My Hack Manifesto

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
At around this time last year I wrote this, my Hack Manifesto. (The original is here.) Since I occasionally like to look back with my Friday writing posts, I offer it again for your perusal. The only thing I would add is my continuing uncertainty whether Kerouac was in the game for the stimulants or for Neal Cassady‘s approval, but it makes no difference. He still took pride in his work, dammit. And I still get cranky about this very issue. So, enjoy!

Good morning. I hope you’re comfortable? Good, good. Have a cuppa, settle in.

This last week I was informed that my writing advice was utter crap and nobody wanted to hear it because I am a hack.

As my friend Neutronjockey pointed out:

I believe the word “hack” is derived from the horseworld. A hack being a reliable, trustworthy, hardworking — I believe it was specifically referring to a horse used for work rather than pleasure.

While I won’t deny you pleasure-use … there is certainly nothing wrong with being a hack.

Damn skippy. There is nothing wrong with being a hack. And to that end, dear Reader, here is my Hack Manifesto.

My advice on writing is geared pretty specifically toward people who want to make a living at it. It’s also geared to people who love language and want to tell a ripping good story. It is not for Artistes or for fragile speshul flowers who want only squeeful strokes for their delicate, heart-shattering, mindstopping genius. Go read Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg if you want to hear how haaaaard writing is on the Delicate Flower. Here in my writing world, we work, and we work hard. We get our hands dirty. We take our goddamn rejection like adults, we buckle our belts tighter, and we get on with producing the best manuscript possible on several fronts.

That’s what being a hack is–taking pride in your craft, taking pride in producing something people can use and love. This is the heart of hackdom–creating things people can enjoy.

You can write utter crap and get away with it. But that’s not what the true hack does. Writing fiction that is supposed to show how smart you are or how you’re treading the path of High Litrachur is a fool’s game–literature disappearing up its own asshole, so to speak. The hack’s purpose is twofold:

1. To produce the best writing possible; clear, vigorous, and working prose that is easy for the reader to understand. And capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of theme, symbolism, plot, characterization, and all the workings of a good story effortlessly–WITHOUT BORING THE READER BY HOW F!CKING SMART YOU THINK YOU ARE.

This is very important. The best writing is not hard to understand. It is deceptively simple. We are in this business of writing to communicate. That’s what writing is, communication. Your communication is dead on the vine if you’re not looking to be clear and reasonably concise.

There is a fair degree of art in being reasonably concise and as clear as possible. Clarity is not just using the appropriate word–it is using the appropriate sentence length, giving enough detail to build the scene but not enough detail to choke the unwary reader in a morass, pacing appropriately, and pruning away all that lovely writing you’ve perpetrated without a clear idea of what it’s for.

There’s another aspect to this: consistently producing what a reader will enjoy reading. Now, I’m not saying you have to stick to hackneyed trends because that’s what Everyone Else Who Has Succeeded In The Genre has done. I’m saying you need to understand why a genre is the way it is, why myths and fairytales work, the rules of the form you’re working in. You have to know HOW the engine works before you can go tinkering with it to make it work better. You can’t just slap crap on the page and expect people to worship you. If your business is to tell stories, you need to know how stories work so you can pick the appropriate parts to jam in their engines to make them run without sticking and backfiring.

2. The second purpose of the hack is to have fun.

Yes. Fun.

Look, if you’re not enjoying writing, or not enjoying WHAT you write, what the hell are you going to do it for? This is not a line of work where it’s possible to dink around and make a living. Precious few writers, even hacks, do this for the money. IF you want to make a living doing this, you MUST enjoy some part of it or you’re going to end up with a serious ulcer and bitter, bitter nastiness in your soul.

Plus, there is that indefinable quality of joy in some work. If I’m not having fun on the page, how the hell can I expect the Reader to? And I don’t just mean the shallow fun of explosions and titties, nice as those are. I mean the soul-deep joy of creating something that’s as good as I can make it. I mean a ripping good yarn, a story that the Reader gets emotionally involved in. I don’t care if the Reader laughs OR cries OR gets angry OR suffers with the characters OR gets angry at the characters. I’ll take ANY of those, or ANY other strong emotional reaction. If the Reader has that emotional reaction, that kick from the story, I have done my job and created something useful.

