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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.

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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.

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.

I read one of the best defenses of writing for social causes this morning. The old adage swords are swift but quills sharper and easier to work with when you’re eating the morning toast comes to mind. At several pages it’s a real bit of actual writing, and is a deliciously thoughtful memoir by none other than author Neil Gaiman. He gets into the gritty of why edgy writing can ultimately help speak out about the realities people face, and in allowing possibly derogatory writing to exist, we generate the potential for a society which must face and react to it.

Gaiman argues (in a rather valiant effort) that by taking charge of our own preconceptions during the reactionary process of absorbing shocking art, we are ultimately growing into our own social responsibility. We’re allowing ourselves to become accountable as a society for much more powerful human experiences we may not have ever been presented with before. These things challenge us into understanding and forming an opinion on them. They make us think and decide and draw lines and ultimately solve the problems they highlight, and that’s a very good thing. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

It’s an excellent explanation for why writers must be at the forefront of shocking ideas – it becomes the responsibility of the writer to explore and make the reader aware of that which is hidden, shied away from, and instinctively rejected due to the limits of social propriety. I’m not saying embraced, but acknowledged, and accounted for in that human realities are not always (read: mostly never) what’s on the cover of the storybooks. The pat interpretive simplicities we are raised on give us the flat terrain of early childhood to enable us to grow into adults and that’s the point – growing into adults who can feel practiced enough on the bunny slopes of ethics to finally go after a few black diamonds in our broadening horizons. They offer space to place new steps of change.

Reach out for those diamonds, kids, for they shine the longest and are worth more than all the riches of any writing that came before.

After reading an enormous amount on writing and the craft of story-making, the following are my best picks for writers who want to cut to the chase.

Boring Yet Essential (I’ll keep it a short list.)

“The Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, 1918 There’s a reason this book is still around.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” Just be aware of what punctuation is actually supposed to be used for and you’ll be ahead of the curve, I assure you.

BTW, public service note: If your local library doesn’t at least keep one spare copy of EoS on hand, feel free to make them feel they must have failed in their civic duties and leave particularly suicidal-looking, preferably muttering wide-eyed about what happens to the ducks. This is for the benefit of all the other aspiring writers in your district. Heroic things can’t be argued with. Any librarian worth their salt will get the ducks commentary immediately and not feel too bad about your crafty ruse. They will however, be reminded to stock a copy of EoS every time they see a book cover by J. D. Salinger. Your job as patron and patriot will be complete.

Useful Plot Mechanics Guides

The awful truth is that screenwriters have been generating more of the good stuff on writing technique in recent years than any other subgroup of the species. Rather than scoff that you, my dear madame, are a real writer, (etc, etc.) instead take a dark pair of sun glasses, keep them permanently dangled from your shirt collar and be willing to read the commercialized reasons for why stuff works at the production studios. Publishing houses are a lot like production studios. They like what sells. While you don’t have to write what sells it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what in fact might get published. Just an idea.

“Story” by Robert McKee: Easily one of the most essential resources on the market. Hang your canvas on a well-built frame.

“How Not To Write a Novel” – Consider it the Mystery Science Theater or RiffTrax of novel reviews.

“Save the Cat” by Blake Snider: A clinical case study that references the myth cycle in terms of modern movies that have become part of the cultural cannon – a cannon you are probably borrowing from whether you realize it or not. Face this fact head on and embrace you inner movie affection-ado. It will save you some law suits further down the road and help you revision your idea from a uniquely untried perspective.

Just kidding. Everything’s been tried.

Inspiration on Learning The Craft

“The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers” by Betsy Lerner: A seasoned editor throws the writer on the couch and keeps him there until all the inner workings of why he writes are clear. Interesting analysis of not only why writers write, but how they can learn balance.

“On Writing” by Stephen King: Aliens and shape shifters may not be your thing, true. But King’s inner workings provide practical advice on how to take your fleeting ideas and apply them well to the genre of your choice. He narrates his own audio book, for the commuting inclined.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Why give you a speech when I can give you a sample? http://www.ursulakleguin.com/SteeringCraft_57B.html

Useful Writing Exercises

To be truthful, writing exercises stated as such are mostly touchy-feely research experiments by the head writer more than they are a genuine help to the young writer who is looking to gain something useful from a course.

Rather than exercise, just start treading down the miles of your marathon – as soon as possible. Even now, in fact, I’m hurrying through this god forsaken post so that I can shed the Betty Ford white robe of choice and go down stairs for some brunch and an uninterrupted afternoon with my latest project. [edit: will spellcheck ever come prepackaged with euphemism cross-reference? Otherwise all my allusions will have to be about Barry White?]

With that being said, this is the one book I’ve found as an excellent toolkit for the blank page:

“The Writer’s Book of Matches” by the fine folks at Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

Literary Journals

Since we’re bringing up literary journals, there are two good literary magazines that are worth at least a flip through at your local bookstore:

1. Fresh Boiled Peanuts (of course.) http://www.freshboiledpeanuts.com

2. Brick http://www.brickmag.com

3. And so I’ve heard: AND THEN literary magazine.

All the rest of course, are rubbish. You know one person can possibly know all the good books and magazines out there. My coffee table might fool some, but I cannot possibly know them all.

“In the middle of the silence in a writer’s house lies an invalid: the book being worked on.”
– Richard Eder

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“Will the reader turn the page?” – Catherine Drinker Bowen

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie Gabrielle

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

Thanks to Brainy Quotes.