Of Curses And The Nature Of Creating

So, it’s 2017. We’re about to face another monster of a year. Who knows what could happen. Meteor strikes. Twitter hashtags. Various grocery stores running out of ginger ale. It sounds like anarchy ahead. All the more reason to be creative and declare ourselves creators … but we’ll get there,

I used to think I was cursed. Not by some old lady on the outskirts of my town (why do old ladies always live on the edges of towns? Do they get better cell phone reception?), because I have always done my best to be nice to old ladies (in case they turn out to be the cursing type).

Instead, I assumed it was a vengeful former relationship breaking out the altar and making with the incantations. That’s probably incredibly presumptive and short-sighted of me, but when I look back at my life I measure it by the relationships I was in, and the work I was doing.

And for a long time, I wasn’t doing a lot of work. I worked, I did stuff, but I had this habit of looking over at what my friends were doing. They were doing big things, with big names, big money, and big ambitions. It made me feel about four inches tall. It made me feel inferior. I still struggle with a lot of those feelings, on the days when my body doesn’t want to cooperate and I’m asleep on a couch by 2pm because I just can’t keep myself upright.

I had to be cursed, or so I thought, because I was working, admittedly not very regularly or hard, but I wasn’t getting the same rewards as people who were working concurrent to me. Where was my success, I’d ask myself. Why am I not good enough to have enough money to buy things and be famous and be a big deal? What am I not doing that they’re doing?

And the answer was the work. (Hint: The answer is almost always doing to the work.) I wasn’t doing the work.

See, I thought I was cursed because that’s easier than admitting I wasn’t working efficiently, honestly, or productively. It’s easier to blame something outside ourselves than look at what we’re doing and assess our efforts as falling short. No one wants to stew in that marinade of self-defeating applesauce, so we just … don’t look at it. Like the dust bunnies under the bed.

When I say “working efficiently” I mean working in the best manner possible, playing to my strengths and my best understanding of HOW I work. That means writing in the mornings, and meetings with people in the afternoons, because it’s just enough social interaction to take the edge off my fight against loneliness, while also leaving me freed up to put words on pages and things.

When I say “working honestly” I mean working in a way that is accurate to what and how I’m feeling. Even before my heart started to want to kill me, even before I was aware of what I ultimately doing, I spent far too long trying to be like those friends of mine who I imagined swam in McDuck-ian money vaults because they were asked to write book after book, script after script, game after game. I was trying to be them to get their success, and then when it didn’t arrive for me, I spent a lot of time complaining and perpetuating that wish-cycle while looking longingly out the window at the invisible strands of success that wafted by my door like a cartoon dog tracking scents. I wasn’t being honest with myself. Those other people, whomever they might be, they’re not me. They have their own lives, their own issues, their own stories. Me trying to be like them isn’t going to make me have their successes. I have to be me, we all have to be ourselves, and we all have to live out our own stories, using and infusing them into our creativity. We must be honest with ourselves, not so that we can perpetuate some idea that we all suck, but rather that we have a package of skills and talents and feelings worth sharing, unlike everyone else’s.

When I say “working productively” I mean actually working, putting in that time and energy to make stuff. I spend and spent a lot of time hastily writing little piddly bits of text, a few lines at most, then I would say ‘I’ve written today, that’s enough’, just so I could go move on to something else. I’d flit and float through things working in these little chunks where I never really got up to a working speed and never really broke and efforting sweat. And that, dear friends, is some bullshit on a croissant. Think of this – you want to go to the gym to get into better shape. So you get some workout clothes, you find a gym you like, and you walk in. You even get on the treadmill and take a whopping three or four steps on it, before leaving for the day. That’s not working out. That’s not putting in enough effort and energy to help you reach your goal, which is what you have to do if you want that goal as badly as you say you do. For me, that means not just doing the work I have in front of me, but also going out and looking for more work opportunities. It’s not just about a few steps on the treadmill, I gotta get a-runnin’.

If there’s a curse in all this, it’s self-inflicted, and that’s the hardest part to stomach. I brought my lack of success on myself, and I perpetuate it every time I don’t put the time into the work. Success isn’t going to get dropshipped to my door just because I’m in the phone book (are phone books still a thing?), success is the result of effort done mindfully and skillfully, with a subset of that success often being financial gains.

Creativity is more than just a thing you occasionally bump into or catch a snapshot of. We tell ourselves that so we can perpetuate the idea that it’s hard to be creative, or that we’re supposed to struggle, or that we’re not good enough to succeed, etc etc. Creativity is always there, always a surging river, and we’re always able to ride it.

If I can ask you one thing, it’s this: I don’t want you to keep holding yourself back. You don’t have to struggle in order to be a “legit” artist or creative. The “starving” doesn’t make your work better. The idea that you’re not good enough to succeed at making a thing because of who or what or how you are is bullshit.

You’re you, and that’s fucking great.

So let’s be us. You be you, I’ll be me. And let’s make stuff. Let’s not anchor ourselves to the fearful ideas that we have to be this-cool-to-do-the-thing, and let’s put aside the curses and “supposed to”s that we’ve dragged along on this ride so far.

Let’s go make stuff. Make it when it’s tough, make it when it’s scary, make it when you’re scared. Make it when the world seems like it’s 140 characters away from global hellscape. Make it because you have the ability to express yourself. Make it because you deserve to have your voice, your idea, your passion, your created thing, out into the world.

Because you’re you, and that’s fucking great.

 

It’s not just Happy Writing anymore, it’s Happy Creating.  I’ll see you soon. Don’t give up.

The Intersection of Knowledge and Skill

The bag of onions was only $1.99. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because there are like 19 onions in it, each about the size of a tennis ball. But it’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there’s a three pound chuck roast needing onions and au jus, so I go to the store.

It’s empty, the sort of empty that should only exist in movies and video games where there’s going to be something terrible happening once I get just a bit more inside the building. Maybe evil cannibals, maybe zombies, maybe ravenous nomadic clowns. But there’s nothing bad that happens. I come away from the store with a single bag of goods – the onions fumbling around the bottom of the bag.

It’s 9:38 when I started writing this post. With luck, it’ll go up later today, before I go to bed. I really don’t want to delay it to Tuesday, I’m worried that the freshness of the ideas will have faded, and it’ll be some stale sludge of ideas, like old coffee you’ve forgotten to purge from the machine.

On mornings like this, I am aware of just how much of life can be described as a series of intersections. There’s an irony here apparent to anyone who’s ever been in a car with me — I get lost incredibly easily, even on streets I drive regularly — so for me to talk about the meeting of two asphalt ribbons it’s amusing.

Intersections like the lives of two people meeting. Or a job in a field you’ve got a degree in. Or the moment where you realize you actually put together a piece of furniture and didn’t have any pieces left over. Two concepts, two items, two people, crossing paths. There’s a reason why we consider crossroads to be an important part of life, because at crossroads (intersections) we become aware of a choice to make – do I do this, and possibly change course, or do I skip the change, skip the potential good or bad that might happen, and keep doing as before? (Let’s skip the quantum discussion that interacting with the potential opportunity for change is in itself a change that will have effects on action, it’s a rabbit hole for another time.)

