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?

Take Break, Cookie Bake

A happy Beltane, and a happy Friday to you, dear Reader. If you are here for writing advice, well…I have just one piece of it this Friday.

Sometimes it’s good to take a little break. Of course the work goes on inside my head whenever I step away from the keyboard–I’m always juggling plot or mulling over a nasty word-choice problem. But some days, you know, it’s good to toss the whole effing thing in a mental trashcan and…

…bake cookies.

This is the best oatmeal cookie recipe I’ve ever found. It’s adapted from a recipe off a package of Snoqualmie Falls Lodge Oatmeal, which happens to make very good cookies. I can’t tell you what it’s like for oatmeal, since I almost never eat the stuff unless it’s in cookie form.

Luscious Oatmeal Cookies

You will need:

1c (2 sticks) of the best unsalted butter one can afford
1c plus 3Tb packed dark brown sugar
3/4c Turbinado or cane sugar (or both, or just plain sugar if you don’t have either)
2 eggs
1 1/2t vanilla extract
2c all-purpose flour
1t to 1Tb cinnamon, depending on taste
1t baking soda
1/2t baking powder
1t kosher salt (1/2t if all you have is table salt.)
3c oatmeal (NOT instant!)
1 pkg. 60% bittersweet baking chips (I prefer Ghirardelli)

Notes: Do not skimp on butter or on the choco chips. Everything else in this recipe you can get cheap, including oatmeal–but not instant oatmeal, and for the love of God get the best butter and bittersweet chocolate chips you can afford. You can also add up to 1c cake flour in place of all-purpose flour, depending on if you like your cookies soft-the cake flour’s lower protein content will soften them up. Start with 1/4c cake flour for 1/4c all-purpose and work up from there.

Put oven rack in the middle and preheat oven to 350F. Get out a nice heavy saucepan (my saucier works wonders both for this and teriyaki sauce) and melt the butter over medium to medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Don’t do this in the microwave–it gives the butter a metallic taste I don’t care for, and it can superheat butter in the wrong way. Stovetop is best.

While butter is melting, measure out sugars and vanilla in heatproof bowl (the metal mixing bowl on my smaller KitchenAid works well.) When butter is melted (you can keep the butter going until it foams or browns, for different tastes), pour it into heatsafe bowl with sugars and vanilla, mix thoroughly with heat-safe silicon spatula or sturdy wire whisk.

Now, set that bowl aside and set a timer for ten minutes. In another bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. I also add a few shakes of white pepper. (Pepper is a secret ingredient in cookies with choco chips.) Then, goof off until the timer rings. (I recommend dancing around the kitchen to flamenco music. No, seriously. I DO.)

The butter-and-sugar mixture should be cool and glossy now. Dump it in your electric mixer’s bowl (if it’s not in there already) and use the paddle attachment (if you have one) on low. Crack the eggs into the bowl and turn it up to medium to whip it good.

Turn mixer back down to low and slowly add flour mixture. When incorporated, stop mixer and scrape down sides of bowl, then add the oatmeal slowly with mixer on low. Add chocolate chips after oatmeal is all gooshed in, and pray to God your mixer doesn’t overheat. (Mine never has yet, but I worry.) Then, let the dough rest for five minutes.

Line your baking sheets with parchment paper. Look, it’s a couple of bucks and it’s a baker’s Sekrit Weapon. You don’t have to change the paper between batches or anything, and it makes cleanup a snap.

Now, here’s something a lot of oatmeal cookie recipes won’t tell you. Get your spoon out and take a spoonful of the dough. Slap it in your palm and roll it into a nice little ball. Then drop it on your lined baking sheet. This not only shapes your cookies, but it also means you don’t get a panful of some undercooked and some overcooked. You’ll get a buttery sludge on your palms, but it won’t hurt you, butter is a great moisturizer and sugar is an awesome exfoliant.

If you like bigger, softer cookies use a bigger spoon to measure out the dough. Plop them on the cookie sheet with at least 2in between them. Slide them in the oven.

