Some Basic Questions

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Welcome to the Friday Writing Post! Today it’s a short one, because yesterday was the last day of school. So of course the Princess’s best friend stayed the night, and I have promised them cookies. They are champing at the bit to get to the cookies. There is a double batch in the works, between the toffee pieces I bought and and the propensity of Certain People in the house to snitch bits of dough.

I, of course, am innocent of such things. (Yeah, right.)

Today I’ll be answering some questions from my Worldbuilding and String post. Reader Tanya had some questions, and I thought they were reasonable. I realize I don’t talk a lot about nitty-gritty process, and these very simple questions are a good place to start. So, away we go!

1) when you write dialogue…how do you format it while writing the 1st draft. Do you include formatting during the first go round?

Want to know something embarrassing? I didn’t know about commas and dialogue tags all the way through my first two novels. “Hey Lili. When you have a dialogue tag–he said, she said, etc., you need to put a comma before the last quotation marks,” my editor finally said. (Notice how I slyly slipped that in there?) I’d been putting in periods. *facepalm* I have to keep learning about punctuation, or she will bite me.

Anyway. Here’s the rules for formatting dialogue:

* Remember those commas if you’re using a dialogue tag.

* Though I don’t advocate dialogue tags, because they’re deadweight. “I don’t think you want to pull that trigger,” Avery said. It’s okay, right? Serviceable.

But look how it could be better, with action tags. “I don’t think you want to pull that trigger.” Avery yawned, showing white teeth. “It could be very unhealthy for you.” You see? Action tags don’t need that comma.

* Say you have two people speaking, George and Amy. Whenever the speaker changes, you need a new paragraph. DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, PUT TWO DIFFERENT SPEAKERS IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH. That’s a junior mistake and will get your manuscript tossed.

“I think she’s wrong.” George peered over Amy’s shoulder.

“You try being an editor.” Amy sighed and shut the laptop.

New speaker, new paragraph. It’s that simple. (Can you tell a few “writers” have argued with me over this one? While I was a submissions editor? Can you guess if they got tossed in the slush pile? You betcha.)

* Kill the exclamation points and dressed-up dialogue tags. An exclamation point is like the word “that”–mostly unnecessary and overused. Think very hard about either of those things wherever they show up. And don’t use dialogue tags like “George grated” or “Amy yelled,” unless you have a very good reason to. Action tags first, dialogue tags when necessary to avoid confusion, and exclamation points and dressed-up dialogue tags almost never. Stephen King pointed out that “said” is good enough most times.

2) do you outline or use index cards?

I, erm, actually am a pantser. I don’t outline OR use index cards, though I’ve heard of people using both. Sometimes I’ll do a list in a separate document of characters–names, vitals, statistics.

About halfway through a book, though, the story will grow a sort of halfass outline down at the bottom with big plot events in [bold and brackets]. This lasts from the halfway to the two-thirds point, where the story invariable veers away and I erase everything bolded and bracketed. I find that too much structure kills the story–I need it loose enough to breathe, loose enough to be surprised. Trusting the work is my big thing.

I’ve seen a lot of writers with beautiful detailed outlines…and no story. Outlining can become a timesuck and a way to avoid the actual work of writing. HOWEVER, I also know a lot of productive writers who outline almost obsessively and it doesn’t hurt them any, it’s all part of their process. The acid test is whether or not you’re producing work and finishing things.

3) if you outline – how deep do you go?

See above. I generally know where the story is going in the very first line. The story that I don’t have at least a vague idea of where it’s going is very, very rare. I call the Big Events in the story “wickets” like in croquet, places the ball needs to go through on its journey to the final hoops and a finished game.

4) what type of software do you use, if any? preferences? im a techy so tech is always a consideration for me. (I have a mac and am trying to use scrivener.)

Here’s where I’m sure I’m going to piss some people off.

Novel-writing software seems like another big timesuck to me–a pretty thing whose actual usefulness is outweighed by the “playing with it instead of writing” factor. I think a basic word-processing program is all you need. I can see needing a separate program for scripts–scriptwriting is a totally different beast and you need different formatting tools to do it–but “novel-writing software” looks like a waste of time and money to me.