The intersection we’re going to cover today is where Knowledge meets Skill. Today, we’re going to get self-assessy, and we’re going to use me as the example, but I want you to do this for yourself on yourself. As a creative, being able to figure out what you’re doing, where you going, and whether you’re getting there or not (and I don’t mean in that plagued-by-self-doubt-so-assume-you’re-not-and-won’t-ever way)

We need to start with definitions. Can we agree that Knowledge is the sum total of information about a subject through study and observation? We know how to pour a drink into a glass, we know the capital city of where we live, we know that no one likes getting bad news in a text message.

Knowledge is a consequence of being alive. We learn as babies that our actions cause reactions (cry and get fed), and we continue add to our knowledge pools until we cease living (eight packs of cigarettes a day and a bad case of syphilis will do you in). Despite many people’s efforts and protests, there’s no way to skip gaining knowledge. I make a distinction here between knowledge and “learning”, because learning is the method by which we gain knowledge, and “learning” becomes synonymous with “school.” For some people (myself included) the structured education of K-12 and university was not the best way for me to increase what I knew, but since I was still alive, I was still gaining information. I worked jobs, I wrote, I was an unpaid intern, I put myself in situations (smart and otherwise) where I’d come out with more knowledge than when I went in.

So that’s one half of our intersection. We have knowledge. If we were to make a list of what we’re knowledgeable about, it would be pretty sizable, once we got past the worry that other people may judge us for how we perceive ourselves or what goes on our list. Here’s my list:

Knowledge I Have

————-

Writing

Speaking

Cooking

Motivate people

Internet piracy

Video games

RPGs

Publishing

Marketing

Film noir

Rex Stout

Movie critique

Screenplays

Tv writing

Detective stories

Sobriety and addiction

Writing critique

Editing

Social Media

Cartoons

Pop culture

That’s a whole lot of stuff, in no particular order, and in no way is that list complete. But I stand by what I’ve written there. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to really wrestle with some of the ideas there – were they worth mentioning? are people going to think I’m a jerk for saying I know that stuff?

The hard part was getting to a place where I was okay writing it down (which is why I’m writing this part of the past at 12:10pm having started almost 3 hours ago). It took work, I had to talk it over with people. I had to pace around the kitchen and talk myself into and out of writing it. But I got to a point where I was okay going forward, so there it is.

Make your own list. It does not have to be complete, it does not have to be ranked or prioritized. Just list stuff. There are no wrong answers.

Skill is the other half here. We can define skill as knowledge used properly. That “properly” isn’t a subjective opinion, it’s more about relevant purpose. You wouldn’t use your knowledge of cooking when you’re raking leaves. There’s a time and a place to apply a particular knowledge to a particular situation. It’s that kind of properly.

Unapplied knowledge isn’t wasted, there is no wasted knowledge. No one other than you can compel or encourage you to do something with the stuff you know. Not your spouse, your friend, your boss, not some guy on the Internet. It’s my hope that everyone will find a way to apply what they know in a tactical and practical way to make themselves better happier productive creatives. What that application looks like, ideally, is completely individual. No two people are going to demonstrate skill the same, even with knowledge and skill (somehow) being 100% equal. And that’s the important part here – how you show off your skill(s) doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s. Yes, multiple can do the same thing (write books, make food, etc) but their individual compositions aren’t the same. That’s to be celebrated and encouraged. More authors. More creatives. More ideas. Different ideas. Ideas that conflict with each other. Ideas that provoke. Ideas that prompt actions. Bring all the distinct people to this party, bring all the skills and their demonstrations to bear. We’re all made better when we can contribute to our best abilities.

Listing the skills I feel most passionate about, I get this:

Skills

——–

Writing

Editing

Public speaking

Developing and encouraging writers

Writing critique

Watching TV

Using Social Media

 

What does your list look like? Yes, the list of knowledges should be longer than the list of skills, because you’re always going to know way more than you can act on.

Making these two paths intersect is where we find creativity at its most fertile. It’s where what you know meets what you can do about what you know. And it’s at that intersection you’ll find things like this blog, or a person’s YouTube channel, or a series of one-person plays about inventing random items or whatever a person is fired up enough about to share with other people.

Now, yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying, “But John, I’m not really excited about anything I’m knowledgeable about.” And to that I say, what’s something that you’d love to know more about it, and can you dedicate some part of your time to learning about that thing? Maybe you’re secretly into Taylor Swift songs, so you spend some time watching the videos and singing along. Maybe you’re fascinated by soap making, so you start talking to soap people. And even if that immersion doesn’t inspire you to at least try and apply the knowledge, I’m going to ask you one more question – what are you afraid of? If your attempt fails, then you’re right back to this spot, the same spot you’re in before you started. Fine, you want to grouse about time and money, okay, but if you’re letting money be the arbiter of whether or not you pursue a thing I’ll point out that email newsletters and YouTube videos are free. I can’t stop you from making excuses. I can’t stop you from finding ways not to do anything. Speaking personally, I’m great at finding ways to avoid doing stuff. But since I didn’t want that to be a thing I share with other people, it didn’t go on the above lists.

There’s such ability to discover and grow at this intersection, and you have to do it when you’re there. Trying to capitalize on Knowledge A by using Skill Q is like trying to learn how to swim while sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet. You need to be in the place, you need to be in that intersection, in order to make use of it.

Here’s the genius of this intersection – even if you don’t have that much skill, if you stick around and keep gaining knowledge and then applying that knowledge, you’ll get more skill. And if you think you have a good amount of skill but want more knowledge, stick around and you’ll gain more knowledge. That’s the point of the intersection – you’ll get plenty of access to both things.

So make your lists. Make yourself a little roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. Get encouraged, and get active. Don’t let the doubt and the possible responses be the gatekeepers on what you want to do, it’s not up to other people to determine how you feel satisfied.

I’ll see you later this week when we’ll expand on this idea.

 

Happy writing.

Writers and Envy

We start this week with a post that I’ve been toying with for a while – you’ll find I do that, my Drafts folder has 30+ posts in some state of ideas or partiality – today we’re going to talk about jealousy, and not as a story concept.

Let’s start today with a trip to any convention, awards show, or bookstore. Doesn’t matter which one. Here’s the scene:

So we’re standing (or sitting) there, and we’re watching other people’s success. Maybe they’re going up on a stage to get an award. Maybe they’ve got a whole room full of people lined up at a signing, maybe the bookstore can’t keep their books on the shelf. We’re right there, watching this, and no matter if we’re clapping or not, no matter if we’re in the line or not, no matter if we’re holding a book to buy it or not, we feel this yank somewhere down around the stomach, and it coils its way back through the spinal cord and its malevolent fingers snarl and hiss their way into our brains, and we start getting this feeling, maybe yours comes with a voice (mine sounds a little like Stewie Griffin if he hissed on his s’s)

That other author, that other creative, it hisses, you could be doing that. That could be you, hell that should be you. Why aren’t you the one doing the winning? Don’t people like your work. I guess not. I wonder who does like your work. Probably no one. I mean, the good work is what gets rewarded, and it looks like you don’t have any rewards right now.

