A Short Friday Post

Hello! It’s Friday. Go celebrate. But before you do, take a few minutes and check out 3 games I can recommend, please?

First. the digital version of Sentinels of the Multiverse is crowdfunding a second season pass of content, and it looks to catch up to the tabletop version. I spend a lot of downtime playing this game, as it’s something I can do on a tablet while in bed, or while sitting up at the desk during not-work hours. It’s fun, it’s kid friendly, and incredibly enjoyable.

Second, the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. If you’re a fan of Jim Butcher’s novels, and/or a fan of the Dresden Files roleplaying game, you’re going to like this. Gameplay is fast, easy to learn, and by all accounts, incredibly satisfying. They’re blazing through stretch goals including a reduction in shipping costs, so it’ll only make it easier to get this game into your hands.

Third, Katanas and Trenchcoats is wrapping up. Remember the 90s? Remember all the leather pantsed action of immortals and the supernatural where there could be only one, and the world seemed pack with gritty urban rainscapes with people making tough emotional choices? Well, now it’s a game you can play with your friends, again!

Let’s do some disclosures:

  1. I’ve never worked on or been paid by Sentinels of the Multiverse or any company associated with them. I own the tabletop game, I have played the tabletop game, and some time between the time you’re reading this and when I wrote it, I have played the digital version on Steam. 
  2. I have done and continue to do freelance work for Evil Hat Productions, the company producing the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, but I’m not affiliated the game’s development or Jim Butcher’s IP. 
  3. I have written content for and been paid for creating that content by Ryan Macklin, the publisher/developer of Katanas and Trenchcoats. He didn’t even know I’d be including his project in this post today, because I didn’t realize I’d be including it until I saw it still had time for people to back it.

See you on Monday. Hopefully the fever and whatever sickness I’ve got brewing today will pass by then.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Voice Development

Really, it’s Wednesday already? Wow. What happened to Tuesday? Wasn’t I just telling people about having a good Monday? This week is rocketing past.

Here we are again, ready for another blogpost. As we do on Wednesdays we head into the Scrooge McDuck money vault that is my inbox and pick one of the questions asked by you, the people reading my words in this little nook on the internet. And before we go onto the question today, I just want to say thank you – it really means a lot to me that you read this, and it means a lot to me that you keep coming back post after post. Thanks.

Today’s question comes from Erin, who’s writing her first fantasy novel. She asks: “John, I follow a lot of blogs, and many editors and agents talk about the importance of voice. They don’t really say what voice is, they just say that it’s important, as if I’m supposed to know what they mean. No one asks what they mean, and I feel like if I ask, people will think I’m stupid. So, what do they mean? What voice are they talking about? Is it important?

Erin, I’m sorry that the culture on some blogs leaves you feeling like you can’t ask a question without other people calling you stupid. You’re not stupid. And chances are other people have the question too, and they’re just as afraid of being called stupid as you are. So everyone’s waiting for someone else to go first. With that, with that silence, the author assumes everyone knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t stop to define it, and this whole cycle moves from writing topic to writing topic and way too many people are left discouraged and confused. It’s one of the parts of blogging about writing that really irritates me, so let me start off by defining voice.

There are a few types of voice, and they’re all different, but all under the umbrella of “voice” (The way this was taught to me was to think of bread. There are loads of different types of bread – pumpernickel, rye, sourdough – but they’re all breads). It’s a shame people aren’t more clear about which one they mean. I know I’m guilty of it, so I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible.

Narrative voice is how the narrator sounds, and this is a key element in first-person writing, since the exposition comes filtered through one character’s experience and thought. (The technical term is narration-as-thought, if you ever want to sound nerdy while sipping a pinot noir with someone wearing a jacket with elbow patches) A strong narrative voice requires a clear view of the character’s attitude and philosophy, as well as an understanding that first-person is not omnipresent or omniscient, and because of those limitations, you’re only seeing one particular side to a story, with everything expressed to us by a single channel.

One of the first questions I get asked about narrative voice is “what do I do if I’m writing in third person?” Well, there the narrator is invisible, and you don’t want to reveal there to be some disembodied being telling you the story, you just want the facts and ideas presented with omniscience. In that case, narrative voice becomes narrative-as-exposition (man, you are going to impress a lot of people if you go to douchey wine parties), so a clear third-person narrative voice is strong exposition. Strong exposition comes from sentence construction and decision making as to what’s actually in scene, collapsing the barrier between the reader’s imagined presence in the moment and the fact that they’re reading squiggles and symbols on a piece of paper.

You can build a strong narrative voice by working on your decision making skills. If you’re in first person, keep the character in mind. (Note: If you’re looking to build strong characters, check out the FiYoShiMo section on characters.) Put us over their shoulder and lens everything you can through the character’s interests, goals, plans, fears, and thoughts.

In third person, make clear decisions and good word choices. If you mean to say that there’s a rusty pitchfork stuck in Mrs Dickinson’s chest, then there sure as hell was a tragic peasant accident. There’s room for paralysis due to overthinking here, which is another way of saying people can start doubting whether what they’ve got on paper is good enough, so get all your thoughts down on paper and make sure they’re at least clear before you start derailing yourself into “good enough.” (Hint: It’s good enough.)

Authorial voice is how you (the person writing whatever you’re writing) build sentences, employ writing techniques (like frontloading and backloading), and apply grammar and punctuation, so that your work, regardless of genre or series, has a signature unique to you. Maybe you use a lot of metaphors. Maybe you love long radial sentences. Maybe you like every sixth sentence to be a pair of clauses hinged with a comma. Strong authorial voice is not necessarily mastery of sentence structure, so much as it is a decisive broadcast of your style. The voice comes through regardless of whether the text is expositive, narrative, or dialogue. Strong authorial voice is engaging and comforting to some degree, because a reader develops expectations and familiarity.

Building authorial voice is about first having some level of comfort with what you’re doing. For some people that’s going to include a few internal conversations that it’s okay to be a writer, it’s okay to spend time doing writing, and as we’ve talked about previously, it’s okay to tell people that you’re a writer. For other people it’s going to be a permission slip that you can keep with you so that you know the Word Police aren’t three seconds away from kicking down your door and taking away your keyboard. For some people, it’s going to be relief that it’s okay to enjoy doing this activity for themselves on some level, rather than always being the parent on duty or the partner on call. Without that comfort, creativity is sludge in old pipes and you’ll never reach that level of production and enjoyment you talk about wanting.

Once you give yourself permission, authorial voice is built with discipline. Consistent effort applied regularly. Writing frequently. Adding to word counts. More doing and less saying you’re going to do things. Word after word, sentence after sentence. Put your butt in the chair and make the words happen. Marathons are measured in miles, but are won a stride at a time.

You’re not going to master your voice during a first draft. It will take several drafts and likely several books to get truly comfortable and nuanced within your voice, and I encourage you to try out lots of different approaches in writing. More dialogue, less narration, more description, fewer similes, bigger hyperbole … figure out where you sound the most like you while telling the story you want to tell, and then build a sustainable environment by reading in and out of genre, build a support network, stop letting fear of other people dictate whether you’re a good or bad person for making stuff, etc etc.

It’s hard. It sounds hard. It can be frustrating that you’re not “getting it fast enough.” There isn’t a “fast enough.” This is not a drag strip, this is Le Mans. But you can get a handle on your voice and use it well. It just means you actually have to write.