That, my dears, is my idea of FUN.

The hack understands that people are not going to consistently fork over their hard-earned cash to read mental wanking that doesn’t work for them. The hack wants to create something people will use. If it’s a romance novel that makes a Reader sigh, if it’s a Western that makes a young girl smell gunsmoke, if it’s a doorstop of fantasy that makes a fanboi happy inside, if it’s a novelization that draws a Reader back into the world of a movie or a telly series they loved so much–all of these are noble, worthy pursuits. These are things worth doing well for the Reader’s sake. Without the Reader, a writer is just shouting into the wind–and while a certain degree of shouting into the wind is good exercise, there comes a point (sooner than you think) when that shouting is just sound and fury signifying nothing but an overblown ego.

Part of being a hack is being professional. A hack comes in on or under deadline, understands that an editor really just wants to make a story better, knows that critical reviews (even the ones that are just sour grapes from a jackass who chooses to review instead of writing his* own crud) are valuable in their own way, and is constantly looking to make their work better. A hack understands the fine balance between obeying the conventions of a genre and slipping a hand under genre’s skirt to tweak ever so gently at those conventions–all to provide an enjoyable experience. (*snickers gently*)

A hack can engage in stunt-writing, as long as s/he has a clear idea of why/how to break the rules. But a hack will not expect others to bow down to their Deathless Genius. A hack takes pride in the work. A hack does not take pride in the size and firm plumpness of his or her ego.

And here’s another statement some people are going to take issue with. I firmly believe that each and every artist who deserves the name is a hack. An artist has a hack’s work ethic and a hack’s understanding of the form they’re working in. Those without the work ethic, those who do not expend the effort, are artistes, dabblers, dilettantes.

There is nothing wrong with artistes, dabblers, and dilettantes. They’re just fine, they’re okay, and there is nothing pejorative in those terms as far as I’m concerned. I simply save my admiration for the hacks because I understand how hard they work. And I am proud to be called a hack–the same way I’m proud to be called a bitch. A bitch works hard and takes no crap from anyone, is assertive, and has self-esteem. So does a hack. (Which, tongue-in-cheek, beggars the question of whether I’m a bitch hack. *snerk*)

Dickens was a hack. So was Dumas. So was Shakespeare–his funky butt got PAID for the work he produced, and he understood WHY the plays worked. (He still gave off some stinkers, but given the political climate he was working in, no wonder.) Zane Grey is just as valid as Jane Smiley, and I think they’re both hacks because they both figured out something that worked and kept/keep refining, reinventing, and and making it work still further. Louis L’Amour? Edgar Rice Burroughs? Alice Hoffman? Edgar Allen Poe? Barbara Kingsolver? Anthony Trollope? Jack Kerouac (even in his more nutty stimulant-laced moments)? Stephen King? Others too numerous to list?

Hacks. Proud hacks. Hacks I’m proud to read. The quirk that considers some of them “fine litrachur” and others “damn hackdom” is merely an accident of media taste. Or the taste of some hoity-toity reviewers.

So. Yes, I’m a hack. A hack is dependable, responsible, faithful, hardworking. A hack is in love with language and determined to produce the best story they can. A hack is enjoying herself to the hilt while churning out good prose. So, goddamn hell yeah, I’m a hack.

And I really would not want it any other way. Now excuse me. I’ve got writing to do. Tune in next week for my rant about how genre is just as good as highfalutin’ litrachur. I expect to wax just as rhapsodically bitchy about THAT, too…

* Or her. Gender bias, thy name is English.

ETA: I, erm, uncloaked the entry from a long while ago where I talk about being informed my writing advice was crap. It was an email sent to me by an enraged Speshul Snowflake, not an actual comment. A small rant on genre is here; next week I will provide a longer one.

