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There’s a million tricks on mechanics, dramatic devices, and cast development, but the most important for good writing is also the simplest. You have to be honest. I’m not saying you have to write the truth, because part of being honest is realizing truth is like opinions and everybody has them. But you have to be willing to write the elephant sitting in the room.

Whatever it is you, or your characters by projection aren’t talking about, chances are that’s actually your golden ticket to producing a work that is both fascinating and original. That also means it’s hard work.

Maybe it comes out fast on the page, but the real work happens in your own ability to discern your biases, and be willing to look deeper into your characters, at their challenges, but also backward through time to what caused their behaviors and your own as their author.

Yes, you do get to a point where you learn how to seamlessly merge total fiction and mechanical polish with the rough, beating heart of honesty, but if you’re ever stuck with an outline that is suddenly looking very flat and cookie cutter on the page, consider the one thing that would make you break out in a cold sweat to come face to face with, or blush at to hear whispered about yourself at a party? Make it real, then make it relate to something you want to write about.

Maybe this is what bothers your characters, and maybe it isn’t, but if you can come up with half a dozen of these little phrases, you’ll be writing stories that ring true and have that quality unnamed for a long time to come.

A lot of people want to know about agents, and I confess I only know what my friends have told me, some of whom are pretty veteran. I’ve found a lot of experienced authors are very willing to share what they know about the industry as a courtesy if you’re willing to ask/listen and read.

Some days I wish there were more hours in the day to read all the research available online to become a better writer and self-advocate. Usually I’m wiped after I write for 4-5 hours. A few times I’ve worked around the clock simply because I gave myself a hard deadline and deep down I knew there was a point where it was good enough for a reasonable chance without my obsessing on every remaining detail. At a point you will know in your heart, your project will be ready to have someone else take the knife to it, and their deep cuts will be more valuable from fresh eyes rather than yet another spell check on your part.

I’m very, very fortunate in that I’ve been given an opportunity to interact with a good agent who specializes in the genre I’m focusing on, so it does happen. The line is in fact live. But I admit I have been silently working away on all my waking free hours, going to seminars, reading, seeking advice from editors, and giving up my weekends and lunch breaks to write for over eight years even to get this far. For over five years I’ve kept to a writing schedule of trying to commit four hours a day once I get home from work. This sort of discipline can burn you out at times, and you’ll definitely want to keep a balance with your mate. But if you find the act of writing rewarding for its own purpose it can also be therapeutic and balancing and remind you of your humanity. If writing becomes your distraction that’s a winning combination, but be careful like any vice to set your boundaries as well.

I decided to continue struggling at writing because it’s one of the few aspects of life where I feel completely rewarded no matter how much I stop sleeping or miss good movies to work on it. There’s a certain level of self-sufficiency in good writing that’s maybe more about the personality of the writer, but I assume this ability for solitude is something integral for writing to progress. It’s sort of strange having this entirely separate career but I’m slowly merging into one concurrent direction. I’ve picked up a lot from the business sector, and this has both inspired me and made me reluctant to start approaching anyone until I felt I’d given 110% of what I could do on my own as a serious effort to writing. I don’t like to do anything half-way. The results have been mixed. I know what I’ve done well, and what needs to be fixed now, which is possibly one of the most discerning skills to hone.

I will say that my writing has increased sharply with my sixth manuscript, and that over the past six months of immersing myself in the local community (forgive the absence) and foraging for whatever tribal wisdom is available, I’ve started to write on a level that makes me confident enough to present my work for review and honest feedback to professionals.

So here’s another quirk I learned…

In theory it’s supposed to look something like this:

“Rewrite formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” — Stephen King

I realize now there was an asterisk somewhere at the bottom, that went something like “* if you are Stephen King.”

As for me, upon suddenly getting attention from an agent, my formula went something like this:

Rewrite formula: 24th Draft = 23rd Draft – 50% ZOMG.

Followed swiftly with:

… oh, wait, I have a better idea for this chapter than when I first began…

…oh, I just read something about (insert esoteric pre-Columbian tribal fact here) that reminds me of (insert modern astrophysics theory here) and would be a really interesting connection to explore as part of (insert adventure story fourth act structure here).

…oh wait, just one more read-through…

When you start finding your own work interesting, you feel both satisfied and deeply, deeply narcissistic to an embarrassing degree. Then you stop being embarrassed because there’s not time among all the other million things you immediately find to correct. This is the efficient humble / jazzed paradigm. I mean, if you hate it, you’re probably right. I was. That explains manuscripts 1-5. Yes, I was working. I was working for number 6.

Then there are details. You can get wrapped up forever in little authentic details, like wine labels and sartorial conventions. Apocryphal Greek and Babylonian philosophical texts… The truth is, you will always find something else interesting to explore, and your work can always be better. This is slow, like watching trees grow in the back yard.

But I found something wonderful happens when you steel yourself and go out there and start shaking the tree. The professional literary community is a fantastic network of people and they want to see good books written and they want to help create them. Sometimes just the act of having an agent get back to you with interest is enough to change the way you look at your work forever and send you in a better direction you didn’t even think about the last time you dusted off that “final” draft.