I use MSWord because I’m familiar with it and the MSOffice suite is good value for my money. I write in 12pt Times Roman, single space, first line indent, print layout, no spaces between paragraphs. Before I send the finished draft to a beta reader or editor I do a global double-space and add page numbers and the title and my last name in the header. But while I’m writing it’s just me and the page. The frills and furbelows on every piece of “novel writing software” I’ve ever seen just look to me like ways to avoid actually writing. I am sure some writers use it and it works fine, but I really think the less furbelows, the better. You can get OpenOffice or a basic office suite and have spreadsheets (I know a couple writers who use those) for keeping track of characters, and all the formatting options for getting your piece into submission-ready shape that your little heart could ever desire.

Plenty of the “tools” I see listed on the packages for novel-writing software are things you need time and practice to master. Themes and character development and structure will come as you get more practiced. You won’t be able to get away from your personal themes–as long as you’re telling the truth on the page, they’ll follow you around like puppies. Character development will happen as you learn to trust yourself and the story. Structure also comes after you’ve finished writing a few books, read many many books, and acquired a feel for what works and what doesn’t inside the confines of a particular form, whether it’s short story or novel. There is no substitute for hard work and practice when it comes to this, and I think the “tools” in novel-writing software might possibly be training wheels for some but are most likely shiny toys to distract from doing that hard work and getting your ten thousand hours in.

Your mileage may vary. But for me, it’s basic word processing. That’s the only tool I need. I am, however, very glad I no longer have to use a manual typewriter. Yes, that’s how I started out writing.

But that’s another blog post.

Keep writing!

Keep writing!

About That Internet

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I see a lot of new writers abusing the Internet, or being abused by it, nowadays. So, in the vein of Jordan Summers’s recent Dame For A Day post, I thought I’d weigh in about various pitfalls of that lovely, wonderful timesuck.

I was amused and horrified to read about what Jordan calls “Internet authors”–writers who write around their Internet time, not the other way around. I was even more horrified when I took a hard look at my own Internet usage and…erm, well, yeah. (Truth hurts, doesn’t it, Lili?) So I got out that writer’s best friend, the kitchen timer, and put myself on a strict schedule. Timer rings, I’m off the Net, even if I haven’t “finished.” This forces me to get important correspondence done and the daily blog post out, and leaves me just a few minutes for surfing, say, the Comics Curmudgeon or I Can Has Cheezburger. (Not to mention playing on Twitter…)

There’s nothing like a timer to concentrate one’s mind and priorities. At least, so I’ve found.

There’s something else I want to talk about when it comes to the Net, though, and it’s social networking. No, this is not a paean to the wonders of Facebook or a gushing about how one should really get on Twitter. No, this is about a little thing called asymmetrical follow.

Asymmetric follow happens because on sites such as Goodreads and Facebook, once I am “friended” with someone, I have little control over what gets sent to me. Yes, I can see their profile and there’s good things about being “friended,” but I also have to wade through a bunch of invitations, events, and other stuff on a daily basis. If I followed up on all the invitations I get on Facebook, I’d have literally no time for writing.

This is a bad thing.

I’ve ended up using Twitter more regularly because I can control what I see through Tweetdeck. To put it bluntly, I tend to follow industry professionals, fellow authors, and people I know out here in meatspace. I don’t follow everyone who follows me, nor do I intend to. I am not required to follow anyone who follows me, really; that’s not what I use the service for. I do read my @replies and engage in conversations with fans on Twitter, but if I followed everyone who asked the service would lose a great deal of its usefulness for me. Asymmetrical follow is a fact of life, and the passive-aggressive behavior of some folks who think they’re “owed” a follow or a friending (because obviously I exist to fulfill their needs, not to write books or have a life) just makes me turn away.

I engage on sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, even the Deadline Dames and my own blog, for a reason. And that reason is not to fill up my time or stroke someone’s ego–not even my OWN ego. I maintain a presence on MySpace and Facebook for my dear Readers, on Goodreads because I like to get book recommendations as well as track my reading. I’m on Twitter for two reasons: to have conversations with industry professionals and friends, and to give fans a little more of a “personal” relationship with my public self as an author. Here at the Deadline Dames I’m supporting fellow authors, centralizing promo opportunities, and enhancing another aspect of my public self as an author.

My personal blog is really not quite that personal. I’m careful what I put up there, because it’s about (you guessed it) my public self as an author. I don’t blog about certain aspects of my personal life. I don’t post pictures of my children or the real names of my friends and family, because that’s an infringement on their privacy and safety. The website is my public face, and I don’t want egg or mud on it.

