a radical new gimmick: no wi-fi, plus a ban on using computers at all. They were intent on returning the concept of the coffee house to what it used to be: a place where people might gather and, you know, actually talk to each other.
Tough call. I do love taking my laptop along for a mocha or a pint. But I look around at the other laptop-luggers and it seems like, for all the joy they exhibit, they might as well be in office cubicles. Then: Do I look like that?
With a little luck, you won’t be alone, as long as there are a few others like this fellow, quoted in an article from New York’s The Local East Village:
“I never bring my laptop when I come to Ost or other coffee places because I like to see people,” said long time East Villager Hal Miller. “It’s the weirdest thing to walk by shops and see people just staring into screens. It’s so cold.”
(3) Cultivate friends of all ages.
Compared to most of the rest of the world, ours is an ageist and age-stratified culture. A generalization, sure, but we do tend to dismiss people much older than ourselves as out-of-touch, and those much younger as not having sufficiently lived yet.
A creator can’t afford these prejudices. Anyone can be a muse, a teacher, a window into another of life’s dimensions.
At the school where I practice Krav Maga, I’ve trained with everyone from kids in their early high school years to those who’ve long been eligible for AARP. It’s the most egalitarian environment I know. Nobody sees age, really, just other people. I can learn from any of them, and have. It’s a continual reminder not to dismiss anyone in the world beyond class merely because of demographics and chronologies.
(4) Cultivate selective ignorance of current events.
The 24-hour news cycle has created a breed of addict that couldn’t have existed a generation ago: the news junkie. Yet I’m astounded at the number of highly accomplished people I’ve read about in recent years who tune it out by default, all the better to focus on their contribution to the world. Even Dr. Andrew Weil’s 8 Weeks To Optimum Health recommends a once-a-week news fast as a part of the program, to take a break from the fear-mongering and let your sense of optimism recover.
(5) Disconnect even further.
Who are you without the barrage of media imagery and other propaganda trying to sell you, enlist you, persuade you, advocate for someone else’s view of what you should think and do and be? It can be deceptively easy to forget. Pick a day or two or a week or more and pull as many plugs as you can. Leave the TV off, the radio silent, the magazines untouched, and avert thine eyes from billboards. If you can breathe fresh air under an open sky, or beside the burble of flowing water, so much the better. As a 21st-century Thoreau, in your own private Walden, the remembering gets easier.
(6) In cyberspace, no one can hear you argue.
Did you ever wonder, if all the pie fights were deleted from Web, like draining a swamp, how much data storage space would suddenly be freed up? The Internet makes it easy to call anyone any name you want with no risk of getting punched in the nose. Just as easy to find troglodytes eager to roll in the mud with you, for as long as you’ll let them. Yet I’ve encountered exactly no one who claims to be left energized by this … just depleted and angry and wondering where the hours went. Time and energy that could’ve been used to create instead of pretending to destroy.
(7) Remember you’re not a machine without an off-switch, and stop treating yourself as though you are.
Every study on work and the workplace that I’ve ever seen reaches the same conclusion: expecting people (or people expecting themselves) to perform like machines, running constantly and required to produce more and more with less and less, is counterproductive to the point of stupidity. The results: burnout, increased job dissatisfaction, elevated stress levels, diminished health, and so on. Yet this is the default template for the average American workplace, and the default mindset for most would-be achievers. Why does it persist? Mostly inertia and because it delivers short-term results.
The approach that generally works far better for the long run: periods of highly focused activity (usually an hour or two) interspersed with short periods of renewal. Brain breaks, I’ve heard them called.
If you write full-time, this may help you get more done in a day, and if not, leave you with more for the page once you can get there.
(8) Explore old books, old movies, old music.
We often operate as if the world didn’t truly exist before we were born. It’s not a literal belief, of course … more that the world didn’t produce much of anything that mattered until it produced us. So we ignore most of the culture that came before, because it’s just. So. Old. But here’s the thing about gems: They don’t age. And I always love it when I see a kid wearing a T-shirt for some band whose heyday, even demise, came years before he was born.
Eight steps to out-of-step. You have nothing to lose but a few ruts.
[Photo by KellBailey]
What do you get when you mix our hottest August on record, a proclivity toward summer lethargy (for which, come to find out, the Japanese have a name: natsubate), and weed allergy season? For starters, me behind on just about everything. Hence this rerun, a well-received piece from 18 months ago. And please pass the Kleenex…
I like life lessons that are simple enough to apply across the board, and they don’t get much more stripped-down than lessons you can learn from boxing. Win or lose, there’s something every fighter wants to be able to say after a bout: “I left it all in the ring.”
You might have heard a variation of this during last month’s Winter Olympics, from speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno: “I left it all on the ice.”
Meaning that by the time the final bell rings, or the race is run, that’s it for you. You’re done in. You don’t have any more left for that day, that hour, the very next minute, and in this moment, at least, the outcome pales beside one fact that can never be taken away:
You’ve given it everything you had.
I don’t think I ever truly, madly, deeply appreciated this until last December, when I took my Krav Maga orange belt test. At first it started out fun. Then it got a little challenging. Then a lot challenging. At about hour five I joined the push-it-til-you-puke club. Came back out and dug in to finish the last 45 minutes as strongly as I could, even though I was afraid I’d blown it.
Never in my life had I been this miserable without food poisoning being involved. Got home and could barely make it up a flight of stairs, two-handing it up the rail, clump-clump, clump-clump, one step at a time. I slumped into a hot bath and … OK, I didn’t pray for death, but if I’d noticed a scythe blade in the doorway, I’d’ve told the Reaper, “Come on, ya moldy bastard, there’s an extra five in it for you if you make it quick.”
Exhilarating, though? Like nothing else. Except for one thing.
