In The Late Hours …

I should be asleep. I should have been asleep an hour ago, but I fell down a winding hole of Robin Williams clips and Carson monologues and some random infomercials. I meant to be asleep, and I wanted to be, but I was also wrestling with the words you’re now reading. And I’m sorry if you’ve heard me talk about these things before, or if your evening was just a deluge of tweets and posts of all flavors and I understand if you’re tired of it and you just want me to go back to talking about commas or pacing or book blurbs or whatever. I promise I will soon, just please either be patient with me here, or come back next week. At least, I hope you come back. Hell, I hope I come back – there are loads of times I feel like I’m shouting in the Grand Canyon trying to get people to read what I say. It’s frustrating and scary, and at times I leave with more questions than I started with. But I keep doing it, because the alternatives are pretty lame.

A lot of what I’m about to say is going to be expanded on at GenCon, but I thought that something should be said now, because it’s late and I can’t sleep and I feel like someone’s kicked me in the heart.

At five minutes to midnight as I write this, it’s been 190 days since I tried to kill myself. Clearly, it didn’t work, but it’s been 190 days since I last thought that the pain of living was greater than the joy of living. Granted, 191 days ago, I could not have imagined any of the life I have now, since I didn’t have the relationship I have or the appreciation for how much can and has changed since then. That’s the funny thing about severe suicidal depression, it muffles and mutes any sense of appreciation or perspective or joy or interest. The naked pictures on the internet don’t arouse. The comfort food has no taste. The music seems too loud or too out of tune. The point of things seems dulled and worn down. What’s worse is that you know these things are supposed to be provocative, rousing your senses and urges and drives, but like trying to move through rising tidewaters, you just can’t seem to make the amount of headway you perceive you’re supposed to be making, or worse, you feel like you’re not making the headway you think other people are wanting you to be making.

This becomes pressure, and when you don’t feel like you’ve fallen into some morass of sharp needles and bleak colors, that pressure would probably push you to greatness by challenging some sense of who you are and who you could be. But down in that hole, the pressure seems like one more pair of hands suffocating you. Keeping you down. Holding the life from you until there’s nothing to do but surrender.

I’ve gone through a lot in the last 190 days, most of it I’ll start talking about way more openly post GenCon (that’s when many cats come out of many bags), and if I had to rank in some perverse Buzzfeed or Thought Catalog article the mental anguish and suffering, I’m putting suicidal depression as a lock in second place, with an easy shot at the title as number-one contender depending on factors as variable as the breeze, email subject lines or whether or not I have enough milk for Cocoa Krispies.

What I’m saying is that there’s this wellspring, this open fount of hurt, this constant sore that weeps lies and doubt to us, and there isn’t an easy fix. You can’t just “get happier” or “stop being depressed” or “focus on the power of the Universe” or whatever hokum gets said by the discompassionate or ill-informed. The toxicity of it might be a matter of chemicals, but those chemicals produce feelings and those feelings produce behaviors, and behaviors yield habits and habits beget personality and lifestyle. Yes, there are little pills I take every morning, and many doctors I see on a regular basis both to give me more little pills or just to listen to me navigate living while hurting.

That’s significant, the use of “while”. Life doesn’t get paused, work doesn’t stop, things don’t just wait while suffering rolls through like the evening bus to the big city. You can tell plenty of people “they have to understand” and request kindness and compassion, but outside of the tasks others ask of us, outside of what we seek to do professionally or socially or whatever-ly, those who suffer and hurt have to request kindness from themselves, for themselves. It might be easier to tell someone to walk the earth and meet every human on the planet within a calendar year.

Because in this era of narcissism and criticism and outrage and activism and -phobes and -ists and who knows what else, so many standards are erected, like crystalline frameworks across yawning chasms. As if spider silk lines can stand up in a hurricane of our own making. As if we can offset our own pain by turning the pointy bits outward, as if the spears aren’t double-sided. So many people say, “I feel like I should be doing something despite this mental illness.” or that “I need to be better than it.” It doesn’t know you’re competing. It is not winning some race ahead of you. It is as much the course as it is your fellow race runners. It’s so tempting and easy to judge yourself (or others) based on these moments of pain or limitation, to underestimate or belittle or compound situations. It’s not like people who hurt don’t know they’re hurting. It’s not like people who hurt don’t know that this state can confuse, scare, frustrate or anger others. It’s not like people signed up for this gleefully like they’re trying to get advance movie tickets. No one camps the box office to get front row seats to doubt, anxiety and a sense of pervasive failure.

The unreasonable countermeasures seem reasonable because the reasonable measures seem passive or insufficient. They’re not. Taking care of yourself when you’re hurting is one of the hardest things I can imagine, and something I frankly suck at. I skip meals. I get clingy and codependent. I get bored. Or grouchy. Or mopey. But taking care of myself is how I keep moving. It’s how I don’t let the things I want to do or am doing slip into some nebulous space of “one day I’ll get back to them”, instead of pushing myself, pressuring myself to show other people that I’m more than an illness or bad spell or a moment. It’s taken 190 days to realize that in order for me to show that, I don’t need to be Hercules, I just need to be me. No one is asking me to bear Everest on my back, they’re asking me to take on no more than I can comfortably. I interpret the request as some mandate to take on so much, but that’s a function of skewed perspective and having spent so long being gnawed hollow by hurting.

I get asked a lot, “Well, what hurts?” because I don’t have physical chronic pain and I suppose people are looking more for something obvious to indicate “Aha, yes, John is in fact hurting.” Or maybe it’s just a matter of being able to see the hurt, so that it can be bandaged or iced or Advil’ed. But what people see are the scars on my wrists and arms. What they see are my sad eyes. What they can’t see is how I feel at times like the good things – the sun, love, warmth, comfort, happiness, color, all those abstracts and concepts that make people smile – are in a constant countdown and that despite all my efforts to hoard or overdose, there will come a time when the inventory is gone, and I will be left with memories of months past. Memories in place of sensations. Good times will seem ages away, all ghosts and phantoms, as if you’re speaking about someone else. And that hurts. That leaves an ache and a weariness in some sick slug trail right through the core of me. (I’ve described it as having my sternum cored by a hot ice cream scoop while drowning and watching puppies suffer.)

What I do is talk about this. I talk about it a lot. I talk about it so that someone somewhere can read it or hear me say it and feel like they are not alone, even if just for a moment. I cannot think of anything better to offer someone other than the kindness of saying “You don’t suffer alone, you are not forgotten or overlooked. You are not worthless or useless. You matter, and though you hurt now, you don’t have to shout from the Grand Canyon and think no one has heard you.”

This hurt is real, and it is scary and it is a sorcerer of lies and tilted perceptions. I do not know if my voice cuts through any of this, if anything I say lets you know that it is possible to make it through one day and ten days and one hundred and ninety days. None of that is easy, even on the days when you can be kissed or have ice cream or get presents or see a friend. But you can do it. You can do it if want, and I sincerely hope you want to.

It is my hope that when the roles reverse, and I’m hurting again, that someone offers me a reminder that I am not alone, that I am hurting but help and love and care are available, that I need not think surrender and death are the only balms to pain. I have to keep that hope, because without it, the hurt flares like an angry volcano, and I’ll never get to relax. I have to keep the hope that there is love and care for me, and that my friends, and partner and colleagues and maybe even my detractors can recognize the value people have and that awareness of that value is so often what we seek, that we can matter and maybe that takes some fraction of some percent of the pain away for some sliver of a fraction of a second. I have to hope that I am loved for more than my deeds or credits or writing. I have to hope because the alternatives are lame.

I leave you with this: Help is available. It might be embarrassing or shameful or tough to endure, but you can get help. You are not alone, and you need not be silent. You’re not braver for staying quiet. You’re not a better person for handling this without assistance. Loving yourself might sound impossible, and I can swear to you that some days it feels like trying to make fish into camels, but you can do this. I believe in you.

 

See you at GenCon.

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.

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.

You’re Not Seriously Going to Publish That, Are You?

Good morning. I know I said there’d only be one post between now and Tuesday, but this isn’t it. Call this post bonus content.

What’s it a bonus of? How about a faceful of publishing and writing info?

See, the other day I sort of fell into a Google+ community and did my absolute best to be polite and straightforward in my post, and overall found the experience a little like trying to fish in the middle of a hurricane and wondering why you’re having such a hard time. It wasn’t a bad group of people, I didn’t encounter hatespeech or anything, but what I did encounter didn’t really sit all that well with me. And when things don’t sit well with me, I jump on a form of social media to talk about them.

What follows are a few things I’d like to clarify, debunk, rebut and otherwise wave a big giant neon sign at.

1. Apparently, quite a few people think that editing boils down to just applying grammar rules and some red pen corrections to manuscripts. Yes, they’re right. Grammar is a part of what an editor does, but saying that grammar is the bulk of editing is saying that the bread is the bulk of a roast beef sandwich. Grammar is one part. And to think that you can “just learn grammar and then edit on your own” tells me that you’re not only incredibly near-sighted about what editing entails, but that you’re either and-or both afraid to have your precious snowflakes shattered or you’re just cheap (we’ll talk more about cheap in a second).