I see a lot of authors treating their websites like their living rooms. Which would be fine–except they forget that other people come in and look around. The living room is the room you invite guests–fans and the curious–into. You can walk around naked in your living room if you like–but do you want to do it when you’ve got company over? More grief and Internet wank comes from this than from just about anything else.

Authors and industry “professionals” sometimes forget that the Internet is public. Even when you set your posts on Livejournal, Blogger, or your own website to “private,” whatever you’ve written is out there on a server somewhere. It’s like giving the key to your diary to someone else to hold. If you trust that person, fine. But can you trust a blogging site? Murphy’s Law and the nature of the Internet tells me that it’s perhaps not wise.

It’s one thing to make an ill-considered public statement and deal with the fallout. It’s another thing to bare your soul (or your metaphysical boobies) in a public venue and deal with the fallout. I’ve seen a lot of authors treat their blogs, whether on their sites or on a platform like LiveJournal, as if it’s their diary and say things that should be kept behind the vest. Then, when all hell breaks loose, they feel violated. Then there’s the entertaining trainwreck of authors blogging about their sex lives, marriages, personal peccadilloes or vendettas in the industry–and being surprised when it explodes in their face or the fans get disgusted.

One of the most important things I learned in massage school was the principle of dual relationships. When I was practicing massage therapy, my relationship with my clients was simple: client/massage therapist. If a client invited me, for example, to a barbecue, I could make the call whether or not I wanted to add another relationship: friend/friend. It was hardly ever advisable to do so, but if I did, I had to be clear about which relationship I was in at any given moment and what the boundaries were. This saved trouble and heartache, and it was the professional thing to do.

That system of thought has stood me in good stead ever since. When my writing partner is critiquing me, we have a professional and well-defined relationship. When we’re kibbitzing over wine at our favorite Thai restaurant, we have a personal, friendly, and no less well-defined relationship. When I work at the bookstore, my boss is also my friend–but when she puts the “boss” hat on, I have the “employee/volunteer” hat on, and that relationship is, you’ve guessed it, well-defined. We make it clear what relationship we’re in at any given moment, and it cuts down on troubles and misunderstandings.

This is a skill we hardly ever bother to teach teenagers, or tell them they’re going to need. It would do the adults they turn into a world of good.

On my personal blog, I’m paying for the bandwidth and I have a comment policy. But I also have a professional relationship with my readers. I am there to provide content, not just to moan about my cat’s hairballs. On Twitter, I am providing content–or trying to do so, anyway. (My ideas of “content” on Twitter are a LOT looser than on my blog.) But there are well-defined boundaries to the relationship I have with my Readers on my blog, on Twitter, on Facebook–just about anywhere online. Those boundaries keep me intact and reasonably un-embarrassed, though I am just as prone to making an ill-considered statement as the next person. Thinking about, having, and sticking to those boundaries saves me a great deal of trouble and grief.

And remembering that the Internet is public can save other writers a lot of grief.

‘Nuff said.

A Good Book Ain’t All You Need

This Friday writing post starts out with a question someone asked me on Twitter. (Look, I know–the publicity guy made me do it. I SWEAR.) Anyway, I often answer industry questions in my own little idiosyncratic way. This time someone asked me “Is writing a good book all you need to get an agent?”

Erm, well, how can I put this politely?

Oh, hell no.

A “good book” is not all you need. You also need discipline, people skills, the ability to follow directions and work well with others, patience, a thick skin–the list goes on and on. This is not easy, and the people who gain representation from agents or an editor’s attention do not “just write a good book” any more than Olympic athletes “just practice a little.”

It is important to “write a good book,” one that is as polished as you can make it. But that’s just a first step in a long journey. I won’t be talking about grammar, punctuation, or story here. I’m going to be talking about the process you need to go through to get other people excited about your work–excited enough that they will spend time and money promoting it and bringing it to other people. This is what agents and editors DO.

* First, recognize that agents and editors are not your adversaries. They are people who love books, love reading, and love the process of bringing a book to print. (They wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.) They also have to make a living, just like writers do. I’ve seen a lot of writers shoot themselves in the foot by getting combative about agents or editors. (Here’s a note to authors, aspiring and otherwise: the Internet is not private. ‘Nuff said.)

