art hard

Real talk: Pitches, Part 1

It’s another Friday. Here’s hoping that wherever you are, the weather is glorious, the food is fresh, the drinks are cold, and you don’t have pants on.

I’d like to kick off a series of posts that will go from today through next week (at least through Wednesday) all about pitches and pitching. This comes from reading many pitches on Twitter (from the hashtag #pitmad, and those just tweeted around/at me, either personally or through Parvus.

And if we’re going to do this right, I’ve got to label this series as realtalk, because we need to be frank about it.

Some pitches suck, and a bad pitch isn’t going to help you going forward. Not onto a query, not to getting that manuscript read. Bad pitches are lethal. They produce cringing, they produce rants and sighing and eye-rolling. So today, we’re going to look at what stuff goes in a pitch, and build from there, because I think without the basics, this is just going to get really subjective (because there is an element of subjectivity to pitching, but it’s not as big as you think).

A pitch is built on three parts: the question, the hook, and the potential. Granted, these three parts are the parts as I explain them, so you’re going to get my definitions and my composition style. You tailor this however you like or need to.

The Question
At the heart of every pitch, just like at the heart of every story, there’s a conflict, or there’s something unknown that needs to get known, the undiscovered to be found out. A pitch that implies the question is counting on the question being understood even though it’s absent.

What am I talking about? The easiest pitch is a question. It states the conflict or the unknown openly, with very little room for doubt.

A question like: “Can a man truly fall in love with a milkshake?” Or “Will the young girl fulfill her destiny to rule the great kingdom?” doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt as to what it’s talking about or what conflict more or less is. The downside to framing the pitch’s conflict as a question is that you can answer with a ‘No’, and that’s not really going to get people to read the manuscript.

The upside is that you’re being clear about what’s going on in the MS.

When we start to make the question a little more nuanced, we change the pitch’s structure while keeping the question intact but unspoken. Sometimes this means asking one question in place of another, as though we’re leading from A to B, sometimes this means no questions at all, just an impending drive forward to get more details.

Like this: “A widower keeps all the same rituals as when he was married but things change when he gets a coupon for a free milkshake.” There’s no question stated there, I’m not reading or inflecting a question into that sentence, but I am circling a question of “What things change and how?” (So two questions, really) by upping the complexity of my pitch.

The Hook
A hook is the part of the pitch that engages the reader. It’s the “Ooh” factor. It’s the novelty or the new dimension put on an existing expectation or presentation. The hook might be a turn of phrase in the pitch, or even the whole sentence of the pitch depending on wording and word choice.

What makes a good hook is that it’s not just what word is used, it’s how. In our young-girl-to-Queen story, the pitch hangs a lot of importance on destiny, and that’s because I chose the word fulfill to go along with it. It’s not clear whether or not she knows this is her destiny, I can figure that out in the text, but the initial idea I’m playing with is that she has a destiny and a choice to make about it.

A choice is always a good hook. Presented earnestly, the choice can be a little too pat and cliche, like it will take itself too seriously and send the reader looking elsewhere for their enjoyment. But by presenting a choice, you’re suggesting the reader stick around the see how things shake out. You’ve hooked them.

Keeping them on that hook is a trickier proposition, since you can never tell when a reader is going to get bored and put the book down, and frankly, you can lose a lot of time and good energy trying to anticipate and course-correct for it before it even happens. Don’t assume it will happen, don’t start thinking your MS isn’t good enough. Trust yourself to put the words together in interesting ways and that a hooked reader will naturally want to stay hooked themselves.

The Potential
Potential is the sum of the hook and the question. It’s where the story is going, and ideally you’ve chosen words to suggest that this story is accelerating to Awesomeville. When I say, “where the story is going” I don’t want a spoiler. A pitch is not a summary. A pitch is the breadcrumb trail I follow to read your MS. If you tell me how it ends, why should I go read it?

Potential is probably the trickiest part of the pitch to grasp, because it means you’ve got a lot left unspoken. Unlike the question or the hook which comes down to word choice, the potential rests on the part(s) you’re not talking about. So how do you make something you’re not talking about turn into something I’d want to read about?

By focusing on the things you are telling me about. Let’s come up with a new example. Let’s say you’re pitching me Robin Hood. And let’s start you off with a not-so-great pitch:

“Robin Hood is this story about a guy who comes back from the Crusades and ends up living in the forest with a bunch of guys while they all rob rich people and help poor people.”

Yes, I really made that suck. Yes, I’ve seen pitches seriously made at that level. And oh man, we can all do better, right?

Breaking this down, we have to find the conflict. For Robin Hood, that conflict is usually in the robs-from-the-rich-and-gives-to-the-poor angle. This makes him an outlaw (A social conflict), but it also speaks to his character (A moral conflict). The fact that we write this conflict in sort of bland way and we leave the conflict until the very end doesn’t evoke a lot of interest in the conflict, right? It’s just sort of there, like overcooked vegetables your mom would serve.  We’ll need to spice it up.

And where’s the hook? No clue. That’s the problem with stating the idea/premise of the story so flatly – it’s about as compelling as lint. There’s no allure in a presentation of facts. The allure, the draw, is that the presentation of the facts leads us somewhere up to and then against the conflict, ultimately leading the character(s) to some kind of change to the status quo.

We’ll end today with a re-tooled version of our Robin Hood pitch, and we’ll pick this up Monday with the next level of pitch development.

Our pitch is now: The story of an outlaw who robs the rich to feed the poor, ROBIN HOOD is the story of a man against dangerous odds.

Don’t forget your sharp sticks for Monday. See you then.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in living the dream, pitching

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

*

Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.

 

 

 

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, believe in yourself, equality, living the dream

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

Pacing
What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in find your hooks, HAM, keep writing, living the dream

The Tease Of The Bookshelf

So, it’s Wednesday. Middle the week. Hump day. That day where I always feel like it’s too early to make weekend plans, but that if I don’t make those plans, I’ll let it go too far and miss out on something.

First, let me take a minute to thank all the new people who have come to the blog within the last few weeks. I am sincerely thankful for all of you, and if given a chance would write you all emails expressing how much it means to me that people even take a few minutes to read my words. My reach is never something I understand, but it is something I’m very eager to expand. Sort of like a toddler, or a small drunk dictator. I suppose there’s very little difference between the two.

