Hit a snag in a dinner scene in the Ruby book. It’s awkward, as interactions between teenagers and grandmothers sometimes are. So, in lieu of sitting and banging my head against it…
…I decided to move furniture.
The living room is now rearranged. It’s a fun thing, to have your fifteen-year-old come out and say “What are you doing? Ooooh, moving furniture. LET ME HELP.”(And she did, too. We even got chairs up and down the stairs, for lo we are Pumped Up.) I thought they were supposed to get sullen and distant the older they got, but instead they’re these amazing human beings I get to hang out with almost constantly. I choose to take it as a sign that I’m doing something about this motherhood thing right.
So…I am having thoughts of writing serial fiction over at the Deadline Dames site.
And so, I thought I would invite you, darling readers, into the process.
Here’s what I want: something you’d like to see me write in serial fiction. Don’t pitch me your novel. Do please understand that whatever I write, I retain all rights to. (You want to take the idea in another direction, do it, spend the work on it, and submit it. ‘Nuff said.) Do understand that I reserve the right to write what I please. Do please understand that I will take everything you’ve said and go in my own direction. And don’t tell me what a hack I am to even be contemplating this.
With those codicils in place, the floor is open. Let’s do some serial wonder, my dears. Give me your suggestions…
First, the giveaway! I have two–count ’em, two–signed copies of my about-to-be-released YA novel Strange Angels to give away today. Comment on this entry by midnight Saturday, April 25, and with the help of Random.org, your comment might be chosen! Disclaimer: I can only mail to US & Canada addresses. Sorry about that.
ETA: Contest winners have been chosen! Go here for details.
Let’s talk about truth in writing. A fellow writer asked me the other day:
Here’s the thing. I’m a good writer. I know the craft stuff, I have the structure, characterization, dialogue, plot. . . what I lack is that spark of truth, theme, life. I write as honestly as I can, but I don’t know how to break through to the next level. How do you connect to yourself? I feel it should be the most basic element of writing, that one must learn the Other stuff, whereas I know the Other stuff and lack being straightforward. Ironic. How do you do it? Where does the connection come from? I feel I am making headway with my latest work because I asked “what am I trying to say here?” . . . I always avoided it because I don’t want to be preachy or gimmicky or too glib, but perhaps I should. I spent my lunch hour in the bookstore looking over writing reference books and my frustration kept growing because it occurred to me that I do know the things they’re trying to teach. It’s the Bones you talked about that I haven’t grasped yet. Help?
First of all, throw the goddamn writing reference books away. We may get metaphysical here in a bit, and that ballast won’t help. We all know how I feel about books on writing–there are two, count them, TWO I recommend out of the vast number of how-tos. Hitting yourself on the head with those books is probably the best use for them, if only because it will feel so good when you stop. Quit trying to look for a magic key in there. If there was one, the entire self-help/writing book industry would tank overnight.
Next, the bad news.
* You ain’t never gonna be happy, honey, ’cause happy ain’t in the deal. No serious professional writer I know is ever completely happy with the work. Well, they are on one level–there’s a great deal of satisfaction in consistently turning out good craft. But writers are inveterate fiddlers. We go back and edit. Relentlessly and constantly. If we’re any good, we’re constantly refining. Even when your books are in print you are going to open them up and reach for your red pen. That’s just how it is–you are always going to see things you could have done better. It’s like life.
* Like ogres, this craft is all about…layers. There is always going to be another level to get to. No writer is so godlike-perfect that they can’t learn a thing or two, or want to get better. Your characters have layers–you can stay on the top and wonder about their motivations, you can sink inside their skins and look out through their eyes. Either will give you different things to write about. But there will always be another layer, another thing to consider, another goddamn thing to learn. Sorry about that.
But there’s good news, and it outweighs the bad.
* You’re probably ready to move forward. One of the “joys” of a writer’s life (like all true miracles, it has teeth) is that creative motion forward is indirect. I’ve often noticed I get itchy and dissatisfied for a while before the craft takes a serious step forward and I’m back to juggling chainsaws again. I call it “plateau-ing” and I’ve seen it in other writers. You might be ready to take that step into the layer of the “bones”. The process–inspiration, gestation, frustration, illumination–repeats itself over and over with the process of being a writer, both in terms of small individual works of art and artistic growth. Don’t rule out the idea that you might be getting ready to take a step forward.
