The Simple Art Of The Impossible

This is later than when I normally write, usually by now I’m playing Mario Kart on the DS, or having a lovely chat with a lovely person or I’m impatiently waiting for something to download so I can watch it later. Usually when I sit down to write it’s morning, and it’s grey and I bang the keys to birdsong and I do my best to get it done in an hour, because I like to have my own writing done before I sit down to edit someone else’s – I can’t stand splitting my attention like that, it feels like I’m shorting the client.

A lot of talk has popped up on my Twitter feed and my G+ whatever-the-hell-you-call the full media assault of Google Plus’ opening page about writing, more the act of it and the effort behind it than any intricacies of particular plots or characters, and I see a lot of workshops popping up that promise to teach how to make a psychopath on paper in two hours or how, if you buy the accompanying book, you too can build a plot that doesn’t have holes in it. A lot of this talk comes from people I respect, and a lot of this talk comes from people who I don’t know, so I can’t say their worth my respect or not. It’s not something I dish out, like rose petals before a bride, it’s more something I hold in reserve, a good cognac in fancy tumblers for members of a little club that John hosts in his headspace.

The truth of it all is that writing is hard. Making a book might as damned well be sorcery for all the conjuring of will and discipline and the alchemy of taking snippets of ideas and concepts and weaving a spell that results in pages being turned and people wanting more. The truth is that there’s a lot of ways to do that, and a lot of teachers, good and bad, who can act as signposts or speed bumps when a writer wants to get from Point A to finished novel B. The truth is, it comes down to you expressing your ideas.

There’s no Coltrane-esque nuanced jazz there, there’s no deeper meaning that you’re supposed to divine or decode – just put your ideas on paper. Write your guts out. Bleed in every paragraph, chapter and scene. If your character’s going nowhere? Burn something down, blow something up, send someone through the door, spoil the milk in their fridge. Make something happen.

You know why your book keeps getting rejected? Because your writing is soft and unclear, you’re bringing cake batter to the neighborhood bake sale, but not everyone wants to lick the beaters. (Seriously, I tried a cookie dough metaphor there too – and have realized that both dough and batter are tasty, but I hope you see what I’m saying) Maybe it’s worse than soft, maybe it just plain isn’t any good. Maybe you need some fresh eyes, or harsh eyes or eyes that aren’t attached to a mouth puffing sunshine up your blowhole to take a good hard look at it. What makes it better? More writing. More reading. Not so you can ape the style of someone else, but so that you can dissect and see examples of how things work. See how Gaiman writes a beat. Look how King phrases dialogue. Don’t copy them, you’re not a Xerox. But learn from them. And that means you might have to loosen your chokehold on your assumptions, even the ones that tell you how precious a snowflake you are.

POV, point of view, stop trying to innovate it. Stop trying to put feathers on a zebra. Stop hopping from head to head in your characters and tell the story. There’s a reason why first and third person are popular. It’s not defeat if you use them anymore than you’re a bad human if you use matches or a lighter to start a fire.

Those achingly dull subplots, why are they there? Are you just padding space because you saw other people do them? Put down your membership card to the Lemming League and just tell your story. YOUR story. YOUR story. Tell it.

Did you just make up a new genre? Why? Okay, so lean a little closer to the monitor. STOP IT. I get it, you don’t want to be pigeon-holed, man, your work is so out there you’re on the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge, you’re a pioneer, a loner Dottie, a rebel. Maybe you are, and maybe seventy years from now kids are going to be gathered around their holo-trons to watch the robots enact your stories. But that would require your stuff to get published first, wouldn’t it? A genre is not a straightjacket, it’s a homeroom on the first day of high school. It groups you together with other people, and gives you a starting point. You’re not prisoner 24601, you’re you. Stop making paper shackles.

There’s a variety of words I can use to tell you what I think of the current resurgence in people who espouse “platforms” and “brands”, most of them I reserve for driving in traffic and instructions to lovers. Platforms are for diving. Brands mark cows. You’re an author, communicate with people. And let them communicate with you. Oh for Pete’s sake, it’s 2014, don’t give me that Fox News your identity might get stolen crap if you have an email address or even a single page with some links to write you an email or places you’re gonna be signing or speaking or dicking around or whatever. Get on some form of social media. LEARN, don’t play Excuse Roulette. You want to know where the agents, editors and writers are? Twitter, Google-Plus. Yeah I know there’s a whole lot of people out in the world who prop themselves up as little gurus (I know, I used to do it), but there comes a point where you can either sit on the plastic folding throne and treat people like peons or you can go out and be an asset to yourself, your efforts and other people. In short, communicate with other people about what you’re doing.

And while we’re talking about communication, can we just knock off this whole “I don’t want anyone to steal my idea” garbage? I’m not saying that hasn’t or doesn’t happen, but I liken it to this: You can go to a mechanic or dealership to get your oil changed or your car checked out, and it’s what bazillions of people do. Or you can go talk to that guy missing teeth who smells like mold, cat urine and burning plastic who is drinking the oil he says he can put in your car. It’s a damned shame that in this day and age, the fearful panicked and stupid decisions of people have spread like a bad case of head lice to infest others, giving the impression that there are more thieves than helpers in this industry. That’s the same poisonous impression that would tell you me and my site are suspect because I don’t have a whole sidebar of splashy graphics or busloads of commenters (who I always have to scratch my head at – because for all the commenting, they could be writing). I don’t have those things because instead I have a Dropbox full of clients’ work. I’ll take the work over splashy graphics any day. This is the judging a book by its cover portion of the post, by the way.

Writing is the art of the impossible. It’s using a common set of tools to plant subjective pictures and feelings into the heads of others. It’s tough to do well, and simple to do poorly. Get a bank account and fill out some forms and you too can be part of the drek that bloats websites and confounds people who want to exchange monies for entertainment. It can be done, but there’s discipline and effort and will and practice and failure and stress and joy and ache and love and anger and not-knowing to navigate as you hit those keys, pick up that pen or dictate into the mic.

I pause here a second to look at my fingers, knuckles pre-arthritic, hands dry, wrists scarred and forearms more like chicken legs. I’m not Raymond Chandler. I’m not Chuck Wendig. I’m not Dashiell Hammett, Seanan McGuire, Stephen King, Gail Simone, Jim Butcher, or Delilah Dawson. I’m not Janet Reid, Colleen Lindsay, Stacia Decker or that guy who’s name escapes me at 11pm, but you know who I’m talking about, that agent. I’m a freelance editor, a word ninja and book ronin, walking the landscape to help people make art. I’m not in many indices, I’m not asked to play reindeer games. I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles. I am a guy with talent and 20 years of writing, editing, game making, filmmaking, scriptwriting, radio producing and puppet making experience. I’m a guy who talks openly and passionately about mental health, about anxiety, about depression, about addiction, about love and loss and art and failure and dating and cooking. I do all those things AND talk about making books and games and art. Because I believe that you, reader, you, writer, you, maker of art, deserve a shot at your dreams.

I don’t know if you’ll make it. I know there’s loads of people, myself included, who can help, if you’re willing. And I know that being willing and taking your best shot is great way to find success.

 

Happy writing.

Some Maxims For Writing

Hey look, it’s Monday. Fine, okay, none of you seem pleased about this. It’s still a nice-ish day, though, even if my local weather-human is telling me it’s going to snow tomorrow. But between now and then, let’s talk writing.

I talk a lot about “rule 1” which is Writing is the act of making decisions, which is to remind you that you’re in charge of the words and worlds you put forth, not the other way around, and you can have whatever you want for however long you want, until you change your mind. For the curious, the next few rules are: everything is fixable; the only failure is when you give up; and don’t beat yourself up, this is about evolution not single-instance rewards.

But let’s look at some more.

Risk is the yeast that makes your story grow. I have fond childhood memories of my mom laying out bread dough and covering it with a towel, then hours later the dough practically mushroomed and spilled out over the top of the pan. It seemed magical. It seemed related to the magic of pouring soda into a mug and watching it fizz up, or the time I put pretzel salt in my bottle of Coke. Science aside, the sense of change and flow translates nicely to writing. Risk, loss and the possibility of that loss (more on those two in a second) help a story expand. Sure, okay, if you’re writing a children’s book about puppies, there’s not a lot of reason to risk things, but if you’re writing about characters with an arc and a plot to resolve and the general sense of “things gotta change”, risk is a great way for that character to take strides forward. Likewise, risking yourself as an author, creating stories that are outside your comfort zone, working in new habits rather than however complacent your old ones are, putting your guts on the page, that’s how you discover new facets of your craft. Your craft, developed your way, tailored and shared by you. It’s one of the unique expressions in existence.