On Young Adult Fiction

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I’m being asked about writing Young Adult fiction a lot. (Go figure.) I can point to this post, where I could finally announce that Strange Angels had sold and went on to talk about YA, bullshit, and low expectations. That was a year ago, it’s probably time to revisit the subject.

I’ve mentioned in a few interviews lately that I never thought I would write YA. I knew, even starting out waaay back when, that I was not going to be very, well, PC as a writer. I write dark little stories full of violence and profanity. This would seem to preclude going into any genre where “won’t someone think of the CHILDREN?” is not just a sarcastic tagline. It just never occurred to me such a career move would be possible.

I mean, I had drabbles and finished novels where the protagonist was between the misty rocks of 13 and 20. I don’t care how old a character is, if they serve the story, fine. They’re in. The problem with those drabbles and novels (issues of first-draft quality aside, thank you) is that the kids in them cursed and bad things happened to them.

In the “young adult” fiction I read growing up, the kids weren’t allowed to cuss and the “moral” was always evident like the shape of a body under a blanket. The classics that could be trusted to tell the truth–like, say, The Outsiders or Judy Blume‘s stuff–were good, but they were so few and far between. I started reading adult fiction at nine years old, with (I will admit this) James Clavell’s Shogun.

I’ll just let that sink in for a second. Let me tell that story. It might be instructive.

I was nine. There was a wooded path to some small shops behind our back yard. The shops were a sort of 1980s rural British version of a strip mall or a stop’n’rob–one sold what I’m sure was lingerie and other, ahem, erotic materials (I never went in, being uninterested in lace knickers), one sold tchotchkes and cheap commemorative tea services, and the most popular sold candy, I think cigarettes, small figurines of animals[1], comic books, and racks of mass-market paperbacks. I didn’t have much money and I was tired of kid books, so I hied myself down to the store and bought the thickest book I could afford. I figured more for my money, right? I took it home, hid it, and had eye-opening reading material for WEEKS. The book starts out with scurvy and shipwreck on the coasts of Japan, a peeing-on-main-character-to-humiliate-him, political skullduggery, lots of fisticuffs and swordfights and muskets, and (gasp!) a Romance. With actual smexxors, or what passes for them in a Clavell book where the favored euphemism was “pillowing.” (Historical or linguistic verisimilitude aside, I found that hysterical and STILL DO.)

To my uncritical nine-year-old self, this was the Best. Thing. Ever. (I can trace my obsession with katanas to this one unfortunate childhood moment.) It was a Real Book. With Real People doing Real Things I knew grown-ups did, like sleeping in the same bed and cussing. From that moment, I read adult fiction and very rarely, if ever, trundled over to the YA section of the library or bookstore. I had found a brave new world of people who spoke the way I knew real people spoke, and very little was off-limits. (God bless the librarians who gave me curious looks but never stopped me. Librarians RULE.)

Things changed in the very late 90s-early naughts. I was well past high school but I found myself reading more YA, and not for nostalgic reasons either. It seemed to me there was a sea change in the YA slice of the publishing industry, and suddenly taboo subjects–obsession, drug use, even cursing–became a little more okay to talk about. I came across this with LJ Smith, whose Forbidden Game series I ate like candy. It featured an obsessive, stalking otherworldly male (sound familiar?) after a confused teenage girl, and there was real risk–dude, Smith killed a character in the first book! Sure, she brought her back later–but it was heady stuff in a YA.

I started reading other young adult titles after Smith reintroduced me to the genre, and YA seemed a lot better. The new books that were coming out had risk, rewards, the occasional bad word. They were a lot truer to the experience I remembered of being that age, under the strictures of school, hormones, and the crushing non-perspective of youth.

For example, I read Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland in 2000, when I was *mumblemumble24*, and was stunned at a young adult author taking on the subject of teen dating violence[2]–something I had suffered, but that I had never seen directly addressed in a book before. It was like someone had reached back into a trauma of my youth and said, someone else dealt with this too. Your feelings are normal, you’re not alone.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried.