Second, let me give you an update on #FiYoShiMo. If you’ll look at the toolbar, you’ll see a FiYoShiMo index page. That’s a whole list of links that will take you to each post in the month. Yes, I know day 2 is a pdf, but that’s because WordPress is a jerk, and I have no idea where the post went. The entirety of the posts exists now as an MS, which I’m busy polishing (read: fixing the internal links so they’re text, and formatting) and my next goal is to get it proofed and start querying. I’ll be putting everything from the querying process onward on the blog as a series of posts. It’s been far too long since I was in the publishing trenches, and I’d prefer to be in the thick of things and not upon some pedestal looking down. I may fail, I may succeed, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t try.

On we go to today’s topic, which was suggested to me via Twitter conversation. Maybe conversation is too broad a word, it was more: “Hey John, write something about this, I’m struggling with it.” And the good news is that I struggle with it too, so I’m going to spend some words expressing my own experiences. I’m hopeful you’ll find a parallel in your experiences. Maybe together we can work this out.

So I’m writing this from the upstairs office (read: the computer in my bedroom) of the house. I could have written this in the actual office in the house, but I didn’t. I could have written this on my phone, and then I wouldn’t have had to get up from the couch, but I didn’t. The majority of my writing takes place in this chair, on this machine, and it’s so ingrained me as a process that writing anywhere else feels awkward and even a little scandalous.

The problem with writing in this room (aside from the fact is that there’s no fireplace and no couch), is that there’s this bookcase on my right. It’s currently a post-holiday mess, as I haven’t filed away any of the new books I’ve picked up over the last month, and I haven’t cleaned up the spilled business cards from my last convention. It is an obelisk to and a microcosm of my writing career – crammed with material, often in need of organizing.

On those shelves are all the books written by the people who influence and inspire me. Some are friends. Some are authors deader than disco. Some are clients, or were once. I look at that bookshelf every few sentences when writing. Because it is one of the many lighthouses by which I orient myself. Yes, I have several in my life. We’ll talk about that some day.

That bookshelf is where I go when I need a boost. It’s there when I don’t know how to structure something, it’s there when I need a reference. All useful stuff. It’s a bookshelf, it’s a tool to aid me, and also it keeps clutter off my floor.

But stacked along with all my references and notes, is anxiety. And to be blunt about it, envy is a jerk. Anxiety is a huge fucking jerk, the amalgam of every bully, every blowhard, every abuser, every torturer you can imagine. And that’s because anxiety is armed with a barbed nagyka of self-doubt.

Anxiety uses it competently to flay the nerves, skewer assumptions, and scourge confidence.

And here’s how it happens.

So you’re writing, or you’re thinking about writing. Maybe there are words on the page, maybe they’re still forming semi-orderly lines in your head before they paratroop down screen or page. All things are going well. You’ve got something to drink. The dog doesn’t need to go out. The phone isn’t ringing. You’ve got a good playlist queued up. No one’s knocking at the door. It’s go-time, writer. Time to make the words happen.

In that instant, in that small moment of pause between one word and the next, you catch the faintest whiff of worry. You have words down, your fingers are dancing over keys, but the pace is slowing. The worry grows. The writing stops. Your stomach does a little toddler’s tumble. And so begin the questions.

Is this okay? Am I good enough to do this? Is this going to do alright? Will an editor shred this in their toothy maw? Will anyone buy this stuff? What the hell am I doing? Crack crack crack goes the flail. In those wounds, already festering and raw, more self-doubt seeps in. Until you’re comparing yourself to other people. Until your fingers aren’t on the keys. Until you’re unsure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Now this is even before we can talk about anxiety burgling its way into your head when you’re not writing. There’s material there for a dozen lifetimes of blogs by a thousand billion people. I’m looking at the panic, worry, and doubt that comes when the words are supposed to be coming out.

I look at my bookshelf, and see the names. Would I ever be as good as them? Would they recognize me as talented? Would they let me into whatever fantastic club I believe them a part of? Am I good at anything? Will I leave a legacy like theirs? Am I shouting into some void? Would I be better off moving to some orchard and picking fruit? (I bet I’d be a great orchardeer, or orchard caretaker, orchardtaker or whatever)

There was once I time where these thoughts would send me angrily to pull the shelf down, and throw the books every which way in the room. There was a time when I’d write a very large “Fuck Everything” on social media, or any media and just go play video games and sulk. That anger has been pulled from me, with regular leeching of comfort and wisdom. And I’m thankful. Because now I get to sit here and see the anxiety coming. Now I maybe know what to do about it.

See, I don’t know if I’ll leave a legacy. I have no idea if anyone but a few people will remember me when I’m gone, let alone remember me fondly. I have no idea if there’s a secret good-writer club. I don’t know if some of the people whose books are on my shelves know I exist.

It’s hard to say that I don’t care. Because I do care. I just try not to care so much. That’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. But it’s what I need to do to get my fingers back on those keys. It’s what I need to say to myself, over and over, even out loud, even at meals, even just before I post to the blog, so that I assure myself that these efforts aren’t lost.

No, no, this isn’t some blather where I’m seeking your praise. Sure, I’d love some right now, but I’m trying to be objective here, don’t you see? The answer to the anxiety is reassurance. We can debate whether it’s best from yourself or others later, the fact remains that reassurance from somewhere is often enough to kick anxiety to the curb.

So I look to my lighthouse again. And yes, there are plenty of writers to be envious of there. Book after book share the same names. But tucked between them, there are the books I worked on. The things I’ve done. My name may not be on many covers, but my name’s in there. Reassurance.

Here’s where you tell me, John, I’m just (WHOEVER YOU ARE)) and I haven’t been published. What good does your lighthouse do me? All I have are these books by other people, and I feel so small and insignificant.

And I will say to you – the act of writing is reassurance. Yeah, I know, it’s not as reassuring as being published, but I’ll tell you that plenty of people I know have been published more than once and they’re never coasting on some idea that they’ve “made it.” There’s that hunger, that drive, that hustle. (We’ll talk hustle Friday)

Do whatever you can to reassure yourself that what you’re doing, what you’re making, belongs on a bookshelf. Even if it’s your bookshelf. Maybe you go play with your kids when you’re done writing for the day. Maybe you go look at SpongeBob porn (I just found out that was a thing). Maybe you go into the backyard and stare at clouds. Maybe you play Spider Solitaire until your fingers cramp. Whatever you do, whatever balm you can provide yourself, go do it.