Loss isn’t the enemy, it’s part of the engine. You build a character. Give them looks and a plan and wants and dreams and talent. So that’s their length and width. If you want to add a third dimension, take away something. Maybe not in the pre-story times (meaning they start the story with loss), maybe during the story, maybe the story IS the loss, but it’s the darker side, the sadder side, the melancholy and the meandering away from sunshine and rainbows that takes a character from “Oh yeah” to “OH YEAH!” (Kool-Aid man sold separately)

There are going to be times when you have to hear things you don’t want to. Accept them or not, but understand they’re not always fruitless. You’re going to face tough spots in your road from Point A to Point B as a creator. Whatever your course, which is dependent on what you do and how you do it, you’re going to face criticism, rejection, disapproval, lousy reviews, weird social politics, melodrama, excuses, cowards, bullies, sycophants, jealousy, boredom, regret, and a thousand dozen other things I can’t rattle off the top of my head. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is going to be groundless and petty and come out of left field and hopefully you’ll be able to shake it off. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is actually important and has been told to you in an effort to help you. The notes about your draft? Likely some of it is helpful. The aberrant one-star review that cites the problem being the name of your main character? Not helpful. The conversation where people tell you get your shit together? Hard to hear, but ultimately helpful. You have to weigh each piece individually, look at what it’s trying to accomplish, don’t get too out of shape about the delivery system (because tough things to hear or read don’t get pretty packages and bows), and learn something from it. 

Excuses do not put words on the page or tick items off the to-do list. Maybe you’re not a paid writer. Maybe you’re not working on deadlines for a magazine or periodical. Maybe you’re just someone who reads all the writer blogs and comments about how this post or that post is a shot in the arm, but then later, in those hours when you could be writing, you’ve elected to watch a show about pruning hedges that you’ll later complain about on social media … yet that’s what you chose to watch. Maybe you’ve got real responsibilities and people counting on you, maybe you promised to pay people and run businesses and stand up and be accountable, and now that seems friggin’ huge and terrifying. Maybe you wake up everyday and slog off to a job you hate, for a boss who doesn’t respect you, and then come home to dishes in the sink, bills in the mail and your roommate four months behind on their share of the rent. And you do all this, because you raise up this shield of excuses. There always seems to be a reason, always seems to be some way that what you want to do isn’t getting done, and very seldom does it have anything to do with you. That guy’s late with the check (and you’re not hounding him for it). You want to make a thing (but you’re not writing diligently, nor organizing others to aid you). You’d love to be someone who does X or Y or Z, but you don’t own the shoes/you’re so tired at the end of the day/someone might see you/that might be when the ninjas attack. Guess what? You might think those things are important, you may elect to make those things important, and act as though they’re the big damned deal, but … they don’t have to be. Excuses don’t get the work done, they don’t ease the stress, they don’t make the problems do anything than just get bigger later. It’s a stall, and stalling on stuff isn’t the best attitude or strategy for being the sort of pro-active, disciplined, healthy, boundary-having, responsible, upright person that so many of use state so clearly that we want to be. You know that phrase, “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.”? I propose a new one – “Make an excuse, you’re just afraid. Take the action instead, and find your way.” Take the action, dispel your fear. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Own the successes as quickly as you own your mistakes. I know a lot of people who love to point out what they did wrong. You ask them how something went, they’ll tell you it went okay but then spend the other 80% of their conversation talking about what went wrong. This stems from having unreasonable expectations on how things have to be or how they have to behave (in order to get acceptance or esteem or love) or from assuming that in the presence of shortcomings, they’re less than who they are. Hint – mistakes happen. The coffee comes out cold, your shoe comes undone, you practically ruin your intimate night running to the bathroom after the mushrooms in your appetizer don’t agree with you. No one sets out to make the mistakes. It’s the response to mistakes that matters. Throw your hands up, surrender, make excuses, complain, and stop forward progress and you’re not changing any circumstances. Realize that mistakes are a part of action and evidence of effort and that no one’s really freaking out about these things to the same degree as you are, because coffee’s coffee, because you can tie your shoe or because everyone poops, and take the step forward. Get past it. Find the successes. Maybe you didn’t spill anything on your outfit. Maybe even with terrible bathroom trauma, you still got quite cozy. Maybe you discovered a pretty spot to sit and tie your shoe. Figure out for yourself which you give more weight to, the failures or the successes, and consider applying that to your writing. Is it really failure when you knock out 300 words the day after you did 1000? You’re still up 1300 total words in two days. That’s pretty awesome.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. The phone rings. The kids are acting up. The dog has to come in. The wash is done. The TV is too loud. It’s almost lunch. You don’t know what you’re having for dinner. Life is made of all these events, all these actions and reactions and when all you’re trying to do (and saying it that way makes it sound so insignificant, right?) is write a story about a sexy lady looking for a sexy guy for sexy times in the sexy not-present, these distractions, these things seem to keep you from writing. Okay, yes, you can’t always tell your kids that you’re writing and expect them to be as silent as people in a dentist’s office. But have you tried telling them that while they watch the cartoon about the googly eyed kid, you’re going to be writing, and you won’t interrupt them if they don’t interrupt you? Take it another way – If you want to appreciate A, you really need to have a B and C in your life to give some perspective. And managing the time you spend on them, and doing your best not to co-mingle them, is part of the discipline of creation.

Be willing to be wrong. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to goof up. You’re going to say the wrong thing, bite off more than you can chew, make a misstep, or plan for one thing and get another. This is part of all processes, though writing makes it feel particularly pointed due to the emotions involved in making stories and in offering them to hungry readers. Just as we can look at the math and know that not everyone is going to like what you write, and it’s kinda irrational to expect so, we can look at the math and say for all the opportunities presented to you, you’re going to muck a few up. And those mistakes might be costly. They might fracture your ego, sap your resolve and sour you on being creative. Wrong happens. In any instance, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of being wrong, not because your “right” isn’t “good enough” (I might get cramps from all these airquotes) but because you weren’t “right” and it’s not about “right” or “wrong” it’s about doing something, then reacting to its outcome, then basing your next action on what just happened, and repeating that until the universe decays or the Jets make a smart draft pick. You’re not perfect, and nothing is gained by holding yourself to some ever-elevating standard that you can’t reach. (I’d also like to point out that you’re the one who keeps raising your own bar, so why are you doing that to yourself?)

May your art be awesome this week.

Happy writing.

Writer Excuse Bingo

Hello, and welcome to your Friday.

I thought we’d play a game today. I remember being in elementary school and enjoying fifth grade where we’d have some sort of ball-tossing game where we sat on top of our desks, and I thought it was the coolest and transgressive thing. No idea what the game involved, something about catching it and saying something positive, but it was a good way to kill the five minutes before the dismissal bell rang. And I do wish we as adults had more opportunities to bring games into our work, even if that work IS gaming.

Part of my job, maybe half of it, comes from the interaction and conversations between the writer and me as an intermediary, either as part of a company’s project, or as a freelancer helping someone prepare a manuscript for whatever it is they want to do with it. There’s a structure and a rhythm to it, the back and forth of ideas being generated, words getting put together and there’s that palpable sense of a writer pushing into new territory. It’s hopeful, it’s encouraging, it’s my favorite part of working with writers.

What I don’t like, what I hate pretty much the same way I hate clowns and stealth mayonnaise (that’s mayo you suddenly discover on your burger even if you know you said ‘No mayo’), are the truckload of excuses writers seem to carry in their pockets next to their business cards. And what I still don’t fathom – a lot of writers are as quick with excuses as they are with their intention or hope to write a new thing.

Yes, full disclosure, I make excuses too. I lose a lot of time to mental illness, I lose a lot of time to other responsibilities. There are days I don’t want to work, just like there are days I’m jazzed to work, but things seem to conspire against me. But that doesn’t make the excuse “okay”. To my mind, that doesn’t speak very highly of your want to do a thing, whether that’s create a book or get a haircut or teach your dog a jig, if you regularly put out an excuse.

And let’s take  a minute to distinguish between legitimate issues and excuses. That time you straight-up broke your hand? Yeah, you’re not in any shape to produce anything. The whole day you lost waiting for jury duty, or tending to sick kids or that time you ate bad mushrooms? Understandable. But really, honest and for true, how many times are you going to trot out the “I don’t wanna” before you have to sit down and evaluate whether or not your heart is actually invested in something?

To that end, I came up with this Bingo Card.

Feel free to make this big enough to be played with shotglasses

Feel free to make this big enough to be played with shotglasses

 

It covers a pretty full (but by no means complete) list of excuses ranging from “You gotta understand…” (No, no I don’t.) to “I’ve just been so busy lately…” (I’m glad you’re active, but you said writing was important to you.)

Do I hate writers? No. I hate excuses. I hate the reasons that get inflated to be firebreaks and the small gaps that grow into canyons that later erode belief in yourself, interest in an idea and the discipline to follow it through. This triangle:

this one

this one

is something we’ll come back to probably next week, because it’s a great tool for recognizing where you think you are on a project, where you actually are, and where you think you’re supposed to be.

So, play some Bingo. Spend some honesty-time chasing down why you make the excuses. Here are some great questions to ask yourself.