Character voice is how a character sounds or acts or thinks, ideally distinct from other characters due to not just manner of speaking, but also word choice, and content. If you have a character from the backwoods, they’ll sound differently than the upper crust European barony. Character voice is making each character specific and their own. And it’s not just about what they say, it’s also how they act or react to whatever goes on around them. Strong character voice makes character A wholly different and distinguishable from characters B and C.

Developing character voice comes out of really knowing your characters, and really being able to say clearly what makes one character different than another. That might mean something intrinsic like beliefs or fears, or something developed like speaking patterns or vocabulary, but you should be able to distinguish one character from another beyond name and physical description. Removing any one character from a story (assuming they’re not some bit player in the background) should leave an impact on the story you’re telling, and character voice is what’s absent once the character is 86’d.

So why are all these voices important? Because in their own way, they demonstrate the skill of the writer, which in a bigger picture means sales and audience building. I’ve always found it a bit of a pressure-stretch to say that your word choice on page 2, paragraph 4 of your second draft is going to directly influence your sales, and that it can easily freeze people up in anxiety, but there is a point to be made between how clearly and passionately you get your ideas out into the world and how people can therefore enjoy them by handing you money.

We enjoy a strong narrative voice because the story moves along and holds our interest.

We enjoy a strong authorial voice because we like each story and series and the styles therein.

We enjoy a strong character voice because we can project and imagine these adventures and these people having them.

Erin, this all boils down to write more. Write more words. Write more often. Your voice(s) will get developed through consistent disciplined effort. They’re important but not so critical you need to hyperthink your ideas to perfection before you put them on the page. You can be imperfectly perfect and successful and happy on your own terms. Truly.

Just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys at the end of the week. Have a great middle of your week, and happy writing.

 

The Passage of Time In Story

Good morning. Welcome back to the week. The sky is clear, the sun is out, I think today might be worth seizing. So let’s pour ourselves a morning glass of iced tea into our best mug (mine talks about butts) and talk writing, shall we?

Today, I want to talk about time as it is used in a story. Time is one of the most manipulated and relied upon elements of storycraft, because it’s instantly familiar to the audience regardless of genre or any reader specifics. We all know about time, we all have feelings about time, we all know how time works.

And like the other instantly familiar concepts (like emotions or world physics), when it’s done well, the story maintains its cohesion and proceeds as planned. However, when time gets monkeyed with (and I don’t mean as a function of the story, I mean when the author sucks are expressing the passage of time), it can stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s that point I want to address. Time has a lot of story components, some of which I think warrant more explanation and definition, rather than just a blanket statement.

Have you ever defined time? It’s the progression of events in one direction, presumably forward. We have different units of time that we all agree upon (seconds, minutes, centuries), unless the genre calls for a change to them, as may happen in science fiction where a particular planet has a month marked in 41.3 days or something.

There’s something known as baseline time in storytelling, and that’s the idea that there’s the accepted measurement of time in story as the readers have in real life. When a story mentions a day, they mean 24 hours, that sort of thing. This baseline creates familiarity, and keeps the author from having to eat up valuable space in a manuscript laying out the chronological metrics.

There’s something known as assumptive time, which is the basis for Stretch Theory. Assumptive time is the idea that a “moment” where a story beat happens isn’t defined unless the story calls for it. A bomb defusing scene, for instance, has a need for time to matter more than something vague like “And then Sharon went to the grocery store.” because we don’t need to know that Sharon spent 9 minutes and 3 seconds in the store, just that she went there. Stretch Theory is based on assumptive time, and says: A beat stretches  or dilates time as needed in order to present the most complete version of itself. Translated into English, Stretch Theory says things take as long as they need to.

There’s something called narrative time, which is the time that passes during the story as the events of the story happen. Harry Potter, for instance, measures narrative time in an imagined school year, allowing for seasonal changes as well as social change to be factors in-story.

There’s also something known as read time, which is how much time the reader spent in the act of reading, both on a sentence-by-sentence case, but also the bigger scale of how much time the person sat down to read.

When you combine all these things together, you start to see the potential of time as a story element. You want to maximize read time, because more reading is good, and builds audience, is enjoyable and leads potentially to sales, etc etc. You want to use accepted time as a way to keep the reader following along, giving them a frame of reference they can understand, so that they can focus on what you’re talking about (also maximizing read time) and you want to manipulate assumptive time so that you present the most interesting beats and moments in a story.

Let’s do an example as we dig deeper. Suppose we have two people, let’s call them Kerry and Tracy. Assign genders and age as you like, but let’s put these two people in a relationship. Let’s not marry them yet, but let’s say this example is the story of how they met, and concludes with them getting married. Let’s also agree that we’re not going to introduce too much randomness into this example (like there’s no magic spell to make them fall madly in love on a Tuesday and be married Wednesday). Here are two people in a story, regardless of genre, and we’re telling their story.

Time and relationships is tricky, because while yes, I have tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words I can devote to creating this relationship, there’s a sweet spot as to what’s going to be believable and what isn’t. Take too long, and the reader can grow impatient, assuming the obstacles preventing the relationship’s development aren’t substantial (Tracy not calling Kerry back “just because” is not as substantial as Tracy not calling Kerry back because Tracy is still getting over the loss of their ex due to a tragic playground accident.)

Move too quickly, and the reader won’t believe these characters truly care. (I’m looking at you Les Mis and Twilight). This is due to reader experience almost universally indicating them that outside the world of your story, relationships take time. This is particularly important if we’re going to put some realism in our story, because realism is going to require us to mirror reader experience.

So how do you find the sweet spot?

The good news is that you can look to other story elements to figure it out. A relationship is a symbiosis between people, so it’s important to have a sense of the qualities and shortcomings of each character in the relationship as well as a sense as to how they overlap.

Coming back to Kerry and Tracy, let’s keep Tracy with a problem letting go and a dead ex, and since we’re building a healthy relationship here, we can either give Kerry a skill at letting go, or a comparable issue with relationships, since we want to see the two characters develop together by working on their issues collaboratively as well as individually. Let’s give Kerry different issue, so they’ll have no problem with letting go, but they’ll instead have a problem that Tracy can assist them with.

(This is called “simple symbiosis”, when Character A’s faults play to Character B’s strengths and vice versa.)

But, you ask, how long can this take? Stretch Theory.

Map the expression of the plot and symbiosis across beats, not chapters, and here’s why: Because beats compose chapters, and staying fluid here allows you to let Stretch Theory be an asset and not a bore.

Take the problem at the heart of the story: Tracy and Kerry need to get together, stay together, and get married. If we present this arc as three beats, or even 3 chapters, it’s going to be a very short progression, and its brevity asks a lot of the reader – the less information provided, the more assumptions you’re tasking the reader to make and agree with. (There’s a danger in information saturation, where there’s too much material, but we’ll get to that.)

We can divide this whole relationship into pieces. When slicing, try to end up with even or divisible numbers, because your overall structure benefits with division. (It’s easier to tell a story in 8 parts with 4 two-parters, than a story in seven parts with 1 4-parter and 1 3-parter.)

Here’s Kerry and Tracy’s relationship, divided into thirds, because three act structure.

MEETING
1. Characters meet
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged
5. Dates happens
6. Relationship faces difficulty

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties
9. Marriage!

These 9 elements could be scenes, they could be chapters, they could be beats. Right now, this is the story mapping stage, so I’m not concerned yet with word counts for each part, because I’m just putting my ideas on paper. Subsequent development will have my putting word counts to each section, and expanding this very crude outline, likely with dialogue and a breakdown of the moments that interest me: specifically 3, 5, and 6, because those moments are where I can write some really fun stuff and show off my writer skills.