And then go write. One idea, one word, one step at a time. You lose your bearings, you look to that lighthouse, you look to that waiting reassurance, and you get back to writing.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll believe in you, you believe in me, and we’ll go shake anxiety down for its lunch money and buy tacos when we’re done writing for the day.

You’re good enough to do the amazing things. You’re good enough to write what you want. You might need help, it might take a while to write what you want. but you can do this.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. (maybe I’m saying this as much to myself as to you) Go write.

See you Friday, when we talk hustle.

Some things to do now that you’ve read this post —
Check out the Google Community where you can congregate with other writers doing writer-stuff.
Want more John-words? Got a few bucks? Check out Smashwords.
Find me on Twitter, and see what I’m talking about today.

Posted by johnadamus

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.

 

Posted by johnadamus

Ten Art Commandments

I have a less than secret love for hip-hop. I was in school during the East Coast West Coast rap feud, and I eventually went West Coast in it because I thought Puffy/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/ Penelope/P-whateveriddy was irritating, and I thought what he did to a Police song to “tribute” Biggie warranted him being exiled to a small Pacific atoll so he could think about what he’d done.

But my love for all things Dre, early Snoop and Death Row Tupac doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the Ten Crack Commandments. Now maybe it’s because I grew up very religious, but the idea of commandments always stuck out to me. In a world of such fluidity and turbulence, I’ve always been impressed that anyone can erect a set of concrete rules.

Writing and publishing is one of the most creative turbulent and dynamic industries I can think of, next to fashion. What’s popular is forever ephemeral, even if in some ways there are cycles as old things are made new again. And perish the thought that you’re wearing or crafting something out of style, although the hipster movement seems to keep everything around, either for irony or straight purposes.

So I spend a lot of time wondering if I can codify some concepts for creatives (alliteration!). Here’s what I have so far. My apologies to my religious friends, but I’m cribbing your format.

I. Your art is yours, not the audiences, not the critics. 

Whenever you make stuff, whatever it is, whatever you write, or art, that’s yours. I don’t mean selling it, I don’t mean signing publishing deals, I mean the creative engine under it. You create what you create because it pleases YOU. Critics are always going to find something to pick at (because they’re critics), and audiences are far too tempermental, so there’s little sense in trying to satisfy the unknown demands of an unknown number of people. Create for yourself.

II. Never get high on the critics’ lines.

You’re never going to please everyone. Never ever. Someone’s going to complain about the presence or absence of a thing, or a word choice, or a description. They’ll trot out hypersensitivity and words like “problematic”, and maybe some people will even take the time to explain what they don’t like, or spend their time trying to make you feel guilty for liking whatever you like. Don’t buy into it. Don’t drink their Kool-Aid.

The world is big enough that people can all like different things, and even disagree about it. And not be wrong in the process.

III. There’s no reason you can’t talk about what you’re doing.

I’ve tried for years to understand why people don’t share their writing. They hide the fact that they do it. They hide what they write. They hide their progress. They hide their failures. The usual answers I hear range from “If I talk about it, people always want to butt in” to “if I talk about it, someone is going to steal it”. To first one: See Commandment one. To the second: Who? Who is going to steal it? The person you’re sharing it with? Why would you pick that person then? Can you find another person?

Talking about whatever you’re doing is a way to demystify and destagmatize  the craft of writing and its practitioners. There isn’t a badge of shame to avoid because you’re writing something that will give someone else the vapors and cause them to blush at the church social. Being a creative doesn’t make you a pariah. Get out of the cave and share with the tribe.

IV. Communication is more than selling.

At my last check, I’m following 1889 people, and I’ve got 1444 followers on Twitter. I love Twitter. It suits my patience, my need for stimulation, and it requires concision. And while I’m not known for brevity, I’m pretty handy with effective word choice. So, I do a lot of tweeting. The frustrating thing for me is that not everyone uses social media as an avenue for communication. I suppose there aren’t any hard rules for usage, but I’m confident we’ve all seen messages like this:

 Hi! Thanks for following me! Check out this link for more great information!

Sure, the length varies, and that link goes anywhere from a shopping cart to a blog with some annoying popup requiring you to give an email address, but the concept is the same. Social media is SOCIAL, If you just wanted to broadcast the opportunity for sales, you would just need some strong SEO and a visually appealing website. If you’re saying, “John, the point of social media is to bring customers to my platform” then I’m going to make an increasingly displeased series of faces at you until you go sit in the corner. Platforms are for Mario to jump on. People are not automatically customers. We’re people first, and we all deserve to be treated as people even if we’re not in the mood to fork over the cash to buy your stuff.

Communicating with people, true audience building, is about sharing your experience and listening to the experiences of those around you, so that you can take all this information and let it further evolve your life as it all moves forward towards the hot or cold death of the universe.

And it’s not just the good stuff. Yes, sure, the good stuff when things are doing well is way more exciting and less heartbreaking to hear than the tales of insecurity, rejection, and disappointment, but as we’ll see in Commandment V, it’s not something to hide.

V. Share the good, share the bad, take them both and there you have … a theme song stuck in your head.

Your life, creative and otherwise, has good and bad moments. You totally find five bucks in your jeans. You forget why you walked into the kitchen. You spend a day writing a great chapter. You get told you have a terminal illness. It’s folly to think in that all-or-nothing way that you’re the only recipient of all the universe’s bad shit, because everyone else always seems to be talking about so many successes.

I see it all the time. So many people have great announcements of projects to do, projects completed, families starting, major undertakings succeeding, and big things on the horizon. And that announcement, while generating happiness, also brings in some envy (why and how are they doing these things and I’m not) and a sense of inadequacy (wait, they’re doing all that stuff, and all i have is this little stuff over here).

I don’t have a good answer for you. I don’t know how to make those feelings permanently vanish and never dog you again. The best I can tell you to do is that when you find yourself looking over the fence at someone’s far greener pasture, remember that while you’re seeing the verdant loam, what you’re not seeing at the roots and weeds. And because people aren’t likely to comfortably talk about the problems, it’s easy to look at your problems and compare them other peoples’ not-problems. Which isn’t ever going to be equitable. My illness, for instance, can’t be compared to someone’s announcement of a new job, because they’re not equivalent.