The best writing experiences I’ve ever had have left me feeling the same way. The best writing experiences I’ve ever had were the ones that concluded with a collapse. Sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally. Sometimes it felt as if it were the rest of the world that had fallen away, and I lingered above it in floating tranquility.
These are the ones I remember in sensory details of time and place. These are the ones that make me wonder where the words really came from. The ones that spit me back into the world with the surreal, stumbling dislocation of a teleporting misfire. These are the ones in which I rode all the way to the end on a wave of jubilant terror that I wasn’t going to make it, but somehow did.
The ones when I left it all on the page.
As creators, we sometimes have a tendency to conserve, to hold back. Maybe it stems from the admonitions we’ve heard since childhood:
- Don’t spend it all in one place.
- Put away a little something for a rainy day.
- Be sure to save some for later.
- Put that back, you’ll spoil your dinner!
All those bits of code designed to program us into obedient, frugal, regulated little models of prudence and moderation.
Fine. Live like that away from the desk if you want to. But if you bring it to the page, it’s like showing up at the pub on Saint Paddy’s Day wearing a solemn face and a T-shirt that says, “Kiss me, I’m Amish.”
This creative reticence comes in two major forms:
(1) The temptation to hold back ideas
Tell me you haven’t been here before: You’re about to introduce a character, inject an idea, or just lay down a nice turn of phrase … and then stop. Not because it isn’t good enough, but because it seems toogood for now.
You want to save it for later. Later in the same work. Later in life, for another work altogether.
Don’t. Don’t sit on it.
Introduce it, inject it, lay it down now.
You’ll never have quite this same blend of energy and enthusiasm and freshness again. Ideas left to ripen have a way of going stale, shrinking as the juice evaporates through their skin.
You’re sending yourself a bad message, too: that the well is running low, so you better not drink as deep, or that you’re incapable of coming up with an even better idea when you think you’ll actually use this one.
Ideas are there to be used, not rationed.
(2) The impulse to hold back ourselves
Like an archaeological dig, writing fiction proceeds in layers. When you do it right, you’re doing more than uncovering the intricacies of story and character, the minutiae you couldn’t be aware of during the planning phase. You’re revealing pieces of yourself, too, maybe parts you didn’t know about, or didn’t understand, or were afraid to confront or embrace.
Sometimes it all spills out the first trip through. Other times it builds up little by little, another thin, sedimentary layer with each pass of revision.
As a reader, the stuff that gets to me, stays with me, makes me want to come back for more, isn’t the stuff that skims the surface. It’s not the stuff that reads like a padded outline or a head exercise with no investment of heart. All top motion. All ripples and no undertow.
Instead, what hooks me are the ones where I get a sense of the writer having dived as deep as she possibly could to get to the truth of her tale, not stopping until she was up to her elbows in the silt at the bottom.
For myself — and from myself — I don’t want the novel, the story, that anyone could have written, given access to the same notes. I want the version only one of us could’ve written. The version pulsing with a feeling that, to the author, every day and every paragraph mattered as much as breathing.
I know — they all feel like they do, at the time. Even the ripple-skimmers.
It doesn’t always translate. Not when it hasn’t been pushed sufficiently hard. Whatever lay behind it, not everything made it all the way to the page. Instead of going for more sweat, tears, blood, and heart rate, somebody settled for his idea of close enough and called it a day.
The orange belt test…
As it turned out, I passed. But I had serious doubts. Didn’t feel one bit good about how I’d done, and they don’t pass you for showing up. They don’t even pass you for finishing.
Just as editors and publishers don’t say yes simply on the basis of your having a completed manuscript. The same way readers don’t love something just because you wrote “The End.”
Instead, Yes and Love are earned through toil that sometimes hurts. A lot. I got the impression I’d earned that new color coding not in the first five hours, but in those last 45 minutes.
It’s true, though — no single work can be everything to everybody. Regardless of how deep you dug or dove, not everyone is going to get it. That’s OK. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how many do.
The surest way to get there? Again, boxing has an answer, in something fighters are always wise to do: Never leave it in the judges’ hands.
Meaning that win, lose, or die trying…
They go for the knockout every time.
[Photo by Intangible]
It happens to all of us: A work is rejected or critically thrashed on the grounds that the main character isn’t sympathetic enough. Maybe the entire disagreeable herd of them aren’t sympathetic enough.
Of course it’s a highly subjective complaint, and maybe even misses the mark for what makes a work compulsively readable. I’ll forever remember the way David J. Schow once broke it down: Never mind whether or not characters are sympathetic … the greater question is are they interesting?
The fact remains, though, that the sympathy factor remains important to a lot of people on both sides of the printing press.
And so remains this paradox: Often, the most interesting characters are the ones with the most flaws, the most disagreeable qualities. Sand down those rough edges and you’re likely to lose what makes them compelling.
You can get away with a lot, though, if you know how to package it.
We can overlook, forgive, or even empathize with just about any character flaw, no matter how bad it is or how deep it runs, as long as it’s clear that the character is genuinely resolute about getting better.
We’re Funny That Way
The reasons are obvious: We’re suckers for stories of redemption. We’re suckers for even the appearance of redemption.
It’s why whoremongering televangelist Jimmy Swaggart still had followers after he blubbered his way into legend, and why politicians and celebrities keep coming back from scandal after scandal after scandal.
There’s a reliable damage-control playbook that PR pros employ when their clients slip their leashes to reveal their true natures, and more often than not, the public buys it. Buys it eagerly. Because we like the story so much, with its stations of the cross — confession, contrition, resolution, redemption — that we’re willing to overlook the improbability of it being altogether true.
We like to see people fighting the good fight, and if the battleground lies within themselves, so much the better.
You can use that to make a lot of character flaws palatable. You can use that to hang onto a lot of character actions that, by any objective standard, spectacularly fail the sympathy test.