Notice though that there’s no concrete mention of a chronology with graduations. I’m not specifying here how long the 9 steps take. Step 5 must take some bit of time though, because I’ve labeled it as “dates” (plural), so I must have some idea about multiple things that will happen. The unspoken graduation is forward progress, and that’s established in the idea that the sections are meeting, together, marriage. But within the three parts, there’s additional progression baked in, one thing leading to another until we reach our goal.

When we put time into this outline, we start to see a sense of scale and pace. Let’s put together a really simple progression and use the seasons as our chronology. This will turn our outline into this:

MEETING
1. Characters meet (SPRING)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER)

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER)

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty (WINTER)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER)
9. Marriage! (SPRING)

By partnering our outline with seasons, not only are we giving our story a sense of “how long is this gonna take”, we’re also playing with the assumptions and expectations a reader may have about what the seasons mean to them. Spring is often rebirth, so we end our story with these two people starting a life together with new growth, winter is a dark and miserable time, so we partner it with the rough part of our story.

But this still doesn’t tell you enough about how long this should be. Even if we add in word count, like this:

MEETING
1. Characters meet (SPRING) (5k)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER) (4k)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER) (4k)

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN) (4k)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER) (10k)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER) (5k)

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty (WINTER) (2k)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER) (6k)
9. Marriage! (SPRING) (5k)

word count isn’t an indicator of time passing within a story. I can spend a thousand words in the present tense while describing the contents of a suitcase and never advance narrative time forward, though reader time passes, because human reading is not instantaneous.

Story believability is not a function of narrative time. Many adventures take place over an unspecified number of days, often without characters doing anything outside of the specific adventure (Hi, first season of 24, where Jack Bauer doesn’t stop to pee). For our Kerry and Tracy relationship, we’re not counting on time doing the heavy lifting of broadcasting our idea. Time is there, but it’s a support structure: the actual events and character growth relative to those events are what’s going to make this relationship feel realistic.

(For the people still looking to get incredibly crunchy and prickly over time, I’d like to point out that the montage, flash forward, and scene transitions all show time as a malleable narrative factor if that’s the story’s need.)

Go back to our outline, and look at item 5, where there are multiple dates happening. We’ll likely have to subdivide that time into its constituent date components of planning, executing, resolving, and the repeating those phases for each date. Additionally the successes and failures stack, so that date 4 is predicated on date 3 going well, and over the course these dates we’ll also escalate the attraction and presumably throw these characters into bed together, likely after they laugh while getting caught in the rain after one too many margaritas at happy hour … or something.

I point these dates out because each date is important, but not the timing of each date. One date might be seeing a movie, written out in two or three sentences, despite the movie consuming 2 hours of narrative time. The total read time for that date? Depending on how long it takes to read the paragraph, so … seconds? Our seconds translate into their hours.

Time is malleable, and we buy into its progress not because we micromanage it, but because we use it to buttress our developmental efforts.

There isn’t a clear formula where you plug in variables for number of characters or word count and get the precise amount of narrative time necessary. In two words (“Years later…“) I can advance time a non-specific amount, even though I give you an indicator of its vector when I use later, suggesting that time has advanced, so likely Kerry or Tracy has an eyepatch or scar or cybernetic limb in the dystopia spawned from in an alternate timestream only visible to Kerry while dreaming after a date night when they stayed up too late playing a very aggressive game of Uno.

The amount of information I use to distribute the the progress and growth of characters is not always proportional to the importance of the thing the character does in order to grow. Yes, it might take years to master an ancient martial art, but I can turn Tracy into a warrior within less than a dozen words: Tracy eventually mastered Fighting Hippo Style.

Let’s wrap today by taking our outline and putting it into a paragraph breakdown. We’ll include the 9 steps parenthetically.

Tracy and Kerry meet (1) at the corporate mixer for new employees of The Job Corporation. Both Tracy and Kerry were hired by Gary, and both of them develop a friendly relationship after some initial professional competition (2 and 3). When their individual dates bail/were secretly killed by Gary, Tracy and Kerry agree to go out together (4), and eventually see more and more of each other (5), though Tracy’s rigid martial arts training that started after their ex was killed by a rogue jungle gym and Kerry’s inability to avoid office drama, keep their relationship somewhat unstable (6).

Gary institutes more corporate changes in his bid for power, and the Tracy/Kerry relationship hits its lowest point (7), when Kerry is kidnapped by Gary’s robot army and Tracy must use their martial arts training to rescue the person of their dreams (8). With Gary ultimately defeated, the couple reunites and moves forward with their lives (9).

Framed like that, time becomes an afterthought rather than a panic engine. This story will develop at the pace it needs to, because we see the whole map, and we’re not just faffing around when we want our characters to grow/change along a particular arc.

My many thanks to my client ZA Maxfield for suggesting this topic. I’ll see you on Wednesday, when we’ll grab a question out of the inbox.

Happy writing.

Letting Them Know You Create

Congratulations on reaching Friday. We’re going to celebrate with cocktails and potato skins out on the veranda, but first let’s sit and talk about something that has made eleven appearances in my inbox this week, only slightly more than my friend the Nigerian Prince and his genital enlarging cream he’ll share but only after I order a Russian bride and give her my bank account info.

I’m talking about the excuses people make to cover up the fact that they write. Or, in a sort of roundabout way, cover up the fact that they’re afraid they’ll be judged for writing. Now whether that judgment comes from friends, family, non-specific professionals, that weird lady who stands just a little too close to you in the checkout line, or whoever, I don’t know, but sometimes people hide what they’re doing, even if they love it, because they don’t want to be ridiculed or be told they’re wasting their time. To build this cover, they trot out some excuses and masks. Maybe you’ve heard some these…

I would write more but my kids have so much going on…
I would write more but I’m just so tired at the end of the day I just want to space out…
I would finish this book, but you know, life is just so busy right now …
I would finish this book, but it’s getting close to [INSERT SEASON HERE]…
I’d make time to write, but there’s just so many other things to do first…
I’ll write more when my kids [INSERT FUTURE EVENT/MILESTONE HERE]…
I’ll start that book when my husband [INSERT EVENT/ACTION HERE]…
I’ll start blogging next month…

Now, maybe there are legit reasons for that sentence being a thing you say. Maybe yes, your kids are super busy. Maybe yes, you work a grueling job that physically and mentally exhausts you to the point where sitting on the couch and staring at the television is the only relief from the crushing existence that is you right now. Maybe yes, like the $10 Founding Father, there are a million things you haven’t done. But, no, I don’t think you should just wait.


Sidebar!

We talked support networks before, and I’d like to expand on that a bit. At the core, the bright center of your support network, should be the most trusted people you know. They’re the base. You confide in them, you care about them, you want them to do well and be well. By my reckoning, I’d call those people family. Do not let biology limit or constrain this notion, because you can transcend the gene pool, which may be useful if you’ve got some really unhelpful and unhealthy people sharing chromosomes with you.

So this supportive network needs a point of reference within your home, since it’s the place you’re supposed to feel the safest. Maybe for some people, that home is just a building you occupy temporarily (looking at you, college students) or maybe it’s not the “ideal” place (looking at you people living in an apartment while you wait to hear back from the bank about your credit and mortgages), but wherever you’re at, you need to build a firm root for that supportive web. For me, I get the majority of that online. The majority of my friends and family are hundreds of miles away from me, and so the bulk of our communication and support happens via text messages, emails, and social media. And while it’s difficult to maintain those relationships the same way I could if they were in the same building or even the same timezone.