This is why I urge people to talk openly, bravely, even passionately about all the facets of what they’re doing. Is it going to drive people away? Maybe. Is it going to help someone feel better or maybe not alone? Maybe. Does that make it worth trying? Yes.

VI. Do not be afraid of the new. 

I think we are all creatures of habit. We like to do the same things at roughly the same times over and over. We like to eat certain kinds of food, we like to read certain kinds of books. We wear clothes in some styles and not others. For me, that’s t-shirts, jeans and warm, soft fabrics. Maybe for you it’s something dressy. I like to watch far more Netflix that regular TV now, maybe you’re all about America’s Next Top Whomever. I prep for work this way, you do it that way.

At some point though, when we trace our way back, we didn’t always do those things. Someone had to introduce us to these ideas before we made them habits. It’s normal to be scared when you’re trying new things. There’s the fear that you’ll be judged, the fear that you’ll fail, the fear that you’ll succeed, the fear that you won’t be as good at it as you hoped, the fear that you’l be let down if it sucks, etc. Often, we let those fears stop us before we even begin. We see the fear first, we decide to not try in advance. For all the talk we do about something failing, it might also succeed!

New is not a synonym of bad or wrong. New is opportunity, it’s a shot to change circumstances. It’s worth taking.

VII. Treat yourself well.

We have a regrettable trend of glamorizing and sensationalizing things that don’t need it. We say that drinking and drugs make us better, freer, writers. We say that mental illnesses are acceptable fodder for inaccurate portrayals that reinforce stigma. We say that in order to be as good as other people, you have to be willing to cross a lot of uncomfortable boundaries to earn success. We give attention to murderers and demagogues in equal breath. We discard material that might be hard to learn or hard to accept in favor of lighter stuff that has no substance but looks pretty. In short, we glut ourselves at the buffet of easy choices, cowardice, closemindedness, apathy, laziness, and cruelty.

We could treat ourselves so much better. No, I don’t mean you need to start eating pesticide-free lawn clippings and drink a varieties of liquids extracted from berries and nuts you can’t spell. I mean taking the time to learn craft, make better choices about what material we read and watch, make time to talk to each other without looking down at cell phones or monitors. We could be honest with ourselves, even when it scares us, and make those passions of ours a priority, rather than the thing that fuels our complaints, inadequacy, or daydreams.

You deserve every bit of quality living. Even as a “struggling” artist, you deserve to be kind and even helpful to yourself. Get rest. Hydrate. Share life with friends. Eat a cookie now and then. Make yourself laugh. Feel good about the slow death of all life on the planet that we stupidly recognize as autumn. Do the stuff you like without fear that you’ll be ostracized for it. There are enough people in the world seemingly eager to chase people out on rails for what they say and do and believe, you don’t have to join that circus just to get on your own case.

VIII. Remember there are multiple kinds of support

I suck at being taken care of. It makes me feel like a helpless child. It makes me feel weak. I don’t enjoy being coddled (see, I immediately call it being coddled, when all I’m picturing in my head is someone handing me a blanket). That’s just one kind of support. That’s the physical support we all need sometimes. But what about emotional? What about having people who listen? What about people who can celebrate successes? (If you want a central place for creative support, you might want to look here)

With so many people putting out material, using resources like crowdfunding and Patreon, it’s easy to see that support is financial first, before everything else. And yes, it’s great when you can support people making cool things and doing cool stuff, but cracking open your wallet and purse are not the only ways you can help people continue to do what they’re doing. Yes, it often gets framed that way because I have yet to figure out how to pay bills or cover expenses with love and patience, but that doesn’t discredit non-financial types of investment or support.

If you can’t spare the dollars, spread the word to your friends that there’s something they can check out. Take two seconds and write the creator a supportive note. Do what you can to strengthen those communal bonds, so that when roles reverse and you find yourself needing support, people know that they can reach back to you too.

IX. It’s not going to be perfect.

I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t care what you’re mapping out right now. Doesn’t matter whatever it is. Doesn’t matter how ambitious or small it is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not going to be perfect. Your draft will have typos. Your prototype might have squeaky parts. Your recipe might need an extra two minutes cooking time. Yes, eventually you can make a thing that exceeds every expectation, but nothing is perfect right off the bat.

So don’t hold yourself to the unrealistic impractical standard that it has to be. It’s not like there’s some rule we’ve all been trying to follow and fail that says we need to be perfect in our first attempts and drafts. That’s why revision and testing and second, fifth, tenth, two-millionth chances are things that exist.

Perfection is the refuge of the unrealistic and out of touch.

X. Don’t you dare give up.

Over the course of your creative lifespan, you’re going to face obstacles. You’re going to face rejections, critics, disinterested people who you just can’t persuade otherwise, people who want to tell you everything that’s always going to be wrong, people who want to mock you for even trying to make a thing, hard drive crashes, overbooked flights, financial insecurity, financial windfalls that you get a little too excited about, overcommitment, underemployment, frustration, deadlines, competition for limited opportunities, bad weather, illnesses, pets that demand attention when you could be making stuff, hunger, distractions, nagging spouses, children who just need to show you one more thing, legos to step on in the middle of the night, impatience, batteries that die just when you need them the most, cold streaks, hot streaks that die out too quickly, dayjob stress, anxiety, disappointment, tough choices, a lack of things to eat in the fridge despite having gone to the store two days ago, spotty internet connection, bills, phone calls that interrupt your workflow, fears, jealousies, petty people who want more attention so they can continue being victims, idiots, doubters, printers running out of paper, emails not getting read, dropped calls, stubbed toes, soreness, boredom, envy, anger, apathy, insufficient cookies, times where you forcibly have to wear pants, lacks of anything to say, confusion, brain freeze and about four trillion other things I can’t think of right this second. You’re going to face all those things, and you’re going to feel like you can’t keep going forward. Or that instead of walking a nice straight flat path forward, somehow there’s a whole mountain range in front of you. Covered in glass. With lava. And clowns. And you can’t find your shoes. And it’s snowing out.

Do not give up. Do not let the obstacles, no matter how numerous or sizeable, overcome that voice inside that tells you that holy shit, you are someone who makes stuff, and that stuff is good, and that people like that stuff. And you can do more stuff, new stuff, and even more people will dig it. You just have to try. You just have to put one word in front of the other, one brush to one canvas, one finger to one key, and just go do it.