  1. Am I afraid of failing at doing this thing?
  2. Am I afraid of succeeding at doing this thing?
  3. Am I afraid I will be ridiculed for doing this thing?
  4. Am I afraid that I will never be successful (based on how I determine success) at doing this thing?
  5. Do I confuse being busy with being productive?
  6. Do I confuse being busy with being successful?
  7. What am I running from by not doing this thing?
  8. Am I making excuses because I’ve got something I don’t want to admit to myself or others?
  9. If I believed in myself more, if I believed myself “good enough” or “smart enough” or “talented” or whatever, would I stop making excuses?
  10. Are other people affected by my excuses? And if so, does that bother me, motivate me to change or reinforce the excuses?
  11. If I did 1% more than I’m doing now (regarding the project), would that be difficult?
  12. Am I making unreasonable demands and expectations on myself by thinking the way I do and/or making excuses?

If these questions get you to think, great. If they get you to try and change your habits, even better. If they start a conversation and that leads to finished work, all the better.

It’s worth pointing out that this stuff isn’t personal. This isn’t where I say a writer has to be a certain gender, age, race, color, size, persuasion, complexion or whatever. This isn’t where I say if you’re making excuses that YOU as a person are a failure or a waste of carbon molecules. This is where I want you to look, I mean really examine, your thinking and your behavior in and around your creative process. YOU aren’t the problem, the excuses are. So nuke them. It’s the only way to be sure.

As to how you nuke excuses? Effort. Doing stuff. Doing stuff without concern for judgment and without the assumption that any response you get will be negative, because you don’t know what the response will be. If you’re dying, just absolutely aching to get that negative response, then it’s simple: keep making the excuses and not creating stuff. Anything you do that isn’t an excuse is an improvement and warrants some sort of response that isn’t all together damning.

Now, go, play Bingo. Nuke excuses. Art, art even though it’s hard, art because it’s hard, art because you have a burning passion to produce something and share it with others.

Have a great weekend, happy writing.

Here’s the link to your own Bingo chart.

Four Things To UnClog Stuck Scenes

Good morning everyone. I was almost about to blog about the chewing sense of paranoia and panic that’s in the middle of smacking me around this morning, but I’m just going to try and hold off the freakout a little while longer. Let’s talk writing.

You know those moments when you’re writing, and everything’s going so well – the dialogue is snappy, the action makes sense and it doesn’t feel like a chore to make the words or the ideas – but then, for whatever reason, you slow down or take your foot off the metaphorical gas pedal for a second and then the whole creative machine seizes up? You didn’t mean to stop, you didn’t mean to break the flow of whatever you’re making, it just sort of did, and now you’re staring at a gap in activity that seems to be growing and growing with each fraction of a second you stare at it. But, for whatever reason, you’ve gotten inside your own head a little and you can’t get back to the scene or that moment or worse, that feeling of easy creation.

Putting it frankly, that sucks. Hard. A lot. Mucho.

For this post, I want you to picture yourself at that spot. I don’t know if you actually are there, or if you’re always worried you could get there at any second, but I want you to imagine you’re there now. Now picture me in the room with you, only we’ve dispensed with any commentary I make about how you don’t have a place for me to sit, or how I don’t like the paint or the walls or how I thought you’d be nicer in person. Skip that, and park me in a chair next to you. No, imaginary me doesn’t care if you’re wearing pants or not. Imaginary me isn’t wearing them either.

When we first get to this stuck moment, we have one binary choice – write or not write. If we decide to write, we’re going to need to get over this gap and regain the momentum and that sense of “Yeah I can do this.” (I’d aim to get the confidence back before we get words on paper, although there’s something to be said for the idea that words on paper breed confidence). If we decide not to write, well then you’re going to have to entertain imaginary me, and that guy is one picky sonofabitch. You better prepare a lap dance or some sandwiches or a string of amusing videos or something.

Let’s assume that you decide to write, because maybe you didn’t shave your legs today or because these are your comfiest not-pants or because you don’t have a lap dance playlist handy at a moment’s notice.

Here then are four questions you can ask about the current scene you’re writing-and-then-got-stuck-on that can unstick you.

A note: These questions work best when you’re not holding onto the current scene in a stranglehold so tight that you’re unwilling to change what you’ve just put down on the page. Be willing to change it. I’m not saying what you have on the page isn’t awesome, but you’re stuck, so maybe that awesome needs a tweak or two. 

Q1: What’s something you can impair, change, take away, or damage about the protagonist in this scene? This question looks at action beats and changing the status quo of the writing. One of the reasons people stall while writing is that they get too far removed between “something happening”, and the story becomes this drawn out line that sags between two points. No matter how great the poles are that hold up this line, if the distance between poles is so great, the line’s gonna sag. Prop it up and keep the line taut with action beats. And for my liking, there’s nothing like the action beat that takes something away from the protagonist. It makes their effort tougher, but also their reward sweeter when they overcome additional adversity. Can you get them beat up by the antagonist’s goons? Maybe break a bone or two? How about they lose a crucial piece of information before they had time to memorize it or write it down? Adversity makes for interesting story friction and enough friction builds fires to keep a story burning. Or something. I’m still working on the fire analogy. Just know that in order to make pearls, you have to start with an irritating grain of sand.

Q2: Who’s gonna care about whatever just happened in the scene/moments before you got stuck? Sometimes we get stuck in parts of stories because things are boring. This is why we don’t often see parts of chapters detailing things like characters brushing their teeth or cleaning their bathrooms or cleaning out the crumbs from their toaster. These details usually aren’t terribly relevant to anything, and while they’re interesting, they’re only interesting in the very short term, like picturing James T Kirk flossing or Han Solo brushing lint off his pants. Yeah, these things happened, but do we need to know about it? Also, leaving in details that are ultimately insignificant and lacking payoff creates story congestion, which can bloat and slow down the pacing and bring even the most tense moments to a neutered payoff. So when I ask “Who’s gonna care?” I’m asking to see the relevance between the moment you just wrote and either the current plot of the story or the development of the character in a greater sense. Does the moment help? Does it demonstrate something new or develop something we already know about the character? Sure, flossing is great and all, but what does it help us know or know more about?

Q3: At what cost does the protagonist succeed in this scene? Success can be boring. I’ll say that a different way: Success without difficulty or effort IS boring. If I don’t have to work for something, if I don’t break a sweat doing something, why wouldn’t you assume I can do whatever it is all the time and that it’s likely not worth talking about? Think about conversations with your friends. Do you talk about the stuff like how you yet again successfully walked across a room? No, you talk about the time you stepped on some LEGO in the middle of the night and now you’re pretty sure that block is embedded in your flesh. The cost of success makes the success compelling. Maybe your protagonist is a cop who has to destroy some police records in order to prove her worth to the guy who knows where the killer is going to strike next. Maybe your protagonist has to fake being another gender in order to even spend time with the person they actually do love? The cost of success early in a story shouldn’t be so great that the end of the story becomes impossible, but just like driving down the highway – there are tolls, and while we don’t like them, we pay them. Unless you’re in a state without tolls, at which point, no one likes how smug you are about that.

Q4: What’s wrong with failing? Okay, so today I’m absolutely paranoid that nearly everyone I talk to or interact with hates me, and that the people I work with or for are going to fire me for reasons ranging from “we’ve never liked you” to “you suck at life”. Failure is embarrassing, sure, but let’s suppose everyone does hate me. Or worse, I get fired from all 26 of my current projects. Okay, that means this blog probably goes away, and I stop tweeting or Google-plus-ing (is there a word for that?), and that I likely stop going to the conventions that I do now. But I’m not dead. I would have to make new friends, find new jobs, and find new places to go. I’ve done that before, and could, if I had to, do it again. I just don’t want to. That’s how I’d describe failure today. It’s the worst case scenario socially, but not physically. It changes a lot about my circumstances, but little about my existence. There’s still food in the house. There’s still clothes in my closet. There’s still a made bed with fresh sheets in the bedroom. Should your protagonist fail along the way from Point A to Point B, what changes for them? If this fork in the road (or the next one, or the one six forks from now), goes in a different direction, but we still keep the same end goals or climax in mind, what’s different? That deviation breeds interest. Embrace it.

Are these the only cures covering that gap and getting back to writing? No. A lot of the gap is expectation and anticipation and anxiety about the perception of how and what you’re writing – if you’re writing “properly” or if what you’re writing is “any good” or if you’re “good enough to do this”. I don’t have four easy questions to ask when building bridges about that, because that’s what I have weekly therapy sessions about and that shit’s hardly ever easy.

I can’t say that I’ll get over this logjam of paranoia today. Maybe I’ll get some praise and it’ll ease up. Maybe I’ll just close Tweetdeck and Gmail for the day and just read some books or listen to music. It’s early yet, and my workload today is light – I’m waiting on writers to finish drafts pretty much until the end of this week and the beginning of next. (Yes, I realize this lack of stuff to do is likely at the heart of why I’m freaked out the world hates me, because I tend to judge my value to others based on the work I do for them)

To you, I say go write. Go challenge yourself. Go make something, and make hard decisions about it as you’re making it.