But it’s not the distance or the separation that I’m talking about here. Despite the geographical space, we’re still in touch. We maintain that support network through whatever media available. And even via media, it’s still a supportive atmosphere.

The fear or shame about rejection or confrontation or chastisement or judgment isn’t really acted upon. I might feel really nervous telling my close friends how frustrated I am about a situation, thinking they’ll tell me, “John it’s no big deal, get over it,” but they don’t. They listen, they support, they encourage me to think and not give up. I might feel like they’ll be critical, but I won’t know if they will be or not until I take that action of telling them. And 99.999% of the time, the response isn’t critical (there was one time I got told I was doing something stupid, but that’s because I was doing something stupid.)

A support network isn’t a judgmental network. When you find a node of support that’s far more critical and judgmental and unjustly negative, it’s time to restructure the network and give that person the heave-ho.

Okay, sidebar over.


The fear is reasonable, I guess. I mean, it makes sense that you’d have doubts as to how something is going to be received. It’s the same sort of thing when you submit an MS for publication, because someone else is going to say or do something that you can interpret as evidence your time was either wasted or not. Sure, that makes sense, but that means you’ve also decided to let someone else have the ability to approve your choices and decisions. The important question remains: Did you feel or do you feel like writing is a waste of time?

Recently, a five-year-old asked what I did. My response of “I help people tell stories better” was not met with derision or a questioning about how viable that job is in this economy, I got an “Oh” and then he dashed off to play. He didn’t want to be critical, he just wanted to know what I did when I said I was working.

I could have danced around the topic, or gone over his head with some lengthy explanation of how language works, but that would have been boring and it would have been easier to just go straight at the problem. And really, even if he thought it was silly, would that stop me? Am I going to pack up all my books and tweets and go back to selling furniture and towels because someone thinks what I do is silly? They’re not the boss of me, last I checked. It’s what I want to do, I’m capable of doing it, I’d like to think I’m good at it, I enjoy doing it, so I’m going to do it .

The fear is only as big and as well-equipped as we make it to be. Yes, we might have all manner of problems, or disabilities, or obstacles, but being defined by them (or using them as rationalizations for NOT doing things, or putting them ahead of all else as your identity), isn’t going to help you get done what you want. If you want to go after that goal, pursue it in whatever means possible, by any means necessary. Your path to success isn’t going to look like anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing. It’s a challenge, but challenge is what we need for growth as human people beings.

So where does this fear come in? It’s the unknown. It’s the unknown in a new dress that isn’t entirely flattering. Like that time Aunt Mabel tried a maxi-skirt and just … no. Big no.

We don’t know how our stating our goals, plans, wants, desires, and dreams is going to be received, so we (thanks to conditioning, a few previous experiences and a lack of confidence) assume it’s going to go over about as well as a petting zoo at a child’s funeral.

But we don’t know how it’s going to be received. It’s Schrodinger all over again – well received and not well received or dead in a box at the same time.

With 50/50 odds, why not try?

And even if your enthusiasm isn’t reciprocated as you’d hoped, why let that stop you? It’s your time, you’re presumably not hurting anyone, you’re the boss of you, so go for it.

I’m not saying rejection or doubt from others doesn’t hurt or slow momentum or inject cloudy doubt onto your sunny day, but it’s up to you as to whether or not you let the clouds gather into hurricane season.

Axe your excuses. Rather than give up on your project, why not put your excuses to the curb? Yeah, I know, that sounds like ten bajillion times harder, but take a deep breath and give it a try. And no, don’t think about making an excuse for why you can’t get rid of your excuses about why you can’t tell people what you do or why you can’t go do it.

If you’re about to ask, “how?” the answer is this: Go do the thing you want to do and tell people about it.

This is a combination of accountability (people will ask you how it’s going, and having good news is better than making up a lie) and enjoyment (when you love what you do, you talk about it excitedly.) And by taking advantage of accountability, you can develop that discipline necessary to make progress. By taking advantage of enjoyment, you’ll get satisfaction from what you do, which will make you more likely to do it again, which will feed into more discipline, and more good stuff to talk about … and onward the cycle turns.

Try it for one week. And if you’re about to say you don’t have anyone to talk to, come tell me.

I’ll see you guys next week. Enjoy your weekend. Go do awesome stuff. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Sentence Length and Grammar

Good morning everyone, hope the Wednesday you’re facing down the barrel of isn’t too terrible.

Like we do every Wednesday, let’s reach into the inbox and pull out a question about writing or publishing. Remember, if you have a question and want it answered, write me an email. Even if I don’t answer your question on the blog, I will write you back and answer your question. I promise.

Today’s question comes from Pete, who asks:

John, you’ve talked before about how important it is to vary your sentences. I get that, but what about grammar. How do you make that work? How long is too long? How many long sentences can I get away with? Should my action scenes have fewer long sentences because they’re supposed to be quick? What do I do?

Okay Pete, you’ve asked a lot of great questions. I want to start though not at the top of the list, but in the middle, if you’ll let me.

Whenever I see “can I get away with” when we’re talking writing, I think about the idea of something being transgressive, like we’re sneaking a file inside a cake or we’re telling the substitute teacher that we’re encouraged not to pay attention – that there are established rules and we have to keep our rule-breaking a secret, so that someone else doesn’t find out what we’re up to.

But there isn’t a “someone else” here Pete, unless you mean that you’re afraid of the collective “other people” judge you for writing a thing they’re reading … or are you saying that if you write too many long sentences people will give up on your book, that they’ve already paid for, and you’ll lose their potential future sales on other books you read?

Okay, Pete, that’s a pretty ambitious fear. First it assumes you’re going to get published (which you totally should pursue), then it assumes you’re going to publish multiple things (which you totally should do), then it assumes that your developed audience (something you should have) will abandon you at the first sign of a long sentence. That last part doesn’t speak too highly of how you think about this audience – that they will turn on you just as soon as praise you, and that’s not really accurate. It’s not over sentence length that an author loses the reader, it’s a combination of factors … but that discussion comes later. Right now, that manuscript isn’t finished, so let’s steer back on course.

You don’t abandon grammar entirely. You don’t abandon the sentence’s job of delivering ideas into the reader’s head. You do however experiment with how the sentence does its job. A fragment, although a no-no in some grammar contexts, can accurately convey information. Really. (see what just happened there?) Whereas a long sentence, full of clauses that twist and turn, carrying the reader towards a seemingly tremendous end can be a revelation as a break from short, punchy, almost yelling-at-you text.

I can expand on these ideas further with a sports analogy if you’ll indulge me. In hockey, for instance, players try to score goals while the opposing team’s defenders and goalie try and stop them. The player on offense has many ways to attempt to score points, so long as they hit the puck with a stick, and the puck goes into the net. They can do this with a slapshot, a wrist shot, a quick tap-in, a deflection, even an errant pass that takes a lucky turn or bounce.

Likewise, as a writer, you have many tools at your disposal to deliver your ideas (get your puck in the net). You can use long sentences (slap shots), short sentences (wrist shots), fragments (tap-ins), a variety of clauses (deflections and bouncing pucks). You are not without options, and each of those options has its roots in the principles of good grammar.

Recall too that “good” is not synonymous with “perfect” (or so my therapist reminds me), so grammar doesn’t have to be flawless to be accurate, understandable or enjoyed. The maxim in writing is: When you understand the rule, you can break the rule.

This supposes though that you know the rule. And “know” in this context refers to the ability to demonstrate following it. Write some really strong sentences, throw in a fragment and see what happens. In this way, the rules become guidelines, templates, and assumptions available for your use to educe your own voice and idea.