* And you can’t see the forest for the trees. Get used to the idea that you might be too close to your own work to see the “spark” in it. That’s why we have beta readers and editors. If you’re very lucky you might glimpse it once or twice for yourself, but I have to tell you I haven’t seen it yet. My editor tells me it’s there. My beta assures me it’s there. Some readers tell me it’s there. Sometimes I’m pretty sure a work is technically sound, or I love it because it’s mine.
But here’s a secret: I still cannot see this “spark” you talk about. All I see are the mistakes.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. But if you know you’re too close to see it, you may find some comfort in the thought and quit beating yourself up about it. Beating yourself up is wasting time you could be using for writing. Just…consider the notion, okay?
* You’re obviously not going to quit. Believe it or not, this is very important. You know the answer is there and you’re not going to stop until you find it. That stubbornness will stand you in good stead, and I admire it.
So, what the hell should I tell you to do?
All applicable disclaimers here. But you asked my advice, so here it is.
* Get used to being scared. Like it or not, the bone is where the fear is, and the fear is where the power is. You even mention the lack of being straightforward. What are you scared of writing? Is it something your mother would disapprove of? Something you’d be embarrassed to show your friends? Do it anyway. That fear of being shamed if “someone” reads your stuff is an invaluable sign that you’re on the right track. Heart in your mouth and your palms wet? Don’t stop. Keep going, keep writing.
You care what “someone” thinks enough to stop writing? I didn’t think so. Here’s a little secret: most people could care less. You’re no more than a secondary character in the big drama of their life; it’s the curse of being human. If your mom cares that you write hot sex scenes, if Aunt Lucille would be scandalised because she thinks the dingbat old lady in the book is her, if your ex-boyfriend might recognize himself in the dime-store Lothario who gets nailed in the nuts…who cares? The fig leaf of “these events are fictional” in the front of the book is fair warning, so don’t worry about that. Writing someone into a book is a much healthier way to deal with any residual aggression than many others I could name. And your mom will probably be so proud you’re published she won’t even care about the spicy bits.
But it all comes down to this: who are you writing for? Yes, you have a commitment to your readers. But if you are not writing the things that thrill you all the way down to your knickers, you’re falling down both on that commitment to the readers and the commitment to yourself and your art.
* What is the risk here? You might be afraid of your character risking something. Without risk there is no reward. If your character isn’t really running a risk, of course it feels like you’re just phoning it in. Sit down and figure out what your characters are risking. Then, up the ante. Make them pay for it. Get your heart in your mouth. Be unsure whether or not they’re going to make it. Get them dirty and make them deal with consequences. I know you don’t want to–you really don’t want to hurt your characters. But you have to. Otherwise you have a story with no risk, and no reward.
* Whose story is it? As Laura Kalpakian once said, the story belongs to the character that changes the most. Who is changing in your story? If it’s not the hero/ine, you have some thinking to do.
* Why, yes. It IS like taking your clothes off in public. But nobody is going to look. Some people are going to think that everything you write is about You. A character with trauma must be YOUR trauma. They will judge you based on your characters, and how well your characters conform to THEIR expectations. Of course everything you write is personal–writing is a personal art. But you are going to have to learn that feeling of exposure is not necessarily yours. It’s another trick by the Internal Censor trying to get you to back away from Telling The Truth.
Nobody is going to “find you” in your writing, beyond certain values of lit-crit and biography that I wouldn’t worry about, because by the time they become relevant one will most likely be safely dead. Writing is personal, but it does not hold the key to your inner sanctum. Only you do. The fear of exposing oneself is a necessary social function, and it sometimes holds one back from getting the characters dirty or writing about a situation you have intimate knowledge or imagination of. Don’t worry about this while you’re writing. It can always be edited out, either by you or your beta or your editor. Get it all out first, no matter how heart-in-mouth you feel.
* Do not quit. If you have come this far, you are so very close. You have done what a high percentage of people who call themselves “writers” have never done–consistently finished work and taken a look at what it means and what it takes to get published. You are at one of the last hurdles before the world opens up. Don’t stop. Stamp the pedal to the metal and let the engine roar. Go for the horizon, race to beat the Devil, go until your heart burns. Do not stop.
I promise you, if you do not quit, that spark will be there. Whether you can see it or not.
Now go get ’em.
 Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. That’s it.