Here is the tricky part to cookie baking. These suckers will take anywhere from 8 to 14 minutes to cook, depending on humidity, the quirks of your oven, cookie size…you get the idea. Start at 8 minutes and check them every two minutes thereafter until they are nicely browned around the edges and not shiny in the middle, and the first and second batches will tell you how long to cook the rest. (After a few batches you’ll be able to smell when they’re done, too.) Take ’em out and cool the pan for a couple minutes (usually while throwing the next batch in the oven) on a wire rack. (This is when cookies are most delicate.)

Some people like to slid cookies off the pan with a wide spatula and let them land on the wire rack. I scoop them off and slide them onto the rack with the spatula, since I think it tears the delicate structures inside the “setting” cookie less. Your mileage may vary. Let cookies cool until they will no longer scorch your throat, then dunk in cold milk and bask in the appreciation of your children as they proclaim you the Best. Cookie-Cooker. Evar.

Okay, maybe that last one is just me.

These cookies keep for a nice while if you cool completely and stow in airtight Ziplocs or flat Tupperware (with parchment paper between layers and a paper towel under the bottom parchment, trust me.) But they hardly every stay around long enough to get stale.

Sometimes it is good to take a little time off from the writing. Most often, I end up cooking something during that time, and when I get back to the work it is fresher and more delicious. (Or maybe that’s just the magic of foodening.) Plus, it’s spring. The world is waking up and the trees are dressing themselves again, and baking cookies on a warm spring evening was just the thing I needed after a stressful week.

Mrppphlgrb! (That’s a “Over and out” with a mouth full of chewy, yummy oatmeal cookie.) Enjoy!

Truth Is A Consequence

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
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[1] 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.

[1] Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. That’s it.

On QueryFail, Or, The Lilybed of Grief

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
There’s a fairy story Speshul Snowflakes like to tell themselves. It goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, Arte was Pure and Preshus. Suffering Artistes had no thought of Filthy Lucre; they slaved away over their Precious Werks. They Wrote with Snow-White Quills dipped in their own Preshus Blood, and they starved Gracefully to Death on their Lilybeds of Grief, Watered with pure Preshus Tears. Now They are in the Afterworld and their Werks are Classics, and they are Much Gratified.

But we have Fallen from this Golden Age. Now the True Artistes suffer because Hacks and Agents keep them from the Editors, and the Readers have not seen the Deathless Werks of Genius and Prefer to read Crappe. Filthy Lucre rules because the Readers have Fallen Too, and read Chick Lit and Genre. The Artistes who refuse to Compromise, who Slave Away over Works of Staggering Delicate Genius, don’t Succeed. There is Nothing for a True Artiste to do but Scribble Furious Screeds on the Internet about woe, woe, woe, the Terrible state of the Artes Today.

Despite being complete and utter horseshit, this fairy story has deep roots. We have this cultural vision (and once again, I’m paraphrasing from Julia Cameron’s excellent The Artist’s Way) of The Artist as a substance-abusing, ill-adjusted fragile flower who starves to death rather than change one word of their Deathless Geeeeenyus. The well-adjusted hack who pays the rent with stuff people actually want to read is somehow less “pure” than the Speshul Snowflake who buys into the fairytale.

Which brings me, believe it or not, to Queryfail.

Queryfail was an Internet phenomena where a few agents live-twittered their responses to queries. They told us in excruciating detail what made them throw queries in the “no” pile. They spent their time giving us a window into the minds of working agents, and showed us EXACTLY what didn’t work.

And some precious, fragile little flowers took offense.

Yes, your writing is personal. It can’t help but be personal. It’s your baby. But you have to be a good parent. You’ve got to make it as pretty and well-prepared as you can before it goes out into the cold harsh world. If you do not prepare yourself and your work for rejection, it’s going to be needlessly painful.

I was amazed when I heard about Queryfail. Here is a gold mine of valuable information for new writers. Here are the things that will get your manuscript set aside on a real live agent’s desk. This information–which you used to have to get by trial and error, by whispered conversations with other authors, or by just plain dumb luck–was completely free. You could avoid years of trial and error and learning just by clicking your mouse and reading some Twitter. FOR FREE. I was utterly bowled over. This was awesome for new writers. Hell, it was awesome for hacks like me, too!

Then the Speshul Snowflakes got involved and started moaning about how it hurt their feeeeeeelings and how, if an agent ever dared tweet some of their precious work, there were going to be COPYRIGHT LAWSUITS, by Gawd!