Happy writing.

The Passionate Professional

Good morning. I’m throwing a bit of a wrench into our work with query letters because something has come up recently and it needs to be addressed before we get back to work. So, for a minute or two, put down your manuscripts, listen up and stay with me on this ride. Ready?

We write, we produce, we create, we make things out of passion. Yes, you’re going to say that’s imagination. You’re going to say that it’s an intense want to make a statement. You’re going to say that it’s an effort to generate an audience and satisfy some creative itch, maybe for bags of cash or not. I’m going to say that’s all passion.

It’s passion that puts the words in your head so that you can put them on the page. It’s passion that fuels us forward. It’s passion that makes us want to do this crazy craft in the first place. The storyteller is the one in the group of hunter gatherers with the awesome task of telling the gatherers what’s up. The storyteller is the teacher, empowering and awakening minds to join the group and from that fertile mental soil, the next leaders and storytellers are born. We are the sum of our teachers before us, the good and the bad, and we mark the good ones by their infectious passion, and tag the bad ones by their bitterness, their frustrations and the decay of their own passions.

Passion is not something pulled from an exterior source. You won’t find it at the bottom of a bottle. You won’t find it in a packet of foil. You won’t find it in a bag of chips or cake or kale or coffee. It’s not even in the praise of a friend, peer or lover. Your passion is in you, always. The wellspring of “I want to make a thing, I will complete the task of making it” is always in your soul, and the more you chase passion like it’s an external fuel tank that needs external replenishment, you’ll find a long and twisty route of frustration, procrastination and otherwise unspirited work.

Passion is forged in basal want and tempered out of risk. It’s a risk to write a thing, to send it off to official people and await their assessment. It’s a risk to make a game, to see if people can have fun doing something. It’s risk that compels the actor on the stage to go to those emotional places and educe those concentrated feelings into a point of clarity and then broadcast it. As in so many other things, the great rewards follow great risk, when there’s nothing else to lose, when you exhaust all the ephemeral methods of effort, that’s when the purity of what you say hits the page. You put your heart into every word, every paragraph, every chapter, every book and you will be rewarded. That reward might start with simple praise or a sale, but when you continue, when you re-invest in it and keep going, and keep risking and keep putting everything on the line in new and explorative and scary ways, the reward grows. Audiences. Attention. Opportunities. All are the offspring of risk.

Now maybe you’re sitting there, looking at those 500 or so words and saying, “Who are you John, to tell me this? You’re just a guy. You’re not a publishing expert. You’re not listed in this index or that. Your readership is tiny and your blog lacks all the flash and awards and sigils and earmarks that other editor-blogs do. Who are you and how can you presume to tell me what I need?”

I’m just a guy. I’m just a guy who spent his adult life trying and failing and running from risk. I’m just a guy who had his heart broken and who has lost a lot time and again. I’m just a guy who has a talent and an ability to help others do things with words they didn’t think possible. I believe so fundamentally in the power of words and the power of creatives and the power of passion that I’m not doing this to point to a shelf of awards or degrees or fancy blog traffic or rehashing the same eight pieces of advice only to sycophantically fellated by an audience that will yes-John me until I’m older and grayer and spent. You want to call me unprofessional, fine. You want to say I’m not like the others and mean that in a derisive way, great. But you cannot question my passion. And if you really took a look at things, I’m not sure you can question my talent either. But many people won’t get that far. They’ll see a tiny blog and big prices and assume that I’m either stupid or a boy playing pretend. I don’t feel particularly stupid most days. And regrettably, I haven’t been a boy in over twenty years.  And thank you for doing more to point out your assumptions and fears and feelings far more than you pointed out mine.

Because that’s what happens when you roll up to someone and make blanket statements. Judgments on what someone is or what they are doing or how some field operates under rules you might not have bothered to fully learn or adapt to. The misinformation and assumptions that you reinforce by not risking, by not being willing to try and see new horizons and in new ways affects you far more than it does anyone on the receiving end of your remarks. You won’t risk? Then you won’t see the reward.

It’s scary, I know. You can prop yourself up under shields of excuses all you like: you don’t have time; publishers are fickle; people will steal my ideas; you don’t know how to get started. What’s under them? Are you afraid of failing? Afraid of succeeding? Scared about step 6 when you’re on step 2? Projecting ahead? Get under the excuses, pry them up and find the heart of them.

Then take that heart, and bludgeon it with passion. Or come to terms with not doing that and all that entails and be willing to jettison the successful outcome you wanted.

Because if you can’t summon the passion to create, then lens it through discipline into craft, then you’re squandering imagination and your abilities. You’re not wasting time, because time’s bigger than you, but you’re taking the good potential of really making a thing and doing a thing and tossing it away. The roads from “I’ve never done this” to “I’m good at doing this” are lined with a thousand billion husks of jettisoned efforts, because fear leeched in and stalled creation. Fear is a motherfucker, and it wants to poison and consume passion for a meal.

This isn’t a call to strangle fear, this is a call to be passionate. To be the burst of sunlight that sends shadows running. To be the craftsman/woman/person who has the finished idea in their head and knows it the way they know their own breathing and can draw it from the resources. It’s not a focus on the reward, it’s a focus on the effort. You’re either going to write, or you’re not. You’re either going to create, or you won’t. Yes, it would be phenomenal to write for this company or make a thing like someone else did. And you’re either going to have the passion and discipline to shelf your excuses and your fear, or you’re not. And it’s not up to a blog post to throw that switch in your head. I can call you a coward all day and thrice on the weekends, and I can write hyperbole and vitriol to disgust or motivate or shock until stars die, but that’s all external to your passion. That’s all outside. Where’s your spark? Where’s your drive? Where’s that gut-burning knowledge and surety and want and hunger to grab the page and produce art? Not on my demand. Not on a publisher’s. Yours. Always yours. Forever yours.

So, go, make art. Tell stories. Produce works. Do things and come back and tell the rest of your clan or tribe or cluster or house or pack or team or people about it. Be the voice that creates and kindles other voices to do the same. Risk everything, as much as you can, put yourself on the line and put all your cards and chips on the table and see what happens. It’s scary, but be brave, take heart, focus on your efforts and your end goal, not the rewards or expectations. Get the statue out of the block of marble. Write the story that blooms in your head. Make the game that stirs your guts. Art hard. Then art harder.

Happy writing.

Aggressive Language & Words To Avoid In Queries

This week, we’re taking a look at query letters. We’ve talked about broad things to avoid, we’ve deconstructed some sample queries, but now we’re going to look at some finer points. Back on Monday, I mentioned “aggressive language” to avoid, and gave a couple examples. Let’s get more into it.

I make a distinction between aggressive language and threatening language, because in a threat, there’s a clear target, and it’s usually the reader. There’s also usually a demand of some kind, like publish-my-stuff-or-else. It’s extreme, and pretty easy evidence in a legal proceeding or criminal matter. Aggressive language though is different, because there’s no direct threat, but it just feels uneasy. It feels like the writer has their claws out and sort of like a wounded animal, they’re growling and snapping at anything that comes their way. When the purpose of a back-and-forth communication is to foster a relationship with mutual goals, nothing is accomplished in snarling and fighting.

But I sort of see why an author would get that way. There’s a lot of frustration, confusion, misleading information, predatory jerks, less-than-helpful people, weird senses of competition and scarcity, rejection and feelings that you are or have wasted time. It makes sense to me that if you’ve only ever seen the downside that you don’t have your hopes up, are discouraged to do so and don’t see a point to it. So, this turns you angry. And in your anger, your tone changes. No longer are you a passive author trying to get “in”, you’ve had enough and you’re not going take any shit laying down. Rawr.

The problem is that what you were getting wasn’t shit. Those rejections? Evidence that you can and should change your approach. That list of agencies and people to avoid? Those are signposts to help you. The frustration? Tests your discipline and resolve.

Language that you use passive aggressively or outright aggressively isn’t going make someone (gatekeeper or not) want to work with you or associate with you, if you’re going to become known as a source of headaches or a potential minefield when someone says something and you fly off the handle on a soapbox-y rant to “correct” them. I’m not saying the person might not be wrong, but look at where and how you’re doing this correction. This other person might be someone who can help you publish your book, and you’re going to get on their case about a phrase they used and didn’t think twice about? Do you know how self-important that makes you sound?

Here now are some forms of aggressive language that don’t belong in your query, even if your book is ABOUT that kind of material.

Statements about flaws in gender equality or recognition of orientations Even if your book is your personal memoir about you coming to terms with your own sexuality in the face of thirty flavors of persecution, your query about your manuscript is not the place where you launch into a speech about how “the establishment” has been keeping you down. Queries are about manuscripts.

Statements about political views You might very well believe that our President is from another nation, hell-bent on enforcing extreme leftist policies that neuter freedom and rend your firearms and property from your hands, or maybe you think there are layers of conspiracies where citizens will be segregated by wealth into camps or something. And maybe you’ve written a book to that effect, but your query should be trying to make those ideas accessible and interesting to publishers, not accuse them of being part of the problem.