Sentence length is one tool for developing ideas. How many you use is going to vary, but overuse slows momentum, as the reader will take longer to get through the sentence, particularly when the word choice or punctuation make the lines dense and difficult to parse.

A different problem bubbles up when the long sentence is dialogue, as it can seem very jarring and almost monologue-y to have someone speaking in great paragraphs during a scene where perhaps long conversation does not make sense (the building is blowing up all around her, yet she wants to discourse about the state of the produce cartel.)

But there are cases when long sentences are useful. Establishing scenes, laying out detailed descriptions, anywhere you can take similar information and spread it out as a setup for things to come, all are fertile for longer sentences.

Of course, this means we’ve all agreed on how long “long” is. And there’s no answer to that. If we agree that long sentences have multiple clauses, then we have to try and come to a consensus on how many clauses we’re talking about. And if we pick a number like 4, are we saying that sentences with 3 dependent clauses aren’t long? It’s a rabbit hole of overthinking.

And Pete, that’s the heart of this issue. Overthinking the delivery system of ideas in order to ensure “the best success” is a great way to end up with a very weak delivery system at all, because everything ends up critiqued and examined and questioned rather than trusted and tested. (This is the same sort of argument I make when we talk about editing while you work.)

Long sentences are not some rare power held by a few while the rest of the writing peasantry has to make due with word scraps to get their ideas out. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, use it as you think you need to. And if you think you’re not using it correctly, ask for help. In time you’ll figure out what works best for you, and it’ll be better than some pat answer, because it will be tailored to you, which is ideal.

Thanks for your question Pete, it was a good one.

See you all later this week for more blogging goodness. Happy writing.

 

 

The Adverb Issue

Good morning, welcome back to Monday. If your weekend was like mine, the weather became unseasonably hot and you hustled to remember where you put the shorts (or you dashed out to buy a pair when you realized none of the shorts near you fit.)

It’s Monday morning, and that means it’s back to blogging, sweaty body or not. And today I thought we’d take a look at some grammar.

Grammar can be sexy again, and grammar doesn’t have to be the source of eyerolling or a quailing stomach. Seriously, grammar doesn’t have to be a menace out of the shadows to sabotage your words with all the rules and suggestions and mandatory do-this-or-the-old-lady-gets-it ransoming, it’s a set of tools to give your word-ideas a structure and body.  And like any set of tools, you’ll get better with them given use.

Today, let’s talk adverbs, and why too many adverbs are a problem in a manuscript. Lots of resources (books, blogs, podcasts) will tell you that adverbs are bad or wrong and that they are a fast track to Rejection City, but I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on why they’re not the best tool in most cases.

An adverb is a “word or phrase that modifies a verb, clause, or some part of speech that isn’t a noun.”

Adverbs help answer the questions:

* How?
* When?
* Where
* In what way?
* To what extent?

when we’re talking about something that happened. It doesn’t matter what the something is specifically, whether we’re talking about making lunch or walking or wrapping gifts, just that the activity is being described with additional detail.

The presumption is that the additional detail is critical. It’s not enough to know:

She was tired of him leaving wet towels on the floor.

it’s that the author has decided we MUST know:

She was very tired of him always leaving wet towels on the floor.

But are we unable to gather a sense of her displeasure out of all the sentences on the page, in the chapter, in this part of the story? It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself, “Do I need to have this detail in this sentence, right this second?”

The issue is one of excess detail, and sentence effort. More details, more clauses, more description does not automatically make the sentence better, the same way that a third wing will make your plane fly faster.

Sentence effort is the concept that a sentence delivers to the reader some percentage or unit of story idea. Naturally, some sentences are going to be weightier than others, given context, as in the revelation of having a forgotten sibling is more impactful than the color of the car the protagonist parked next to at the grocery story.

But there’s an unspoken agreement that all sentences deliver story, even in unequal portions and by uneven percentages. And that’s not just a function of the specific ideas conveyed by the words, but also the words themselves and the sentence’s length.

Sentence length we’ll talk about on Wednesday, so let’s look today at a word’s ability to carry weight.

The adjective’s job is to develop an idea out the factual and into the practical. It’s not just a chair, it’s a red wingback chair. We go past all the mental images of  orange stools and stained benches and green futons to red wingbacks.  The movement is lateral, as the detail gained via an adjective expands on our existing knowledge.

The adverb is also a lateral expansion, because it gives additional qualities to action. He didn’t run, he ran hurriedly. She didn’t only fight, she fought ferociously. We take an existing idea (one person running, another one fighting) and we give more nuance to it.

So why is that bad? What if we’re not bogging down the sentence with like, ninety billion of these things, why is an adverb so bad in small doses, like can’t they be artisanal descriptors?

This isn’t an Etsy shop for Whovian genital jewelry or a Brooklyn distillery of guava champagnes, but yes, you can get very specific and minimal in your application of adverbs. Don’t think of it in terms of “getting away with it” like this is a some dietary transgression on the way to swimsuit season, but that instead you’re making use of less as more.

When you consider the adverb and its adverb phrase (put an adverb together with another word, boom, adverb phrase, you can now skip like the first 5 weeks in getting your English degree if you super promise to read/Wikipedia DH Lawrence and Henry James), the problem is one of concept. And since concept develops context, you have to examine the words you’ve chosen.

Is there enough of a particular difference that you have to/need to/must make between “walked quickly” and “ran” that you want to use the extra characters? Is it that image of one thing in your head seems so clear that you can’t afford a little flexibility in the head of a reader?

Is “yelling” less clear than “speaking loudly” if you’ve already got the exclamation point in place? Here too we can point out that a punctuation mark can convey as much as an adverb, but that can distract us.

Word choice does matter, but the focus should be on clarity of getting that idea out into the reader’s head and not just about the specificity of the writer being exacting to the point of obnoxious pretense.

You can often skip the adverb by taking the clearest “best” verb for the job. Best does not automatically mean the flashiest, just that it’s the ideal word for the position and meaning you want to deliver. If you mean run, say run. There’s nothing wrong with said showing up a lot when characters speak to and at one another.

If we need to know the hows and whens and to what extants, let the reason be greater than “because I am the author, and this is my work, and I want you to know I am the one delivering this idea to you.” Because that’s a very short term reason and a highway to a reader getting frustrated with a possibly condescending subtext or tone.

In the absence of adverbs, let more ideas proliferate, in addition to expanded nuance of in-place ideas. You’ve got the real estate, so why not take advantage?

Like so many things in life, adverb with extreme moderation – shall we agree then that adverbs are airport Cinnabon?

See you later this week for InboxWednesday.

Support Within The Echoes

It’s Friday. I assume you’ve begun appropriate celebrations, be they pants removal or really luxurious visits to office bathrooms, or writing out the plurals of various acronyms when you’re supposed to be paying attention to a sales meeting. (No really, pay attention, those fourth quarter projections look scary, and I think someone needs to do a little something to synergize and optimize their workflow, if you know what I’m saying.)

Today, while you’re reading this, I’m trying to relax. I can tell you that I’m probably not relaxing, that I’m worried about a whole pile of things, and probably anxious about being worried. I do that sometimes, and even when I take vacations, I worry about taking the vacation and missing time away from the routine I’ve built – video games, my dog, the random trips to the fridge for water, the staring out a particular window at particularly annoying kids doing particularly and spectacularly stupid things without a chaperone … you know, the usual stuff.

When those feelings rise up, when I start worrying about worrying, when I can’t relax despite even instruction to do so, I go find support. And today we’re going to talk about support as creatives.