Doing It Right By Accident
The first time I really became consciously aware of the leeway this gives you was a few years ago, while taking a trip through my novel Prototype, to give it a bit of polish for a new edition. The central character, Clay Palmer, among other faults, can be cruelly blunt, doesn’t like to be touched, likes to play head games, is prone to violent outbursts, and has an unrelentingly cynical view of life.
This shouldn’t have worked, I thought at one point, seeing everything again through more objective eyes. Clay is not a likable character you’d choose to hang out with in the real world, although I daresay he’s an interesting character.
To his benefit, however, he also has a painful self-awareness that something is terribly wrong with him, and when he learns that he has an extremely rare chromosomal mutation, he wants help so desperately that his drive to get to the heart of what it all means forms the skeleton of the bulk of the novel.
Of all the considerable feedback I’ve gotten on Prototype, not one person has complained that the central character — who sometimes behaves abominably — isn’t sympathetic. To the contrary … I think he is, but it can only be his awareness that he’s broken and his resolve to triumph over it that make him so.
Otherwise, I’d’ve only created another sociopath.
Extreme Case Study: The Woodsman
Again: We can overlook, forgive, or even empathize with any character flaw, no matter how bad it is or how deep it runs, as long as it’s clear that the character is genuinely resolute about getting better…
Are there flaws so deep, deeds so vile, there’s no salvation from them? It’s a good question. Effective storytelling can bring you over to nearly anyone’s side, but if you want to see this pushed about as far as it possibly can be, I can think of no better example than the 2004 film The Woodsman.
In it, Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a convicted pedophile paroled after a 12-year prison term. There’s no ambiguity here — he did it, and it’s not at all certain that he won’t do it again. The only landlord Walter could find who would rent to him puts him in an apartment that faces an elementary school. He’s wary, closed-off, harassed by a police detective, ostracized by most of his family, and lives in continual fear of being found out by his co-workers at a lumber yard.
Serves him right? There’s no excusing what he did, and no attempt to, but it’s hard not to feel something for him. Admittedly, though, it’s difficult to peg how much of this is in the story and how much lies in the goodwill that comes with the actor. Few actors of the last 30 years seem as inherently likable as Kevin Bacon.
This much is clear: Walter doesn’t want to lapse again, an internalized struggle that has two key externalizations (SPOILER ALERT!). The first is ongoing: his instant recognition of another predator hanging around the school, and his desire to stop him. The second is a pivotal encounter: a devastating conversation with a young girl he’s approached in a park, and his realization that, if he goes through with his intentions, he won’t be the first. He sees the damage done already, which short-circuits his plans, and the moral revulsion he feels allows the protective side of his nature to finally take over.
The Woodsman isn’t for everyone, but it does make for a superb study in how to find the humanity in a very difficult source.
By comparison, whatever potentially alienating traits your characters have will probably seem all the easier to deal with.
*****Got a few more minutes to kill? You’re invited over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, where you can learn how to hack your productivity with the latest installment, “The 5-Second Trick To Writing More Each Week.”
At almost every level, except maybe the upper echelons of bestsellerdom, writers seeking to establish professional relationships face a signal-to-noise ratio so lopsided it’s like pitting a mouse against an elephant.
Guess which critter the writer is.
The only way to cut through the noise and make yourself stand out is to do awesome work. And once you manage that, to keep upgrading your standards for awesome, and keep hammering away until the right editor, right agent, right publisher, right whoever, notices.
You know this already. Easier said than done, yes, but it’s the only way. Lazy work, amateurish work, work that lacks your heart and soul, isn’t going to get you anywhere. Awesome work is also just the first stage of making yourself stand out.
But let’s say you’ve pulled it off. The right people are starting to notice. Or let’s say you have faith and want to be ready when they do.
What then? How do you keep making yourself stand out? Besides the obvious of continuing to do what got you noticed in the first place?
Here’s one radical idea that you learned in preschool, that won’t cost anything, and is ridiculously simple: Express gratitude. Say thank you.
This Is Rarer Than You Might Think
Several years ago I decided to start making it a priority to send a few words of thanks to the editor responsible whenever a piece of mine came out in an anthology, a magazine, the occasional book of essays or other nonfiction. It’s one thing to say thanks when you’re sending back a signed contract. But this was after I’d received my contributor’s copy, after months or even, in the case of books, a year or two may have gone by. It’s old business by then.
Nothing gushy, no slobbering, just straightforward and from the heart: Thanks for sending the copy, and thanks especially for having me in it. I’m glad to be there. Whatever seems right or unique to the project.
I didn’t start doing this for any other reason than that it seemed like the right thing to do. Because I sincerely am glad to be there. Competition for table-of-contents space can be fierce, and sometimes editors really do agonize over their choices.
Here’s where the surprise came in: Early in this habit, an editor wrote back to express his appreciation for my appreciation.
Hardly anybody ever says thank you, he told me.
Wow. This was a prominent editor with dozens of books and lots of awards to his credit. He’s wrangled a number of prestige projects. His word is good, he treats authors well and with respect…
Yet hardly anybody could be bothered to tell him thanks?
Since then, I’ve always made it a point to be one of the exceptions.
And I can’t help but notice we’ve had a pretty good professional relationship that continues to this day.
Pesky Human Nature
I don’t know why gratitude gets overlooked in cases like this, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s simply because it’s easy to overlook. There’s no penalty tax, your mom’s not there to remind you (“What do you saa-aay?”), and really, who has that extra minute or two? So it becomes an easily omitted indulgence that we think goes without saying. You do your job, I’ll do mine, and we’ll both get along fine.
You know … like robots on an assembly line.
But if you’ve ever read marketing maven Seth Godin, you don’t have to go very far before you find some riff on his contention that people crave human interactions that go beyond the simple mechanics of a business transaction. I would maintain that expressions of gratitude are a perfectly valid form of this.