Our second winner, of this kickass coffee cup (good for sipping beverage of choice while reading Dame Keri’s latest release) is: Comment #89 from darchole, who said: “Congrats! I preordered mine a while ago, when it shipped I kept checking the tracking to see when it whould get delivered. Number 8 is already on my wishlist to buy when it comes out.”
And (drums please) the Grand Prize winner of the $10 Amazon gift certificate (so you can buy…whatever you want) is: Comment #47 from Firewolf, who ended by saying “Congrats Keri! That is awesome.”
All winners were chosen with the help of Random.org. Winners, please contact me no later than Tuesday, April 7 at midnight; include your snail mail address so we can send your prizes pronto! Thanks for commenting–and congratulations once again to Dame Keri and her New York Times Bestselling New Release, Deadly Desires! *cheers and fanfare*
They lurk on my hard drive like zombies, shambling ghosts of truncated stories. Improperly plotted, unevenly characterized, dribs and drabs of little bits that will never see the light of day. For every story I finish, there are probably ten false starts, or things that didn’t keep my interest, or things I had to put down in order to finish something else.
Okay, more like twenty. Or even thirty.
I used to feel embarrassed over the size of my slush pile before the Selkie admitted she had one just as big. And yes, it’s definitely a slush pile. These are stories that, no matter how much I love them, just don’t cut it. They range from wish-fulfillment fics to weird little fever dreams, odd fantasy ficlets and what I call “character studies”, where I follow a character around through an ordinary day and just get to know them.
This week, between everything (the vomiting six-year-old, the brief hospitalization of a family member, and a ton of work leftover from being out of commission during a bad bout of flu), I’ve been looking at my personal slush file. Because every once in a while you do find a nugget of gold in there–something you can dig up and maybe polish. It might turn into a short story, or even a novel. Unfortunately, you have to sift a LOT of it before you get that gold. (Which is why I call it a slush pile or “the graveyard”.)
And sometimes it’s nice to look through things that won’t get published. On the pages in my slush file, the only person I have to please is myself. Shoddy characterization, plot holes you could drive a Buick through, giddy deus ex machina glibly handing over plot advancement by dropping the magic dingus in? Oh, yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve broken the rules with gleeful abandon here on my hard drive. I am guilty of all a writer’s sins there.
You may think I’m kidding. But really, I’m not. It’s bad.
The personal slush file is also a sandbox where I can try new things. The first stabs at paranormal romance or fantasy I ever made were as a result of digging in that sandbox and trying things out. They’re malformed little stories, rarely longer than 20K before they peter out, but they were invaluable. They gave me the confidence to try more, and they showed me where things weren’t working.
The danger in the slush pile is the danger of never quite finishing anything, or of loving stuff so much that you refuse to take edits or get better. The slush pile is your personal playground, true, but it’s like your bedroom. You don’t have to invite anyone in you don’t want; but you also can’t live your whole life there. (You have to come out and deal with the rest of the world sometime, you know.) When all is said and done, it’s your private place to decorate however you want to. It can help inform the rest of your professional life with joy, but it doesn’t belong out there.
And sometimes it’s the place where you crawl back to when you’re exhausted and just need the blankets and the comfort. Sometimes, when you’re tired and the world is just Not Cooperating, the slush pile is a nice warm place to be. You don’t have to please an editor or a reader, other than your own sweet self, and you can do anything you want there. It’s one of the things that makes this job one of the best in the world, in my humble opinion.
So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to dive back in. I’ve got some bad, horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad Twinkie fiction to write for my sole delectation. It involves this super-spy, you see, and a very nice girl next door who just HAPPENS to be a werewolf on the run from the law…
And a contest to finish off the second launch week of Deadline Dames! Comment on this post, dear Reader (you can tell me about your own slush pile) and if you comment by midnight on Saturday, January 31, you have a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift certificate. How cool is that? (Winner will be picked randomly, with the help of Random.org.) So get your comment on!
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Deadline Dames, Friday Lili edition. We’ve been talking about deadlines this week, and I don’t know that I can possibly add to what the ladies before me have said.
But I’m going to give it the old college try. You knew I would, after all.
I actually (get the rocks and rotten tomatoes ready) like deadlines. They’re comforting. In the first place, a deadline means I’ve sold and promised to deliver a piece of work. This means I get paid, and if I get paid my kids eat. (Sometimes after a year of work and waiting, to be sure. But that’s another blog post.) So the deadline is like a security blanket for me.