There are loads of places you can go for support. There are friends, family, religious groups, communities of people who share interests, fan pages, websites, forums, and social media. You can talk to someone who likes what you like, someone who thinks along the same lines you do, someone who has been in the spot you’re at and who can be encouraging or constructive when you need them be.

But, for every great avenue of support available, there a few absolutely terrible places masking their awfulness under the veneer of being helpful. Places that rally a victim attitude, or cater to the negatives, or distract and discourage through buzzwords and social pressure. These places don’t actually support you. They restrict you. They pen you in. They make you feel like you’re joining a group of like-minded people, but then they don’t want you to leave that group, because then someone somewhere wouldn’t have you to complain to or about.

That’s not to say that every place has an ocean of crap you have to sail through before you find the paradise island. Assuming that is no different than assuming you’re forever going to be climbing a lava flow uphill barefoot, with Lego blocks wedged between your toes. The doom and gloom brigade runs their banner pretty high, and it’s easy to forget there’s a sun shining behind it.

A supportive community is only as good as its contributors. You know that saying about monkeys, typewriters, and Shakespeare? Similar to that, you can’t take twenty unhealthy unhelpful unkind people and expect them to be bastions of wonder and support. Remember that unhealthy seeks out and feeds on unhealthy, propagating a culture of demolition and inadequacy over one of encouragement and development.

So, when looking for a community, here’s some stuff to look for:

1. How good are the good people? Is their advice sound? Not if you agree with it, because you don’t have to agree with all of it (but we’ll get there in a minute), but is what they’re saying orderly and rational? You’d be surprised the number of echo chambers that exist on the interwebs where people toss around all kinds of specious and vacuous ideas about why they can or can’t or must or should do this or that: Lizard people; invited malady masking legitimate mental issues; planets existing in certain positions in space that somehow mean they’re affected; a certain number of sugar granules spilled on the kitchen counter; a shift in invisible energy-wave particles making it harder to sit back and receive rather that broadcast, etc. etc.

2. How bad are the bad people? In every group, you’re going to find people who aren’t just super negative, but aggressively detrimental. They’re caustic and corrosive in their encounters and the gravity of their negativity warps everyone around them. This isn’t just “stay away from Carl until he’s had his coffee”, this is “all the person does is complain about how someone should do this hard thing for them because entitlement/victim complex/because reasons of special snowflake-ness.”

Now I’ve framed these first two points as good/bad because I mean good/bad relative to your desired goal. If you’re in a writing group, and you want to produce the best manuscript possible, then “good” anything that progresses you and “bad” is anything that retards you. This isn’t about identity, orientation, gender, age, location, social economics, race, persuasion, or flavor. This is just about progressing towards a goal. If you’re going to conflate good and bad along those identity lines, I suspect the problem would then not be with the community but rather the filter and lens you’re using. (Not everything is grand battle unless you go make it one, remember)

3. What’s the rhetoric like? I’ve been in groups that I now regret being a part of, thanks to an atmosphere I co-created as a member. I’ve been in groups I wish I could return to but the zeitgeist has collapsed and people have moved on. In all those cases, there was a vocabulary and common communicative thread tying things together. The same jargon, the same phrases, a common cirriculum or mindset reinforced from tons of angles and points. This allows groups to reinforce rules and normalize (even incentivize) behaviors because “it’s cool to do/to say that because you’re a member of XYZ.” And that’s great … to a point, but when those rules shift or you change and you’re now distanced from that group, it can be very hard to break back in, partially due to the rhetoric and connective threads. Look for groups that are as welcoming to new members as they are gracious to exiting ones. Look for groups where the encouraged behaviors align with that stated goal of yours. If the conversations or efforts always derail because Susan has to keep bringing something up from three weeks ago since it’s further evidence of some people not being worthy of group membership, think twice about participation.

4. Is it an Us vs Them? What’s the culture like? A lot of groups form out of the ashes of other groups. Former members, excised cliques, and castaways band together because Group A couldn’t or didn’t want them. This separation creates the idea that one group is superior to another, despite shared goals. But now there’s an axe to grind, because management was wrong, or they disagree on operations, or whatever else. Too easily a group can fall into an Us vs Them philosophy (I maintain a few myself, thanks to my own attitudes, fears, and disagreements), but while that can be periodic fuel, to prove other wrong by your efforts, it can be just as exhausting or demoralizing to seeing others succeed with you just looking on. There’s only an “Us”, if you remember that there’s plenty of room at the table for everyone to succeed, so long as we don’t start competing like our individual success is subject to collective rarity.

5. How comfortable can your contribution be? Since you’re about to develop, join, and ideally improve this support network, you’ll need to contribute to it by doing more than just raising the membership count. So, will it be difficult to do that? Are there a lot of hoops? Will it be an chore because (as in some places) regular contributions are not just expected but required? A support network is only as useful as its interactions and benefits. If you turn to a group of people and they actively exacerbate your problem (and no, this isn’t the same as telling you what you don’t want to hear), how supportive are they going to be if your situation takes a downward turn? There have been times I’ve had legitimate crises and not talked to certain people about them, despite them being ideally suited to help, because I knew that along with the help, I’d get a lecture about how I should have not had the problem in the first place. And that’s not supportive. Which brings me to the last point …

6. Does how you define support warrant affiliation with this group? Support is defined as “providing assistance often but not limited to moral or psychological aid”, since a group that encourages you to make progress may also show you some techniques or ideas to help advance your progress with less difficulty (as in the 4 people you consult for cooking advice could suggest cookbooks or recipes for that fancy dinner party you want to throw). The specifics of moral and psychological aid though are left open-ended. What supports me may not support you, for any number of reasons. And if a particular group isn’t benefiting you, you don’t have to stick around with some false hope that one day they’ll get their act in gear. While the extrication process may not be as simple as “stop going to a website” or “delete your account”, you don’t have to maintain attendance in any group that actively makes your life suck. You matter enough to take good care of yourself, which means you matter enough to be able to pick and choose your associations.

I do want to wrap up with one last point that you might be thinking: But John, if I’m going to this one group of people over here for help, will the people over there be upset or judgmental?

You have zero control over what other people do, or what conclusions they draw. If they want to say since you talk to person X that you’re a terrible person and shall forever be blacklisted, then I’d point that it says a lot more about the blacklister than the blacklistee there. If you’re friends with A and that makes B upset, then honestly, B needs to understand that B is not in charge of you, and that B doesn’t get to choose your friends for you, nor should they. Be friends with who you want, even they disagree with your other friends. Be a member of any group that helps make your goals and dreams happen. Seek support from people who actually want to help. You deserve that.

For an example of a group that’s trying to get off the ground, and would love to see you there, check this out.

See you next week. Enjoy your weekend. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – The New Writer Starter Kit

It’s Wednesday, so let’s check out the inbox. Here’s a pretty awesome message from Megan:

John, I’m graduating from [UNIVERSITY REMOVED BUT IT’S A WARM STATE] in a little less than a month, and I don’t know if I should go get an MFA or if I should take a job interning somewhere or if I should just go write. I’m not trying to write “The Next Great American Novel”, I just don’t want to write something that sucks … but I want to be a writer. Like [BEST-SELLING AUTHOR NAMES HERE]. How do I do this?

Hi Megan. Congratulations on graduating.

I want to have as clear a discussion as possible here, and I want to do it without my own biases leaking all up and through what we’re talking about – because I am biased, because I had some experiences that made me bitter as all get out when I was your age and just starting out, and you deserve better than a crusty Gen-Xer yelling at one more millenial trying to do something.