Yes, it’s important to know the rules of grammar, so that you can break them in the course of writing, and so that you can abide by them when you need to. My understanding grammar helps me help a writer navigate the language to tell the best story. But if Writer X thinks that when I’m flagging sentences left and right, I’m only flagging the dangling participles or the need for a semicolon, Writer X might need to take a deep breath and realize that just like their story isn’t only a string of words in a sensible order, it’s also an idea trying to be expressed. Grammar helps, but what about story construction? Character development? Pacing? Tension? Readability? Minding your grammar isn’t going to fix those elements. Other tools of editing can.

2. People are incredibly cheap and quite happy to skip things that might be difficult or cause them to spend money or change whatever they’re doing. The question arose as to the cost of editing. Someone mentioned a book being a certain length (the number escapes me, but it was over 100K), and it wasn’t very difficult to multiply it by a rate of a few pennies to determine the cost to the writer as being somewhere in the neighborhood of around $4500 (I think). This number stopped a lot of people and rather than say, “Oh, I’m paying for a service.” they said, “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just get some readers to do my editing.”

Let’s put the publishing aside for a minute. Let’s say your sink stops working, or that it shoots water all over the place. You probably would call a plumber for that, because they’re an expert with pipes and sinks. The plumber comes in, assesses the problem and quotes you a price. Now how is it that you’ll nod your head and cut that guy a check, but when someone gives you a price on something that can help your manuscript, you go the other way and hand the errors to your friends? Would you do the same thing with your sink? (I wouldn’t. I’ve seen my friends.)

Sure, your friends can bang around your kitchen with a wrench or three, or tap pipes and look sagely. Maybe even one would get lucky and twist the right thing into place and fix it – maybe. It probably wouldn’t cost you much, maybe lunch or something. But it also might not work. Had you gone with the plumber, it would cost you more, but it would work, assuming your plumber wasn’t awful. So why aren’t you saying yes to an editor?

Don’t you believe in your work? Don’t you want it to be in the best shape it can be? Don’t you want it to be well received and well reviewed? Editing can improve the structure, tone and contents of a manuscript into something that will do better than a manuscript that hasn’t been edited as thoroughly or by someone without the experience.

Because that’s what you’re paying for when you write the editor that check. You’re getting their experience, their eye for detail and information, their ability to put things together and not just tell you what’s wrong but hopefully why it is and how to fix it. And just like plumbers, good service is going to cost you.

Okay, that’s the money. But maybe it’s not the money. Maybe you’re afraid of what editing will find. That your story has some holes. That you’ve got some weak areas in your writing. That you make the same mistake over and over again. It can be really easy to get back a page with the text all marked up with cross-outs and comments and notes and say, “Look at all this, I must be such a failure if the editor is writing this much in response.”

Yeah, you MIGHT suck at writing. I don’t know why no one’s told you that’s possible, maybe they did and you ran from them like your hair was on fire. And yeah, if what you’ve written has problems, an editor’s going to find them: it’s their job. But it’s also possible that what you wrote wasn’t awful, just incomplete or poorly fleshed out. Ideas that are somewhere on the page, somewhere in the text, can be salvaged and patched up and polished, but in order to excavate and discover them, the manuscript needs to be marked up. And you’re not going to be able to know whether it’s a total wreck or if there’s treasure hidden within until you read those comments.

And seriously, you’re getting into publishing a book. Thick skin is necessary.

3. “Fantasy Heartbreakers” don’t just exist in gaming. A ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a game that’s grown swollen and immobile due to clutter and bloat and the writer(s) trying to do too much with it. The project doesn’t feel focused, it’s trying to serve too many masters and be all things to all people. It’s like offering a Swiss Army knife when all someone asked for is a pair of tweezers. Sure, it has tweezers, but it’s also got these 690 other functions that get in the way. Heartbreakers happen, and they can be demoralizing. I wrote a heartbreaker game once. Got no credit. No paycheck. Just ridicule. Chased me away from all of gaming for years.

I’ve written some heartbreaker fiction too. I got it in my head I could write a thriller-cyber-dark comedy-horror story once. I wrote screenplays for things I wouldn’t show store mannequins. I wrote short stories I wouldn’t even use for scrap paper. The stories lacked focus, they were just files with words in them, and I’d stoke them like maniac fires but adding whatever new fuel I was consuming at the time. Read Irish fiction? Start writing punchy dialogue. Watch old movies? Draw out some scenes. Watch a British comedy? I’m scribbling nonsense into exposition to see if anyone’s reading.

When people tell me how big their book/game/script is, I’m willing to say about 85 – 90% of them are WAY too long. 150k isn’t a “short story”. It’s not a short anything. A single poem likely doesn’t need to be 20k. That great fantasy novel? No, really, there’s no reason it has to be 790k.

Pay attention to my next sentence. Stop what you’re doing, focus your efforts and be willing to admit you need help. Yeah, that’s not an easy sentence, because we don’t like talking about what we might have done wrong or what we’re not good at. It can be embarrassing, it can be shameful. Look, I’ve tried to die. I’ve ruined cars and relationships and homes and families and opportunities. All of that is embarrassing. The fact that you might need to split that monster book into two? Less so.

You know how you can tell you’re writing a heartbreaker? When the feedback you get stops being objective. Because as something inflates and takes on a shape of its own and you’re worried it might grow to consume a city, it’s hard to be able to spot the comparatively “little” things at its heart that cause the problems. If you’ve got 50-something chapters, it’s going to be really tough at a glance to point out that in chapter 3, you’ve got some run-on sentences. And what’s worse, when you’ve got something so engorged and bloated, YOU‘ve lost objectivity.

4. No, you can’t be objective about your own stuff, I don’t care what it is or who you are. Recently, I cleaned out a closet in my house. I filled bags with my old clothes. Old shirts, old pants. Some stuff I never wore, it still had tags on it. Some stuff I wore constantly. And for those worn items, each had a memory. I wore that shirt when I went on a date. I wore those pants when I was in this school concert. I bought that jacket so I could go to that wedding. Cramming those things into bags was meant to be cathartic, a release of old life and leaving my closet open to have new stuff put in. But you know what happened? As I went through the closet, it got harder and harder, as though the clothes were filled with cement, to part with things. I can’t get rid of that shirt, ex-girlfriend #4 said I had really nice eyes that one time when I wore that shirt. If I get rid of it, am I saying I don’t have nice eyes? Nope, can’t get rid of that pair of black pants, because that’s the pair I wore on that job interview, and those are my interview pants, even though I haven’t been on a “corporate” interview in 8 years. What this grew into was a closet half full of old stuff and a pile of laundry baskets on my floor that I live out of.

The solution? Bring in other people. People who don’t have any attachment to the project and who can stop you from listing off some sad rationalization as to why you really need all eleven black leather belts. The same is true with whatever it is you’re making. You’re not objective about it, not without a great deal (I’d go so far as to say 3+ years) of time between viewings. But you can bring people in who are objective. As an editor, I love my clients, they’re some of the greatest, kindest and most creative people I’ll ever meet, but they’re not objective about their work. They crab at me about why I cut this or trimmed that, but they aren’t paying me to agree with them – they’re paying me to help them get their words into the best shape, so they can stop living out of metaphorical laundry baskets with a cramped closet of memories and justifications.

5. Publishing shitty things isn’t proof of talent. Yes, in this great age of technological wonder, anyone can publish anything. You can write anything and get it up on Amazon. Here now is an actual conversation I have overheard at that bastion of writers, my local Starbucks:

Lady 1: I’ve just published my 30th book.

Lady 2: You did? You’ve been at it, what, like 3 months? Congratulations.

Lady 1: You know that Harry Potter lady, she only published like 10.

Lady 2: I’m sure your stuff is way better, you’ve got three times as many credits to your name in like half the time it took her to write one. You’re so talented!

This is why I stopped going to Starbucks for tea. Just because anyone with a bank account and internet access can mash their fingers and genitals and face against a keyboard (isn’t that how you’re writing? I learned it from a book!), doesn’t mean they should. This doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it means that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done poorly or half-assed or done just because you’ll get money. That’s … well, to me, that’s kinda shitty.

Look at your reasons for writing. Why are you doing it?

  • For money? There are easier ways to earn money, especially more stable ways to produce a living income that can support more than yourself at a minimal level.
  • For praise? There are easier ways to get smiles and congratulations for your efforts. Feed the homeless. Donate blood. Help someone load groceries into their car.
  • For validation? Writing is a tough route if you’re trying to patch a hole in your sense of self-worth. There are too many critics, too many dissenting voices, all of whom get louder thanks to immediate gratification on the internet.
  • For fame? There’s a difference between being famous for something ephemeral like tabloid headlines or a sex tape and being famous for a big production of work. Guess which one takes longer.

It seems to me that we love to trash things, that it is easier to destroy than build, and we revel in something’s collapse far more than stand in awe of its creation. We pass judgment on TV shows, movies, books, actors, actresses, commercials, sports teams, clothes, sexuality, and a bajillion other things so quickly, and even when we build someone up, we love knocking them down later. Nothing seems safe from that intense spotlight and our vicious snark.