One thing writers need more than anything are points of reference for what makes a modern manuscript successful. You’ll know when you’re ready to pitch, but be willing to make the best thing you can now, not just the best thing you’ve ever written. Something great might happen – you’ll find the next project you work on will only take a fraction of the time because you’re teaching yourself patterns of successful story creation. It seems like this has a lot in common with music and poetry and programming. As someone who was not a natural at much of anything, and with very high standards to deal with even so, I can assure you getting better does happen. It’s so slow you may not even notice until you’re nearly there – wherever there is for you.

I’m not a musician, but I can imagine the first time you write a really good sonata and you can sit there and amuse yourself with something finally worth sharing – something you’re genuinely proud of creating. For some of us it takes many years.

Oh, and in the mean time, keep going! No promises, and no slacking. Don’t ever be the quarterback who doesn’t touch down because he stops before the white line.

Back to work…

10 Traits of a Good Writing

1. Relevance. Stories that are timeless today were all relevant back then.
There’s an intriguing glimpse at the hopes and fears of the past which highlight our own.
2. Dialogue. The ability to communicate effectively and minimally.
3. Character. Character like good dialog is the creation of an insider world with the tools of subtext, linking each scene to the next for payoffs and paybacks to keep the readership or audience paying attention to the clues along the way.
4. Story. Story is the reflecting basic human archetypes, no matter how we may scramble them up like a rubik’s cube.
5. Clarity. The ability to write actions and activity which externalize characterization is essential for stage.
6. Metaphor. Externalization of action creates easier visualization for readers as well as audiences, often in the form of a unique symbolism that lives on after the work is finished.
7. Complexity. Modern and ancient readers never went for Dick and Jane. We misunderstand and oversimplify rich and forgotten subtexts from cultures we’ve moved too far away from to recognize in earlier works. B-plots have always been around, and were used correctly to balance the more difficult material encountered in the main message.
8. Structure. You can be the brightest literary genius of all time, but if you don’t understand how to frame your work, your reel will never play through at a scale your readers or audience can watch. It will always be stuck in your head until you discipline your work not to exceed the limits of human endurance.
9. Brevity.
10. Stealth. Never let them see it coming. Use externalization to create vivid visualization for unique metaphors your story can call your own. A unique metaphor means the connection is not overused and will be less likely to give your surprises away.

10 Traits of a Good Writer

1. Persistence. For those tapped to write, there is no choice in the matter. Persistence is the art of refinement.
2. Insight. Writing isn’t about gaining attention, it’s about giving insight – rare and hard won experiences you don’t want to tell.
3. Daring. Throughout history the best loved minds were mostly beheaded. This isn’t a warning, it’s a call.
4. Discipline. Writing is the art of starting. It doesn’t happen without planning – an outline, a beat sheet, and coffee.
5. Forgiveness. Single note emotions prejudice the story. Layered onto the deepest, darkest emotions, a little levity must fall.
6. Wonder. Perspective refreshes an old view. The untried angle is found through wonder.
7. Memory. A good memory creates a reality in writing that outdoes the detail we take in through normal experience. Writing has a resolution much like high definition.
8. Ethics. If a writer lies, the stories go stale, and if writers tell the truth, they live by it as well, producing the greatest stories.
9. Hope. Whether it’s a rejection pile or the character rising for act four, hope really does float us all.
10. Desire. If a writer has nothing else in the whole world, let it be desire because that sparks all. We are after all, only human.

Become a Manuscript Whisperer

You’ve seen those strange shows. Reality tv aimed at getting your pet/horse/strange Japanese youtube character to follow some unspoken direction. Creating a cohesive whole – otherwise known as story design – is a lot like getting some animal to animate in convincingly human terms.

‘Writing’ is ‘what I did on my summer vacation/personal fantasy on the train’ – but ‘Story Design’ is laying the bricks of a very rugged and methodical oven. It’s so unlike initial creative instincts to ‘just write’ – because it’s practically antimatter by comparison. It’s supposed to invisibly hold everything together, creating a speed and direction that seems like magic to the outside observer.

Writer’s Myth # 1:

Writers come up with a what-if and that becomes the premise of the story, right?

You’d think, but not from what I’ve seen. New writers get zapped with what-ifs meant to drive the dialog, but they usually end up being the arc of a specific scene, which will echo by and then be recorded. The larger story design has yet to materialize.

Which brings us to the tools of Manuscript Whispering…

Manuscript Whispering Step 1: The Notebook that Never Was

Keep the smallest moleskin possible on your body at all times. You are diabetic, and that notebook is the antidote. Be subtle if you need to, make it an address book, etc. but you need that notebook more than your laptop, keys or the litany of other usual suspects in distracting devices.

When some what-if story idea appears, one you really feel strongly would be a good story, write it down. You’ll know when it’s the right kind of thought bubble. It will demand your pen immediately. But before you set your pen down afterwards, write down whatever the characters would do or say in that situation in order to…

A. PHYSICALLY and EMOTIONALLY *GET* to that scene…
B. REACT after it happens… (and with who?)

You will naturally come to the end of the scene using these before/after prompts, and what’s more, you’re creating cohesive, self-contained units of story building blocks that don’t depend on you knowing the end of the entire story arc to constructively develop on their own.