You’re in charge of when you stop. You’re in charge of when you start. You’re in charge of what happens next. Always. Forever. Don’t you dare give up.


I’ll be back on Friday with Plot 201.  See you then. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in believe in yourself, check this out

Coaching, Its Benefits, And You

Good morning writers and creators of cool things, often with words. On Wednesday of last week, I announced the return of my Coaching program, and am happy to say that more than a few (certainly more than I was expecting) people have expressed interest. And although I answered everyone’s email over the weekend, I wanted to collate their questions and answers into a blogpost to talk more about coaching, why it’s different than editing, and what it can help you do. I’ve set the post up like an FAQ.

What is Coaching?
Coaching is editing and then-some. Yes, you end up with your MS worked on, but you also get a deeper look at the mistakes you commonly make, and most importantly why you’re making them and how to stop doing it going forward. Built on a simple premise that you’re always going to create better when you’re supported and when you’re aware of how you work best, coaching aims not to just produce a quality manuscript, but also produce a better overall writer (who produces quality manuscripts).

What are some things coaching can help me with?
(this isn’t a complete list)
Self-doubt
Self-rejecting (rejecting yourself before someone has a chance to)
Query letters
Proper grammar
Plot development
Character development
Procrastination
Transitioning from one genre to another
Transitioning from one writing style to another
Making time to write
Transitioning into other media
Finding inspiration to write new things
Dialogue
Finishing projects
Building a practical writing schedule that you actually enjoy following
Point of view efficacy
Correct use of tense

When does the editing happen?
The writing and editing happen WHILE the coaching is happening. (Not like at the same time, because I’m not standing behind you … or am I?) You keep working on your MS, we work on all this stuff together, as it comes up.

How do I know if I need coaching? Isn’t editing enough?
Editing’s enough if you just want to keep the focus on the current manuscript. Coaching is going to help you on the current one and the next manuscript(s).

What kind of editing happens during coaching?
It’s developmental, and it has to be. Just proofreading or even a line edit isn’t going to get to the hows and whys of writer habits.

Wait, remind me what developmental editing is?
It’s a comprehensive type of editing that looks at the MS in the broadest ways (who’s going to read it, what the author intends to do with it, etc), the craft ways (the characters, the plot, the dialog, the exposition, etc) and the technical ways (sentence structure, word choice, spelling, grammar, etc).

And what’s the point? Is this going to help me?
You’re going to get out of it whatever you put in. If you’ve been banging your head against the wall or desk about how you’re going to get yourself writing, or how you’re going to get your MS back on track if you’ve put yourself in a corner, coaching will absolutely help you. If you’re eager to get started and have no idea where, coaching will help you. In short – coaching can help you get writing, and writing well.

This sounds like it’s going to cost me an arm and a leg. Is it expensive?
As you can see on the Rates page, it’s $80 an hour. You pay for each hour of coaching, though if you want to  split the payment up, we can work that out. Just send me an email.

Is there a contract?
There is. It’s straightforward, and it spells out what we’re doing, how many hours we’re doing it for and all the payment particulars. It’s very similar to the contract discussed here.

As a client, how would we communicate?
We’d work in whatever way(s) work for you. Email, phone call, Skype, Google+ Hangout, Google Chat Window, In-person meeting (if you’re in NJ, parts of PA, DE, MD, NY, or CT) are all possibilities, though I’m flexible to others you may suggest.

When would the coaching happen?
We’d set up a date and time. I don’t do reminders, so that responsibility is on you, but we’d set up when a session would happen each time. I don’t schedule sessions on Sundays or holidays.

What if I need to cancel?
Cancel up to 8 hours before your session without a problem. Cancel sooner than that, and I invoice you for half a session. Exceptions apply, but don’t abuse the policy.

I get invoiced?
Yes, after every session, I give you an invoice.

$80 is steep for me. If I do half an hour, can I get a reduced rate?
Email me, and we can talk it out.

Is it possible to do a package of coaching?
It will be in the future (I don’t have that mapped out yet), but again, write me an email and we’ll talk it out.

What if I have questions?
Email or Twitter are the best places to ask them.

This Q&A is now also available on the Coaching page.


There are good coaches out there. There are bad ones. You pick the one who you think can work best with you. The goal isn’t just to feed you the same sort of info you can get with a quick Google search and then collect your money, the goal is to get you writing and get you writing better than you were before coaching started. That’s my goal – I want to see your stuff on shelves, in people’s hands, available for downloads, read in smoke signals and semaphore flags, or whatever you want to do with it. It’s your story, it’s your idea, get the best help you can to tell it.

As an editor, as a giver of workshops on writing and editing and publishing, as someone who pores over writing advice, it’s critical to me that people feel empowered enough to write. One of the most common questions I hear from people starts with, “Is it okay if ….” or “In my story, I have …” as people are just looking for the permission, the validation, to do a thing they think is cool. And yes, it’s cool that you did that. The word police aren’t coming to the door to take your keyboard and fingers away. As an editor and coach, my issue is not that you did it, but that you did it effectively, so it gets the desired result you want. I’m a huge fan of results and production, and I cast many side glances and headshakes towards those resources, people, “experts”, blogs, books, and videos that lose themselves in highbrow artsy discussions of what is or what isn’t writing. So many voices out there get silenced by the fear and doubt that some nebulous shadowy story-illuminate will decry their efforts because it’s not “legit”. Coaching isn’t about getting “legit”. It’s about remembering that you already are “legit”, and that there’s someone in your corner to keep you going.

You feel like you've been knocked around, it's my job to keep you fighting. I believe in you. You're no bum.

You feel like you’ve been knocked around, it’s my job to keep you fighting. I believe in you. You’re no bum.

I take this seriously. We can too easily make mountains of things to discourage ourselves, keep us from trying to do new things, keep us thinking we’re not good enough, or we’re too stupid. We are so quick to heap negatives onto our backs and in our minds that the positives become both mirages and oases in the vast wasteland of trying to get shit done.

It can feel a lot like this when you're trying your best.

It can feel a lot like this when you’re trying your best.

It can be tough admitting that you need help. It be can really intense and jarring to realize that you’ve reached some kind of limit and that you don’t know what to do next or how to do it. If I can tell you anything, it’s that you always have options, there’s always something that can be done, even if it’s unpleasant, scary, or embarrassing.