That is, except for our art. We mystify art, and nod our heads staring at gallery walls like we have any idea how the splotches of blue on a canvas are somehow representative of President Millard Fillmore’s sex life. We cheer on self-published authors like they’re striking great blows in a grand revolution. But it’s not a revolution. It’s evolution. It’s not that we’re going to self-publishing because trad-pub is our hated foe, and soon we’ll all have a catchy revolution musical to celebrate, except for that annoying Cockney kid you only like once he gets shot, it’s that we have more options available to accomplish a task.

So why not be critical? Why not call authors out for poor writing? Why not tell the book charlatans and conference predators to go fuck off? Sure, yes, it’s easier to point fingers away from ourselves and say that we’re surrounded in garbage, but we can also and must also take a look at ourselves as well.

What can we do to improve ourselves and our work so that we’re not adding more crap to the mountains? (Here’s where I like to point out that just like you might feel that Writer Z is dogshit in a snow hat, they might feel the same way about you) Here are some ideas.

  1. Get over yourself. You are not a special snowflake. You’re a writer, a creator, and a producer of art, motherfucker.
  2. You’re human. You will suck at things until you learn to get better.
  3. You do not exist nor create in a vacuum. Thinking and acting so reinforces item #1 on this list.
  4. In order to get better, you should solicit help from people who are not biased towards you. Seek help from your friends, your enemies, experts and random people. Weigh all the data, make informed choices.
  5. It’s easy to get comfortable and surround yourself with material and people who like you, love you, accept you and enjoy you, but not necessarily challenge you. Challenge is an important part of love and life, because people who can call you on your shit and hold you accountable are the people who you likely don’t want to let down and are the people who you know absolutely care about you and what you do.
  6. If you’re not being challenged, find people, places and things that will. I’m not saying you need to leave Comfort Village forever, I’m saying it’s time to explore past those mountains. Or die trying.
  7. Thick skin is a good thing. Being unable to accept critique, comments, or feedback isn’t. If you’re wondering why people are telling you bad things along with the good, see item #1 on this list.
  8. However you get your art into the hands of an audience, someone else is doing it differently. Neither of you are wrong.
  9. It’s not about us-versus-them, this way over that way. You’re either going to challenge yourself to make something the best it can be, or you’re going to dick around and half-ass something that doesn’t really challenge you and lets you lie to yourself about what you’re doing and how good you are it. Chances are your greatest enemy in this effort isn’t the faceless corporation sending out rejection letters, but whatever crap you’ve stuffed into your head along the way. Brain enemas are tough, but worthwhile.
  10. How long will it take to produce your thing in the best shape it can be? As long as it needs to take. How large should your book/game/art/thing be when it’s in that best shape? As large as it needs to be.
  11. How will you know when you’re done creating something? When you’ve satisfied all the questions you asked at the start. Did the plot resolve? Did the character(s) change? Is this action over?
  12. What do you do after you’re done creating something, and you’ve let it sit untouched for a while? Give it to someone else, give it to professionals, give it to people who will challenge and encourage and teach and help you and see what comes next. Apply items #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and #10 as needed.
  13. Most of the questions you have can be solved by you working on whatever it is you’re making.
  14. Most of the questions that aren’t solved by #13 can likely be solved WITHOUT running to extremes or extremists or yes-men/women or the internet community of your choice. Likely your answers will be found in returning to the core concepts of why you want to write, what you’re trying to say and how best to say it.
  15. Work is improved through critique, revision and development. If you fear them, production is almost futile. Revision and critique are scary and overwhelming, but time in the crucible forges better material by burning away impurities.

I’ll close with this last item.

6. If you’re worried about theft, predators, wasting your time or wasting your money, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of new authors and creators. And when I ask them, casually, usually after we’ve exchanged a few messages, if they want me to take a look at what they’re doing, they retreat into a shell. Usually this is a fear-shell, that I’m going to burst their balloon or find fault and shame them. Sometimes though it’s because they’re afraid I’m going to steal their work.

Okay, I make a pretty decent living doing this. I edit things, and do a little writing on the side. I have a group of friends who I regularly hang out with and play games with. I watch a lot of TV. I read a lot. I’m writing my own game. I’ve got manuscripts squirreled away all over the place. When do I have time to go around stealing? And what makes you so special (snowflake) that I’m going to steal YOUR stuff?

Right, yeah, it’s kinda weak to say “trust me I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me, or when you’ve heard that before from people who said it and then ran off with your stuff. So instead of me saying it and gesturing around like I’m directing invisible air traffic, how about you check out my work, or ask about me (Twitter is a great place for immediate feedback)? Do your research. Price shop. Don’t rush into anything. Interview. Ask questions. Go to workshops. Ask more questions. Be an informed consumer.

Just stop assuming that you’re under constant threat of theft or ruination. There are horror stories out there, some legit, some conflated for pity or attention, and there are really some shitty people (writers, agents, editors, publishers, game companies, etc etc) out there, but thinking entirely about the number of people producing things and the number of people receiving accolades for producing things, do you think the bad really outweigh the good?

I don’t concern myself with the watchlists of bad editors and bad publishers and awful whatevers. I know a lot of nervous writers put a lot of stock in it, because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, but I know just as many professionals who aren’t on that list who wouldn’t take a napkin without asking, let alone steal your work.

Bad analogy time: With all the hysteria around assholes in this industry, I liken it to those old films they used to show in school about the dangers of marijuana or rock music. Remember those old beeping filmstrips with scratchy audio that used to talk about how Betty went to a party where Tommy had a mary-jew-onna cigarette and Betty took a puff and now Betty is banging sailors down on the docks after school? Or the one where Susie went out with Janie and they encountered “that negro classmate Tyrone” and they listened to some swell new tunes, and now they’re all pulling jewelry heists? Yes, smoke a joint, you might run into some trouble. Listen to Nickelback, you’re going to want those three minutes back. But those scare tactics are the extremes of the spectrum, meant to enforce a behavior that isn’t too rowdy, not too ambitious and pretty tame.

So what do you do when you find a predator? You get out of whatever arrangement you’ve set up (if any) and then you go tell everyone who will listen about the jerk you just encountered. De-fang that snake. Scare away the wolf. But then, get back out there. How else is your art going to be produced?

I’m at Dreamation over the weekend. I’m giving a Writing Workshop on Sunday (12-3pm), so if you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there, otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.

Happy writing

The “Are You Ready To Get Published” Checklist, John-style

There’s been a lot of talk about self-publishing about it being good or it sucking or it being the salvation of stories or the whatever-it-is-to-whomever-needs-it. And because at the moment, it’s a pretty expedient route to getting something published (in this context, I mean getting something into a format or structure where someone else can consume it, sometimes in exchange for money), that means lots of people can write something and put it out for people to come running like thirsty animals at the watering hole.

This also presents an interesting wrinkle in that when people don’t come running, as if you’re Prometheus delivering fire (as opposed to Prometheus delivering a terrible movie), you get to bitch about. Loudly. Frequently. On social media. In public. At workshops. At conventions. To your dog. To any human who lucks into your path.

Further, it gives a tease of pleasure, as if there’s more to come later, when those first sales trickle in. And then like the Muppet, you start counting sales. One, Two, Three (ah ha haa) sales. Maybe you get up to like 40 or 400 over the course of a month or a quarter or however you obsessively slam the refresh on your browser. And that pleasure is narcotic. I can speak about the joys of narcotic rushes. I can tell you just how addictive it is to feel good. I can also tell you that you will do stupid things (like bitch on twitter, or pick fights with authors or editors or agents) to get another hit. I mean, in a publishing sense. I guess you could sell your stuff for book sales, or commit sex acts in alleyways for pageviews. I never really thought about that. (Now I can’t help but think of a sign that says, “Will swallow for blog hits” and expect one of those websites to scoop it up in a hot minute)

All this is divisive and great for fomenting argument and message board chatter. And it obscures the facts:

  1. People are going to write things.
  2. Some of those things are going to exist in stages where the manuscripts are rife with errors, either within the context of the story (cliched characters, plot holes, stuff like that) and also with the words and structure (spelling, grammar and punctuation errors)
  3. People want to get published.
  4. There are lots of ways to get published, or more broadly, get people to pay for things you’ve written.
  5. Some people are going to see one way to get published as superior to another, either because of things involved in getting published that way (agents, labels on books, etc) or because of expedience (upload a file, start “selling it”) or because of some other thing I’m not aware of but I’m sure someone will tell me about once this post goes up on the blog.
  6. If you rush to publication, regardless of route, you may encounter difficulty in the form of rejections or negative feedback because your manuscript may have any/all errors described in #2.
  7. You may get your work(s) published and still require a day job.
  8. You may have to publish several books/things in order to get some sort of income that you can live on consistently without fear of financial dire straits.
  9. Not every thing you write needs to be or is going to be published.
  10. Editors who aren’t you (or aren’t immediately related to you and are therefore biased) are useful to developing your work and your ability to produce that work, even if you’re focusing on a route to publication that puts editing after a submission and acceptance process.
  11. Not many people agree on the “best” course of action.
  12. Lots of people espouse all manner of philosophy, panicked thoughts, emotional reactions and BS statistics to try and persuade or dissuade people from certain actions or avenues in publishing.