To start this off, we have to separate the MFA as a piece of paper from the MFA as a representation. We can do the same thing for the degree in English you’re about to receive.

The piece of paper isn’t going to do the writing for you. It’s not going to magically arrange interviews and finish queries, or scare off student debt phone calls. It’s a piece of paper, and so many people glamorize it. It’s an accomplishment, but so many things in life are accomplishments that the old-fashioned idea that it automatically gets more priority than most I find laughable. Having on the wall can fill you with pride, but the days of it being the permission slip and testament to your quality as a human are over. And we should all be thankful.

The piece of paper does represent something – you did a ton of work. You had good days and bad days and worked hard and maybe even occasionally enjoyed yourself. It’s like the photos you take from the top of a mountain on a hike. You did a thing!

What gets overlooked is that while you were doing the work so that you can receive huge debt and a piece of paper, is that you maybe, somewhat hopefully, built a network of people you can consult, commiserate, cajole, and collude with. Whether they’re your friends, or good faculty, or that weird lady who guarded the photocopier like it was sacred oath, the network you build is always going to trump papers on the wall. Remember that when you dash out into the real world and it seems like people care more for papers and talent (because some people do, and I make faces at them).

An MFA program can do wonders for your technique. It can get you writing, it can galvanize your discipline, and show you all manner of new crafty bits. It can connect you to other writers (see network comment above), and it can be a great experience.

But it is expensive, and that means more debt possibly. And it does take time, and that means changing priorities if you’ve got other commitments or distractions. If you’re comfortable with the finances and have the time, it’s not a bad idea.

BUT …

Those authors you want to be like? None of them have an MFA. Two of them didn’t finish college. One of them is dead, and an MFA wasn’t a thing while they were alive.

Megan, you can’t be like those authors. You can be Megan. You are Megan. That’s the writer within you.

The pieces of paper on the wall aren’t your permission slip to start writing. They’re not the gateway to a writing career. Words on the page are the gateway to a career. Whether you have an MFA, a BA, BS, an AA, a Cub Scout merit badge, a frequent shopper card, or an autographed Post-it note, words go on the page.

It was shocking to me, back in the 90s, when I went out into the world, that people wanted to look at my portfolio ahead of my CV. Granted, I was a little lean in the portfolio back then, so we cut straight to the CV after 3 essays and a sample chapter with edits got skimmed, but you’re going to find that the backbone of writing is still the words on the page, ahead of the degree. Call it a one-two punch. And when you do, remember that you can score that knockout with a single punch as well.

To build a “new writer” kit, here’s what I tell people at seminars (and in coaching):

1. Build a writing schedule. How do you do that? Start here. Build a schedule that’s workable, and can be regularly maintained, without distraction. Aim for disciplined consistency. And don’t buy into those voices that say you’re not doing enough. It’s not about “enough”, it’s whether you’re doing it or not. One step, one word at a time.

2. Acquire some books. These . are      all                  excellent              books to put on your shelf. Read them, poke sticks at them, see how they differ, digest it all. Yes, every word in that sentence is a link a different book.

3. Sit your ass down in a chair and get writing. Nope, doesn’t matter what chair. Doesn’t matter if you’re on a Mac or PC, or writing long hand, or using semaphore, or using software X or Y. Just go be writing.

4. Read books. Read books in your genre. Read books that aren’t in your genre. Read books that your friends recommend. Read books that interest you. Read books that you want to, not the ones that some Buzzfeed article says you need to read in order to fit into whatever superficial trendshit they’re blathering on about.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 while living a life that makes you happy and excited and enthusiastic more than it makes you frustrating and believing that it’s always going to be a suckfest 9000 and that it’s always supposed to be hard because a chunk of your life was already all-you-can-eat at the shit buffet. You’re in charge of your life. You make the choices. You can do extraordinary things. You are good enough. It will be hard, you might have to grow up a little, change some assumptions, thicken some skin, get your heart broken, lose some bad habits, take risks, lose, win, eat nachos, learn to love something or someone new, stop talking to this person or that person, or even (gasp!) have to cry sometimes. But this is your life, and writing is how you can express your experience regardless of the genre or style. Put Megan out there.

Megan, I can’t tell you if you should or must do X in order to pursue writing. If you want to write, put the words on the page. You can do that while going to school. You can do that without going to school. But the piece of paper on the wall doesn’t (and won’t) make you more legit or more “real” than the people who didn’t go to school.

Do your best. Write your guts out. Don’t give up. It’ll be hard, but you can find tools and skills to help. You’ll suck sometimes, you’ll kick ass sometimes. Other people will bitch, piss, and moan. Other people will cheer for you. You’ll find stuff you love, you’ll find stuff you hate. You’ll wonder how this or that person does it. And above all else, JUST WRITE.

*

Inbox Wednesday is a chance to get your question answered, all you need to do is send me an email and ask anything – no question is too big, too small, or stupid.

I’ll see you guys Friday with another post.

Happy writing.

The Hole In The Bucket

I love the beach. The sand, the salt air, the occasional screech of a gull, the rushing water that sounds like applause. The first day I’m at any beach, my nose runs nearly all day, and I spend far too long, squishing and unsquishing my toes in the sand, feeling very pale and wondering if everyone can see just how dry and winterized my skin became since I was last at a beach.

When I was a little boy, it was my responsibility to carry a small bag of beach toys for our family’s day at the beach. My parents carried chairs, umbrellas, a bag of books and towels (wherein my mother had smuggled margaritas and a juice box or four for me), so along with my miniature chair, I carried toys. I have very fond memories of the red and blue straps on that bag, and the bright yellow shovels and buckets I bought with my own money at the “beach store.”

There were 4 items in this set, and it was my job to not lose them due to forgetfulness or rising ocean tides washing them away. I protected those toys with my life, they were the precious to my Smeagol, and I remember making sandcastles just to perch the toys on so that the water wouldn’t take them away.

One particular bucket though, had a small hole in it, at the seam where the base met the sides, at about 11 o’clock, if you’re looking at the bottom. The hole would later bloom into a full gap, but in this particular story, it was just a weak seam. The result being that any ocean water you’d put in it, you’d leave this trail behind as you walked the very far (nine strides) path from ankle deep water to where our blanket and umbrella were set up.

Except I didn’t realize that the bucket had a leak. Everyone else could see it, and they pointed it out to me, but I didn’t catch on right away. So in the end, I had maybe a third of the water I intended, and a great deal of frustration and shame.

Because this was my bucket, and it didn’t work right. I didn’t really care that it cost my 35 whole cents, I didn’t care that I had to give the lady (she was 16, that’s like forever-old) five of my shiniest pennies to pay for it, I just knew that like its owner, this bucket wasn’t like every other bucket.

When my mother remembers this story, she brings up a part where I said this bucket was betraying me, but I don’t remember that. I remember the crying. The abject weeping that my bucket didn’t work and that as a result, anything I did with it wasn’t good enough, and therefore I wasn’t good enough. I remember standing in that sand, as a storm rolled in, in my neon yellow t-shirt and Miami Vice lime green bathing suit, balling my eyes out.

Bucket wasn’t good enough, sandcastles it made weren’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough.

This logic seems so reasonable to me, even thirty years later, that I should probably be retelling this story to my therapist and not my blog audience, but here I am, and if you’ll indulge me a bit more, I do swear to have a point to this.

See, I have this problem, and maybe you can relate. When my work gets knocked down, when it’s not good enough, when it’s poorly received, it wounds me rather deeply. I am still that little boy on the stormy beach, although I long since replaced that bucket with a wireless keyboard and editorial experience.