That voice is a real bastard.

You know what? Let’s go one more. We’re in your house, and we’re in your favorite reading spot. You just picked a book that a friend recommended. Doesn’t matter who wrote it or what genre it is. You sit down to read it. Everything’s great until you hit that one sentence. That one damned sentence that expresses an idea so beautifully it hurts. The sentence might be long or short (it doesn’t matter), it’s just exactly what needs to be on that page, and back comes that voice.

You’re never going to write anything as good as that. Don’t you wish you could? Don’t you wish your author-voice looked like that? You know what? Let’s get the Pussycat Dolls stuck in a loop in your head too. You deserve that too.

Total. Dick. Move.

I don’t have a fancy term for it, but it’s envy. We get envious of what other people can do, what they win, what they have, and then as a bounce-back from that jealousy, we start measuring ourselves against it and always find a new way to make ourselves woefully inadequate. Some of us could even go professional in our lack-of-measuring-up-ness. If we could make a living doing it, we’d own mansions and yachts.

Envy is when we look at what other people are doing or what they have and believing that we should have it instead or the other person shouldn’t have it at all. It’s a feeling that in a comparison between us and them, because our brains love to separate along us/them divides, we’re getting the short end of not just one stick, but a whole forest full of sticks.

There’s a few things at work here, so let’s unpack them.

A) It suggests that you think you’re work, incomplete or not, is shit when compared to other people’s work. Fun fact: You can’t measure your unfinished work against someone else’s finished work. They’re not comparable on the same terms. Of course the house still being built isn’t as nice as the fully furnished one. Of course the pencil sketch you just started a second ago where you drew one line isn’t the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Even if it is done, here’s another way to look at it – can you compare a garter snake to a king cobra? They’re both snakes, they’re both found on the planet, they’re both things you can google or run away from, so why can’t I get really specific about weighing them against one another? Because one’s going to kill you and the other is a nuisance in a cornfield.

Authors: your crime thriller and that lady’s epic fantasy novel are both books the same way the garter and the cobra are both snakes.  But aside from being printed on paper, and having ink on that paper, and a few other bits that we use to define them as “books”, the similarities stop. I’ll even give you a pass on them being in the same language and using the same font size. They’re still very different things. A different thing is not automatically a bad thing. Just like how you’re different from me, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong or bad. Unless you’re a clown, because then I doubt you’re human at all.

What we do is different from each other, and that’s one of the best parts of being a creative. We can all take the same writing prompt and tell completely different stories. No one’s wrong that way, just different.

B) It suggests that there’s a reason someone shouldn’t be having the experience (that you’re aware of) them having. This two parts to this one – first let’s all take a moment to recognize that you’re not the one who dispenses permission slips for people to do what they do. There isn’t a person who does that. That’s not a thing. Our individual attempts to control are often efforts to manage a sense of powerlessness. (Johnfession: I had that yelled at me once during a breakup fight, and I’ve kept it rattling in my head since)

You’re not in charge of other people’s experience, so you don’t get to determine if they’re allowed to have it. Now I know there’s a great deal of social controversy in that statement, and I don’t care. Everyone, yes even the people you don’t like, gets to have their experience, because you know, they’re like alive and stuff. Likewise, they’re allowed to create whatever they like, even if you don’t like it.

Second, you’re not them, so you don’t know the whole picture of their experience. You see the end result that got them to that convention or awards stage or bookstore, but you don’t know if the effort to get them there cost them a marriage or they had to do it while dealing with kids and a mortgage or a dying parakeet or a drug problem or coming to terms with the fact they like Ke$ha and Taylor Swift music.

Only they know how hard they worked, because they did the work. Everything and everyone else with a thing to say (positive or negative) is reacting to their own opinion of that work. Opinions aren’t the arbiters of experience, facts are. We don’t have all the facts about how someone worked, so our concept of it is limited. And with a limited picture, we can’t accurately say that they do or don’t deserve the results they’re having.

C) What they’re doing is no indication of whether or not you can do it too. How we create is unique to us. We might all be making books, or phat beats, but how we go about it, even with the same tools in hand, is specific to us. Just because we can all write a sentence using the word “callipygian” doesn’t make my sentence or your sentence better than everyone else’s. We might like certain sentences better for a variety of reasons specific to us, but we’re still talking opinions. About things external to us.

Could you have strung together the same words and done the same as some other author? Not necessarily. Remember that when we’re looking at that convention or stage or store shelf, we’re seeing factors beyond the words – there’s the audience, the marketing, the cover. That success they’re having that you wish you were having is a confluence of a lot of factors. You have your own factors, and that’s where I suggest we take this post so we can wrap it up.

It’s so tempting to look at how well someone is doing and knock ourselves down a few pegs because of it.But we’re not capable of having their experience, at best, we can have a version of that, provided we do the work to get us there.

Want an audience like that other creative? Go build an audience.
Want a book cover like that? Find an artist, make it happen.
Want to do a signing? Finish the damned book and arrange one.

Yes, of course it always come back to the work. As in doing the work. Not using other people to chart and justify and reference your position. Positions are too motile and fleeting. The minute you put down another word, make another blogpost, meet another person, you’re in a different place than you were. They’re ever changing. Learn to roll with that, and take advantage of it – today’s hard day is often the catalyst for tomorrow being a better one.

And of course, I believe in your ability to do the work, no matter how well someone else is doing.

 

See you later this week. Happy writing.

Social Media for the New & Anxious, Part 3

Good morning. Here we are on Friday, the day that for some will end with margaritas, pantslessness, and a few “Woo”s. If you’re among that number, I wish you and your liver all the very best. If you’re not going to Señorita Yolanda’s for their 9 shots for $2 happiest of happy hours, I’ve got some potato skins we can share.

Before we rim our glasses with salt and get ready to shout over Tex-Mex techno (this imaginary bar is of course infamous for Selena remixes), let’s continue our series on social media. I mean, we’re here, we might as well talk about something while we sit in offices and wait for the end of the day.

We’ve talked so far about being new, we’ve talked about what goes into a message, so let’s look at another thing that happens with social media – mistakes.

We all make them. And when we do, we’re all sure that death by immediate asteroid impact to the face would be preferable.

See, I don’t mean the mistakes where you accidentally send an email to Tom A when you meant Tom B, and they’re just too close together in your Gmail. And I don’t even mean the time you spelled a person’s name wrong, because those are trivial mistakes in the grand scheme of things, and they’re easy accidents. Any apology would be quick and simple.