Now, I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things because I’m writing this late at night when I’m tired, but I think I’ve put down some nice basics there. To that end, here’s a nice checklist you can use to help you produce whatever it is you’re doing.

Question 1

Is your manuscript complete? Before we go anywhere else, the thing you’re writing has to be done. And by “done” I mean the particular manuscript has to be finished, that you’re not adding more to it or fiddling with it. Even it’s a part of a series, this book (whatever number it is) has to be a whole book. Sure, it can end on a cliffhanger. Sure, it can leave some parts of a greater plot unanswered. But by itself, it has to be a complete story. However long that is. However many words. Complete.

Sub-Questions under Question 1

Does your manuscript have a main character that we can easily pick out and follow through the course of the story? A story needs a protagonist. The audience has to have some character we follow more than all the others (yes, even in an ensemble story where you have a group of characters together), so that they can see the plot and the character(s’) response to it. If there’s no clear protagonist (as in The Phantom Menace, several films from the ’70s and anything I wrote while in college), then audience won’t have an easy access point to the story, which means they won’t be as invested as they could be, and that may mean they put the book down to pick up something else. (And that’s not ideal if you want a stable audience or good reviews or repeat sales.)

Are your characters NOT stereotypes, cliches, “Mary Sues”, overpowered unchallenged uber-folk or one-dimensional cardboard? Here we can talk about the character spectrum. If you’ve got characters that are ‘too’ anything (too perfect, too beautiful, too good for the challenge of the plot, too troubled as to be unmotivated, etc), as per above, people aren’t going to have an access point into your story and created world. They don’t need to be super flawed either, it’s more about writing characters that someone somehow and in some way can relate to.

Did you spell-check it? Seriously, in my writing program of choice, spell-check is a pretty accessible, either by a menu or a keystroke. Use it. It shows respect to your readers and helps solidify the impression that you actually give a damn about what you create and didn’t just rush to stick your name on something in the hope that money would soon thereafter follow.

Is there a plot? And are you getting to that plot within the first twenty pages? A story needs a reason or a conflict or a crisis or a problem that the characters can solve. It makes the reader feel things, it creates a sense of “will this work out for our heroes” and generally gives the book a point to being read. The sooner you can introduce the plot and its effects on the protagonist(s), the sooner we can get into following their efforts to do something about it. Bloating the story up front with details because “you need to know this in order to understand stuff later” doesn’t demonstrate that you’ve paced or planned the story out, and in a way tells me that you’re more concerned with your telling the story than my liking it. (Sort of like a party where the person cares more about the praise or attention being paid to their storytelling rather than the story’s reception or the listeners’ enjoyment – are you writing just to show that you can do it?) Lastly, does this plot build to a climax and then resolve? Yes, even if you’re writing a series, each component needs an internal structure and not just act as setup to books later “when you’ll really get into it”. I don’t want to get into it later, four books from now. I bought this book, I want to get into it NOW.

Question 2

Since your manuscript is complete, have you formatted it according the particular requirements of the route it’s going to take in publishing? Just about every way to publish a story requires it be formatted a different way. Some places want it formatted with certain spacing and margins. Others want a particular file format. This isn’t just caprice. Formatting it a certain way shows that not only can you (a) follow directions but also (b) that you give a damn about the thing you’ve created, and you want to give it the best possible shot at getting out into the world. If you don’t know how to format it for your particular publishing method, ask someone affiliated with that method or check online, nearly everywhere has ‘Submission Guidelines’ or an email address where you can talk to someone about it. And when you actually get those guidelines, follow them. Being a rebel here doesn’t do you any favors, and often leads to your work being rejected since you didn’t follow directions. (For example if Company X wants the document formatted a certain way, with inches and spacing, chances are it’s for easier reading and quick printing. Not helping Company X read your thing is not going to help Company X say yes to you.)

Question 3

If you’re going to engage an agent or publisher, have you queried them? And if so, did their response say “Please send us stuff?” Again, we get to the importance of following directions and doing yourself a favor and putting your best foot forward. Imagine for a minute that we’re not talking about books, but something more practical – let’s say you’re making a snack chip. If you want me to buy your chip and tell my friends to buy your chip, are you going to let me test one chip to see if I like it, or are you going to assume that I’ll automatically like it because you (who I don’t know) made it, and you’ve gone ahead and made me a whole giant bag? The query letter is that test chip. It helps set up the dialog and relationship between agent and writer, so that communication (like spice) can flow and deals can be struck. And just like the start of any relationship, coming on too strong is a great way to get yourself rejected. Don’t throw whole bags of chips at people, invite them to make up their own mind with a test chip. Then see where things go.

Question 4

Are you on social media? Are you available somewhere on the Internet, in terms of contact information or some other repository of your thoughts and stuff? I’m not saying you need to be all up on every form of social media. You don’t need to be an Instagram junkie or go crazy with Vines and know the difference between Tinder and Tumblr. But you are going to need some kind of spot on the Internet where people (people interested in talking to you about you and your stuff) can reach you. For me, that’s Twitter and this blog. Yeah, there’s some Facebook too, but not so much anymore. Notice how I didn’t ask about your personal life or about your family or your financial habits or whether or not you’ve got pictures of your kids I can see. Having a presence on social media DOES NOT MEAN you need to show everything to everyone all the time. You choose to show and share what you want, with the caveat that it’s called “social” media and not “I only whore my work and provide links to buy things” media. Social means you can and should expect interactions with other humans, some of whom you’ll agree with and some you won’t, and some of whom will like your work and some who won’t. Growing some thick skin isn’t a bad idea, but it’s applesauce if you think you need to wear plate armor against everyone. The nice thing is that a lot of social media is free (and this blog isn’t all that pricey either, I think it’s like $18 a year or so.)

Question 5

Did you get some people to look at your work? Did “some people” include professionals who can point out errors and issues with your creation? When you write a thing, people are excited. Maybe they’re a little envious. Maybe they just want to see you do well. Who knows. Their reasons are their own. And chances are it’s not hard to find people who want to read your stuff. Friends. Family. Relationships. Co-workers. Maybe you expand by getting librarians or bloggers. Maybe you have a writing group and you take their feedback weekly or monthly. They’re all great resources for encouragement and on-the-spot help. But have you considered getting a professional to help you? Sure, those other people are giving you free advice on some night or an afternoon, and the professional is going to cost you money, but remember how we’ve been talking about doing all you can to put your best foot forward? Getting an editor (and later, beta readers) to apply their expertise (that’s what you’re paying for with professionals) to help your work be the best it can be?

Sub-Question under Question 5

Are you relying too heavily on the editorial process after an expected acceptance? Yes, if you go by some routes in publishing, the editing of your manuscript happens after you sign some paperwork and have been accepted as an author-under-contract. It can really tempting to hold off on editing your manuscript until that part, because it’s going to a pro, and that’s they’re job and it’s out of your hands. Yes, it is out of your hands. But do you think your work is the only thing they’re doing? That they don’t have deadlines or pressure from their bosses to get a certain amount done? And do you think that even at that level they can’t say no to you and say, “This thing is a mess and a nightmare, let’s go back to like square 2”? Publishing in its many incarnations is a marathon, not a windsprint. The better condition your work is in before the race kicks off, the better it’ll hold up to all the rigors your work is going to face.

Question 6

Are you prepared to handle the numbers? I don’t often talk about my own numbers, but I’ll give you some here. I have a series of small monographs available on Smashwords, and to date, they’ve earned me about $34. Thirty-four dollars. Contrast that to my editing income, which is about three thousand times times greater (tax brackets kicked my ass), give or take a percent. Granted, I talk way more about editing novels and games and content than I do about writing my own stuff, and even my own fiction production has slowed since more and more I’m editing to pay bills and live, but thirty-four dollars fills my car up with gas ONCE, or buys me 5 burritos. That’s not a lot, but I’m grateful for it. Writing, in terms of being a writer that produces book upon book, that’s a job, and that means contending with things like sales numbers and expectations and the cost of living or what you’re comfortable owning or not owning.

Question 7

Can you do it more than once? Maybe writing is just something you want to say you tried one time. Maybe it’s to honor a promise or just a goofy thing you started ages ago and now you’re just seeing where it goes. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’re writing things because that’s your retirement. Or because your career is going to put your kids through college. Or because this is what you’ve always wanted to do, so out of your apartment in your city, you write ferociously and still make time to do things like go grocery shopping. Chances are that once you’re published, someone somewhere is going to ask or expect you to do it again. Now if you’re planning a series of books, this is a given. But if you’re just lobbing one word-grenade out there, someone’s going to want you to have extras handy. Which means writing more, possibly faster than you did the first time, and possibly on a schedule and deadline other than your own (especially if you didn’t read that contract you signed too carefully). Ready to do it again?