Statements about social justice and acceptance Again, to complete this trio (And before we get into other stuff), your query is about your book and not a chance for you to rage against people for whatever their belief system is and how much or how intensely you believe it to be incorrect or lacking.

But let’s get more specific. Here now are words and phrases you don’t want to use in your query without SUPER good reason and specific placement

1. “You have to understand” No, the reader of your query doesn’t have to understand anything, especially if you’re about to follow that phrase with anything that explains how you’ve had a hard time doing something. Don’t seek pity. Just show off what you’ve done.

2. “_____ is problematic” You can fill in that blank with any idea you disagree with, be it how this particular publisher doesn’t produce a certain type of work, or only produces one type of work or how the agent is some kind of -ist or -phobe. This is not a great way to start any sort of correspondence or channel of communication, because it’s like walking up to a stranger and saying, “Hello, you’re a racist and I don’t like you, but can you please help me out?”

3. “legitimate” Don’t use this in any context where you’re weighing a publisher or agent or publishing method against another. It’s not going to help prove the case that your book warrants recognition and chances are exceedingly good that the person you’re writing to is going to contact the other person you’re trashing in your letter and let them know what’s going on. This is a great way to turn two people against you. Don’t do it. Your job isn’t to question legitimacy, your job is to create art and make things for fun and profit.

4. “hate” Unless you’re talking about your character and what they cannot tolerate, “hate” shouldn’t come up in any context about you-the-writer. The query isn’t where you get to talk about how YOU don’t like mayonnaise or clowns or this actor or that one. You’re the invisible force behind the query and the manuscript. It’s not about you.

5.  “I want” Lots of people want things. I want it to be warmer. I want some company. I want more speakers for my stereo. But wanting something and writing it down sounds a lot like begging for it, and in this query communication, I can want until the cows come home and the only thing the other person can do is CHOOSE to publish my work if it merits.

6. “I need” Lots of people need things. Air. Food. Love. Decent internet speed. When you toss need into any mix, you’ve moved the conversation from hopeful mutual arrangement to negotiation and leverage, which is coercive not cooperative. Don’t blackmail your reader.

7. “You” In this case, I mean “you” like you the writer is talking to you the reader, outside the frame of the query or manuscript. Again, this reads a lot like desperation or demand, and that’s not professional or helpful in getting your manuscript published, which is the goal of the query overall.

I hope that helps prune your queries of subtle language cues that might be jamming up your path towards publication. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about more query bits, like courtesy and patience.

Happy writing.

Two Queries, Deconstructed

Continuing our theme for the week, I’ve got two queries here (one for a book, one for a game) and I’m going to take them apart to show you (and them) what is and isn’t working. The query is going to be italicized, and my comments are going to be in red.  (In both cases I’m skipping the writer’s address and info, and just dealing with the meat of the letter)

We’ll start with the book query.

Dear Sourcebooks Editor,  (actually followed guidelines – no names given.)
The italicized note is the author’s. This is significant because usually there’s some kind of personalization. The fact that there isn’t tells me immediately that queries get dumped into a large pile and who knows whether the reader is going to be an intern, an assistant, and agent or the nice lady who gets bagels every Thursday.
 
Quakes across the country intensify, threatening the environment, the economy, and families. Amber and Paule struggle to convince the military leaders to prepare the people of New Mexico for the worst. The danger is real. The devastation will spread. The distance is unknown. Lives will be lost. How many depends on the military’s decision.
 
Okay, there’s kind of a good opening here. The first stumbling block here is ‘intensify’, which means that the quakes have already been going on, and now they’re getting worse. BUT, there’s no mention of quakes before this, so I don’t know how to measure that. The second is that Amber and Paule are dropped into the front of the paragraph, but not given any explanation. If their reveal were to come later, then we could feel like these two people are victims caught up in all this chaos, but because they show up early in the text, (sort of like the opening of a movie trailer) this is telling us that these are our heroes. Also, the fact that they’re talking to New Mexico’s military leaders suggests that they’re just not two people – they’re people with means to make a difference. 
Going one step further, I can’t tell what the important part of this paragraph is. I would imagine it’s supposed to be how Amber and Paule are going to survive the earthquakes, since those are characters with names, but the end of the paragraph tells me that I should care about the military. And there’s this sentence about distance that makes no sense, because there’s no mention of a journey or travel. 
I’d suggest a rewrite here to find the important thing and either put it at the front of this paragraph (Maybe even start it with “Amber and Paule race against time as earthquakes intensify and the people of New Mexico do nothing” or at the end (talking about the earthquakes and how bad it is and THEN bringing up Amber and Paule.)
An opening paragraph that doesn’t have a clear important element or a set up to encourage me to keep moving my eyes down the text is kind of like yelling a stream of facts at me when I just wake up – I can’t process much of anything, and yelling is just going to make me grumpy, disoriented and tell you to stop.
Amber intended to join her mother at the Parkfield, California earthquake research center as a paid assistant during her seventeenth summer. Instead, New Mexico beckons, as activity along the New Mexico San Andres fault, where lava plumes push the Magdalena Peak upward faster than in recorded history.
Wait, what happened to Paule? And why isn’t ‘earthquake research center’ capitalized? Note the vague ‘her’ in the end of the first sentence that either tells me Amber is 17 or that her mother has been at this facility for seventeen summers. But then I stumble over ‘beckons’. Beckons means that I have to leave where I am and get to a place, but the first paragraph sort of made it sound like I was already in New Mexico. But now this paragraph maybe tells me I’m in California, or maybe I’m not in either place, since Amber has to go to Parkfield to join up with her mother. I’m confused. And confusion means rejection. I don’t even get to enjoy the lava plumes. 
Here again is a paragraph where there’s no visible important element. Is the important part that Amber is supposed to see her mother? Or is it that New Mexico is more important? And by extension, more important for whom? Her mother has a reason to go, but why does Amber?
Lastly, I assume that while this event is happening, they’re recording it. So “recorded history” is misleading, since really we’re talking history before this moment. 
I’d rewrite this paragraph much like the first – find the important part and if you wanted to keep the sort of ticking-clock element (seismologic unease isn’t as intense as VOLCANO EXPLODES) I’d oppose one against the other, (“As the San Andreas fault buckles and devastation looms, Amber goes not to her mother, but into the face of danger” Or something.)
I’ll also point out that when two paragraphs get rewritten back-to-back in a query, it almost always translates to  “this query is going to see more rejections than acceptances”.
 
Kilauea expert, Paule, joins her in the search along the Rio Grande fault lines and the Magdalena Peak. Undiscovered fault lines and developing calderas spread across the desert. White Sands and other military bases are in danger of lava inundation. Military and mining leaders fear a panic, and insist on chain of command through red tape data before notifying the public.
Google tells me that Kilauea is in Hawaii. And again, we have a vague ‘her’ so I’m either talking about Amber or her mom, and I’m not quite sure what the Magdalena Peak is but I guess it’s important, since it’s come up twice now. And lava inundation is totally bad news, but wait, the people INSIST on red tape? Now hold on there, this might be more than a problem with the query, this might be a problem with the story. ‘Insist’ tells me that these leaders are rigid and this is their protocol. I don’t have explicit information that they doubt Amber/her mother/Paule (because the query doesn’t say so), so I can’t say any insisting is done because “there’s no hard evidence” (cliche, but let’s go with it a second). Now, I haven’t seen the manuscript, but without a sense of implied doubt, I’m not sure I see a believable reason to require bureaucracy. You would think that once the lava starts flying around, or the earthquakes rumble the ground, people would panic. 
This lack of clear antagonist motivation would not only throw a wrench in the querying process, but even if it did get accepted, it’s absolutely something that would come up in editing. Now I know I get a lot of flak and complaints when I bring this up, but getting some edits done early in the process could clarify this and make querying easier. I’ll just float that thought out there and surely someone will come along and cry poor. 
Here, unlike the other paragraphs, I see the important part. I just don’t feel it. And feeling it is SUPER IMPORTANT. Feeling it is what’s going to encourage me as a reader of queries to read your manuscript. And feeling it conveys not only a sense of urgency in your created work, but also a sense of urgency and excitement about your created work. It’s like seeing a movie trailer and saying, “I want to see that, right now.” versus seeing a trailer and saying, “Oh I’ll just skip it.” Be the first, not the second. How could I feel it? A rewrite that emphasizes the disbelief, and that puts the danger at the front of the paragraph.  This is the final paragraph about the manuscript, so this should be the highest point of tension in the query and should lead me to read the manuscript to see how things work out. 
 
TRAILS THROUGH THE FAULT LINES is a new adult apocalyptic novel at 83,000 words. It is the first of a three pair series, each pair set in its own time and place. The second pair is set two hundred years in the future. The third pair will involve time travel, reference earlier novels, and go further back in time.  Series synopsis available upon request.
 