Question A: Don’t you like to feel appreciated for what you do?
Question B: Then why neglect that inclination in others?
A funny thing happens when you resolve to be one of the relative few who take appreciative notice. You get noticed in return.
The Circle Expands
It isn’t only editors and publishers. I’ve made it a point to thank artists. Book designers. People who’ve tweeted on my behalf. More. Which may sound as if I’m advocating buttering up only to people who can do something for me in the future. Not so, and I can prove it: When I’ve been able to find out who they were, I’ve thanked some of the publishing process’s most invisible people: copy editors.
On the one hand, it just feels good to do it.
On the other hand, I no longer think of these folks as a widely scattered individuals with slivers of overlap, like a Venn diagram. I think of them as something distinctly and collectively more.
In his landmark book from 1937, Think And Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill — commissioned by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to spend 20+ years analyzing the work approach of many of the nation’s most successful people and distilling it into practical habits and philosophy — wrote about a concept he called the Master Mind.
In a nutshell, the Master Mind is the combined synergy of a person and the other people he or she brings in to work together on a common purpose. Whatever their aim, they add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Traditionally they’re thought of as periodically gathering in the same place — putting their heads together to create one giant, pulsating noggin — and while this is no doubt preferable in most examples, there have to be exceptions.
We live one, we writers.
Writing goes hand-in-hand with a great deal of isolation. We do so much work alone that we can be fooled into thinking that we’re doing it all on our own. Au contraire. Even if you’re digitally self-publishing, you’re still not doing it all on your own.
Whatever the project, whatever its path to publication, think of the process and its constituent parts: editor, publisher, illustrator, designer, cover artist, copy editor, agent, promoter. More, probably, if you look for them.
These are your Master Mind. They may never sit around the same table, but still, they’re yours. They come together on behalf of you and your work, and not a one of them wants it to be any less than it can be. They want it to succeed. They want you to succeed.
Few of us, I imagine, actually take them for granted. But if we give that appearance, then what’s the difference?
Break the status quo, though, and you could have even more to thank them for in the future.
***** Parting is such sweet sorrow … but you can put it off a few more minutes. You’re always welcome over at my own blog, Warrior Poet, whose latest installment is “The Writer’s Soul: Built One Crack At A Time.”
[Photo by psd]
[I'm not keen on the idea of reruns, but better that than giving the day a miss. Today, the past couple of weeks have led up to this question: to euthanize or not. I hope you understand. Here's one from 13 months ago that will always be timely.]
An open letter to Anonymous:
I don’t know your name. I didn’t ask, and our mutual acquaintance was tactful enough not to volunteer it. So it’s not impossible you and I have crossed paths, but since I just don’t know, I can at least assure you:
This is nothing personal.
You and I were among five authors that a fledgling writer contacted, looking for advice concerning her first novel. She knew us only by our work, our reputations, and held them in high enough regard to believe we might have some worthwhile counsel.
Three of us she never heard back from at all, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it takes me a long time to answer e-mail too. Good intentions alone don’t click the reply button.
You, though. What were you thinking?
Now, if you couldn’t be bothered, that’s one thing.
“I’m sorry, I wish I could help, but at the moment I’ve got so much on my plate I just can’t see past what’s right in front of me. Best of luck, though.”
That’s all you had to say. Cordial, honest, and while it may have come as a disappointment, no one would have thought any less of you. Would’ve taken you 30 seconds, tops.
Instead, I’ll bet you spent quite a bit more than half a minute on the way you handled it. Meaning time wasn’t the underlying issue at all, was it?
So I wonder: When you unloaded on her, did you think you were teaching her a lesson for having the gall to bother you? Did it give you some sort of petty satisfaction? Did you stew over it for a while, or did you let her have it with the first things that came to mind?
There are quite a few words that could apply to you, but let’s focus on just one:
Your reaction was myopic. Your sight fell short both ahead of you and behind.
First the forward myopia.
Did you pause to consider that you were losing a reader? Forever, probably? Do you think she’ll ever again see a work of yours and not remember your treatment of her, and pass it by?
I know for certain she’s bought books since then. Guess what. They weren’t yours.
And it may not be just her. There’s a marketing statistic I recall reading, that a person who has a negative experience with a company is seven times more likely to share it with other people than a positive experience.
So did you never consider that she might convey this experience with you to someone else? She may not have told me your name, but I’d be surprised if she hasn’t disclosed it to people she’s closer to. Members of a writers group, maybe, or others with whom she’s spent months or years honing her craft, who understand and empathize.
How eager do you think they’ll be now to contribute to your bottom line? Even friends of theirs, maybe. True, the damage may not extend out for too many degrees of separation. But neither will any good word of mouth. Odds are, you’ve lopped that branch off for good.
And now the backward myopia. Because you give the appearance of having forgotten a few things.
You seem to have forgotten how much courage it can take to reach out to a stranger, and how fragile confidence can be.
You seem to have forgotten that you were once unpublished. That you needed help, advice, wisdom, counsel. That you needed occasional pointers and course correction.
I wonder: Did you abide by your current creed then? Did you refrain from asking anyone for help? If you did, well, points for consistency to you, but still, such a solitary path seems pointless and self-limiting, because help was out there to be had.
And you seem, finally, to have forgotten the value of a few kind words. They cost nothing to give, yet to the recipient their worth can be inestimable.
Along the way I’ve been the beneficiary of many kindnesses, and can’t help but think of their sources with appreciation, warmth, and respect.
I don’t know if he’s still as accessible as he used to be, but there was a time you couldn’t find anyone, no matter how slim their resume, who had anything other than a good thing to say about how well they’d been treated by one particular resident of the top of the bestseller lists. I used to wonder how he had the time to respond to all the inquiries that no doubt came his way.
His name: Dean Koontz.
A few simple lines of encouragement he gave still live inside me long after, I’m sure, he’s forgotten giving them at all.