* * *

I write this not to draw a line in any sand and say “Publish this way and not that way.” I think the “hybrid” model, where you do whatever works best for the project is ideal, even if it means you straddle “fences”. I do think that even work that goes out to agents and publishers can stand to edited, and I do think it’s critical we start pointing out emperors that have no clothes on and talking more about what makes for good writing and not just good sales. I do think sales are a consequence of a well-made product, and I know you can point to tons of material that’s well-made but sold poorly, but I think it’s also time we change our collective thinking about how we perceive writing as art and craft. I think we need to do all we can to produce the best not so that we can demand fat checks, but so that we can bring our stories to people who want them, and we do so with the best polish and construction possible.

I take a lot of heat for saying “You should be writing everyday.” and I’m still going to say it. Because I do think ANYONE can take ten minutes to write down an idea so they don’t forget, then take ten minutes the next day to write a little more, and then a little more the next day. Some people get on my about my privilege, that I’m discounting peoples’ responsibilities. I’m not. I don’t have the same responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not cognizant of the fact that hours of a person’s day gets consumed by other things. I’m not asking for hours a day. It’d be nice, I think practicing a craft works best when you devote time to it, but even ten minutes regularly counts. 10 minutes. That’s not much. Can you do more? Then do it. Write. Create. A little at a time. If you feel that it deserves more, or that you should be giving it more because 10 minutes is unfair or sounds like I’m yanking your chain, that’s on you. I do think it deserves more. I do think you should do it at least an hour as often as possible. I do think it should be taught more (and better) in schools, and I do think that words can elevate and change minds. I don’t understand how people can ask me “to understand”, when they just tell me I’m being privileged or I don’t know what it’s like. I admit I don’t. Now just tell me how you can say writing or making a thing is as important as you claim when you’re not regularly making time to do it?

Go write things. Produce art. Art hard.

Happy writing.

Clawing, Hacking and Slogging Through Work

Today, post-blizzard, is one of the hardest days I can remember there being in a long time. I’m reminded of days in treatment, when the highlight of my day was getting a little stubby can of ginger ale and some grapes, but we’ll get to that story shortly.

I just read Kameron Hurley’s blog post over on Chuck Wendig’s blog. It moved me, and for the first time in several weeks, I felt something kick inside my guts. I won’t bother to try and craft some fancy turn of phrase about how the last time I was this down, I had an interaction with Chuck and then tried to kill myself. Yet again, I’m down, and something from Chuck crosses my path. I wonder if he’ll read this post if I ask him nicely. I wonder if anyone will read this post. Though this time, I’m not planning on dying. It’s too cold.

Winters are unbelievably hard for me. It’s not just the lack of light in the evenings. It’s not just the weather that leaves you cold and wet and forcing you to wear bulky clothing that is both unflattering and it makes the most appalling sounds when you move in it. It’s not just that the cold winds howl against the walls of my bedroom and reminds me that while I’m shivering under three or four blankets, I do so alone. And that maybe if I was less of a fuck-up, less of a degenerate, less of a not-success, then maybe this person wouldn’t have left. Or maybe I wouldn’t have driven that person away. Maybes make winter awful. And when you add the fact that you have to shovel driveways and walkways and clear off cars, it super sucks.

Yeah, I know, turn on the sun lamps. Take the pills. I’m doing that. I’m sitting here under three different ones as I write this post, having eaten and taken my pills. I don’t know if you know this but the pills don’t throw a switch to turn a bad day into a sunshine sing-along. They take the edge off and get me into a shape where I can cope. And if this is my coping state today, imagine how bad I’d be unmedicated. Probably wouldn’t even be writing this post.

My first memories of writing something that I thought was good came in around 8th grade. I don’t remember if we were tasked with writing something creative or if I just did it, but I remember creating the story of a guy who just got out of prison and the mob (ambiguous generic NJ villains) wanted to kill him. I remember the teacher telling me that serrated wasn’t a word, that I meant serape. And I remember yelling at her, in class, oblivious to the fact that sixteen of my teenage friends were staring (and would later gossip), that there’s no earthly way I confused serrations for Mexican garb. She failed me on that assignment because I dared to disagree with her. This was also the same teacher who assigned us a paper with the topic “What would you do if you were in a concentration camp?” and then failed anyone who didn’t conclude they would die.

But that didn’t stop me from writing.

In high school, because girls, I started writing poetry. It was big and sweeping and Romantic (capital R) because I purposefully kept the emo grunge stuff to myself. I used to list the initials of the girls I desperately wished would talk to me in the margins of whatever notebook I was using. The poetry wasn’t all that great, but at least I taught myself sonnet structure. And I was pretty handy with a rhyme scheme, if I ever wanted to get into rap battles. Writing fiction took a sideline to writing RPG games for my friends, in an irregular campaign of 2nd edition AD&D. (It was Ravenloft)

After high school, while I was working in radio in the evenings, I started writing a screenplay, because everyone thought that they could be the next Kevin Smith. I wrote my first screenplay in four months, writing two pages a day, then working some really crushing jobs like delivering medical supplies to nursing homes and state hospitals, before working a job I loved until late at night. Work work work. I thought that’s what people have to do. More jobs took me all over the place. I wrote short stories and learned sales writing. And kept writing

When I got to college (after failing out once because I used to go to other people’s classes and was easily bored), I was older than the students, and thanks to a head of grey hair that had been building since I was 13, used to get mistaken for a young professor. I look back now and realize I should have used that to sleep with more girls. But older, I thought I knew things about writing. I knew technique. I read the classics. I could put together a variety of sentences. But, as professors delighted in telling me, the career of a writer is a terrible idea. That I should abandon it. That I didn’t know shit about it. That I couldn’t do it, because fiction is dead and the best fiction has already been written and all we’re doing now is desperately trying to imitate our superiors. (That’s bullshit, by the way, but it’s also the main reason I hate academics – they have an obligation and duty to inspire, not crush)

College was a fight for me. Nearly every class was an exercise in frustration because I had life experience that got overlooked or dismissed, or because they were treading water in sentence structure and I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to do the work, not spend eight weeks “mastering” verbs in some weird Zen koan. It’s a weird thing to have your fellow students ask why you’re in college when your work never needs polish and could get published, and when your teachers tell you that they can’t do anything for you because you’ve refuted their theses and done so eloquently. I can count on one hand the number of teachers who encouraged me to write and keep writing. (Three) I can count on one hand the number of professors who called me into their offices to tell me that I have no business being in their classes because my work intimidated them (Four).

I sold my first screenplay (the second I ever wrote) in early 2002. The advance was more money than I ever saw on a printed check. The budget was huge, and I got actors and a crew and was all set to film on Valentine’s Day 2003. My business partner bolted the night before, and took the finances with him. I was left holding the bag. It sucked. The fact that he went to prison (and might still be there, I don’t know) is little solace for the memories of the people’s faces when I had to tell them everything was gone.

But I kept writing, because I didn’t know what to do.

That first screenplay I adapted for the stage. It made it to off off off off off off off Broadway. It never debuted to huge crowds, and it got chased out mid-previews. But it made me some lasting friendships with people who are now rather big stars. And it got me a job writing punch-up for pilots and scripts for hire.

So I kept writing.

Then I fell into a sleazy hole of writing, sales copy for disreputable companies and scumbag people. Million dollar companies built on frauds and scammy New Age tactics, their whole marketing campaigns getting churned out by depressed me in a cold bedroom. I hate that period of my life.

I finished my first novel in 2013. Lots of people read pieces of it, but I finished it in secret and sent it out. It got about three dozen rejections, and I was going to self publish it, when it occurred to me I could just write a second – that the first novel taught me what to do (and I’ve always been my own best teacher and student), and that if I do it again, it’ll be better. I don’t know if that first novel is ever going to see the light of day again, but the second will. I’m only 35.

In between I’ve been working in game design, tabletop RPGs and card games and board games and LARPs. I’ve got nearly 200 credits to my name in the last 2 years alone. I don’t know how many things I’ve worked on uncredited.

In between I’ve been hospitalized for severe depression and a nice cornucopia of other mental illnesses. I sat in group therapy sessions next to guys who caved in their wives’ faces with irons and sex-addicted crackheads who would beg you to fuck them in closets. I looked at all I did and didn’t see the successes, just the failures. Just the wreckage. Just the people and projects behind me. The highlight of my day was snack time, like a child. They’d pass out little ziploc baggies of ice cold grapes and these tiny cans of Canada Dry and you could sit out on this porch and snack and sit in the sun and try and figure out what you were going to do.

Other people talked about getting their kids back from foster care, or serving out the rest of their jail sentence, or reconciling with their husbands. I talked about writing. Of falling in love again with someone. Of trusting the world one more time. Of putting my stamp on it. Ever the Romantic.

The point, if I’m making one, is that nothing has really stopped me from writing. Sure, things really didn’t work out with specific jobs. Sure, some people were absolute jerks. Sure, I was a huge jerk and that cost me relationships and jobs and opportunities. But I’m still writing at least once a day, for at least two hours a day.