No, I’m talking about the times you really step in it. Like when you write that email in anger and in that automatic way you click ‘send’ rather than delete. Or when you suggest that the someone enjoys sexual relations with their mother. Or when you pointedly tell someone to savor the flavor of your genitals to the point of orgasm in their mouth. You know, good proper gut-wrenching mistakes that can dog you.

Did you know I used to use Twitter as a fancy text messaging service?

Did you know that I once told a room full of actors they could all go have violent sex with themselves using broken objects because I didn’t like what they were doing to the genius I had spewed onto the page?

Did you know I once sent all the angry emails I used to store in my Drafts folder to all their respective addressees?

I bring these things up because I own doing them. Even if I don’t remember writing the tweets, and only have a hazy recollection of telling actors what to do (interesting – one of them went on to do several years on a hit TV show), I did these things. There’s no doubt. I wasn’t hacked by Russians or Republicans. I didn’t leave my computer on so my wacky roommate could take over. I straight up did really stupid shit that affected me personally and professionally for months and years after.

I say this because you’re going to make mistakes. Own them. You don’t have to flail and objurgate afterward, you don’t need to withdraw for a 60-day isolation period. No, you’ve got to one harder – admit you were wrong and sincerely make an effort not to do it again.

And no, it’s not easy. Responsibility is not always easy. But it’s the better path to take if you want to move forward and onward in a better way towards your goals and towards repairing relationships. Hashtag realtalk. Hashtag adultmoment. Hashtag burritoface.

See, here’s the thing about mistakes. Saying, “Yes I did this, and I’m sorry I did” (or the like) is actually a good thing. Yeah, there are consequences, and even after you handle them, some people might not be so willing to change their minds about you, but then again, you’re not in charge of how they think and you can’t control how they think. So, politely, tell that bit of anxiety it too can go have sex with itself on this Friday morning.

One of the problems with mistakes I’ve seen people make and am guilty of myself is that we sometimes inflate them to Macy’s Thanksgiving proportions. We enlarge and engorge what we did wrong, the assumptions we make about how the fallout will be, and what the appropriate punishment and restitution might be. It’s really hard to put a mistake into  perspective, because there’s an emotional component (“I can’t believe I did that!”) we need to first contend with – yeah, you did do that – before you can work the problem into a solution.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are going to be people out there who will spend a great deal of time, energy, and emotion giving you a lecture about what you did wrong, so that you understand the depth of your wrongness presumably so that you feel informed/guilty as to never do that sort of thing again. Rather than take a tolerant position that if you know it’s wrong you won’t do it again because you’re a human capable of understanding error, they break out a soapbox or pulpit to tell you what’s wrong while implying their fecal matter is without odor, or that they’re a better brand of person who could never make the same mistake as lowly you. This, to me, is applesauce and horsefeathers. We all make mistakes. The lectures can be spared and people can trust each other to do what’s right.

There’s a side note here that sometimes those corrective lectures come from an opinion, and we might not all agree with all opinions, but there’s a difference between recognizing that two people have differing views, and one person telling the other person that they’re subjectively wrong because reasons great and small. There’s nothing wrong with correcting an error, provided there are grounds and substantiated ideas to prove it was an error. (Again, we’re talking bigger problems not typos.)

Lastly, and often accompanying the lecture is someone saying publicly that they’re unsubsctibing, blocking, unfollowing or otherwise not engaging with a person who’s made a mistake. The publicity of their statement is often the telling element – why do they have to make a show of their action? What’s to be gained other than adding potential fear and shame to the mix? You, as the creative on social media who made the mistake in the first place, cannot control what other people do. You cannot and should not sweat the loss of one person because for all you know, people come and go without saying a word. Social media is a river with a current, and sometimes people float away. You’re not responsible for their actions or decisions, and you’re under zero obligations to keep them around. They want to go, let them go. Others will come. (Also, if these people are leaving over a mistake that other people have forgiven, and the majority of people have moved on, are you really concerned?)

This post ran a little long, so let me break out a TL;DR – you’re going to make mistakes. Own up when you do. Make the apologies and amends where possible, and move forward making every effort to be better. You can do this. I believe in you.

See you guys next week. Happy writing.

Social Media for the Anxious & New, part 2

Welcome back to Monday. I keep trying to develop portal technology so that we live in a reality where it’s only ever Thursday and then there’s always a 3-day weekend, but all my efforts get thwarted somewhere around the moment I realize I only know about advanced math from Futurama and Rick and Morty.

Let’s get back to work then, okay?

The series on social media use continues today. On Friday, we talked about how mistakes are gonna happen, and how I really believe you can do this, and today we’re going to get detailed about what exactly goes into a tweet, a blog post, and a status update.

Before we get into this, I want to point out that if you’re thinking someone else (from a publisher let’s say) is going to handle all this for you so that you don’t have to, even if you pursue the most traditional route of publishing possible, you’re going to be in for a huge shock – the publisher’s marketing department does not solely exist to relieve you of the burden of being an author, and yes, in (insert current year here), part of being an author is being able to interact with an audience in an actionable way. Let me further burst that bubble by saying that writing is a part of what an author does, and reaching out and informing/building an audience is another part of the author-effort.

Sure, yes, you can farm this out via some services where you pay a person half a world away to tweet for you or update your blog for you (a lot of “work few hours make bank” systems operate this way), but when you farm off part of what can help you connect with an audience, how is that going to help your audience see you as more than a book dispensary?

Audiences want and have come to expect more than just the author-machine who cranks out somewhat formulaic books and slaps a name on it without breaking new and interesting mental ground, treading forever on their name and established reputation rather than doing what got them their name and reputation, the writing interesting stuff part of author-effort.

I think by breaking down good composition of social media elements, it can demystify them, and it can make it easier to do and more relevant to an author, even one who is still working on book one or someone who’s stuck a few books in when their publisher folded up their tent.

This doesn’t have to be scary. This doesn’t have to be burdensome. Also, assume in every one of these cases that communication is a two-way street. You do your part by bringing information and personality, the audience can do their part by responding. You can encourage that response, but you can’t force it. And when you’re just starting out, yes I know, it’ll feel like you’re talking to nobody, but keep at it. Like a corn field and Ray Liotta, people will show up.

We’ll go one step at a time through this:

A Tweet

I’m a huge fan of Twitter for getting out morsels of information at a good pace. I think it’s great warm-up for writing the longer things I do throughout the day, and I like the gratification of seeing people respond in near-realtime.

Because a tweet is capped at 140 characters, concision becomes the chief constructive element – and that 140 count includes spaces and punctuation and links to things, so first and foremost any tweet that builds around a link (whether that’s to a blog post or an Amazon page or whatever) has to more substantial than just the naked link dangling out there.