Writer, creator of things, you’re not alone. This is an opportunity to get your idea even beyond where you thought it could go. Taking control, not letting the doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, naysayers, or lack of knowledge stop you is empowering. It basically makes you as cool as this guy:

Seriously, we all want to be this guy sometimes.

Seriously, we all want to be this guy sometimes. I mean he’s still wearing his pajama …

I’m here to help. I want to see you succeed. I think coaching is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

We’ll talk again Wednesday. Have a great day, write well, rock somebody’s face off.

Posted by johnadamus in announcement, Coaching

How To Hire and Afford An Editor

Good afternoon everyone,

I usually don’t write afternoon blogposts, but this post spawned from quite a few comments, emails, and tweets, and I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this stuff.

We’re going to talk money. We’re going to talk realities about writing. We’re going to talk about seriously making a go of being a writer. Let me start off by saying that I am not a definitive expert, I’m not saying my way is the best way in all the universe, I’m just going to tell you how I work, and arm you with knowledge so you can go forward, no matter where your writing life takes you. If that’s cool with you, keep reading. If not, I’ll see you Monday where we’ll talk about … something that I’ll figure out over the weekend.

In order to have this all make sense in an orderly way, you (the reader) and I have to agree on some stuff. What we’re going to talk about will be a hypothetical situation using real-world numbers, so while I may make up things like the name of a book, or a particular schedule, I’m using my actual rates and actual planning strategy. If this paragraph sounds vague, don’t worry, this will all make sense when we get into it. So let’s agree on some things:

1. You’ve written something that needs editing. Let’s say it’s 20,000 words. The genre or title doesn’t matter right now, we can make it up later.

2. You’ve selected to work with me out of all the editors you could have chosen. This is convenient because I’m the one writing this post. It would be super weird if I started writing about someone else.

3. You’re willing and wanting and interested in moving your MS forward. This isn’t some fact-finding mission where you’re dipping your toes in the water as you dilly-dally out of fear, you’ve committed to making this happen for yourself.

All set with those three things? Then let’s get to it.

How To Hire An Editor, and What An Editor Does

Step One: Email the Editor

This is a pretty straightforward step, but it’s a big one. It’s scary to do. Maybe the person won’t answer. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll be a dick. Maybe they’ll brush you off because you’re new to this (I’m assuming in our example you’re new to this, is that cool?)

What’s the email look like? It’s polite, first off. It mentions your name, it addresses the person by their name (Mr./Mrs./First name/whatever title they like), it describes what you’re interested in doing without sounding like you’re a four-year-old desperately in need of a cookie before dinner. When you talk about your MS, you mention the word count and maybe the title. You thank them for their time, and you leave the door open for them to reach you when it’s convenient for them. There’s no template, but those are the basics.

Then you wait. You wait for the response, and hopefully it’s a positive one that moves things forward. The response usually starts a correspondence, a few emails get tossed back and forth, and during this exchange, that’s where you figure out if you can work with the person. You get a handle on how they treat you, you get to gauge their interest. There’s always going to be some element of uncertainty, there’s always going to be some part of your brain that isn’t wholly sure, but that’s where the next step comes in.

Step Two: Get a Contract, Give Your Manuscript To Them

Here’s the big part. Here’s the nervous part. Once you start to hash out that you want to work with this person, you’ll need to figure out how much it’s going to cost you, and when you want this work done by. Yes, this costs money. No, this isn’t free. Just like calling a repairman or going to a doctor isn’t free, getting your MS professionally worked on isn’t free. This is ideally a definitive step up from the work that a beta reader or a critique group can offer, as you’ll be getting more technical and more intensive advice. We agreed already that you’re serious about doing this, and it’s really a dick move to say you’re serious, get an editor all set up to work with you, then bail on it when the talk turns to money. This is someone’s job here, this is how they pay their bills, feed themselves or their families, and keep themselves going. Just because it has to do with this thing you make in your off-hours, lunch breaks and weekends while the kids are asleep doesn’t reduce it’s importance as a product of your hard work or theirs. They’re taking this seriously, and you should too.

The contract is anywhere from a page to a few pages long (Mine’s 4, if you count the glossary on the back page), and it has some critical elements to it.

a) It has the name of the editor and the name of the writer (this is actually important)

b) It has the name of the project

c) It has the word count of the project

d) It has the amount of money to be spent on this project

e) It has either one due date or a schedule of milestones, where X-amount of progress is made by a certain time (like 5k done every week for 4 weeks)

f) It has the method of payment spelled out (Paypal, actual paper check, money in an envelope to be handed over, whatever) and how that payment will happen (one lump sum, in installments, half up front, half at the end, etc)

g) It has a ‘kill clause’ which is a set of instructions that spells out what to do if this relationship between writer and editor doesn’t work out (this is usually a statement about how much is owed based on the work already completed, or a flat fee to cover time and work done)

h) It has a section on what exactly is being done to the MS (developmental edit, copy edit, changing every character into a poodle, whatever)

i) It has a statement on how the MS will be delivered and when/how comments will be made and given (as a Word *.doc, *.docx, a cunning use of flags, etc).

j) It has the dated signatures of everyone involved

If a contract is missing any of those things, don’t sign it. Ask for them to be put in. You can do that. You can also ask for anything in the contract to be clarified. You’re the client, you can have things explained to you, that’s not unreasonable or stupid, especially when you’re new to this whole process. Ask your questions. If the person balks at you for asking, don’t sign the contract.

If you’re looking at the above breakdown and saying “John, what about rights? Who owns the MS while it’s getting worked on?” I’m going to very patiently offer you a cup of tea and ask you who scared you about rights being lost. I know we can all find horror stories about people stealing work, and it can be scary to deal with legalities when you’re just a person who wrote a thing in Starbucks and while the laundry was on its rinse cycle, but please PLEASE promise me you’re not going into your writer-editor relationship with some notion that everyone is out to get you and steal your work. The vast majority of people don’t do that. If you ever ask me for a recommendation for someone to work with, anyone I send you to will never do that. I don’t do it. It’s bad practice. It’s awful living. If you do have that experience, I’m sorry. It’s not the norm. Don’t hold everyone to the bad example.  To the technical point, the work is yours and remains yours. I just looked at the contract I use, and while there’s a section about how it’s not my fault as an editor if you get a rejection letter, there’s no section that says I assume ownership of your MS while I’m working on it. Note: I’m not a lawyer, I know some though, and this can get discussed later if the need arises.