That security blanket is along the lines of being in a shark cage, eyeing a Great White and wondering if I’ve cut myself shaving that morning. It’d be a lot worse without the cage, right?
Right. But I have a deep dark secret I’m going to share with you.
I always “pad” my deadlines. That is, I ask for more time than I think I need. There is no harm in asking, and that way I can arrange the deadlines the way I like them–far enough out that I don’t ever have to turn in a rushed job. I get nervous when I get within a month of a deadline. Really nervous. If I’m not turning things in “early” I start stressing out.
They’re not ever going to ask me to write for them again. I’m close to deadline. I can’t do this. I just can’t. It’s within a month. I know I only have four words more to go but what if they’re the most important four words of the book and I fail and my children starve and the sun goes out and it’s all my FAULT?
You know, the regular kind of worries that go with a creative life. I don’t say they’re rational, I just say they happen.
Part of making this creative life a paying proposition is taking a hard look at what you need to consistently produce. I need that extra little bit of time to fool myself into thinking I’m early, because I do better work when I’m not freaking out. And seriously, when publication schedules are done a year in advance, me asking for a month more than I think I need isn’t a big deal. It’s more like creative insurance. This way I am rarely late.
I also have to have my agent say “no” for me (and TO me) or I’d drown in a pile of deadlines. I want to please, you see. I want to please my editors so badly that sometimes I would agree to things that would work me down to a bare nub of myself, leaving me a burned-out, broken husk.
This is not what I want. The name of my game is consistency, and keeping the engine inside my head well-cared-for so it can continue to turn over and feed my kids. Really, most of my professional writing life turns out to hinge on that one simple priority. As well as getting a few chuckles along the way for my own personal gratification…but that’s another blog post.
This is yet another reason why a good agent is worth so much more than that fifteen percent. The agent’s priority is a business priority. He or she can make those decisions based on solid business sense that a writer may not be able to, because of the emotional connection a writer has to his or her product. Lots of “new” writers make inappropriate business decisions–and pay for them.
I asked my agent once if it mattered that I was asking for more time than I needed to finish a book. “Are you kidding?” she replied. An extra month is no dealbreaker. (An extra year might be. And really, if you’ve gotten to the point where you need that extra year, you’ve most probably got an agent and your agent should be taking care of this for you.)
But Lili, I hear plenty of my Friday readers saying. I’m not even published yet. I don’t have an agent. Why are you bothering talking about this?
Because deadlines are not just for the agented writer. They are also for the writer just starting out who thinks they might want to make a living at this crazy game.
Any time you have a job, you have tasks you need to get done by a certain time. Writing is no different. If you cannot set yourself a deadline and stick to it, you are probably not going to get far in the writing profession.
The editor is not going to come to my house with a brickbat and MAKE me write. The editor might ask for the advance back or just not take my book if I turn out to be an utter flakewad. This is a consequence, and no less dire for it being delayed. The consequence of not learning to set yourself deadlines as a new writer can be never getting published.
Some “writers” are okay with that. I’m not. I mean, hey, if you want to, that’s okay. But it doesn’t work for me. My kids have this need to eat, you see…and so do I. I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit, but no luck so far. I just like food too much. And I get all cranky when I’m hungry. (The first three letters of “diet” are a WARNING. I’m just sayin’.)
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any creative career requires even more stringent self-motivation and the ability to set oneself harsher deadlines than most other careers. Consistently producing high-quality work (i.e., work people will pay for) in an industry that has such delayed gratification (and paychecks), when the only person it comes down to is you…well, it’s not for the faint of heart. In a writing career, there is no room for the person who wants to depend on Someone Else to provide the pin to stick yourself in the bum with–in other words, to provide motivation to get moving and DO. In the end, every deadline comes down to you, you, and you alone. It’s a hard place to be, rattling that shark cage and watching that monster as it edges closer.
But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
And now for the contest! The bad news is: I don’t have books to give away right now. The good news? Comment on this entry by midnight PST on Saturday, January 24. A random winner from those comments will get to choose two items from Japhrimel’s Corner. I’ll send you those items for FREE. And really, a coffee mug saying “Oh yes, I CAN kill you twice?” Everyone needs one. So comment away!