Oh boy. Okay, pump the brakes here. Wave the giant red flag. The first sentence, is awesome, it delivers me a title and a word count. Personally I’d chop out “new”, because you’re writing a query letter, and I’d assume it’s for a new novel. But the rest of the sentences? There’s a presumptive nature to saying “I’ve got a whole series, this is just the start”, because if the first book doesn’t take off, then did you waste your time putting together all these other stories? The largest problem here is that these sentences talk about books that aren’t the one you’re querying. It’s like going on a date and telling the other person about the other dates you’ve got lined up in the coming weeks. It doesn’t help your current situation, and while it’s nice to know that you’re forward thinking, keep the focus on THIS book. On a more specific note, if each pair (pair of what, I don’t know) is its different time and place, it’s sort of hard to market this as a series, unless we’re doing a set in like an anthology format or slipcase or something. The TV show True Detective can get away with saying “each season we’re going to feature different cases and detectives”, but that’s because they’re saying it not while promoting their on-going current story. It sends a mixed message to the reader – which story are we talking about here? 
Start your relationship with a publisher/agent/other person off on the right foot. While it’s great to be ambitious, don’t overlook the importance of the manuscript in front of you.
I have published MOLLY’S SECOND CHANCE, a short story, in Beyond Centauri – October 2010. I am [NAME], and [PERSONAL INFORMATION DELETED]. Three cats, a dog, and a husband keep me busy with a garden and housework to complement my writing. Recently diagnosed as legally blind, I am working at retaining what vision I still have.
 
Thank you for your time and consideration.

 Everything here is groovy, (I took out the name and personal info – there wasn’t anything wrong with it, it’s just not something the author wanted splashed around) except for the last sentence. It’s well-meaning, but it’s placement is telling. Last sentences leave an impression. And by telling me you’re blind, you’re sort of passive aggressively telling me that if I reject you, I’m rejecting a blind person. Why not just tell me that when you were younger, your dog died? Do I need to know you’re blind? Do you start every conversation with new people that way? Maybe, yes, okay, you’ve become defined by your blindness, and I’m sorry if that’s become your identity more than other things about who you are, but unless you’re looking to make that a key point in your “writing persona” (the way some writers are known to be drinkers or only wear white or are recluses), this detail isn’t actually in your favor. Cut it out, and keep the focus on your writing. 

Ready for a second one? Now I’m going to warn you, this one is TEN paragraphs long. And we’re talking block-of-text paragraphs, so buckle in. Also, this isn’t for a book, but for a game, so the tack we take in dissecting it will be different.

On the edge of Nidal the [PLAYERS] are sent to deliver a message from one brother to another. This is a journey through the Mindspin Mountains at the onset of winter. The hazards of the mountains include orc tribes, harsh weather conditions and (unknown to many) a Hag with her witch protégée. Agents of the Aspis consortium want to get hold of the letter, and will stop at nothing to obtain it. The [PLAYERS] are subject to a series of seemingly unrelated incidents, but at each turn some subtle marking of the consortium can be seen. Finally, when none of their machinations have succeeded, consortium agents confront the [PLAYERS] and attempt to seize the letter.

Alright, so this first paragraph, that’s a pitch. I’ve used [PLAYERS] here as a surrograte for player-characters as well as for the vernacular of a game that I’m not quite sure I can just toss around casually. I like this paragraph. It’s quite good. It tells me what I need, and should I want more information I know I can look for a paragraph about these orcs, a hag, maybe the weather and something about a group of consortium people. At best, I’m looking at 4 more paragraphs. What I get is nine more. 9> 4, and already I’m throwing red flags. 

Reinard and Metheo, lesser sons of the Arch Duke Egamen and minor members of the Umbral Court, hated each other. Neither had any prospects of inheritance with older brothers in line, and so both looked to a life of adventure to cure their boredom. When Metheo decided to join the [PLAYERS] society, Reinard took that as a cue to make friends within the Aspis Consortium.

Okay, so this is set up info. If the PCs are supposed to deliver a letter from Point A to Point B, it would help to know about why they’re doing so, because invariably someone’s going to ask. Now, if I were a fan of this game, I’d probably know that this Consortium is a big deal and that’s bad. I don’t need to be a fan of the game to gather that from this text, which is a good sign that it’s well-written. I’m not yet questioning why I need to know this, which is another good sign.

The brothers excelled at what they did and became reasonably high ranking within their respective organisations. For their part both the Decemvirate and the Patrons kept a close eye on the brothers. After a few years of adventure, both brothers got bored and returned to their pampered lives. Both organisations kept up their watch though, and planted their agents.

Okay, now I am asking why I need to know this information in a query. In the text of the adventure, this is backstory, and I’d expect to see this in a sidebar or as character history detail. But since I’m supposed to be caring about what the players do in relation to these two non-player characters, I’m not sure how the players are supposed to gain this detail and use it in play.

Recently the Arch Duke died, leaving a valuable artefact unaccounted for. Reinard has information about the artefact but he cannot acquire it alone, his only choice is a coalition with his brother. Jealous of any claim the Aspis may make on his discovery, there is only one group he can trust to get the letter safely to Metheo: the [PLAYERS].

I have no idea why this matters or why I’m reading about it. This is a pretty big clue to me that the writer is nervous and just throwing details at me until something catches my eye. 

The scenario begins as the PCs arrive to meet with Reinard. He is coy, and does a bad job of hiding his contempt of the [PLAYERS]. Once the mission has been accepted, he impresses upon the PCs that time is of the essence. The letter is urgent and winter is setting in. If they delay they will face severe, possibly deadly weather in the mountains. The Aspis Consortium spies know something is the matter the moment the [PLAYERS] gain audience with Reinard, and set out to stop them.

OH THANK HEAVENS, we’ve gotten to the exciting bit. It just took four paragraphs that likely can be collapsed into this one, which would require a rewrite AND show the writer to have an ability to make words count in a concise way. Now, for me, for my gaming, I’m not pleased with being told how to play a character in a query. Give me some bullet points or direction in the adventure itself, but if you’re trying to make me say yes to writing the adventure, focus on the exciting parts. Weather reports are not exciting. And I would hope the mission gets accepted, because that’s the point of the thing you’re writing. If the mission wasn’t accepted, what was the point in writing it? 

The first challenge is a bridge, destroyed by the Aspis men to delay the [PLAYERS] while they set up further problems down the line. Unbeknown to the Aspis though, is that the bridge hid the home of a witch (or Green Hag, or both depending on tier) who now thinks the [PLAYERS] destroyed her home, and is not amused. This encounter is intended to be defeatable without fighting. The encounter begins as a simple skill test, how does the party cross the ravine without the bridge? As the party makes it to the bottom or the other side they are confronted by the Witch. The Witch, although angry, is not inherently antagonistic, and the Hag can be bribed. The encounter delays the PCs, and negotiating with the witch could put them far behind schedule.

Remember where I just talked about exciting bits? If you’re ever curious about how to make something not exciting, all you have to do is explain how it works or how best to overcome it. For example, I can say, “Watch out for speeding cars!” and that should give you a sense of fear that cars approach. But if I say, “You can avoid the speeding cars by either walking down the street or by taking the bridge,” then the tension is gone. And if the tension is gone, I have little reason to want to see how things resolve in your manuscript – because you already told me. 

Further through the mountains, a group of orcs attack the [PLAYERS], paid by the Aspis to kill them and take the letter. They carry goods (weapons/armour) of better than usual quality for orcs, marked by the Consortium. This encounter takes place on a narrow path and into a cave; An obvious ambush point. The orcs have cunningly set some tribe members within the cave which otherwise looks to offer a tactical advantage to the PCs.

An optional encounter as the weather closes in and winter takes hold can occur here. A small flash flood, as part of a storm takes over the PCs, unless they can find shelter.

Again, the purpose of a pitch for anything (a book/a game/a movie/a webseries/a TV show/ A whatever) is make you want to check it out. Let’s say you and I are going to watch a TV show that you’re a fan of, that I’ve never seen. Are you going to walk me through the whole episode before you press Play, or are you going to mention a few things in broad terms so that I’m interested and have to watch in order to know more? If you give me all the details, it’s going to backfire because all the “Ooh I want to know more” is gone. 

Finally, the [PLAYERS] are confronted with the Aspis men themselves, who have set up ambush a short distance from the [PLAYERS]’s destination. This is a fight to the death as the Aspis seek to recover the letter, and leave no trace of survivors.

Defeat of the Aspis agents, means a successful arrival at the home of Metheo. Metheo is pleased to see the [PLAYERS] and greats [sic] them as old friends. He rewards them amply, but does not reveal the contents of the letter.