Others come to mind as well, none of whom behaved as though they were the guardians to some citadel of expertise. None of them seemed to believe they were members of a frat house entitled to haze pledges. None of them acted like they might enjoy clubbing baby seals.
Rather, they understood principles that escape some writers: Publishing is not a zero sum game. Your success doesn’t depend on anyone else’s failure. Part of success lies in how many others you can help climb higher.
These were writers who defined success to me, in more ways than one, and I can think of them as reflecting well in the light of a line I recently encountered:
“Money doesn’t change you. It just reveals who you are when you don’t have to be nice.”
As a beneficiary of each writer’s generosity of time and spirit, I imagine we both knew there was never anything I could do to offer payback in kind. Just this: remain a fan, read their work, and encourage others to do the same.
And try, however much I might fall short sometimes, to not lose sight of their example.
Either you too benefitted from such an example along the way, or you didn’t. It’s one or the other. But whichever it is, right now I kind of feel sorry for someone. Because either you, or they, probably deserved better.
So will the next writer who seeks your advice. And there will be a next time. I hope you come through. Really. I know you can, because you’ve overcome far greater obstacles.
They’re just panties, after all. So unwad them and do what we all have to do from time to time:
Back up and rewrite the scene for the better.
[Photo by Richo.Fan]
Unless you put your work away where nobody else can see it, writing is an act of risk. People might not get it. People might not get you. The work may not fit present needs. And that’s just the submission part.
Publication magnifies all that exponentially … and worse, does so in public. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will: At some point you’re going to feel as if you’ve been strolling carefree down a medieval London street and someone in a third-story window has emptied a chamber pot over your head.
You’re going to get dumped on, and it’s going to happen more than once.
How you deal with this, as one of the unpleasant but inevitable parts of the process, can make the difference between carrying on undaunted, and succumbing to the crippling sense that it’s just too painful to continue. And one of the most forward-looking coping strategies is to simply acknowledge this one great, untarnished truth:
You never know what else is coming.
“Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?”
Last month my fourteenth book came out, a collection called Picking The Bones. Unlike my previous three collections, where I included the Endnotes in the book itself, this time I turned them into a separate, downloadable PDF booklet. Because I wanted this to be more visual than a plain text document, one thing I did was incorporate the covers of the books and magazines in which the stories first appeared. Which I first had to round up. Hellooo, Google Images.
Sometimes finding the best JPG for the job took me back in time … including face-to-face with a review of the magazine that initially published the collection’s leadoff story. To excerpt:
Brian Hodge’s “With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu” and (…) are both deeply serious political fictions. The Hodge is in no way SF, fantasy, or horror, and, sadly, the writing isn’t up to the tale’s ambitions. Hodge provides a completely superfluous beginning section, introducing much too bluntly details that will be made clear as the story develops. He also injects, rather clumsily, a layer of allegory that gives this story a pretentious aura without adding anything to its resonance.
Actually, no. Oh, I’m sure that if I’d seen this review when it had first come out it would’ve ruined my day and tainted the next one.
But I didn’t see it then. When I finally did, I had an advantage that wasn’t available to me, or for that matter to the reviewer, at the time:
I knew what came next.
Taking The Micro View
But first, the kneejerk reaction. All our first reactions are kneejerk, often with an urge to blame the messenger. Or at least ask Did this person read what I actually wrote?
Sometimes the answer is this: They read the words, yes, but not the work.
People see what they see. Perceptions are tempered by biases, by expectations, by dogma over what something is or isn’t, and how it should go about its purpose … and there’s no point arguing about any of that. It’s wasted energy, he-said-she-said stuff.
Remember: Not everyone’s going to get it. Not everyone’s going to get you. Accept that and move on.
And look ahead…
Taking The Macro View
For “With Acknowledgments to Sun Tzu,” here’s what came next:
- It drew a lot of favorable commentary from the magazine’s readers and elsewhere. 100% favorable? No, of course not. But positive by a wide margin.
- It was selected for reprint in The 17th Annual Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror by Ellen Datlow, one of the most respected editors in the field.
- The International Horror Guild gave it their 2003 award for Outstanding Achievement In Horror & Dark Fantasy Fiction (Short).
- It is, as mentioned, the leadoff story — a crucial slot — in my new collection, which Publishers Weekly recently gave not just a good review, but my first starred review there. The significance? To quote PW reviewer Rose Fox, “A starred review from PW is a big deal. Like diamonds, their value is in their scarcity … As far as I’m concerned, a star means ‘This is better than others of its kind.’”
None of which I knew was coming at the time.
And now, it’s just a matter of perspective.
What Matters, What Doesn’t
Again: You’re going to get dumped on, and more than once.
Whatever form this takes — a bad review, a hatchet job on a message board, a snarky broadside on someone’s blog — ultimately it’s what you make of it. It has no more influence and power over you than what you decide to give it.
And what is it, really, but a bump in the road that has so much more left to be traveled, whose twists and turns you can’t foresee?
Where you start, and the bumps along the way … these don’t matter. What matters is where you end up.
It doesn’t matter who doesn’t get it. It doesn’t matter who doesn’t get you. What matters is who does.
And the welcome they give you tomorrow can make you forget all about the arrows in your back today.
***** Parting is such sweet sorrow … but you can put it off a few more minutes. You’re always welcome over at my own blog, Warrior Poet, whose latest installment fulfills a reader request with “A Tour Of My Workspace.”
[Photo by katieblench]
Predictability seems to be about the worst charge that can be leveled at a storyteller. After plagiarism, that is. Plagiarism and predictability, the big two mortal sins.
It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. It can be the total antithesis of the kinds of tales that, by default, have ample unpredictability etched into their DNA: mystery, thriller, suspense, crime. You could instead be writing literary fiction, whatever that is. Humorous memoir. Fantasy. Doesn’t matter.