Before the link, include some words so that your audience knows this isn’t spam from a Nigerian who’s happy to part with gold he can’t show you in exchange for all the banking information you can manage. The act of being personable in a concise way, ahead of the link, renders the overall effect of the tweet to not be blatant in its salesmanship. Look, selling and linking are part of getting eyes on product, we all know it, but we don’t need to do it in some cold and dry way.

Putting your personality into even a few words, and making sure that you don’t repeat that every few hours once you figure out what that string of words is, will go a long way to conveying to the audience that yes, in fact, you are a real person, really trying to do a real task while appearing really vulnerable.

What words, you might ask? The ones that sound like you. The ones that you say, the ones you think. And while there do exist plenty of books of words about selling things, and some of them are even worth reading, any word that sounds like you and is an honest expression of who and what you’re doing is going to beat out any magic sales-word. In fact, it’s the melding of the sales stuff and your own stuff that’s going to help you establish your non-authorial author voice, which is the voice you’ll use when you’re talking about what you’ve done or what you’re doing.

And here we get to the part of the text where I tell you to tweet often. And not just the sales opportunities, I mean the life stuff too. About your dog, about your dinner, about your feelings on dystopic pudding. The caution here is that while dispensing what I imagine  are your numerous opinions and 140-character rants, be mindful of who’s seeing that stuff. Just because you only have 4 followers, don’t think that the word can’t travel to those people you’re cattily talking about. This is not a schoolyard, you do not need to assert dominance with virtual urine so that someone will take you seriously.

A Status Update

In other forms of social media, you’ve got much more space to operate in, and depending on your relationship with that medium, you can easily use it to blog. I’m not a huge fan of the practice, because I have this blog, but things like Facebook and Googe+ are other tools in the toolbox that can make social media a bit less ornery and a bit more mainstream for your creative life.

It’s important to remember here that you’re working with a signal-to-noise ratio that’s different than what you see in Twitter. The pace of Twitter turns its messages into burst transmissions and you can easily blink and miss things. In other media, there’s a volume of information happening simultaneously and it’s easy to get lost in the tide. When the world is a awash in Pokemon, political memes, and those photos from last week’s party, it’s hard to stand out.

Stand out by having something to say that’s more interesting and communicative than provocative. Anyone can write a few hundred words of hypersensitive invective, anyone can erect a soapbox in the center of a three-ring circus. Don’t fall prey to the temptation of attention-grabbing like it’s some rare and finite thing we’re all competing for. When you put your guts on the page, when you say what you need to and don’t churn up people just to churn them up “because even bad attention is attention”, you’ll build that audience out of sterner stuff than people who check you out to see what the latest outrage, tragedy, arrogance, whining, or problem-you-have-with-the-world-that-demands-it-change-not-you is.

Again, this is authorial voice on display. Talk about your work. Talk about the work-in-progress. Talk about the strides and stumbles. Don’t think the audience will run at the first sign of things getting tough for you, people love a good success story as much as they love to be supportive.

A Blog Post

We conclude today with the largest of the three pieces of social media – the blog post. Loads of people write them. You’re reading one right now, if you hadn’t noticed. (Or maybe you got this emailed to you thanks to the signup box over on the right)

Here’s an entire blank canvas, available for free, to do with as you like (okay, I’m paying for this site so I can get the dot-com I want, and so I can get some bells and whistles that help me, and there are some restrictions on content if you use a host like WordPress or Blogspot).

So what do you write about? My answer to this when it gets asked on panels is, “Yes,” because you can write about anything. Look at  this blog – I talk about mental health, addiction, semicolons, recipes and kitchen stuff in between all the posts on queries and publishing and motivation.

There’s no wrong answer here, so long as you’re sharing your worldview and your creativity in an active way. Yes, you can use a blog to track the dates on a book tour, or as a respository for your guest posts and snapchat takeovers. But if you want to do more than just archive your efforts, an audience is built out of the breadth of content partnered with a voice and perspective broadcasting it.

You’ll develop that voice, that perspective, and ultimately that audience through consistency. Post often, post authentically. Practice, just like the tweets and status updates above. It does get easier.

And to answer the question of “How long should a post be?” I have no good answer for you. I’ve written posts that are a few hundred words and had a huge reception. I’ve written super long posts and had an equal reception. I’m starting to think that even though a shorter post is easier to knock out, like so many other things in life, it’s not the size, it’s what you do with it.

*

I encourage all of you, and I believe in all of you. You can do this. Keep at it, even when it’s tough. Even when you’re sure that no one is reading. (Small note: one of the ways you can have people reading is by telling them that you have something they can read – they won’t know you’ve done a thing otherwise.)

You can always find me on social media (on Twitter, on Google+), and I’ll be your audience.

Let’s meet back up here on Wednesday when we’ll do part 3 of this series – what to do when you make a mistake.

 

See you then. Happy writing.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 2

Hello! How are you? Was the weekend good? Can you believe that thing that the person said or did with the thing about the thing? Yeah, I can’t either.

Okay, enough chit-chat, you’re not here for my palaver.

We’re back at the Rejection Series. On Friday we talked about how the query can reject the MS before the MS even gets looked at, and now we’re going to come at this from a different direction. Today we’ll look at how the early pages of the MS can reject you.

Let’s assume for all these five cases that the query was interesting enough to lead the reader to check out the MS.

Whereas last time I told you to get your query letter, I want you to go get the first five pages of your MS. Yes, seriously. Double-space them. Print them out. Meet right back here when you’re ready?

Cool? Then onward we go …

Issue 1 – The opening paragraphs don’t encourage the reader to go forward.
This might be the big manuscript killer. The opening page is critical, like absolutely vital, to establishing the tone you’re trying to convey to the reader, regardless of the information.

You want to talk about weather, or blow something up, or write a quip, fine, but remember that whatever is in those opening paragraphs is the impression I’m taking forward. Yes, I’m beating the drum on word choice and decision making, but I don’t know any other way to stress to you that if you want me to go forward and ultimately say yes to your MS, that opening has to engage me.

Maybe that engagement is provocative, or it’s funny, or it’s new/a new take on a common idea. That engagement won’t happen if you’re trying too hard to be something or some author you’re not. It won’t happen because despite all camouflaging efforts, that try-hard blanket will hang over you. It’s visible, like a bad comb-over. Just be you, express whatever idea you have in as sharp and as “you”  as possible (this is a great time to mention the importance of voice), and you’ll be engaging.

Issue 2 – The tone of the first page (or so) does not match the tone of the subsequent pages. 
One of the ways people try and correct Issue 1 is by really working the hell out of that first moment in the book and then the next moment or scene in the book winds up feeling jarring and strange because it didn’t get the same intensive scrubbing. My example for this is a TV show, the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, where the SyFy tv-movie presented one feel and vibe and setup, then the first episode (and particularly the second) felt like I was watching a completely different, and not good) TV show.