It could be that the “sea change” I perceived in YA was just a result of my own limited experience, but I don’t think so. I was an omnivorous reader, hungry for just about anything that rang true. If YA books that spoke directly to my own experience would have been available, I think I would have found them. I think those books–the true speakers–have become much more common and have an easier time getting published as the YA genre has loosened up a bit. It could be kids getting more buying power, or the effect of MTV (back when it used to play music instead of Jackass) and a youth-obsessed culture, or publishing following the loosening of certain social constraints. I’m just grateful it’s happened, as a reader.

As a writer, though, I still never thought I would write YA. It took an editor point-blank asking my agent if I’d consider it before it even occurred to me as a possibility, and even then I made very sure the publisher knew what they were getting into. Particularly in the matters of violence and profanity. You’re not going to get a sweetness-and-light story out of me. It just ain’t gonna happen, honey, so you might as well not try. I can do certain limited short stories with a bit of light humor and happy endings, but there’s still the gore factor.

I write from a dark place, and I’m okay with that.

Profanity, too, is something I’m okay with. Like it or not, it’s how people talk. The trick in profanity is to use it appropriately.

People asked me if I was going to stop cursing when I had a kid. I really thought about it, and my answer ended up being, “F!ck, no.” In the privacy of my home I will cuss if I want to. But how to make sure my kids didn’t end up being filthy inappropriate little bandits without being a total hypocrite and saying “do as I say, not as I do?”

My answer: timers.

Here’s the deal my kids under 13 get: “Certain words are Big People words. They are used appropriately (and sometimes not) by Big People. Little People probably shouldn’t use those words, but I know you’re curious. Whenever you want to use those words, you let me know, we’ll set the timer and I’ll leave the room, and for two minutes you can say whatever Big People words you want.”

Then comes the pause and the Mommy Look. “I know you’re going to cuss when you’re out of my sight. Be careful with that.”

And you know what? Having an avenue to express those words takes all the fun out of the forbidden-fruit of saying them. We’ve only used the timer once or twice, and each time the kid in question actually didn’t want to cuss because it wasn’t fun anymore. I’m told how remarkably good-mannered and clean-mouthed my children are in public or social situations, and I just smile. The timer–and watching me clean up my language in certain situations when I’m on duty to be appropriate and reasonable–teaches the little ones all they need to know about how and when to use the Big People words.

Kids aren’t stupid. They’re hungry for answers, and they will find them wherever they can. I’m glad of young adult books taking on a wider range of issues more true to children’s experiences. I’m glad that I told the publisher “this is what you’re going to get from me” and they replied, “We’re behind you.” At the end of the day, whether I’m writing for adults or young adults, I’m seeking to tell the truth. The truth is that being a kid can be, and often is, just as dangerous and profane as being an adult. I’m thankful for the chance to tell the sort of story I wanted to read when I was fourteen.

I hope to do so again.

[1] I bought so many of those. Wow. And now I have not a single one. It’s amazing. I wish I could remember what they were called–little ceramic animal figurines available in Britain during the 80s.
[2] Please also check out

On Reviews

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
The Internet is a marvelous place, full of ponies and rainbows and unicorns. It has also been revolutionary for consumers and readers sharing information. There are a million review sites and ways for readers to rank and talk about and pick apart a book. This is a good thing, despite the echo-chamber factor, but it underlines one thing I wish I could tell newly-published writers.

Do not respond to reviews, positive or negative. On that path lies danger.

Reviews are meant for readers. I use them myself in my capacity as a reader, just like anyone else. But there is something I have to consider when I review a book–professional standing. As a professional, I tend not to review something unless I have something positive to say about it. That’s one constraint on my speech on the Internet, and a self-chosen one. I don’t have time for a flame war, and when I say something nasty, it reflects badly on me. (Publishing is an incestuous little business, too. What one says WILL get around.) Sometimes I choose to say something controversial, like when I’m talking about my politics, my religion, or a Mel Gibson snuff film. I make no bones about having opinions, I’m human. I think long and hard before posting my opinions, but the idea of disagreement doesn’t stop me.