No matter what the label, its readers want you to be ahead of their guesses and suspicions as to where the path leads. They want to be surprised … and with some regularity, too.
Forget this and, predictably, scorn shall be heaped upon your head.
The Unwritten Contract
You won’t find it in any roster of civil statutes, but whenever someone picks up a book or a story, there’s an implicit contract between reader and writer. The bare-bones version goes something like this:
- You won’t bore me.
- You’ll either take me to places I’ve never been before, or to places that feel as familiar as where I grew up.
- Love ‘em or hate ‘em, your characters should make an impression on me.
- And whatever’s coming, I don’t want to see it coming. Not all the time, anyway, and not from a long way off.
There’s something in us that delights in being surprised. In the storytelling context, we looove having the rug yanked from beneath us, being blindsided and sucker-punched. It’s like a little pleasurable hit of a drug. The brain quivers, ecstatic, with a teeny squirt of dopamine and we’re ready for more.
From the writer’s perspective, this doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design. Lots of painstaking design.
It’s hardly an exhaustive list — in fact, I hope you’ll add to it — but here are 5 key places in most any storyline where unpredictability can be used to greatest effect:
- Most obviously, the ending
- Mobilizing events and their outcomes, or character reactions to them
- Hidden sides or buried traits of characters that suddenly break through
- Secrets that are deliberately withheld
- Novel uses of language
The Best Way To Keep Them Guessing? Keep Yourself Guessing
In wrangling these component parts to keep the reader off balance, first ideas nearly always deserve to be wadded up and slam-dunked into the trash. Second ideas too, a lot of the time, and maybe even third. Here’s why:
There’s a good chance the same thing has already occurred to your reader.
A good chance the same thing has already occurred to some lazy writer who’s already been this way before you.
A good chance the reader has, somewhere, already seen the same thing play out as you’ve initially imagined it.
Thus, there’s a good chance that if you’re in the habit of settling on the first thing that comes to mind, your reader will feel like she’s seen it all before.
Earliest ideas are usually the quickest and easiest, the ones within the shortest reach that anybody could grab. They’re the plain old rocks lying on the surface, rather than the valuable gemstones that take some digging to get to.
So get your fingernails dirty and dig deeper.
One Fundamental Way I Put This To Work
Later this month my fourth collection, Picking The Bones — fourteenth book overall — will be coming out. For the sales copy, I dipped back into the time capsule to crib from a review of my first collection, The Convulsion Factory, in which critic Stanley Wiater said: “Hodge is deadly serious about presenting a world where the worst punishment is the mere fact that you are aware you will probably live to see another day.”
Even now, I’ve yet to meet Stan Wiater, but when I first read that, I wanted to jump in my car and track him down and give him a great big hug. I still might do it. Here’s what I’d yell before getting a faceful of pepper spray: “Thank you for noticing!”
Because a lot of work and thought went into striving for that reaction.
Last year, on public radio, I heard a writer/teacher named Brenda Peterson discuss the classes she taught. Her students were frequently prone to the habit of killing off their main characters, so she would have to slap a moratorium on this for the rest of the semester:
Killing them off is too easy. Think of another ending.
The same thing had occurred to me years before, after encountering in others’ work that same default cop-out that so bedeviled Peterson. So, for me, this became, if not an unbendable rule, at least a governing policy:
If you’re in the center of my world, you’re safe, in a way. Hardly anybody dies here. But that comes with a catch: You may wish you had. You’re going to be confronted with some transformation or some revelation or some understanding of yourself that maybe you can handle, and maybe you can’t. Still, I’m giving you a fighting chance here.
It’s harder, yes. It takes adding more hamsters to the wheel in my head. But the result is work that’s more personalized, that’s unique in its own way, because I don’t have the exact same sensibilities as anyone else.
And neither do you.
4 Steps To Walking The Tightrope Of Unpredictability
Like anything, keeping your work unpredictable is a skill that can be honed, and it has component factors.
(1) Know yourself, be yourself. It bears repeating: Your sensibilities are as unique as your fingerprints. We all see the world a little differently. So stake your claim. Learn from the craft of others, by all means, but don’t try to be their clone. As Bruce Lee said, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”
(2) Know what you’re really writing, and why. You shouldn’t be writing for no reason. You should be writing to communicate something. Understand what that is, and you’re that much closer to finding the sharpest, most surprising ways of expressing it.
(3) Hold nothing back. No half-measures, no timidity … that’s how you reach the turf that is uniquely yours. By its very nature, honesty is surprising. For a much greater focus on this, see “Leave It All On The Page.”
(4) Know your characters. I’ve always maintained that when you really know your characters, they end up doing half the work, just by being themselves and shaking off your efforts to treat them like paper dolls. And if they start surprising you, they’ll surprise your readers. Whenever I get to this state, it’s almost like taking dictation: “What’s everybody up to today? Really!?! OK, then, let’s roll.”
Now go and sin no more.
***** Done? So it ain’t so. You’re always welcome over at my own blog, Warrior Poet, which I’m finally getting synchronized with my entries here.
[Photo by Hector Sevillano]
In On Writing, Stephen King mentions an early rejection that was one of the best lessons he ever got. It wasn’t an encouraging letter. It barely qualifies as a note. It was just a formula that some kind editor thought might make a difference:
Second draft = First draft — 10%
I’d even go so far as to say that 15% is worth shooting for, especially if you’re prone to bouts of logorrhea. Either way, though, the payoff can mean the difference between publish and perish.
Once upon a time, I wrote a novel whose first trip out into the editorial marketplace met with not much love. I brought it back for another trip into the shop, where it sweated off an additional 15%. It’s just how the math turned out, but seemed like a good omen, since 15% is an agent’s typical commission.
Before long, the novel was the subject of a four-house auction and became the centerpiece of a six-figure year.