I use that example because I hoped what I saw in the front would carry forward, and when it didn’t I made a variety of sighs and curses before never watching another second of it. Don’t let that happen to your MS. Yes, word choice and story-decision-making help this, but so does editing. NO, not self-editing, I mean getting other eyes on it. YES you need to get other eyes on your work before it goes out into the world.

Also, let me point out that this problem is fixable by applying the same strategy to every scene/moment in the MS. Assume the reader looks at this page, this moment, this scene, wherever it is in the book. Is it going to be interesting on some level? Don’t confuse ‘interesting’ with ‘perfect’, because interesting things are often imperfect and they’re supposed to be. Every word on the page helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind, so what will you do with their blank canvas?

Issue 3 – The pages have errors, big and small, that don’t encourage the reader going forward.
One of the big concepts I battle with is the idea that editing is both someone else’s job, as well as it being too expensive if you out-source it directly. It’s this duality that keeps authors from investing in things like editing or coaching, so that they can improve what they write, so that when they send the MS anywhere (to publisher or consumer alike) it’s in its best position to have a positive reception. Errors are catchable and fixable, and it’s worth the time (and the money, where appropriate) to get your work edited.

When I blog, I know there are typos and words I skip because I think I’ve typed them. I know I flub punctuation. I’m not perfect. No writer, no editor, no publisher, nobody is perfect. Errors happen, but there are (or there are supposed to be) steps in place to catch them.

For instance, I can send my drafted blog posts to people who will tell me that I’ve misspelled camouflaging again. Or I can get to the desk ten minutes earlier to re-read the sales copy before definitely approving it. These are things within my power to get whatever is in front of me into great shape.

When I open that MS, and the first page has things like tonal shifts, hopping POV, missing words, and/or substantial grammar issues, I sigh and tell myself that here’s one more for the rejection pile and grumble a little that 99% of that could have been caught and fixed if the person gave a shit about their work, my time, and their efforts.

Because that’s the message it conveys to me. I don’t know the writer. I know them by name and email address, but I don’t ‘know’ them. When the first pages are badly tossed word salad, and because I’ve got a lot to do on any given work day, I have to go with my gut-based first impression that this author, no matter how well intentioned, couldn’t be bothered to give me their best. If they can’t treat their work and the jobs we both have to do as editor and author with respect, what other conclusion can I draw?

Issue 4 – The MS has a load of potential and suggestion, but never pays off.
Last week, we talked about the bait-and-switch between query and MS. Here’s an extension of that. This is the MS version of ‘talks a big game and doesn’t deliver.’

If Issue 1 wasn’t the killer, this issue is. And that’s because the issue crops up not on page 1, but in the later pages, after I’ve read a bit and invested my time, interest, and energy. I read it, I start making notes, I start telling people to make time so they can read it and make notes, and then I get a rug pulled out from under me when the “good stuff” never happens.

Maybe it’s the subplot that doesn’t pay off. Maybe it’s a whole book of plot setup that will pay off a little in book 2 and 3 and 4, meaning I have to be willing to take a chance on the whole series (this is especially irksome if the later books aren’t drafted yet, and I’m suppose to take the hope forward that the idea of a series is publishable/saleable.) Maybe it’s the climax that’s not satisfying. Loads of elements in the story can peak too soon, weakly, or not at all and leave the reader unsatisfied, but not in that positive hungry-for-more way. More like how I felt when hype exceeds product, as in restaurants or video games.

And this is another treatable issue. Take the MS to multiple readers who have no emotional stake in being biased. Not the partner, spouse, child, friend, beloved co-worker, bestie (is ‘bestie’ still a thing?). Beta readers. People who aren’t well known. Writing groups. Editors. People who don’t have to say nice things because of non-creative agendas. Fresh eyes, objectivity, and feedback that might not be all rainbows and kittens can help get the MS into better shape.

Issue 5 – The MS turns out to be a soapbox for the author’s agenda. 
Most manuscripts are written by people who want to tell a particular story because the story is interesting and because they think they have an approach to the material that others don’t.

However, there are a number of authors who write stories as vessels and disguises for their opinions about material they otherwise can’t say for whatever reasons. These are the manifestos about government control disguised as protagonist dialogue. These are the stories of sexual violence fetishized and glorified. These are the stories where a hard stance can be taken, but the author can gain some distance from it because, “it’s not them, it’s their character(s).”

There’s a sincerity to seek for here. On the minor elements, the unobtrusive stuff isn’t a soapbox. But when an author disguises (often poorly, though you’ll never convince them of that) their belief under some narrative veneer, and that belief gets brought up again and again as if they’re saying, “DO YOU GET IT, HUH? DO YOU SEE WHAT I AM SAYING?” in a great stage whisper, it doesn’t matter how masterful the other MS elements can be portrayed – the soapboxing overshadows many other elements.

Let’s back up a second, because this assumption of agenda also extends to readers. How many great books are marred by one-star reviews because of reader misinterpretation and sentiment? How many authors see sales suffer because of the trolltastic machinery of ne’er-do-wells and the hypersensitive dogpile?

As part of a publisher, I’ve got a responsibility to look for manuscripts that can be made into books that people will buy. As an editor, I’ve got a responsibility to help the author produce the best book possible, not the best soapbox possible.

You can’t totally excise your personal opinions from your work, and it’s folly to think you can, since your opinions and ideas are part your voice. But that voice is for sharing, not for proselytizing. It’s for sharing without the agenda of conversion. The world is big enough for all the voices of all the people, and it’s not a numbers game of social politics. Nor should manuscript development happen with the express purpose of furthering a brand, but that can be our segue to our next (and last) installment in this series.

See you all later this week. We’ll talk soon. Happy writing

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 1

Today’s question: Why does my MS get rejected?

I get this question maybe 1 in every 7 emails, and then it usually gets followed up with a question about why I didn’t answer that rejection question.

Today I answer it.

In the past I haven’t been wholly explicit about the reasons for rejection because they aren’t codified or standardized. What might get you rejected in submission #1 might be the thing that gets accepted in submission #2.

So what I have for you today is a few reasons why your submission gets rejected. I’m splitting this into several parts – issues with the query; issues with the manuscript; issues with other author-y things – because otherwise this would easily be the longest and most rambly post I’ve ever written, and judging by my blog stats, my long posts get as much traction as a puppy on a wood floor.

Go get your query letter. I’m going to make a very large and very strong cup of tea, and together we’ll have some realtalk about how that query might be the thing getting you rejected. Meet me back here when you’re ready.

Let’s do this.

Issue 1 – The query does not make me want to read the MS.
When I read a query, I should not want to put the query down and go watch the lawn grow. A dull query, even when it’s just a few paragraphs, can feel like an abstract for a lengthy obnoxious/pretentious academic work that I can’t believe people get degrees for. (Shout-out to all the dissertations about shoes or the comparison of gender and its effects on pasta)

A query’s job is to encourage, tease, and drive the reader to manuscript to see how the promises of the of the query get paid off in the MS.