When you sign, you’re committing. And the editor is committing. If the situation changes, say more work needs to be done, get a new contract. If you need to change dates, get a new contract. If you’re going to change the arrangement in any way, get a new contract. It shouldn’t be a problem to have a new printed. If it is, if for some reason there’s any weird hinky sense that something’s amiss, feel free to exercise that kill clause and extract yourself from the situation.

That kill clause though is a two-way street. Yes, you’re hiring a person to do work for you, but they’re not your slave or story-puppet. You as a client can get fired too. Make too many unrealistic demands, fail to live up to your end of the deal, jump on social media and start trashing the person you’ve just hired to work for you, and you can very easily find yourself holding an unfinished manuscript, an invoice, and a curt letter telling you to suck some eggs. Both you and the editor are in this together, so it does neither of you any good to treat the other poorly.

If you’re cool with all that, sign the contract, send your MS over, and commence more waiting.

Step Three: Getting feedback

I think this is the part where people start drinking. I don’t drink, but I have heard from people that when you’re waiting for and when you receive feedback is when you crack open your preferred adult beverages and start heavy pours into large glasses.

Most feedback, at least when I do it, is in Comments and Track Changes, two functions of Microsoft Word. I like Word. It’s pretty universal, and while it has some flaws and hiccups, it does a better than decent job at highlighting things. Here’s are two examples of things I edited recently:

EDITEDTEXT01

EDITINGPASS01

(no, those examples were not written by the same person, and no they’re not part of the same MS)

So, this is what the editor does. They go through the document, a line at a time, a word at a time, and flag things. They chop sentences that need help. They leave comments as to why things get chopped, or why things need to be changed. Yes, your work is going to get all marked up. No, that’s not the end of the world.

Because you still have the ability to ignore the change(s). These are suggestions. Yes, they’re influenced by the editor’s experience and knowledge. Yes, they’re informed based on the context of the MS, but they’re still optional until you click Accept Change (this is an okay but not great picture of one way to do that, I tried to get a shot of the right-click menu, but couldn’t figure it out)

ACCEPTCHANGE

You retain an enormous amount of power in this relationship because you don’t have to accept every change suggested. Because the editor isn’t always right. You may have a context where you don’t want to change a particular word or phrase, you may have a good reason to use the word you did where you did when you did, and frankly, your ability to stand up for yourself and say “I’m good with what you’re doing except that one thing over there” is critical. Personally speaking, I’d make a face at you if you blindly accepted all my suggestions without at least reading them.

This process of comments and in-line changes is called “a pass”, and usually a number of passes happen while the editor is working on the document. The number varies on a few factors like how much work the MS needs (if you bring something that’s early in development, assume it’ll take more time), the timeline, the word count, and the type of editing that’s happening (there are more factors, this isn’t a comprehensive list). Every editor is different, so mileage varies. I usually do 2 to 3 passes, looking at a different aspect each time. The first pass is almost always big ticket items like plot and description and structure, but later passes zero in on things like characters and word choice and plot pacing.

Passes happen, lines of communication stay open between editor and writer (no, neither of you get to fall off the face of the earth, sorry), until everyone involved is satisfied with the MS. Then it goes back to the writer who does with it as they planned to do. I cannot stress enough how important it is that everyone involved with an MS answer their damned email in a timely fashion. People who are unreachable are seldom worked with a second time, and since lots of editors and writers fraternize often, it’s tough to shake a label of “slow to respond” once it gets stuck on you. Answer your emails. Promptly. Fully. Honestly.

That’s the process. The whole process. Unmasked.

How To Afford An Editor

So, we’re going to say that our example MS is a 20,000 word part of a serial about a farmpunk syndicate of chicken and dairy farmers. Sure, that sounds pretty badass, let’s go with that.

You email the editor, and the math shakes out to this:

20,000 words X .03 cents per word = $600

Now you have your contract, and it says (I’m making it up here) you’ll pay $100 a week for 6 weeks. (Me personally? I usually do half up front, half at the end). How you get that $100, that’s up to you. Yes, it might mean you go a week without a rug shampoo’ed, or little Billy only gets to buy thirty things from Amazon not forty – sorry Billy.

I know $100 a week for 6 weeks is a lot of money. It’s money that comes maybe out of the fund that pays for mortgages or tuition or medical bills or rainy day savings. I know that it’s money earned through hard work, and you may have a lot of things in this world that take enough money from you already. I get it.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is what you want to do, and it’s the editor’s job to help make that happen. Because on the other side of the coin, it’s their job too, and this is how their mortgages, medical bills and whatever else get paid.

As a writer, you’re more than just the storyteller who types or writes. If you’re going an indie route of publishing, you’re also the publisher and marketer. Having your work edited is part of those publishing and production costs. It’s easier to market and encourage sales when what people are buying is less fraught with errors and is presented effectively. Editing helps turn your story into a book (margins also do, but that’s a different topic), and you want this to be a book, which is why you sought out the editor and signed that contract.

When you were working out the math on cost and payment, figure out a strategy that works for both of you. Yes, sure, you could pay a dollar a week for 600 weeks (that’s eleven and a half years, give or take), but while that’s super fair to you, how is that fair to the editor? And what does that say about how much you care about getting this work done?

Be willing to cut out that sixth latte a week. Question if you need to buy that third box of Cheez-Its, or that artisanal tissue dispenser. When you were serious about writing the MS, you made time in your schedule for it. Now that you’re serious about getting out into people’s hands, make room in your budget. It’s a sacrifice, but look at the rewards. Is the satisfaction of having a finished MS turned into a book that people can buy and say nice things about worth the spending of our example $600? That’s the choice you need to make.

Over time, I’ve stopped challenging everyone who balks at the cost of an editor. Some people just aren’t going to come around, because they’ll point to a college degree or a day job or kids or cats or a stamp collection as reasons they can’t afford an editor. Other people will just point blindly at any old reason, because some part of moving forward scares the snot out of them, and it’s easier to be upset at how expensive something is than it is to admit they might be scared about what happens next, and there’s a comfort in playing the familiar roles of “not good enough” or “victim” or “it’ll never work out for me”. I think it’s all a bucket of horsefeathers and applesauce, but people gonna people.