That I had a different agent by then undoubtedly factored in big. And maybe that I’d changed the original title, Miles To Go Before I Weep, to the punchier Wild Horses (a word savings of a whopping 66.6%). You can’t isolate individual elements and know what made how much difference.
Still, the fact remains: It was the same novel, just sleeker.
Which dovetails with this fact: Most editors aren’t going to put in the time and oversight necessary to help you turn a potentially meritorious work from a sumo wrestler into a sprinter. So they say no.
An agent might — might — but even then is likely to broad-stroke the advice: “Tighten this up, and I’ll look at it again.”
Beyond that, you’re on your own.
We’ll look for chopping-block candidates below, but first, it may be worthwhile to analyze your work habits and see if you’re giving yourself surplus verbiage just because you can.
Do You Use The Technology, Or Abuse It?
If you weren’t banging out words in the Typewriter Age, consider yourself lucky. Tweaking a finished manuscript meant using time-consuming tools like correction ribbons and Liquid Paper, which now seem about as sophisticated as medical care based on lunar phases and toad bladders. More substantial alterations might mean retyping an entire page.
Bottom line: If you wanted to change something, it had to be worth the effort. It could be tempting to let non-critical stuff slide.
For obvious reasons, word processing changed all that.
Except, for some writers, this was the worst possible tool to put in their hands. And remains so. As ever, technology is neutral. For good or for ill lies in the using.
There’s a writer whose earlier works I loved, but who after a point became, to me, almost unreadable. I believe the key to this was found in an interview I read, in which she blew wet, sloppy kisses to the whole idea of word processing: Now there was no excuse. Everything could be just the way you wanted it. You could go back and tinker to your heart’s bliss.
True enough. But this ease of redoing can break in two radically different directions.
(1) Subtractive. The writer treats early drafts like crude sculptures that still need bits chiseled away before they look right.
(2) Additive. The writer keeps pouring it on, building up words as if they were layer upon thick, blobby layer of oil paint.
One writer objectively looks for things to cut and places to condense. The other revels in how easy it is to maintain never-ending creation.
Now, #1 isn’t necessarily a virtue when the material gets scraped from lean to downright sketchy.
And #2 isn’t necessarily a vice if you’re just giving yourself more raw material to reshape later. Kinda like taking six pairs of jeans into the dressing room to find the perfect one.
Just be aware. That’s all. Awareness will eventually deepen into an instinctive sense of balance between too little and too much.
9 Places To Start Whacking
There are no templates to follow, no rules beyond this: Remain true to the work and its needs. Uniform prose, kept equal by hatchet, axe, and saw, isn’t the objective. Still, when bloat happens, here are several common places it settles.
(1) Saying the same thing three times when once will do. Often, we hammer points home to convince ourselves more than the reader. Don’t worry. They’ll get it.
(2) Scenes that go on past the point of the scene. Everybody’s together, things are happening, people won’t shut up … it’s like a party where the guests won’t leave. Kick ‘em out already.
(3) Laborious descriptions of scene-setting details. Try this: The next time you’re captivated by a tale set in a place that’s visually alive in your mind’s eye, go back and see how many scenic cues there really were. There are probably fewer than you’d think. Trust your reader the way that writer trusted you.
(4) Exhaustive descriptions of characters’ appearances. Again, a few well-defined strokes are all that’s needed, and the reader will fill in the rest. Consider this self-portrait of John Lennon. How much more simplistic could it be? Yet who else could it be?
(5) The weather. I’m all for setting-as-character, but there’s a big difference between mood and meteorology … or just plain filler.
(6) Backstory that isn’t germane to current events. Sure, coming up with it helped you know the character better. But is it equally illuminating to the reader, or is it now so reflected in the character’s behavior that it goes without saying?
(7) Research whose only purpose is to show off how much research you did. You went to all that trouble to find it out. Seems a shame not to use it. Instead, look at it this way: You learned more than you needed so you could feel confident about what you left out.
(8)Passages that sounded good at the time but have absolutely no purpose whatsoever. One rejection letter of an early novel of mine cited that it had “several jolly irrelevancies,” a phrase that stung at the time, but which I’ve adored ever since.
(9) Multiple endings. Yes, it can be difficult to let go. Thus, aftermath upon aftermath, denouement after denouement. May you instead know the startling satisfaction of thinking there’s more to go, then realizing, “Oh. It’s done. Right here.”
Yes, cutting can hurt. “Kill your darlings,” Faulkner advised, and sometimes we think we hear the darlings scream. But that high-pitched sound is just the hot air squeeing from overinflated prose.
Give those wounds a few days to heal. You’ll be amazed at what you can live without.
***** Done? Oh, we’re never done. You’re always welcome over at my own blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest, “When It’s Too Jam-Packed For Comfort, Give Yourself Permission To Breathe” is huffing and puffing.
[Photo by A Little Lam]
Sometimes the most intimidating aspect of tackling a long project, like a novel, isn’t any one thing. It’s the whole thing. The entire monolithic beast. It’s a mountain, you’re at the bottom, and to plant your flag at the top means more climbing than you can possibly imagine.
The sight of it, the thought of it, is overwhelming.
But what about, say, that narrow little plateau just 10 feet up? Forget about looking any higher. Just the plateau. Can you imagine getting that far, at least?
If you can, then there’s hope.
Forgetting The Big Picture
Breaking down a ginormous task into smaller, more easily managed chunks is a basic tenet in the vast flood of project-management and self-development literature. It’s sometimes likened to eating a whale. In one bite? No can do. Filets? Now you’re getting somewhere.
Sorry, fellow cetacean lovers. It’s just a metaphor.
At some point, though, we need to cross over from the simple mechanics of re-organization into mindset. How we mentally frame and approach and see the big, snorting beast in front of us. Overwhelm, after all, is not a set of conditions. It’s an emotional reaction to them: fear and paralysis and a cry of “Where do I begin?”