You can have all the interesting names and ideas and scenes and decisions in the universe in your book, but if your query doesn’t express them in a way that makes the reader want to check them out, then it won’t matter.

This is why queries can’t be slow burns. There’s a minimum of space, and word choice has to be at a premium. Start where the action is, don’t detour into fluffy things, and keep the focus on getting the reader into that manuscript.

Issue 2 – The query is unfocused.
The compensation for trying to keep the query exciting is that there’s so much going on in it, so much stuff described, that it’s unclear what exactly the MS is about, or what’s the more important element(s) warranting attention.

This is not about there being a lack of information, this is about an abundance of information and little (or none of it) is prioritized. And it needs to be.

As the query writer, you’ve got to help the reader get through the query, get excited, and get into the MS. To do that, build us a path we can navigate. Start somewhere exciting, somewhere intriguing, and work us forward through the ideas.

I say ideas, because you can’t keep us orbiting one idea where you just find different synonyms (the MC is brave! the MC is courageous! the MC knows no fear!). Segue us from one idea to another, so we can get a taste for the world, the character, and the plot (not necessarily in that order). Make decisions, lead us in a direction that ultimately gets us into the MS.

Issue 3 – The query is too short.
Scanning my inbox, 80% of the query letters I have rejected have been a paragraph inside an email where they’re also mentioning how they like this or how they read that.

It’s a query LETTER, not a query paragraph. Spend more than 2 sentences making the reader interested. Aim for a sweet spot between 90 and 300 words, and that count includes things like your name, info to reach you by, and the sentence ‘Thank you for your consideration.’

When the query is so short, my first thought is that the person either isn’t really interested in me reading anything they write, or they’re not actually as serious about getting published as they claimed. If they were, why wouldn’t they say more?

Issue 4 – The query is too long.
This doesn’t happen as often as Problem 3, but it does still happen. Much like Problem 2, this is a case where things aren’t prioritized and decisions aren’t made, so every possible idea gets thrown into what is often a block of text in the hope that somewhere in the word-glacier the reader can unearth the interesting bits.

They probably could, but they shouldn’t have to. Here’s another case where the decision-making process is critical, because the reader gets a selection of material that would increase the likelihood of going into the manuscript with an enthusiasm and interest.

Again, sweet spot. Make choices.

Issue 5 – The query talks about A, but the MS presents B.
We’re wrapping up with part 1 with a great bridge element to where we’re going next. The query’s promise of manuscript potential has to pay off. On the surface, this is something as obvious as saying, “don’t bait and switch”, where the query talks about the MS being a fantasy epic about chicken farmers and the MS is actually a bisexual love triangle of teenage poltergeists, to something as nuanced as the promise of an action thriller that misses core genre beats and staples like the villain’s demise or the romantic subplot.

This isn’t limited to insidious skeevy tactics. This comes up in the course of any manuscript that doesn’t deliver on its promises or premises. And when I say ‘doesn’t deliver’ I mean that the elements in the query aren’t found in the MS, not that they’re poorly developed. (Poor development goes back to Issue 1)

Inconsistency, nerves, over-ambition … there’s a number of reasons why this happens (you know how movie trailers have scenes and lines that don’t get into the film, but because they’re in there, you go see the film? This is that, but for books) It’s an entirely correctable problem that you can solve by putting only the stuff that happens in THIS ONE BOOK in THIS ONE QUERY.

You’re writing a series? Great, tell me that you are, but you only have to query this MS I’ve got in front of me, so I don’t need to know the plot of book 4 when you’re trying to get book 1 published. Tell me about book 4 AFTER we say yes to book 1. It’s the horse and cart, or eggs and basket metaphor, maybe a little of both.

This series will continue on Monday, where will look at how the MS can get you rejected. See you then. Happy writing.

 

On Creation and Feelings

Good morning everyone. I know I promised you a continuation of The Force Awakens, but if you’ll permit me, I want to take today and speak about something more personal and a bit more intensive than how I’d rewrite a movie with a seven-foot-tall furry guy and some people with laser swords.

The world lately has been a strange, scary, frustrating, and confusing place. Political candidates want to talk more about what keeps us apart than any plans they have to connect us. The fundamentally interesting and beautiful things that make people different also make them targets for bullets and bombs. Countries a world away access violence as their best tool for change, and it seems that we as a collective people have placed a premium on the short-term not-so-tough things to do and think about instead of constantly steeping ourselves in some brew where plenty of people on the Internet want to spend more time telling you what’s wrong and how virtuous they are for pointing out all the ways you and other people are wrong.

The world seems to be spinning differently, on some different axis, and to say that it does not in some ways affect a person’s native ability to create good in the world (be it art or butts or words or music or potato skins) is to perpetuate the idea that those oh-so-wacky creatives don’t care about the world, they just go live in their communes and kibbutzim espousing their collectivist or regressive ideals to an echo chamber built on feelings and bureaucracy.

I find myself deeply troubled, and I’m not a member of any of the affected groups, and depending on you who talk to or what you read, I’m a member of the groups responsible for the problems that led to these horrors happening. What jams me up the most is the assertion made by others that my complacency is worsening all these situations, as if I must abandon anything that isn’t full-throated support in the same manner they do it, and then spend a disproportionate amount of time telling other people how I’m in support, as if other people seeing me be supportive isn’t enough.

These are not popular ideas. I know that my having them and expressing them has cost me work and relationships with peers and potential audience. I know that there are people out there who will read this post and never come back, not to read storycraft information, not to check out some tweets. I know that it is not popular to swim against several river currents, and here I am doing some of my best salmon impersonating.

Creativity does not exist in a bubble. And it is imperative that people realize that both the ills of the world and the protests against them have the potential to be poisonous to other activities and beliefs. If so much time and energy is spent pointing out an emperor has no clothes, when is it possible to be compassionate to oneself? Does that not happen ‘so long as there is this problem in the world?’ How is that a rational and actionable response to anything? How would that help?

In no way do I assert I am superior to or above both the problems in the world or the people doing things about those problems. I’m not disinterested in the problems either. Too often those are the conclusions reached by others when so much of the chatter, so much of the world’s noise seems to focus on ladies in a movie with a glut of CGI effects, or abusive law enforcement or other countries rattling sabers and red phones alike.

Why isn’t the counterbalance to this weight a push towards creativity? Wouldn’t a world so divided and soon to be divided more be ameliorated by unity and inspiration. I don’t mean those Facebook fitness memes where someone’s doing one pull-up a day, because what they’re really lifting is themselves (yes, I gagged a little typing it), I mean why must creation and creativity be sacrificed for substantive progress?

No, this is not me donning my marketing and salescopy hat to say that many of these protests needs better slogans and chants (they do), this is me saying that I believe if we are to ever stop looking at our ugly parts long enough to go forward, we must find the beautiful parts. And it’s not like we lost them, though I am sure there are professional victims and soapboxers who will tell you that the days of beauty are gone. But that’s a crock of horseshit, and all that idea does is justify their own victimhood and soapboxery.