Other uses for your Whisperings:

a. character names
b. ironically juxtaposed character profiles
c. titles and unusual little symbolisms
b. your theme/pitch/unique gimmick.

This is your primordial goo of evolving ideas. No one should see it but you. Moleskins come with convenient elastic straps for this purpose. You’ll be surprised how many people feel better once their loved ones have their votes reneged.

Manuscript Whispering Step 2: The Gimmick that’s Not

Give up on the idea that you would never use a ‘gimmick’ and understand your ideas will need to be looked at with a critical marketing perspective. Something unique or starkly differentiating your story from all the others like it – that is a gimmick. That’s all it is. You can have a pure art. Finding a playful way to make it worth reading to someone other than you is unavoidable. Also, it’s easier to agree with yourself on that gimmick from the beginning. Back-peddling on this is a bear.

Writer’s Myth #2

Pitch-writing is hard and takes a certain extroversion writers don’t have.

I will challenge you to a duel on this one. Writers are excellent communicators. Most writers who find they can’t pitch will discover the problem is with their ‘gimmick’ or uniquely differentiating idea. It’s not there. Ideas which are cliche are going to sound lame because they are. A little secret? Your gimmick is your story arc. They’re like mirror twins. Don’t look!

Manuscript Whispering Step 3: The Character in the Negative

A lot of a writer’s time is spent on defining what a character IS. This isn’t bad. But what if you read the blocks of story dialog you’ve collected over, say, a six month period, realize what kinds of characteristics are being projected in these discrete expressions of your growing story DNA, and then reversed them?

Balance in a story is what conflict is made – and resolved – from. If you have a lot of blocks that are red (heated dialog) – what is their common subject? If not a subject, a motivation. Once you’ve defined the similarities, next come up with characters to defy the ones you’ve already created on these common themes. If you already have too many characters, as many detail-oriented writers tend to create, begin to consciously ‘shadow’ the negative characteristic in another character. Likewise, a villain can only be so ‘bad’ before he or she is totally inaccessible, and therefore unrealistic, un-scary, and even worse, un-problematic. People cause us problems because we care about them. Dabbing similar shades of kindness and cruelty from your villains to your catalyst gatekeeper-types and vice-versa will give you the bridge conversations to ultimately net your story blocks together.

Even with the extraordinary adventures of every-day life, I’ve slowly built up an armory of these personal blocks. Writing software brags about them, but to DIY makes you a writer and gives you a chance to come up with the illusive, so-called “unique” idea that every writer is after.

You’ll dog-ear and number those blocks – it even helps to keep different color pens to separate them, or quickly color-code the mood or character of your off-hand writing in your notes. And in a about a week of on-the-side typing, you’ll have something you’ll actually like. It will stand on its own legs and look finished, even without the sheen of buffing and editing that will finally send it out of the plant.

Now does it sell? That’s a post for another weekend. But if you’re tired of manuscripts taking forever, and shouting the story out as a one-block continual narrative doesn’t work, try a little whispering.

While floating about the blog flotsom a few minutes this morning, I discovered this:

“Whenever I want to write a book, I am obliged (by contract) to submit an outline to my publisher first. My editor reads it, decides if she likes the idea, the premise, and the story I describe in a 40 or 50 page outline, that is supposed to include the characters, plot, and details of the book, broken down by chapter. The fact that I have to do that always surprises people. They assume that after all the books I’ve written (107 to date), I can just write whatever I want, send it off, and my publishers are thrilled. That’s not how it works in real life, or not mine anyway. (I used to have to submit several sample chapters or even half the book. Now I just have to submit the outline). The editor then calls me or writes to me, and makes lots of comments about what they don’t like, want changed, or what doesn’t work… After that, with their notes well in hand, and my outline, I write the book.”

That’s a pretty honest assessment of being the author of a specific genre. Genre work can be reliably warm and connecting, but also very scrutinized and monitored by protective publishers who know (or believe they know based on the numbers) their audience very, very well. The author goes on to discuss personal editing in an equally frank passage:

“Re-reading it is like looking in a huge magnifying mirror where you see every pore, speck and flaw on your face. And then, finally, I send the book to my editor, and the real worrying begins…”

I think I must have read some of these books as a kid, holed up in hot summer breezes behind ruffled white curtains in my grandmother’s pink arm chair sorting through towers of hardbacks, sifting for the action. There’s always action in any story, of a kind or another. Some prefer travel tales. Ladies prefer bodice ripping and shaggy-shouldered gasps of air. At least, that was my general impression at the time. Then I discovered the stash of “Lady’s Magazines” unassuming and innocent looking as they collected rumpled circles beneath the mid-day tea glasses. You can either be a grandmother, retired and catching up on the revolution through these conveniently covered issues touting baking bits and health elixirs, or you can be a seven year old picking up basic anatomy through the letters to the editor pages. I’m sure both are equally divine.