I haven’t said this throughout this second dissection, but the language here is flat. Flat like paper. Flat like old Coke. It’s joyless. It is not sparking any interest in me, and reads in this sort of monotone that I usually reserve for academics, church services and old people complaining about taxes. You want me to read a thing? Want me to care about something? Arrest my attention. Keep me interested. Play with sentence length and word choice. Use active verbs and evocative language and encourage me to picture these things you’re saying in my head. Compare these two sentences:

“I think it would be a great idea to diversify your stock portfolio.” versus “Are you such a big fan of poverty that you’re not going change your stock portfolio?”

One is a sentence I hear from an old man with bad teeth who I don’t think has felt any happiness in his life since Ford was president. The other is a shocking statement that some windbag on TV said last week. During the first one, I tuned out and thought about tacos. During the second, I argued with the TV. I felt something, and responded. That’s the secret to a pitch, making people feel something. 

*

As for how you do that, the key is language. Word choice. Sentence structure. Fragments. Long sentences with descriptors. Using that push/pull effect we’ve talked about to keep people paying attention, you have ONE PAGE (not 10 paragraphs) and about 250 words to develop an idea that makes someone want to solicit more information from you in a more comprehensive form.

Is it easy? No. Can you get better at it? Yes. You can write and rewrite. Come at ideas from different angles. Ask people (like me!) for help on what makes a good query. You don’t have throw your hands up and say, “I’ll never get it, publishing is out to get me.” because publishing doesn’t know you.

Practice. That’s the best strategy. Practice, refine, keep at it.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about “aggressive language” and some key words you’ll want to keep out of your queries.

Happy writing

Things You Should Not Put Into Query Letters

Hey writer.

Hey John.

I see you’re working on your query letter.

Yeah, this is really tough. I never know what to say, and I just get so frustrated.

Well, how about we talk a little bit about what shouldn’t go into a query letter, and maybe that’ll help?

It can’t hurt. I’m so aggravated at the whole system.

Do Not Put Any Of The Following Things In Your Query Letters

Death Threats Here’s an easy one. Don’t threaten to kill yourself or the reader of the letter if they don’t approve your work. Don’t threaten their families, their pets, their homes or their offices. I’m aware that Google can get you a lot of information about a person, but that does not permit you to use that information in some sort of terroristic way to get what you want. Also, this is both really scary, and really illegal.

Threats of Sexual Violence Another easy one. Don’t threaten to rape or rape-and-then-torture the reader of your letter if they don’t give your manuscript the thumbs-up. Don’t threaten their families, children, pets, friends, or anyone. Again, this is super scary and super illegal.

Bribe Money Including money to “sweeten the deal” is not going to guarantee your book rocketing towards the best-seller stratosphere. Any agent, editor or publisher who has intimated to you that their approval is for sale IS NOT someone you want to be dealing with. There is a difference between someone joking at a workshop or conference that you can get them to say yes if you offer them a million dollars and pie and actually enclosing a personal check or money order for several thousand dollars. Also, I’m pretty sure this skirts a few legal lines.

Drugs Even if where you live the material you enclose is legal, it is possibly not legal on the receiving end. This becomes especially not-good if you move up the scale of hard drugs or prescription meds and you’re just slipping a few pills or a baggie of powder in with your parcel. This is not going to win you any professional friends nor establish yourself as reputable or nice. So it might totally go over well with your writing group to pass around a joint while you bore people with your free verse about the pain felt by a soy latte, your YA novel about the girl who can talk to endangered species doesn’t become a sure thing since you included that 8-ball.

John, these are all pretty obvious. I’m not threatening anyone, I don’t have enough money to bribe even a child, and I got no drugs. What else am I doing wrong?

Okay, let’s get into the content of your query then:

Your ending If you’re giving away how the story ends, you are betraying the idea that the query is supposed to make the reader want to find out more. It’s a lure, it’s there to both see how well you craft your words AND promote/tease your story. If you tell me how things end, why should I spend time reading the middle, when I no doubt have loads of other things to do and to read where there aren’t spoilers?

Lengthy sections about who you are A query letter is about YOUR WORK. It is not your author bio, it is not a high school yearbook, it is not a place for you to rundown all the various non-writing awards you may have won as champion of the local spelling bee or best grower of blue ribbon radishes. Yes, there’s a little sliver of the roughly 250 words you can use (if you want) to talk about yourself, but ideally, keep the letter’s focus on the story.

Aggressive language We’ll talk about this in depth later this week, so for now, here’s a quick overview. You don’t know who exactly is reading your letter. Yes, you’ve sent it off to a specific person, but they might have an assistant or a secretary or an intern who screens the incoming queries. Also, although you might know who you sent the query to, you might not know everything there is to know about them. They likely keep some manner of their personal or intimate life away from social media, and so when you make the statement that your book isn’t going to be understood by “patriarchal cishet scum” or “anyone who has internalized misogyny or accepted their role as the slaves to hetero culture” (actual things people relayed to me over the phone while writing this post), the person on the other end might not take that very well. The majority of people don’t think of themselves as scum, and certainly don’t consider themselves slaves to anything other than a coffee addiction or maybe a credit card and banking system designed to keep them in debt. Queries aren’t the place for your sociopolitical views. The query is for your manuscript.

Desperate language Here’s the other end of that spectrum. There’s a lot of fail-and-try-again in publishing, especially traditional publishing and especially by new authors who seek to build an audience, develop their voice and put together a body of work. It can be disheartening to receive so many rejection letters, and it can be difficult to feel like you’re making any progress at all or that you’re even any good at what you’re doing. (We’ll tackle the hard reality that may you aren’t some other time). If any of that frustration or desperation (including expressly stating it in mentioning how many previous rejections you’ve received and from whom) seeps into the tone of your letter, you can very likely expect one more rejection to that pile. Just like dating, desperation is not attractive. It is not going to encourage interaction and it’s going to place the emphasis of conversation on making you feel better rather than on the manuscript you’re trying to get published. Again, the query letter is all about the manuscript, not how you’re really tired of being rejected.

I’m not doing any of that, I’m talking about what goes on in my story, and I’m STILL getting rejected. This whole things sucks. I guess people aren’t interested in what I have to say because I’m a man/woman/neither/black/white/blend/chai/old/young/educated/dropout/blonde/bald/deaf/autistic/normal/human person.

Okay, calm down. I’ve read a lot of query letters that don’t mention any of those details about their author and they got rejected just as quickly as the ones that mention gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, persuasion or social standing. Let’s take a look at some more things that might be tripping you up.

Taking too long to get to any action Ever watch a boring TV show? I saw one yesterday about guys who roam around the garages of old people to bilk them out of stuff. I only saw it for about 40 seconds, but that was enough for me to move to something else. What made me change the channel, aside from the part where the guy said with a straight-face “He doesn’t realize what he’s giving up for sixty bucks. He thinks it’s just a toy his granddaughter played with, but I can turn it around for a couple hundred” was the fact that NOTHING was happening. The camera was on a medium shot of three people standing and talking. They didn’t change elevation, the camera didn’t zoom in on anything, just three people standing. Yawn central. Now in your query, how many sentences are going by before something happens? Where’s the action? How big is it? Does it set the tone for the rest of the query? Or are you dawdling in the hopes that the reader is still reading? Get to that action, make something happen, engage the reader so they pay attention.

Repeating yourself Most of the queries I point out as good ones as well as the model I teach for writing them, focus on a tight economy of words arranged in very action-oriented paragraphs. Words aren’t wasted and as little tension or pacing as possible is lost along the way. Because queries are one page long (and that includes space on the page for an address and a closing), you don’t need to reference or belabor the point(s) made in paragraph one a second time in paragraph three. The reader didn’t forget. Don’t hate them and assume they did.

Details that congest what you’re trying to get across Let’s say you’re writing the story of a charming group of friends looking to spend some time together in Las Vegas. Do we need to know in the query letter about the type of car driven from point A to point B? Do we need to know the colors of their clothes? Do we need to know every detail of their itinerary? Ask yourself while writing: Is this piece of information I’m introducing here in this sentence, in this paragraph, moving things forward and into some action or tension? If yes, leave it in. If no, cut it.

Can we spend the rest of this week talking about queries? 

Absolutely.

Happy writing.

RECIPE: 2 Pasta Dishes (For People Who Can’t Make Toast)

Having been challenged on the nature of my previous recipe by people who don’t like eggplant (and who probably aren’t proponents of freedom, peace, democracy and player agency), I present now, especially for them, TWO pasta recipes where all the ingredients are available at your local supermarket. (I know this because I just made the list of ingredients and found them all via the online services of FOUR different grocery store chains).

First up, Farfalle Abruzzese with Veal, Spinach and Porcini

Note: You can sub out the veal for your choice of meat, even hamburger if you want, but veal is super delicious you guys. Just get it ground by the nice man at your meat counter. Or by your local butcher. 

Note #2: I may or may not be writing these recipes with a hefty dose of foodie contempt because food is amazing and not just the material you stuff in your faceholes thrice daily. 

Note #3: I am now sorely tempted to write up my most pretentious recipes just to push the envelope.