* Also, recognize that agents/editors read a LOT of CRAP. Let me tell you something. I read slush for a small press once. 97% of everything that made it past the first hoop (see below) had egregious spelling/punctuation/other errors in the first page–hell, mostly in the first paragraph. Those errors, which could have been fixed with a little bit of care, time, thought and effort, got those manuscripts ungraciously tossed. I am constantly amazed at people who think turning in a manuscript is like shooting off an email. (Or even a blog post. Ha.) It isn’t. I would bet that most of these were first drafts, and that none of them had been spell-checked; the authors thought they could speak English just fine, so what did they need to study sentence structure or punctuation for?

It’s enough to drive a reasonable person right off the cliff. No wonder slush-readers get dyspeptic.

* Follow simple directions. The 97% I refer to above was actually only about 10% of manuscripts I received. The initial 90% arriving at my desk did not follow submission guidelines. So they didn’t even make it past the starting gate.

Let me be ruthlessly honest here. (You knew I would be, anyway.) Submissions guidelines exist for two reasons: to make it easier for the agents to organize, and to find out which “writers” can obey simple rules. If you cannot follow simple submissions guidelines (here’s an example of simple guidelines,) how in the bloody blue blazes can an agent or editor trust you with complex revision tasks, overlapping schedules or in-house proofing rules?

Do not underestimate the utility of a brief, polite email or long-distance call to simply inquire if the posted submissions guidelines are still relevant or if they’ve changed. Do your homework, read the directions, read the listings in Writer’s Market. It will get your manuscript past the first gate.

* Be a flippin’ professional. (This is part of the SECRET-that-isn’t.) You expect an agent to spend his/her time (which is money, because they get paid according to what they sell) pushing your book? You expect a publisher to lay out an advance, the cost of paper, the cost of man-hours editing and typesetting, and the cost of marketing to publish your book? When they don’t initially know you from Adam?

Puh-leeze. You have to EARN that trust before they open their checkbooks. Part of earning that trust is acting like this is a job, and acting according to reasonable rules of human politeness.

A lot of people try to break into publishing because they have a bone-deep belief that they are Speshul and that regular rules don’t apply to them. A teaspoon of that self-love might be healthy, but more than that is like too much pepper–it turns a tasty dish into an inedible mess. Yes, you’re Speshul. Just like everyone else. And like everyone else, you need to get along with other human beings or you won’t get what you want.

Writing is a weird Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of career. There’s just YOU and THE PAGE for a great deal of it. Then there’s the other bit, where you have to get along with agents and editors, not to mention readers at conventions and signings. People skills are necessary, as are patience and a thick skin. You have to avoid and deal with the hard sell. (Hint: it doesn’t work.)

* Be patient, and continue. Agents and editors are constantly looking out for new, fresh voices. They are also constantly swamped. Publishing is a waiting game. While you’re waiting for a rejection letter, you could drive yourself crazy–or you could be working on the next book. The former will drive you, well, crazy. The latter gives you something to do, gives you practice, and widens the number of manuscripts you can have out in the world looking for a home. I call this the “shotgun theory” of publishing. If you keep writing and submitting properly, the chances keep going up that something that you’ve written will find a home somewhere.

I often mention that I was lucky, because a lot of things fell into place for me career-wise. What I say right afterward (and what a lot of newbie “writers” ignore) is that I worked very hard for eight to ten years before my first moment of luck, and worked my ass off afterward so that when more luck came, I was ready to take full advantage of it instead of letting it wither. Flogging just one manuscript is a fool’s game, despite the occasional lottery-winning one-manuscript wonder. I’d rather pay the rent consistently.

* Don’t be precious. I guarantee you, the agents and editors have seen it all before. They’ve had people try to bribe them with chocolate and other assorted things. They’ve had manuscripts arrived on scented, colored paper. They’ve been the victims of well-meaning but incredibly creepy self-promotion from anxious and overeager writers. Don’t be That Guy.

No, you don’t “just need a good book.” You need hard work, professionalism, people skills–all those things you need to be successful in any career, and especially any freelance arts career. Mind you, I’m not saying that people skills can cover up a pile of crap in manuscript form, either. But when I’m working as an editor and I’m given a choice between a Werke of Geeenyus from a Preshus Speshul Snoflake Who The Rules Don’t Apply To or a reasonably solid and decent manuscript from a Professional, I will inevitably take the latter. Because manuscripts can be revised and edited and helped. Speshul Snowflakes…can’t.

Over and out.