Recalibrate your view of what lies ahead, and you can strategically forget about the big picture for as long as being myopic is in your best interests.
This shift in perspective is at the heart of what ultra-endurance athlete Stu Mittleman, in his book Slow Burn, says about marathons:
Our objective isn’t to run 26 miles. It’s to run one mile 26 times.
So what might this look like when applied to the page?
So glad you asked…
The Novel As Short Story Collection
When I was writing my first crime novel, Wild Horses, I soon fell into the habit of regarding each chapter as if it were a short story unto itself. Finish one, and the next chapter was just another short story that happened to be about the same characters. Finish them all, and it added up to a collection of stories that was more than the sum of its parts.
It was nothing of the kind, of course. None of the chapters could’ve been printed in standalone form and made much sense.
Ah, but for a time, in my head, short stories is exactly what they were … and in the making stage, the discovery stage, my head was the only theater that mattered.
Chunk by chunk, the usual loose, made-to-be-broken-whenever-convenient rules for stories applied:
- Each chapter had an arc — a definite beginning, middle, and end.
- I went into it with a clear idea of the ideal entry point, where it was going, and what it needed to accomplish in between.
And that’s about all, really.
It’s an approach I’ve used since then, and neglected as well, and overall I find that it keeps the work punchier, more focused, more directed.
That Goes For Nonfiction, Too
I’m under no illusions that I’ve made some arcane discovery. Still, the only other person I’ve encountered detailing a similar approach is Tim Ferriss, in, as of this writing, the most recent post at his blog.
He cops to a sense of overwhelm while writing his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, and the saving grace inherent in downshifting his vision to the component level:
It changed only when I started viewing each chapter as a magazine article: strong enough to be a stand-alone piece, including a clear opening or “lede,” a clear middle with case studies, and a punctuated end with lessons learned.
From that mindset, a few trial runs, I developed a chapter template … I needed a repeatable process. To sit down to “write a book” was just too overwhelming, even with a table of contents as a blueprint.
Returning To The Big Picture
Will it work for every novel, every nonfiction book? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s up to you. Because it’s just a strategy — a means to an end, not the end itself. The beauty of it, though, is that it leaves no visible traces. The reader, seeing you on top of the mountain, doesn’t have to know how you got there, and probably won’t care.
All the reader really needs to know is this:
That you wrote the stories — the articles — the chapters — and eventually the book took care of itself.
***** Your next stop? Why not make it my own blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest, “To Produce & Protect: 5 Things That Creators Can Learn From IT Geeks” is gamely trying to hide its pocket protector.
[Photo by Casey Serin]
This may be taking much for granted, but I’m going to venture a guess that, as a writer, you have at least one of these end-goals in mind. Even if only at the level of a wistful, wouldn’t-it-be-nice daydream:
- To be the kind of writer who rewards repeat reading.
- To create work that fans introduce to their kids when they’re old enough.
- To do work that readers find speaks to them differently at different stages of their lives.
- To write books that people don’t just remember reading, but also remember the experience of reading — when, where, what was going on in their lives at the time, and why your work came along at just the right moment.
And so on. You may have some of your own that have never occurred to me.
Pretty much our entire raison d’etre here at Storytellers Unplugged is to explore the twisty, steep, and subtle paths for getting there.
This one today is more about how to ensure that you don’t.
2 Shocking Admissions!
Awhile back I was hanging with a writer friend. This may come as a shock, but when writers get together, they sometimes talk about … other writers. Not always kindly, either.
We’ll pause while you hoist your jaw up off the floor again.
One particular writer came up — let’s call him Author X — whom my friend once loved, years earlier, but admitted he just couldn’t read anymore.
I’d given Author X a couple tries and had never been able to warm up to his work. Not a flicker. Not even for a guilty weekend fling. I was pretty sure that I always understand why, too, based on something Author X said in an interview I read with him at the time.
Admission: That he wrote at a rate of about 15 minutes per page.
My reaction: It reads like something that was written at a rate of about 15 minutes per page.
When I related this to my friend, seeing the expression on his face was like watching a couple of missing puzzle pieces materialize and snap into place:
Yeah. That’s it. Exactly.
3 Obvious Guarantees
As long as there are readers, there will always be an audience, sometimes a substantial one, that is perfectly happy to read stolid, prose that skates a filmy-thin surface from Point A to Point B to Point Z, then vanishes into the air with an inaudible poof without once having demanded anything of those readers.
Like asking an uncomfortable question. Or challenging a preconception. Or just getting them to vacate their own perspective for a while and really look at the world through another pair of eyes.
Instead, in essence, this is being content to put on a puppet show with paper dolls.
Now, if this is truly the experience you seek to bring, then Vaya con Dios, my friend.
But before you do, please stop and think for a moment.
Think about three things I can almost guarantee you:
(1) It was not work like that made you want to write too.
(2) The work that did, or that now lights you up in one or more of those four ways mentioned at the beginning … its authors spent a lot more on it than 15 minutes per page.
(3) Its authors have no idea how much time they actually did spend per page.
But Don’t Take My Word For It
For writers, one of the best bits of advice that came out of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers — which helped popularize the law of 10,000 hours — wasn’t in the book. Rather, it was at the bottom of an interview he gave while promoting it in the UK:
“The thing I keep coming back to, after 18 months on this book, is the work thing. I always say to young writers who are struggling, well, how many drafts do you do? And then I say, what, you only do three drafts? I do ten.”
Some metrics are worth counting. Worth bragging about.
Know the difference, and you just might earn readers for life.
***** Your next stop? Why not make it my own blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest, “Making Space: The First-Of-The-Year Creative Enema,” is begging for a more polite title.
[Photo by meddygarnet]