Because take away all the relationships, take away the bank account, take away the hobbies even, and I know I can write to feed myself. Maybe it won’t be the big meals I am now used to, but I know I can afford the dollar menu with my words.

I have gained and lost more than is even detailed in this post, and still I’m writing. I still think I can produce my own games and my own stories. And maybe after a nice library of fiction and games and writing workshops and seminars I’ll retire to some place quiet and raise bees or tend an orchard and die an old madman in a warm European city. But that’s not on this week’s agenda. Though I would not be opposed to being warm right now.

So if I can do all this, if I can hurt and ache and lose and feel like the world is slowly asphyxiating me and that I can’t catch a break if you handed me one, and that I’m not as smart as the other geniuses I know, yet I can still write, why can’t you?

Yes you. You, right there. Reading this. Likely you’re not hurting right now the way I am. Likely you’re not staring out a window at a bleak snowscape and wondering how you’re going to have the energy to keep breathing five minutes from now. Likely you’re not wondering if you’ll ever find someone you can trust again. Are you writing? Are you producing something? Doesn’t matter what it is, but are you invested in making it? Have you thrown your will behind the development of an idea that burns within you, that charges and demands you share it? Maybe you just have dreams where you get paid for making something and selling it. Maybe you have dreams of autographing books at a signing. Maybe you want your work to hang in museum halls seventy years from now. Maybe you just want to tell your kids that you made something one time.

Are you doing it? As often as you can, when the time works out and when you have the energy and when you want to, are you working towards those dreams? They’re not going to come to fruition without you doing the work. And sometimes that work is going to feel like you’re climbing marble cliffs coated in maple syrup and you’re using plastic silverware for climbing gear. Sometimes it’s going to be a crawl through mud that smells like doubt and failure and critics, but if you want to get from Point Wherever-You-Are to Point Where-You-Want-To-Go, you’re gonna have to crawl soldier. And other times it’s going to be a thick jungle of confusion and second guessing and you’ll get well-meaning people offering advice that makes you think you’re not doing it right, but you can hack through that flora with a machete made not of confidence but of discipline. When the road seems obscured, when you don’t know where to go for best results, the answer is in the producing. Keep making your thing, you’ll find the path.

Here’s another secret. Do you want to know why I have five, six, seven versions of the same song back to back on some Spotify playlists? Because I sing along. Badly. And I only let the dog hear me, immediately going mute the minute I hear anyone within 20 feet. But I do it because it carries me forward, to the producing. So on days like this, where I’m teetering on the wrong side of being really down and it being a real problem, there’s a lot of song repetition. So I can feel something. So I can remember why I’m still clawing and hacking and slogging. So I can make things.

Make things. Don’t give up. Persevere. Fight. Keep swinging. Pour it on. One more word, then another, and another after that. It’s not time to stop yet.

I have no idea if I have an audience. People don’t leave comments, and I wouldn’t know what to do if they did. But thank you for reading. And if you share this post, thanks for sharing it.

Come find me on Twitter if you want to talk.

Good Enough vs Perfect

I have toyed with the concepts of this post in various forms for a day or two, and this is probably the best way to organize these ideas. 

I’m making a game. I work in the company of game makers. The game I make must be at least as good as theirs.

I’m writing a novel. I am surrounded by writers. I must write something as good as what they write.

I’m running a business. I have many friends, colleagues and associates who also run businesses. My business must be run like theirs in order to have success like theirs.

Do any of those ideas resonate with you? These are the professional thoughts that plague me, though to figure out my personal thoughts, just swap out business-y things for issues about loneliness, heartache and fear, and it’s really not rocket science to see that I’ve got a lot going on in my head.

I come to my desk every day hopeful that I can accomplish great things. I come to my desk and read my email and look at Twitter, and see my friends’ talking about things they’re doing or that they have plans for, and I’m happy for them. But sometimes, when I’m not involved in those things directly, I feel pangs of “Why aren’t I doing that?” or “Why/How can they be able to do that and I’m over here with my own problem? I bet he/she/they don’t have to deal with my sort of problem anymore.”

And then I get more critical, more self-flagellating. I remember this success someone else had, or that success somebody had. Or I find out someone’s getting married, and someone’s else’s kid is a teenager now, and it’s all very hard to wrap my head around. Because I’m still here, at this desk, with my problems, and with my feelings, and all that success seems many parsecs away for me. Like I’ll never get there, or if I do, there won’t be a lot of success available for me, or it’ll be fleeting or I’ll screw it up or the minute I succeed that’s the day aliens show up on Earth and my moment in the spotlight will flicker out, and I’ll stay ignored, even if I do something tremendous.

So I throw myself hard into the production. I write thousands of words a day. I think about what I’m going to write the next day until my head hurts. I push myself to make whatever I’m doing the best thing anyone’s ever seen, and I don’t tolerate anything less than that while I’m making it. Criticism destroys me. Suggestions cripple me. Feedback, however well intentioned, however supportive, knocks over the house of cards I’ve built while I’m doing 110% to make something perfect.

Because in my head, “good enough” sounds like I just scraped by. “Good enough” is the land of almost-did-as-good-a-job-as-someone-else. “Good enough” is the pat on the head right before someone moves right past you towards something “perfect”.

“Perfect” is exactly where I want to be. It’s the Shangri-La, the Utopia, the forbidden doughnut. It’s what I want, it’s what I crave, it’s what I can’t stop trying to chase down. Being perfect is the only way I’m going to measure up to those around me, right? My friends run companies that make money, produce material, have huge audiences, write books that are raved about, get opportunities to work in film and television, and what am I? I’m the guy who write things on the internet, and the guy who occasionally makes a video. I’m the guy who puts words on paper, deletes paragraphs like they’re on fire and then rewrites them, certain that what I’m doing is going to be laughed right off.

And I worry. And I panic that I’m worrying. And when I don’t write, for whatever reason, be it stress or other plans crop up, or I get distracted by other things, I kick myself hard because when I’m not working on MY things, I’m failing. I’m slipping farther away from perfect. It’s a race, and perfect is leagues ahead of me, and I’ve got cement in my pockets and weights on my legs, and the next part of the race is uphill. I might not get there.

So then I don’t write, because I won’t get there. Because my ideas aren’t as good as what one person did. Or what another person is doing. Or what someone else plans to do. I enter a cycle that looks like this:

This thing I’m making / thing I’m doing isn’t as good as what other people do –> I should just work harder, right –> Work harder and still not be good enough? –> Maybe I just need a new idea –> Get really excited about new idea –> This thing I’m making / thing I’m doing isn’t as good as what other people do etc etc

And it doesn’t break unless I walk away from things for “a while” – hours, or days, or months or even years. And sometimes when I do go back, I’m not sure I can pick up right where I left off.

All of this sounding familiar to you? All of this sound like you could be saying it, maybe right now, or maybe you did yesterday? Or maybe you’ll say it later today?

I don’t have the sole right answer for you, and I’m sorry. I can rah-rah your face off, but look, we’ve all had people pump us up and then we feel encouraged but also obligated to do a good job, as we’re now aware of the people supporting us, and we can’t let them down. (Can we?) But here’s what I can tell you.

  1. The only person in charge of your success, is you. Not your company. Not your business partner(s). Not the fan base large or small. You are in charge of YOU.
  2. If you want to change anything, change it. You want to grow that audience? You can. You want to write today? You can. You want to try and see if someone attractive will talk to you today? Go for it. What you do is YOUR DECISION.
  3. The more you think about the gap between where you are and where you want to be, the more “reasons” you’ll invent to keep you where you are, because making those changes, taking those steps forward, is scary, and it’s a lot easier to stay where you are and bitch about it than appear vulnerable or possibly fail.
  4. Yeah, you might fail. You might not.
  5. Nobody starts off as a bestseller. Nobody starts with an rabid fanbase. Nothing starts big. It’s all one step at a time. One step. Not two. Not five. Just one.
  6. All those posts about wildly successful entrepeneurs? Those galleries of images about celebrities and overnight success? I’m pretty sure they didn’t come out of the womb like that. It took talent, time, training to get there. Anybody who promises you a quicker path to success that doesn’t seem to focus on the work is just selling bullshit by the pound on sale with coupons.
  7. Yeah, life’s hard. We have loads of responsibilities and bills and obligations that take us away from those projects and ideas we could be working on. But that’s not their fault. It’s not your kids’ fault they want to spend time with you. It’s not your landlord’s fault he wants your rent check. It’s not your bank’s fault for wanting you to pay your mortgage. And it’s not your day-job’s fault that you have to go to it so that you can do those things, or spend time with the family.
  8. Making good art (a story, a game, a painting, a recipe, a love note, a whatever) means you need commitment, love and discipline. Commitment to see the idea all the way through, love to keep the idea interesting and discipline to keep you working all the way to the end.
  9. Seriously, if people can get recognition for standing around on television and showing off their lifestyle, I’m pretty sure you can some praise and gold stars for actually doing something.
  10. Fuck “good enough” and double-fuck “perfect”. Make something you’re proud of, make it the best you can. Get help when you need it. Challenge yourself, not because it’ll make a better thing that will sell better, because you’ll learn something and be able to make a better thing next time. Everything has flaws, things the creator would change when they look back on it, and things that could be done differently. It’s not good enough, it’s good. And good is an awesome thing to be.