It’s my hope that this information helps you, it’s my hope that the 2700-something words here has de-mystified some elements of what happens post words-going-on-page. I don’t think publishing should be a scary hidden process behind curtains and in ivory towers. I think knowledge is for anyone interested and anyone who pretends like this is destroying “how things should be”  isn’t someone I want to have a root beer with. You there, reading this, you’re good enough to keep writing and keep getting closer to your dream. Whatever the hell it is. I want to see you succeed, and if I can help you get there, awesome. If I can’t, then it’s still awesome, because I bet there’s someone out there who can help.

If you have questions or comments, speak up. If you want to chat in 140-character bites at a time, find me on Twitter. For longer stuff, email me.

I’ll be back on Monday and we’ll talk … something. I don’t know yet. I’m open to suggestions.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in realtalk, talking business, writer times

Realism, Created Realism, and Creative Liberty

While you’re reading this, I’m a doctor’s appointment. But since almost anything is going to be better to hear about than my thrilling adventures paying $11 an hour for parking and shuffling from exam room to exam room, let’s talk writing. And we’ll start by talking about my dad.

I seldom paint my father in flattering lights, because at times our ‘relationship’ (loosest possible air-quotes there) ranges somewhere from cruel to cold to hostile to indifferent. I think this story falls in the indifferent region.

My dad has an obsession with realism. He wants to know things that really happened, he will comment loudly and often as to how realistic something is or was, and generally be dismissive of anything that isn’t grounded in hard verifiable fact. I think this ties into his obsession with honesty, since the minute anyone says anything different than what has been said previously (even as a correction) he will label them a dishonorable liar, and state that nothing they say can be believed. This proclamation lasts anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours and dogs them long after, and is not limited to people. Movies and books are also held to this scrutiny.

He’s called out a movie like the Hobbit for both obvious reasons (there aren’t wizards in the world, and that guy isn’t a dwarf, he’s an actor he saw in another movie) and the not-so-obvious (a dragon would have just burnt the entire town, not saved one wooden tower from where someone could fight back). He’s sighed and grumped his way through comedies like the Naked Gun because a pratfall would lead to actual injury. Even media he likes (James Bond, Civil War movies and books) aren’t immune from this, because he’ll make a point of telling you that while it has things he likes, “you can’t really believe the author, because they weren’t there and they might be lying just to make money, because that’s what people do, make things up for money.”

This happens so frequently that I now avoid any opportunity to watch television with him, outside of football. But, I tell you this story because there’s an important creative point buried in among all my father’s obsessions – realism is subjective, malleable and under the author’s control.

We accept a certain amount of realism if we’re not outright told about it. A thriller about a Washington insider uncovering a conspiracy is assumed to have Earth-based gravity and physics, for instance. The high fantasy war between clans of elves is going to involve some weapons or terms you can see actual pictures of like castles, longbows, or catapults. This realism is the foundation for whatever we do change when we write, and we count on the reader passively agreeing to a base amount of uncommunicated information before we get too far, even on Page 1.

And we use that realism because to detail all the things that are the same as the reader’s experience would eat up pages and likely be lethal boring. Even in a simple expositive paragraph or point of narration like “And many things were exactly as they were on an average Earth day.” (Go on, read that in Stephen Fry’s voice, I dare you.) is kind of dull sentence that can clog up whatever momentum you’re building. Yes, narration confirms tone, but every sentence confirms tone, even when it isn’t explicit.

In light of the assumed commonalities the made up stuff has with our real life stuff, we’re free then to talk about what’s different. It’s the differences that make the story not only stand out when compared to other stories on the shelf, but also distinguish the writer’s efforts and craftwork.

The fiddly bit here is that while the differences are made up by the author, they’re real within the context of the book. There’s a fancy I-went-to-school term for this (one I actually like) called created realism.If you’re writing a space opera and you decide that the currency of your space realm is a cube of some precious metal, and you name them blortblatts, then blortblatts are a thing in your story, as real as the trignominium that powers your FTL drives and the quantodecaoscillators that fire your space soldier’s graser shotgun.

Maybe this is something you’ve always understood, but didn’t know there was a name for it. Maybe you didn’t realize how critical this is for all storytelling, from children’s books (it’s how the animals talk) to bestsellers (a secret government program of assassins exists, and one has amnesia). This concept is limited only by our decision making-process (remember Rule 1 – writing is the act of making decisions).

This is a good spot to point out that judging a story (book/film/tv show/whatever) on how realistic is can make for a disappointing experience. What my dad does, discarding or disregarding media because it’s not so deeply and almost inflexibly rooted in real life stuff, means he doesn’t let himself enjoy things as much as he could. From a production standpoint, taking this idea on means you can paralyze yourself in trying to make the fake stuff you made up while writing notes in that coffee shop last week sound as real as the stuff you saw at Costco yesterday. You can grind yourself to a halt trying way too hard to do a thing you don’t actually need to do.

Lack of realism isn’t always a bad thing. Just like anything else, if you take it too far, then yes, it can render anything you make hard to follow, but used effectively, you can make made up stuff sound just like a real thing. Here are some examples:

A brand of gun or car someone uses; a corporation; the CEO of that corporation; a brand of cereal; currency; slang used by characters; names of battles or maneuvers; landmarks within a region; species of animal or plants; type of drinks; fast food offerings; television networks; people; places; things

See what I’m getting at? It’s through created realism that we draw creative liberty. If poetic license is where you take an existing thing tweak it just a little so that it suits your need, then creative liberty is where something is made up entirely, even if it has real world models or references.

And it’s okay to do that. It’s completely fine. It doesn’t make you a bad person, a bad author, or a bad creator. Yes, my dad might never read your stuff, but my dad doesn’t read a lot of stuff, and he certainly couldn’t be bothered to write a review either way (because, surprise, you can’t trust anything on the internet … though the man does trust television news … hmm)

Take liberties. Make stuff up. Design and create what you want to, and do it the best ways you know how. You’re the boss of your writing, so you can do whatever you need to do to get the story from Point A to Point B, or point Q in your head to point Z finally on paper.

Keep writing. Keep going.

Personal Note: Hopefully today’s trip to the doctor has more good news than bad. Cross appendages. We’ll talk soon. Follow me on Twitter for loads more writing info, especially next week while I’m traveling.

Posted by johnadamus in read this while I'm at a doctor's appointment, the craft of writing

Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, exercises