Such was the case this past week, and while I’ll spare you specifics, I will say this: my work was not received well, I was professional about it, and I absolutely was beside myself with a sense of worthlessness and the fact that yet again, I have a bucket with a hole in it.

I thought my time as an editor was done. Honestly, for a good two hours one day I sat and looked for day jobs that didn’t require heavy physical labor. I was ready to go wash dishes or sweep floors, or just plain shut down everything and wait for my heart to stop beating. I thought that would hurt less than the pain I felt at having my pride gutted like a tuna.

I take my work quite personally, and as it’s the best thing I’ve ever done (as I am not married nor have any children), I identify as someone who does good work. No, not good work, great work, I do great work, when I’m not addled by time or meds or stress or worries that work is about to disappear like summer tourists when a shark shows up.

My heroes are or were writers to some degree. Bon vivants, raconteurs, elitists, good people masquerading as ne’er-do-wells, literati, and natural debaters or trend buckers all. I’m not going to be able to be like them without a bridge and permission slip built on the back of my hard work, so when the work sucks, I suck, and my idealized best life pulls a few steps or miles away.

No that’s not the healthiest approach, but when have I ever claimed to be the picture of health?

Maybe you saw these tweets earlier this week: dontgiveup

I wrote those the other day, while trying to work through the sense of hurt that still sticks around my edges like spilled cheese on potato skins.

I have to keep moving. Even when there was a hole in the bucket, I had to get some water onto that sandcastle to pack it down, to make it stronger. Some water is better than no water, I’d get told, and just keep going.

But as an adult, while some success is better than no success, when your identity is tied to your success, and you pin your life to it (how you’ll support yourself, how you’ll feed your dog, how you’ll afford to replace the socks the dryer ate), a weak seam in a bucket doesn’t make you think about the way the bucket was joined in some machine in some Indonesian factory sweatshop, but rather that YOU picked this stupid bucket and that YOU are a stupid bucket-picker who isn’t worth caring about about. And oh by the way, you gave up your five shiniest pennies to someone who didn’t appreciate them the way you did. Nice job.

This is the battle. This is the fight I tell people to keep fighting. This is the battle I keep fighting. I don’t always pick the best buckets, but my beach toys are my responsibility, so I carry them everyday. I don’t always make the best sandcastles, but I do my best.

Is that good? Does that punch my card so that every 12th unit of love is free at the love store? I don’t know. I have no idea. I have to hope so.

Because it’s beginning to dawn on me that no one’s going to tell me whether it is or not.

Yeah, I had a rotten week. Yeah, I wanted to chuck it all in. Yeah, I didn’t feel good enough or qualified to even tell someone where to put a comma.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not just because  I still have the most amazing clients, because there are future clients out there. Because there are still good stories to tell. Because I’m not done. My goal in this business is not just to help people make good stuff, it’s to show people that they can do it, even when they’ve got so many buckets with so many holes, and they think the only thing they can do right is quit.

You don’t have to. You might have to change some things up, you might have to teach yourself some new stuff, you might have to challenge some assumptions and beliefs you’ve entrenched, but you don’t have to stop being creative.

What did I do? Scoured Amazon for books on passionate businesses, memoirs, and biographies of successful people. Why? So I can not only dissect and build a list of possibly good practices other people enacted (so that I can tailor them to my own experiences), but also so I can see the writing. How the words fall into each sentence, where they impact, how they impact me, how they synchronize and interlock to paint a not-always visual image in my head.

I got a book on intellectual property. I bought a used cookbook. I bought a book about the history of punctuation.

The point I’m trying to make is that a bucket with a hole in it is still a bucket, so fill it back up, and get moving again.

It’s hard to do: getting a blog up and running again, worrying about the spelling in tweets, making sure you’ve got the right stuff on the calendar. It feels new again, but not in that shiny fun new toy way. But I keep telling myself it’ll get better. I’ll get back into a comfortable groove. I’ll probably get my ass handed to me again, and I’ll probably pull back for a few days and unfuck myself, but I’ll head back down to the ocean, leaky bucket and all, because I really love making sandcastles.

See you guys later this week.

Happy writing.

 

What To Do When You Think The Writing Sucks

Good morning, wait is it morning? Why the hell is it so grey outside? Is it raining again? Isn’t it summer? Why the hell am I not wearing shorts and a t-shirt? What’s going on here?

Since I’ve said these things out loud, it must be Monday, and that means it’s time for a blog post. Today’s post comes out of my own experience, and maybe you can relate.

Have you ever thought that what you’ve written on a particular day sucks? I don’t just mean like you wrote one weak word among a dozen strong paragraphs, I mean like the day’s whole word count is an absolute joke, and you’d be better off chucking the keyboard in the closet and taking up competitive licking as a livelihood?

Yeah, we’re talking about those moments, when you think there’s little difference between your writing and driving a garbage truck on fire off a cliff into a sea of gasoline and tourists.

I think those moments come out of a comparison. We take our work, in whatever stage it’s in: idea, roughest first draft imaginable, super over-thought-out seventh set of revisions, two hours before submission, whatever, and compare it either a finished product, or the expectation we have for our book. That our MS needs to be at least “this good” to ride the ride that is being published, and then it needs to be at least “that good” (I assure you those are two totally different measurements on an invisible ruler) in order to have a person who isn’t related to you purchase it.

We look at the raw stone barely out of the ground and look at the finished statue. We don’t always see the path, we don’t always see the statue hidden in the block. But it’s there, and we have the talent (or we’ll work on developing it) to educe our vision from the raw materials.

So where’s the comparison come in? If we’re focused on making the awesome happen, how insidious does the doubt have to be in order to make us look twice at what we’re doing?

We compare because we just don’t know. We don’t know how good the thing we’re making will be. We don’t know if we’ll get a review, let alone a review with stars associated.We don’t know if our sales will measure in the ones or 2+. We don’t know… we don’t know … we don’t know.

And not knowing, politely, is a motherfucker.

The unknown is always a greater volume than what we know. That’s not because we’re stupid. That’s not because we’re bad creatives. It’s just that we’re finite. We’re bounded by the time we spend, the choices we make, the priorities we choose, and the decisions that cement us as creatives and people.

Now add to this, the idea that some people are really not interested in a truly egalitarian successful industry or society. They’ll form a group and call another group names. They’ll make unfounded claims. They’ll draw all kinds of lines between an “us” and a “them.” And then say if you don’t read this article, or share that post, or agree in the comments, or retweet this or that, that you’re part of “them” not “us.” Divisions dominate doubt.

Because we’re tribal. We’re seekers and developers of community. And we think, that if we build our community out of these paltry words, these feeble syllables and lines on a page, that our community will be blown down by the big bad wolves that so many people claim lurk just at the edges of our campfires.

I don’t know if there are wolves. The internet says there should be. Loads of blogs and writers and hacks and professional victims and complainers and sages and experts say I need to be careful of this thing, that scam, this writing technique, that book. Plenty of people want to talk about the wrongs and red flags. That all leads to a lot of doubt. A lot of potential, a lot of unknown.

And we can’t let that define our words. It’s what we know, what we can do that will trump the unknown. We tame the blank page a word at a time, we make the statue happen.

No, we don’t know if we’ll be successful.
No, we don’t know if we’ll be rejected.
No, we don’t know if we’ll be paid well.

But if we put our guts on the page, if we write heart-first, if we take all the risks, if we do our best to make the best art, the art’s going to be great.

Eventually.

One word at a time. One brush stroke at a time. One day at a time.

Keep writing.

 

See you later this week, happy writing.