Farfalle Abruzzese with Veal, Spinach and Porcini

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

3 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 2 cups hot water for 10 minutes (yes, you can buy the packaged ones, but you’ll still want to soak them)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (if you’re cool with chunks, just slice away, it’s mainly for texture that they’re thin)
1½ pounds ground veal shoulder (or any ground meat that floats your boat)
Salt and black pepper
¼ cup double-concentrated tomato paste (which is made by taking two cans of paste, heating them through, and cooking them down for 6 minutes over medium-high heat)
1 cup dry white wine (something that generally costs more than $6 a bottle and is not described as “fruity”)
1 cup basic tomato sauce (use the stuff in the jar if you want)
1½ pounds farfalle pasta (a specific type of pasta, and should be labelled)
8 ounces baby spinach, trimmed (meaning you’ve washed it and cut off any not leafy parts)
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano (or use the stuff in the plastic tube if you like to eat lint)

HERE’S HOW YOU MAKE THIS FOR YOUR FACE

STEP 1
Drain the porcini, reserving the soaking liquid, and coarsely chop the porcini. Don’t get rid of that liquid, just strain out any grit or mushroom garbage and keep the liquid on the side for now.

STEP 2
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until it is lightly toasted (which is code for “it’ll smell really garlicky, without being brown like a sharpened pencil”). Add the veal and the chopped porcini, and cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until the meat is well browned, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add the tomato paste. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the paste turns a rust color, about 5 minutes. Then add the wine and 1 cup of the porcini liquid, and cook for 5 minutes, until the wine has almost completely evaporated. Add the tomato sauce and reduce the heat to a very low simmer.

STEP 3
Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil in a large spaghetti pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt. The water should sort of taste like a puddle of ocean.

STEP 4
Drop the farfalle into the water and cook for 1 minute less than the package instructions indicate. Just before the pasta is done, carefully ladle one quarter cup of the cooking water into the veal mixture. Stir the baby spinach into the veal mixture. It’s going to wilt a little, and that’s okay. It’s going to be sort of wet and everything, and that’s okay. You’re going to drain it off in a second, so don’t worry.

STEP 5
Drain the pasta in a colander, and add it to the veal mixture. Toss over medium heat for about 30 seconds, until the pasta is nicely mixed with everything. Dump into a warmed serving bowl (meaning you had the bowl in a 200-degree since step 4) and serve immediately, with the grated pecorino on the side.

Oh, that’s not enough you say? Fine, let’s up the ante. Here’s a dish with such a fancy name, I have to use the character map just to type it:

Pâtes aux Cêpes (Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms and Crème Fraîche)

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

1 3/4 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
5 1/4 ounces fresh baby button mushrooms, finely sliced (you can get these in a little package, often blue styrofoam with plastic wrap on them)
2 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 stems thyme, leaves only (about 1/2 teaspoon leaves)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound of fresh tagliatelle noodles (or use whatever noodles you have on hand)
1/2 cup crème fraîche (check the dairy aisle or wherever they’ve got cheese)
Finely chopped parsley leaves and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (for serving)

This Dish Was Made For Loving You

STEP 1
Place the dried porcinis in a bowl and cover with the boiling water. Cover with plastic wrap, and let soak for 30 minutes. Drain the mushrooms well, reserving all soaking liquid, and roughly chop the porcinis. Use this time to think about good food makes everyone happy, how the fact that you’re cooking can strengthen your relationship and take just a moment to realize that John was the one who helped you do that.

STEP 2
Preheat the broiler on high. In a large bowl, toss the porcinis, button mushrooms, thyme, garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Transfer to an oven-proof 12-inch sautée pan and broil 3 inches below the heat source, tossing every few minutes, until the mushrooms are golden brown, about 15 minutes total. You don’t have an oven-proof sautee pan? Use a casserole dish and just give it a stir every 5 minutes.

STEP 3
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil (think about Neptune’s rage at Odysseus, or ponder the fact that right this second, war threatens to engulf Crimea and has already devoured Venezuela). When the mushrooms are broiled, pour in the reserved mushroom liquid and the crème fraîche and scrape up any bits of mushroom from the bottom of the pan. Keep warm over low heat. Boil the fresh tagliatelle until al dente (that means tender) This should take about 2 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving the liquid. Toss the tagliatelle with the mushroom sauce, adding pasta water as needed to moisten. (Think mad scientist) Season to taste with more salt and pepper and serve immediately, topped with parsley and parmigiano-reggiano.

There’s not a step on here that’s difficult, requires more hands than you have and is made impossible due to limited access ingredients. Also, this stuff tastes good.

So there you go, enjoy two pasta dishes that will rock socks off.

RECIPE: Eggplant Stacks Of Triumph

It’s weird, any time I talk about writing and publishing, I get around 40 or so views per post at best, with an average of about 20. Any time I talk about cooking or food, I get around 100 views per post, with an average around 60. So either people care more about food than they do art, or I’m actually wasting two decades of experience by not sharing dinner with you.

Tonight, as bonus content on the blog, I’m going to share with you what I had for dinner tonight, mainly because I’m a blog traffic whore, and because it’s one of my favorite quick meals to make. It’s also notable as one of the few vegetarian meals I make regularly, and it’s one of the few meals that calms my sweet tooth.

I present now, Eggplant Stacks of Triumph.

THINGS YOU WILL NEED

1 large eggplant, about the size of a baby OR 2 eggplants each about the size of kittens. The baby-sized eggplant will produce about 1 stack per person, up to 3 and the kitten-sized will produce smaller versions yielding a pair per diner.

4 bulbs of garlic

Tomato puree OR (if you’re on a budget – Hi Jeremy!) a jar of your favorite pasta sauce

1 Tomato per each stack  (I used Roma tonight, you use whatever you’ve got handy)

2 eggs (I used whole brown, you can use whatever eggs you want)

Panko breadcrumbs OR homemade bread crumbs (which is stale toasted bread grated repeatedly) OR if you’re on a budget those breadcrumbs that come in a cardboard tube

Basil leaves

One bowl for dredging

One bowl for breadcrumbs

One saute pan

2 shots oil (I used extra virgin olive)

1 broiler OR toaster oven

HOW WE MAKE MAGIC HAPPEN

Step 1 If you’ve ever talked to your parents, grandparents or anyone who regularly deals with eggplant, when you tell them you’re making this, they’re going to tell you that you have to salt and press the eggplant, which means you slice it, go crazy coating it with salt and then pack the slices with paper towels and smush them for a while to get the water out.

Don’t do that here. In fact, all you need to do is peel and slice your eggplant(s) into discs (called rounds) about as thick as your pinky finger. Set them aside.

Step 2 Crack two eggs in a bowl. Whisk them like you’re going to make breakfast. Set that aside.

Step 3 Into another bowl, put your breadcrumbs. Add garlic powder if you really want to enjoy life, or don’t. How much? The answer is “Yes, have some.”

Step 4 Heat your pan over medium heat and get the oil in there. We’re going to build a frying assembly line. This might also be a fantastic time to engage your broiler and get that going.

Step 5 Using tongs (or your fingers if you’re a Morlock), dunk each round in the egg, then flop it in the breadcrumbs around like how your ex-girlfriend used to fake sexual pleasure and/or like a dying carp. Get it coated. Place round in oil and lightly fry until golden brown, both sides. Once that’s done, place on oven-safe tray to hang out. Repeat this for all rounds. Remember, it’s on average 3 rounds per stack per diner. You can cook more, but they’re only going to be tolerable another day or so (and it’s not the same if you reheat them in the microwave at work, they get kind of soggy).

Step 6 Take your tomato puree and dice garlic into it. Or take your jar of tomato sauce and dice garlic into that. And frankly if you’re going to use anything out of a jar, spoon some out into another container, add black pepper and two good glugs of red wine. Mix it really well because John really wants you to enjoy your food and because you’re not some kind of primitive eater afraid of things that have flavor.

Step 7 Once you’ve garlic-ed up your tomato puree/sauce, spoon a little on top of the center of each round. This is a great activity for kids, because it’s messy and fun and because it’s like making little bullseyes. Remember this is going to spread out a little as you make stacks, so you’re not slathering the whole round. Aim for the center. Use the Force, and the back of a spoon.

Step 8 Slice your mozzarella cheese into rounds as well. Feel free to take the smaller bits and eat them or feed them to my/your dog. No one will notice.  Place the cheese round on top of the eggplant round.

Step 9 Slice your tomatoes into rounds or slices or whatever shape works best. I went for almond shaped slices.

Step 10 Melt the cheese covered rounds under the broiler for about 3 minutes. If your oven is in better shape than mine, this might take less time. You’re looking for gooey awesomeness.

Step 11 Contruct your towers:

  1. Cheese covered eggplant round
  2. A little sauce
  3. A slice of tomato

Repeat as desired.

Step 12 Place built stacks under broiler for another 2 minutes or so. Garnish with basil, serve with roast garlic, crusty bread, grilled asparagus or buttery carrots.

Simple meal, loads of flavor, and overall quite a lot of fun to make.

Happy eating.