In Defense of Genre, and Artistic Compression

To round off last week’s post from the vaults, here is the post that immediately followed a year ago. I had planned to wax rhapsodically bitchy about how everyone puts genre fiction down, but others have done it better. So, here’s what I came up with a year ago, instead. Enjoy.

I woke up this morning with a serious case of the crankies. So if I seem a little bloody-minded, dears, that’s why.

I had a whole post about genre planned, but it would probably devolve into a huge slaughter of innocent verbage, full of recondite brimstone and unfounded combative assertions. Such is my mood. So I’ll content myself with two small things this Friday and go vent some of my spleen in fiction.

First, I’d like to make a small observation. An overwhelming number of what we consider “classics” today were seen as “genre” or “trash” fiction in their time. Novels were considered women’s reading (and hence, unSerious) for a very long time; plenty of novelists were supposed to feel ashamed of their success. Lots and lots of things we see as classic (because they have survived) started out as, for want of a better word, schlock.

This hinges on a theory I have that lit fic–the “highfalutin litrachur” genre is supposed to be the redheaded stepchild of–is actually a pretty recent invention. The Selkie and I were talking this over last night and she observed that lit fic is actually so diffuse it can’t be pigeonholed into a genre. There’s a fair amount of accuracy in that observation. I wonder if that diffuseness makes it easier for critics and reviewers to drown it in academese and impress each other, therefore making lit fic “serious” and genre “unserious”.

This is still a foggy idea of mine, so I want to invite other people into the conversation. I’m going to be thinking all week about what genre means, what lit fic means, and where I think the two differ. I don’t think it’s just in shelving or cover art.

Further bulletins as my thoughts coalesce. What do you think, dear Reader?

The second thing I’m going to mention is artistic compression. I use this term to describe the sense of pressurization I feel right before I dive into a big project–in this case, the fourth Kismet book. The outside world becomes an irritation and chores are something to be rushed through so I can get to the real work, which is the boiling of the book inside my head until it’s ready to slide out at varying speeds.

Ugh. That’s a nice mental image, isn’t it.

The sense of compression often returns, as Caitlin Kittredge so aptly describes, near the end of a book. (She calls it “Hibernation Mode”.)

A lot of the creative process seems to involve varying feelings of pressure. There’s the pre-boil of a book, the stages of writing (including the MY GOD THIS BOOK WILL NOT DIE slog halfway to three-quarters of the way through) and the sudden decompression after a book is finished, which involves a lot of spinning aimlessly. There’s a sense of pressure in revisions too, and sometimes after a particularly intense round of revisions I feel drained and bug-eyed as if I’ve just rewritten the goddamn novel.

It is really, really important to think about those feelings of pressure and to identify one’s own creative process, so it isn’t a huge deadly thing each time. A lot of writers seem surprised each and every time by the intensity of the feeling and the emotional drain. No doubt it is surprising, but not analyzing the feeling and reminding oneself that it’s normal can lead to a whole lot of inefficient flailing.

And while I enjoy a good inefficient flail as much as the next person, there’s always the timesuck factor involved. Figuring out your emotional reaction to your artistic process is one of those things that can make you a better writer–or at least, a more productive one. If you’re not blindsided by the compression, if you can take a deep breath and remind yourself that this happened the last few times you worked on a project, the physiological effects (mine include sweating hands, headaches, backaches, feelings of crankiness only rivaled by PMS, and a great deal of synesthetic irritation*), while not receding in intensity, can at least approach the realm of something you can deal with instead of a Huge Fricking Unworkable OMG Problem.

I tend to view the creative process as a technician. If I can figure out how this engine works for me I can get, if not standardised, then at least consistent results out of it, which is what I want. I know a True Artiste is supposed to wait in agony for the numinous descent of the fickle Muse, but I don’t have time for that. I’ve got books to write NOW, dammit.

So, fellow writers, how does your (if you feel it) artistic compression work? Any strategies, tips, tricks to get yourself through? I’m curious, and hoping I’m not utterly batzoid nuts.

Of course, the way I feel this morning, I just might be despite all my hope.

* I use this term loosely, of course. Most of the time my borderline-synesthesia is a happy fillip to daily life, a source of joy and creative connections. But there comes a time in the compression cycle when it just gets to be too much input and I get seriously frazzled, feeling like a delicate sensory instrument being mercilessly whacked by reams of static and messy data pouring in. GAH.

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 Loveisrespect.org.

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?