It is my fondest wish and hope that today, you keep doing whatever you’re doing to make awesome things. If you haven’t started, this is a pretty cool time to start. If you’re coming back to it after a break, welcome back. If you’re scared, say so, but let’s be scared together and let’s make our stuff anyway. I can’t always say I love myself or that I’m feeling like I’m good at what I do, but there are flashes when I know, when I remember, that I am pretty good at this stuff, and it’s okay to be impressed by your own work. But I keep doing it anyway. One step at a time.

Happy writing.

Writing What You Know

Good morning. I want to talk today about a common used and abused writing axiom, one that acts like both shield and crutch, when really, it’s one of the most masturbatory and limiting pieces of advice available to writers.

Write what you know.

Let’s start today with a scene from my inbox. I am a member of about a dozen or so writing-based email lists, communities and message boards. To date, I’m active on three of them, mainly because I field a lot of questions about structure and craft, and every once in a while I say something mildly snarky about Twilight, 50 Shades or other poorly crafted work (I leave it for other authors and creators to be funnier than I am).

Here’s a summation of an exchange from this morning’s readings.

Person 1: Hello, I’m not a white woman who beta reads for a lot of authors, and I really appreciate and feel satisfied by the manuscripts where primary characters aren’t always capable heterosexual white men, or any combination thereof. I think, especially in today’s culture, there should be at least acknowledgement of not-white-men as possible hero/ines without being relegated to “World Books” on some genre shelf.

Person 2: Hello Person 1. I am a white writer who is still working on their first manuscript, but are you saying that if I don’t change what I want to write to sate your feelings about race, sexuality or gender, that my book isn’t ever going to be well-received?

Person 1: No, that’s not at all what I’m saying, Person 2 —

Person 2: Well, I think you’re full of shit, because you’re supposed to write what you know, and what I know as a straight white man and let’s skip all the terminology people toss around to distract from their real intention of being spoiled and selfish, that stories like [NYT BESTSELLING BOOK SERIES] and [POPULAR AUTHOR OF THE LAST THIRTY-PLUS YEARS].  sell well because the authors are white men, so they write white men. Let me explain to you how that’s better than trying to shoehorn in not-hetero-and-white politics.

Person 1: You don’t need to explain anything to me, I’m just saying that I think there’s room on the bookshelf for books with all types of primary characters.

Person 2:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re wrong because [SEXIST REMARK], [RACIST REMARK] and you’re a beta reader, so what do you know about how hard it is to write? 

So yeah, that’s the third thing I read this morning while eating my toast. Putting aside the fact that Person 1 is a clod who needs to knock down other people in order to prop himself up (remind me later to tell the story about the time he made a woman cry during a teleconference), let’s look at the phrase that was a turning point in his argument.

You’re not “supposed” to write what you know, anymore than you’re “supposed” to have citrus fruit, toast, and a bowl of cereal according to commercials that tout “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs are part of a healthy breakfast”.

When you trot out “supposed”, you’re using the phrase as a shield and limitation, hiding behind it because writing what you don’t know might actually take effort, be a challenge or otherwise make you learn something. And oh noes, we wouldn’t want to dare suggest that you should grow as a person as you grow as a writer. That just sounds so super progressive, the next thing you know you’ll be talking about how Adam and Steve should totally be allowed to hold hands and how it’s totally alright for there to be a variety of beliefs for a variety of people. We can’t have that, can we?

You’re not limited in any external way when you write. There’s no mandate from on high, no codified body of legislators prohibiting you in any way when you write whatever it is you write. The only limitations are what you put on yourself. So maybe you think you need to write within some constraints so that you’re “sellable” (yes, there are things that are more conventionally attractive to consumers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write whatever the hell  you want and find an audience for it. Maybe you think that you need to write in such-and-such a way so that people can understand you, which sort of sounds really arrogant that people are going to strain themselves trying to grasp at the edges of your brilliance.

Writing what you know is not supposed to be a limitation. It’s a starting point. It’s a call to reference your own experiences, not boundary your writing because of them.

I write a lot of things. I write detective fiction when I’m not a detective (though don’t think I haven’t looked at the forms to get a PI license or thought about loopholes in the system). I edit books that often contain swords, even though I am not a renown swordsman. I edit books about cybernetic apes, and I’m not a gorilla. Just because you don’t know a thing, doesn’t mean you can’t write about that thing.

Now, if you’re not comfortable writing about a topic because you’re afraid you’re going to sound stupid or portray things poorly (like how I don’t really write about black culture, because I’m not black), that’s not what I’m talking about, because that’s not using ‘Write what you know’ as a shield to prevent me expressing certain thoughts. I don’t hide behind it (and you shouldn’t either).

Because you can learn. There’s no need to stay ignorant or misinformed or uneducated. You can look up things you don’t know. You can ask people who aren’t like you or who don’t share your experiences about how they do whatever they do whenever they do it. It just takes time. And courage, I suppose, since you have to first admit you don’t know something. But that willingness to learn, to find out, to change your mind, is CRITICAL for your growth as a person who writes. There should be a hunger for knowledge, a voracious need to fill your brainspace with new material.

It’s a starting point for writing. I know about how to be a human, so I can write a human character. By extension, I could probably write a particular flavor of humanoid experience, so maybe I could do aliens or some cyborgs. And if I can do aliens and cyborgs, I could write science fiction. But if I turn those aliens and cyborgs into elves and dwarves, I can write fantasy. And all because I started with what I know, I just worked myself into two different genre. That’s pretty awesome. At no time did I say, “I need to spend a month reading about how other people write aliens and dwarves” because my basis for this comes out of my being a human.

Let’s go in a different direction. I’ve been in love, so I could write some sort of romance. I’ve been paranoid and conspiratorial, so I could write a thriller. I’ve even dated lawyers and been in courtrooms, so I might be able to put together some kind of courtroom drama, assuming people would answer some emails. Again, from the basis of my experience, I can go in a lot of directions. It does require some flexibility and a looser grip on my own expectations about writing, and an even looser hold on the prejudging of my audience as to what they’ll like or not, but I can do that, right?

Here’s my challenge you: Don’t only write what you know this weekend. Discover something new, find a new angle for your next piece of writing. Have a conversation with someone who is SO TOTALLY NOT LIKE YOU, and see if that changes your mind about how you can break out of that fear-mold of only writing from limitation.

I’m out this weekend at Metatopia, so there won’t be another post until next Tuesday at the earliest. Happy writing.

Post #100 – Thank You Editors, Writers and Publishers

This is officially the longest I’ve ever maintained a blog. So I’d like to look back for a minute and sum up things to date:

1. This blog is a pretty good combination of my life and my business, and I’m happy with sharing the things I share.
2. A year ago this time, I was feeling the heat that I was failing professionally, and strongly considered getting a cubicle or retail job – the clients were infrequent, the checks moreso and I was really unsure of what the next steps were. (Note: Some people will step in here and say they are the cause for my upswing and success, and I want to take this sentence to thank them for their support. They were helpful, and I do not minimize their efforts, but I also don’t maximize them either.)
3. My personal life has been…well, an adventure. And right now, I’m in some pretty intense therapy. So if you’re wondering why I’m handling things differently, thank my therapist, my psychiatrist and the support group. They’ve helped me figure out more about myself in 2 weeks than a whole load of experiences and failures over 2 years. I look forward to keeping that up and going onward and upward.
4. I cannot claim to be cured, or in remission, but I can tell you that who I was a month ago and who I am now are not the same person – this isn’t because I’m conflating things and posting bravado, this is because I finally had no other choice but to stare myself in a metaphoric mirror and get a handle on my shit. Not easy, not fun. But progress.
5. Where this blog goes for the next 100 posts, I don’t know. I’ve got classes I want to teach in the fall. I’ve got Conventions I want to travel to, people I want to meet, and I’d like this blog to be my record of that.

Now, onto the message of the day.

I want to thank all the editors, writers and publishers I have come to know and work with this last year. I had toyed with mentioning them by name, but felt that such a list was grandiose. I then tried paring down the list, but thought that it was too exclusionary. I have since settled on this statement —

To everyone who has met me, talked to me, shared their ideas with me, hired me, retained me, and paid me, thank you so much for making me one thousand million percent sure that what I’m doing as an editor and consultant is the absolute best course for my life.

To everyone I have spoken with, carpooled with, been to your homes, read your manuscripts, exchanged emails with, laughed with, played games with, ran games with, been supported by, confided in, shilled for, helped, listened to, consulted, advised, amused, chatted with and been introduced to, thank you so much for making my life better.

I know that what I do sometimes becomes more than just my job; that it is a passion and in part an identity, and that I’m not known for my thank-yous or recognizing my friends, peers, employers and colleagues, but I’m making an effort to change that, and I hope that you all can forgive me for how I was, and understand that I’m doing all in my power to get better. For me, for once.