I suppose this post is as much a permission slip to myself as well as hopeful encouragement to others that we can still hold onto, propagate, and promote the idea that creativity need not be limited to the shallow ends of the pool, where it’s all about Pokemon-going or lady-ghostbusting or whatever ephemera sails downstream at us. There’s still a reason and a need for the discussions of books and art and music, parallel and along with the discussions of freedom and liberty and equality.

More to that point, remember that so long as one group gets the short of end of some stick, be it about gender or race or identity or faith or preference for steak doneness or whatever, then it’s not equality. And equality doesn’t come from a subordinate group turning the tables and giving into the childish notion that turnabout is fair play so they can hold some other group down “to see if they like it.” Who’s going to like that?

It’s our creativity, our passion for making things and expressing ourselves that can carry us through and past what appear like horrific times juxtaposed with a society that can carry a computer in their jeans and use it to order a pizza, sex, and a taxi at 4 in the morning.

Scan back through history and see that in other dark spots, creativity was a path forward. During World Wars, theater, radio, film and television flourished. During times of civil unrest, we traveled to outer goddamned space. Outer space!

We have put machines onto comets and taken pictures of things only written about seventy years ago in pulp magazines. We have created machines that can rebuild bodies. We have robots. We have made theatre productions that speak to generations. We have used technology to connect and support.

It’s a choice we make to be divisive. It’s a choice we make to act and react out of fear. It’s a choice we make to think our creativity is finite or that it needs certain conditions to operate at all, let alone at peak efficiency.  We make a choice about who we listen to, and about who we decry. And if I can ask anything of you at all, please think before you choose. Choose with not just the immediate or short term in mind. Choose not just what’s fastest or least taxing on you. Really consider that for not just your creativity but also possibly your very life, you’re not alone in any sense, and our interconnectivity depends on our choices and our understanding of each other’s choices, even when we don’t agree with them.

I’ll see you guys later this week. Happy writing.

What I’m looking for in a Query Letter

Hey everybody. I apologize for the radio silence, there’s been loads of work, a little bit of stress, and a ton of prep going on from one convention to another.

Today I wanted to put on my ParvusPress editorial hat:

editor_black_cap

If you want to buy me this hat, I’m totally okay with that.

and talk about query letters. Specifically, I want to talk about what I’m looking for in a query letter. So let’s start with putting me in the office:

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Yeah, totally this.

and now give me a stack of query letters:

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Ready? Awesome.

Here now are 5 things I’m looking for while I’m reading your query letters.

i. A series of sentences that entice me to find out more information by reading the manuscript. A query letter is not a synopsis. It is not the opening three paragraphs of Wikipedia. It is not a blurb you read when you press that Info button on your TV remote.

The query has one job – to make me want to read the manuscript. How does it do that? By sounding interesting. By being enticing. By having sentences that aren’t flat and flaccid on the page.

Start where the action is. Don’t give away the twist. Get the vibe of the story and world across. (What’s that mean? Find the tone and get it across to me.)

ii. A query letter that’s not longer than the first chapter of the manuscript. With the majority of submissions ParvusPress sees, there are some form of query letter as the body of the email rather than just a few lines of typical email banter. The format of the query letter, the structure of the sentences and paragraphs that are trying to encourage me to open the attached manuscript is critical.

Email length is hugely important, because I’m looking at dozens of emails a day (and that’s not counting my own personal email with five times as much material in it), and I’ve got a short window in which to read and process this material. Granted, that’s a function of ParvusPress not being my sole job, and needing time to prep for and work with coaching clients in addition to completely freelance editing and writing projects – so while I am in control of the time I have, the time is still valuable. To make the best use of it, I do come to my inbox with a certain amount of expectation. I expect to see new submissions. I expect to see queries. And I expect those queries to be more or less the same relative length.

When a query runs long, I worry that the manuscript will run long, meaning it will be bloated or meandering. A long query that spends extra time and space hashing out the same points over and over again (albeit in different ways) isn’t going to encourage me to read the manuscript (how many different ways is the author going to tell me the fate of the galaxy is at stake?).

Keep the query tight and evocative. Excite the reader to get into the manuscript to see more.

iii. A concept, even one that isn’t new, that gets expressed in an exciting way. There are so many story types, and within each genre there several well-tread (overdone) concepts: people destined for greatness because of prophecy; angels and devils clashing over mortals; a magical item necessary to save the kingdom or country or world.

It’s hard to present these ideas in new ways, and it’s equally difficult to roll out new concepts. Presenting any idea is scary, and there’s plenty of blog-fodder on the topic of encouragement despite being scared. But the presentation is paramount – whatever you write, be excited to share it. Even if that excitement is nervous energy, use that excite to shape the message you’re putting out.

Find the exciting way to tell your idea. Passion and enthusiasm is contagious, and there’s nothing wrong with counting on people to think positively about your work as they could negatively (it’s a 50-50 proposition, right?)

iv. A strong demonstration of authorial voice. I want to make this point as clearly as possible, as voice is one of those concepts that gets a nebulous treatment with flexible definitions depending on the user and context. When I say authorial voice, I’m looking for a query that is not packing a subtext of self-doubt. The language is clear and decisive, the focus is on the world in the story as though it’s the only world (meaning it’s not like I’m reading an email where you’re telling me about this story like you’re curating at a museum), and the things being described in the query are interesting.

That makes word choice important. Sentence structure becomes critical. Decisions about which elements to present and which to hold back become mandatory. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re in the business of telling a great story and that business is good? (There’s a way more colorful version of this question I ask at seminars, and if you want to hear it, come see me at GenCon at the end of July)

v. A query letter format that tells me the person writing it actually cares about their efforts, and isn’t just dashing something off for one reason or another. Sloppy presentation dooms good ideas by burying ledes, obfuscating critical elements, and dragging out ideas that could be stated in simpler terms.

Someone who takes the time to compose three paragraphs after an intro where a person’s name gets used (You know how you get ‘Current Resident’ junk mail to your home? Getting an email that starts with ‘Editor’ is a lot like that.), where the first paragraph sets up the world and the protagonist’s experience, the second gives a taste of conflict and possibility, while the third covers the title (in all caps) and word count (the actual word count, not an estimation), and hopefully thanks me for my consideration when I’m done reading is definitely going to make it higher up the food chain than the sloppy six sentences that mention title and word count at opposite ends of a not-formatted paragraph, where I can’t quite get a sense of what’s going on in the manuscript because the writer forgot to hit the Enter key once or twice.

In short, this is the “Give a damn” rule (Again, more colorful name for this available).

At Parvus, I’m looking for SF/F (previously unpublished) manuscripts. But these ideas apply just as much to other genre. If that’s what you’re writing, send it on over.

Go forth and write. Write the hell out of your day.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.

 

And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.