Still, when it comes to reviews of my work, I just shut up. Period. I used to say “thanks” and link to positive reviews, a while ago. Then I really thought about it, and decided to cut that out.

The trouble with responding to any reviews, even just the positive ones, is that it makes it much more likely you will respond to a negative or critical review. And when you’re talking about something as personal as your writing, that “response” can quickly turn into a sucking hole of Internet fail that makes you look like a crazy person. (Remember Anne Rice’s Amazon meltdown?) The chances of getting into a flamewar or touching off an Internet sh!tstorm go up exponentially the moment one starts responding AT ALL to reviews, positive or negative. There is no shortage of Internet sh!tstorm-age. We don’t really need more.

You’ll notice, please, that I don’t say I don’t read reviews, both positive and negative. I do. I read Amazon reviews (sometimes, when I’m fairly sure I’m calm and balanced) and I keep a watch on my Google mentions just like anyone else. If more than three or four reviewers say the same thing about a craft aspect of a book, I’m likely to do some hard thinking and take it under advisement. I’m not stupid, and I listen to my readers.

But responding is a different slice of cake entirely. Even a “thank you” to the positive reviews tempts me to answer the negative reviews. That is a temptation I do not need. Some healthy, balanced, sane and sober people can say “thank you” to even a negative screed and move on. I doubt I am one of those blessed few, so I avoid the temptation and am happier all around.

Sometimes, when a lot of readers note something, I will quietly address it. But I will not talk about reviews online[1]. I’d rather concentrate on writing.

Here is an example. (Yes, I am about to break this rule, sort of, in the interests of education.) Sometimes, some reviewers take issue with my characters making certain choices in stressful situations. “I would NEVER do that, therefore X shouldn’t and Saintcrow is a horrible writer for making him/her!” I often would like to point out that I’ve made intensive study of psychological deconstruction under stress (mostly to understand some of my own lingering trauma, but also because the process fascinates me) and sometimes my characters’ reactions are that: deconstruction under stress in a particular way. Breaking a character along a fault line they’ve had all along is part of what jazzes me about being a writer.

Now, noting this in the interests of education is one thing. But to link to particular reviews and take it point by point? Danger, Will Robinson! This is treading close to the line of “taking it personally”–that magical event horizon where measured, reasoned response can degenerate into attack, flamewar, and complete and utter epic fail.

Do I have time for that? No. So I accept it as one of those things, where I as an author have not reached a particular reader. There’s nine billion people in the world. I am not going to please every single one of them, and due to the vagaries and the imperfect nature of communication, I am not ever even going to reach a significant percentage of them without some distortion and message-loss.

Nothing’s perfect.

There are authors who manage to respond gracefully to all kinds of reviews, and they have my undying admiration. I am not one of them. I listen, certainly, but I know myself. The risk of getting into an insult-slinging match is just too high, and part of being an adult is learning to shut your yap rather than make things worse. I’m not perfect at that, either, but having a rule about never responding in public to reviews at least ensures I don’t shoot myself in the foot. (Much. Over reviews, at least. I still manage to damage myself in other ways. I’m cool like that.)

I see some writers getting into flamewars and taking reviews utterly personally. Sometimes I just want to grab them and sit them down and make them tea and say, “Honey, just cut it out. Focus on the writing and back away from the forums and chatrooms. Yes, the Internet is a great tool for helping your readers feel a connection with you. But don’t let it get personal, because the Internet never forgets and rarely forgives. Just chill, drink some tea, knit a few rows, or go shopping. Do something else and don’t respond to this stuff. Life is too short, it will make you too tired, and you should really be spending this time writing, anyway.”

But who would listen to that?

[1] Now, sometimes I’ll moan about reviews over drinks with the Selkie. But that’s different, honest. If you can’t bitch with your beta, who can you bitch with?