I know that I’ve not always been the best sort of guy – my tone still sucks, I can be a real jerk and an ass, and that I haven’t always been the kind of person people want to be around, or that I haven’t always wanted to be around people. To the people I’ve hurt, I am sorry. I will not air out my laundry for everyone to see, but I will say my apologies publicly – I am sorry that anything I did or didn’t do upset you. I’m sorry I lied, I ignored, I stayed quiet, I boasted, I bitched….all of it. I know that for some people this is just more hot air from the jerk, and I know that I’m not going to be trusted or liked and that every word I’m writing is another nail in the coffin that buries me. Whatever. See above statements about being different now. I cannot make you believe it, that’s up to you. All I can do is work on being the best me possible.

Editors, thank you for letting me work alongside you, for you, with you and under your expert tutelage. I am a better editor, writer and enthusiast of craft because I can point to the lessons you’ve taught me. I learn new things every day, and am so lucky and grateful to have the opportunities to do so.

Publishers, thank you for taking a chance on me. A year ago, I was just another guy in a room who happened to know a thing or two about getting books into peoples’ hands. (That post is coming…wait for November) And now my name has been on projects, some people even know who I am, and I finally have a use for all these thousands of business cards. Without you, I’d be…well, probably making $35 a week teaching how to write query letters.

Writers, it is to you I owe the greatest thanks. You have brought me such joy, such happiness, such moments of clarity as I face down my preconceived notions, biases, shitty attitudes and nonsense en route to finding and refining my core value of “Help tell the best stories”. I am so lucky to count some of you among not only my clients or acquaintances, but also my friends. All three of those things, I didn’t have too many of last year. Again, what a difference a year makes.

I really have been #livingthedream this past year. Thank you all for it.

For those that don’t know, my birthday is Tuesday. I have to be honest and tell you I don’t quite know how I’ll feel or what to do, but I can tell you I’m treating it like any other Tuesday (weather permitting) – I’m going to get up early, walk a few miles, then go to therapy and come home and work. There’s also a dinner-thing happening. If you see me online Tuesday, please feel free to say hello.

Thanks for reading these 100 posts. I know some of them have been more popular than others. I know some of them have been better written than others. I’ll keep being awesome for the next 100, I promise.

I’ll be back probably Friday to talk more writing. Happy writing.

P.S. 2 things: Make sure you thank your editors. And please for the love of Pete, if you’re not sure you need an editor, talk to one first. DO NOT trust your Aunt Petunia with your manuscript. She may have cooties. Or be an idiot.

Some Words About POV

It’s Memorial Day Weekend and for most people it’s the kick-off to summer. It occurred to me Wednesday that in my job (thankfully) it’s almost always summer. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m just saying this because I caught sight of the passage of time. And from thoughts of what I was doing last Memorial Day, or that time I was in high school and had to play baritone saxophone in a parade, it got me thinking about point of view in storytelling.

Also, on Wednesday night at my workshop there were a few questions about POV, and I got kind of amazed that people still had questions about it, even though I thought this topic has been aggressively beaten to death. So let’s talk POV. We’ll start with a definition and then deal with some common pitfalls.

What is it?
Point of View is the lens through which the reader receives the story. That’s it. It is NOT the lens through which the character interacts and lives the story and it is most certainly not a “gimmick” that writers do in order to get Pavlovian praise from agents and book reviewers.

I make a distinction between how the reader receives the story and how a character goes through the story, because every character goes through the story in the first-person. (Just like all of us, we’re all only ever in first person). What the POV does is take those character-first-person experiences and organize them in a particular way as the story needs.

Organize them how, you mean like shuffle them around from chapter to chapter?
Oh no. No no. Super double no. Don’t do that. Don’t hop, skip, and jump through POVs because you ‘want to put us [the readers] in different characters’ heads. That’s…well, that’s sort of like announcing you’re an amateur while waving flares and a big banner shoots up behind you saying “I don’t know any better.” Don’t do that.

But George RR Martin does it!
First, you are not George RR Martin. (I mean you could be, but really, if actual-GRRM is reading this blog, then I’m oblivious to my audience). Second, no he doesn’t. He changes the focus between characters, but never the POV. He doesn’t randomly jump from third-person Tyrion to first-person Brienne to second-person guy-next-to-a-guy-with-an-axe.

When you establish a POV, you’re creating a little center to the particular universe of your story. Now maybe this universe exists for the duration of a whole book, or maybe it’s just a chapter, but this POV is throughout the whole created-universe, not the character. POV is not a character.

Huh?
Let’s say you’re writing a version of……Romeo and Juliet. And you want to make your version to what Romeo sees, his experiences, the reader follows on Romeo’s shoulder, that sort of thing. So you make Romeo the narrator and tell this story in the first-person.

So anything Romeo does or thinks is going to be with an “I” involved (I did this, I think that, etc). And anytime another character does something, it’s in the third-person, because this is Romeo’s story, he’s telling it, and we’re (Romeo + reader) seeing this through Romeo’s eyes.

Just because a new character comes into the scene doesn’t mean we need to be in their head while Romeo’s telling the story. This is the narrator’s story, we see what they see, we discover what they do when they do…it’s sort of the beauty of first person.

But I’m not writing first-person.
Okay, so you’re overseeing a whole load of people. Then your POV is as if you’re looking down from the skies onto this whole diorama of your story, and the narrator, although not a character directly in the story is relating to us what’s going on. You don’t have to crack open the minds of every character for the reader to understand the story.

Yes I do. How else will they know what’s going on?
If you write well enough AND trust your readers, they’ll figure out what’s going on. Here’s an example:


John sits in his office. While writing his blog post, the rain falls outside and a truck pulls up across the street. From the truck emerges a man, who brings with him from the truck a clipboard. He then checks notes and walks to the blue house. The dog barks. More rain falls. John goes back to writing. 

Okay, that’s not very well written, and I didn’t have any character actively thinking anything, or did I? I implied that John is thinking (because he’s writing a blog post) and implied the dog must be thinking (it’s barking) and even the guy from the truck has to be thinking (he’s checking notes on a clipboard)…but in order to tell you that story, did I have to sit down, hold your hand and explain to you what everyone was thinking? Or was there enough detail there to somewhat picture the scene?

So, the POV depends on the narrator?
Yes. If the narrator is an active participant in the story they’re telling, then the reader is going to be limited in the scope of what they read — If I’m telling you the story of what I did over the weekend, I’m only telling you about what I did. There’s no mention of what happened half the world away in Guam or what somebody in Moscow was going to do.

If the narrator is playing puppetmaster and we get to watch them pull the strings and make characters dance, there may still be a limit on what information we get at a certain time. Because the author of the story can only describe so much at a given time. (Because, in part, the author is human and even though they control the whole entirety of their story, you can’t compress EVERY thought into the same sentence.)

What can I do?
Okay, let’s set some rules.

1. When you set up a POV, you’re tied to it. Not quite as bad as a cell phone contract, but it’s not a decision of whimsy. Pick a lens, and stick with it.

2. Avoid as best you can the desire or need to switch characters (yet stay in the same POV) because it does NOT tell the story more effectively. It’s does two things instead:
a) weakens your story’s pace, construction and cohesiveness
Why? Because if you’re locked into first-person, but the “I” character constantly changes, the reader can’t follow the story easily. Let the narrator dictate how the story is parsed to readers, and if Narrator X isn’t good enough, rather than adding Narrator Y and Narrator Z to the mix, make X better.
b) demonstrates that you’re a weak/poor/cowardly (yeah, I said it) writer.
Why? Because switching POV is a crutch. Sure it “tells the story most completely” but does it actual make you a better writer for doing it? Sure it’s hard and scary to stick with one narrative voice all the way through a story, but (in case you’ve forgotten) storytelling is an art and a craft, and it’s not supposed to be cakewalk simple. If that frightens you, maybe you shouldn’t be writing. Throw away the crutches and walk on your own legs.

3. “Bleed on a drip.” That means rather than just spew forth a litany of narrative elements (clues, story development, emotions, ideas) in some great wrist-slit pool and hold out hope that the reader can navigate it all and somehow share your vision (by the way, if you call your story a ‘vision’ it makes you sound like a knob) at the end, you control the pace. (Note: this takes talent and practice and edits and practice and talent.) Meter out when the reader gets certain details, and use the POV as the valve for that.

4. Want to know how to fix your POV issues? Talk to an editor! If you sequester yourself away (either intentionally or worse, you cry poor and say you can’t afford to talk to outside people, or out of fear that people won’t waah waah like you — sorry, that argument really bugs me. Cowards. You want to get better, ask for help) then you’re never going to fix your mistakes. Sure you might bury them deep in subtext or only make them once or twice…but that’s one or two times too many and certainly visible to a reader, subtext or not.

And with that, I’m hopping off my soapbox and getting ready to enjoy my Memorial Day Weekend with a stack of books at the beach house. There will be NO blogpost Monday, because I won’t be near a PC until Tuesday at the earliest.

Happy writing, have a great weekend. Rock on.