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “Never actually work on your writing if you can moan (preferably on the Internet) about how you’ve been abused,” that’s a Snowflake motto. Some of them tried to put together an AgentFail day, and have since been getting their knickers in a twist. (The most egregious example of this is The Militant Writer, who I refuse to link to. Go Google her and see her current post on “The Talent Killers”, and be amazed.)

And once again, I was amazed. Here are these people getting priceless advice for free, advice I’d’ve given my left arm for back when I was submitting, and they have the gall to get angry and moan about it.

Look, if you write for publication you are going to get rejected. Agents and editors and publishers are in the service of the Almighty Reader, looking for things that are going to give the Almighty Reader value for their cash. The Almighty Reader wants to be entertained, moved, affected, and seduced. They don’t want to be bullshitted (bullshat? I should look that up, but where?) or talked down to. (Which is, incidentally, where a lot of Speshul Snowflakes go wrong, since they have no other mode but “declaim from on high”.) Of course agents and editors want sellable fiction by reasonable people who will not be complete and utter boneheads to work with.

A lot of queryfails are as a result of people thinking the rules don’t apply to them. Submissions guidelines are the first test–can you follow simple rules like doublespace, twelve-point, Courier, send it to this address with this subject line? Can you send just the three chapters/paragraphs/one-page letter the agent has asked you for?

If you cannot follow even those simple rules, how will you deal with a complicated revision letter?

If you cannot follow even the simplest of submission guidelines, you will quite probably be more trouble than it’s worth to train[1]. You are not appearing like a good investment. And since a publisher shells out the cash for advances and for actual publishing (which is not free, you know), they are looking for good investments.

A lot of Speshul Snowflakes are under the mistaken impression that The World Owes Them Something. This impression bleeds over into their work, and they do not see rejection as a chance to get better and try again. They are baffled because they think they are missing out on what they’re owed–a chance in the limelight, plaudits and fame for Just Being Their Speshul Snowflake Selves. They are also under the mistaken impression that making a living by art is easy, hence the world owes them a living at it. And not just any living, a red-carpet celebrity living.

You can just guess what I think of that.

There’s another QueryFail going on today, as QueryDay. Once again, editors and agents are telling you in great detail, for free, what sends a manuscript or query straight into the slush pile. If you’re interested in hard work and free advice, go on over.

If you’re not, well, this isn’t the blog post for you. But you probably knew that in the first few moments.

[1] I was going to say “housebreak”.

Empathy: Hurts So Good

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
First of all, giveaways! To celebrate Dame Keri’s latest book debuting at #6 on the NYTB list, we’ll have three lucky winners chosen at random[1]. We’re giving away this tote bag (so you can carry her book away from the store), this coffee mug (so you can sip coffee/tea/hot milk while reading her awesome book) and the grand prize, a $10 Amazon gift certificate…so you can buy her book, erm, ahem, anything you want. (There may be more Surprise Prizes too.)

To win, just congratulate Keri in the comments of this very post before midnight PST on Saturday, April 4. (She buried the news at the bottom of another DD post, and this, bwahahahaha! is my revenge. Mine is an evil laugh.)

And now, having Announced, comes my regular Friday thoughts on writing.

Laura Anne Gilman said something thought-provoking this morning.

You-the-writer must have empathy for your characters. You have to like them — or hate them. I’m not saying believe they’re real — that road leads to the Palace of Psychosis, and nobody will visit you there except to mock — but you have to let them into your heart as well as your head. It’s that emotional connection that allows you to care about them, not as the means to deliver a message, or to flip a twist, but as actual individuals going through hell. Once you care about them, you can make other people care about them, too.

If you don’t? if you’re emotionally removed from your characters, or see them merely as markers to be moved along the story, in order to achieve a final goal? The most brilliant prose in the world won’t do you for damn. (Laura Anne Gilman)

I hadn’t thought about this before. But it’s true. I cry every time I reread the hospital scene in Dead Man Rising. And the end of Redemption Alley makes me cry every time I read the last four words. When I finish a book I’m more often than not a mess, because I am emotionally invested in these people. They are pretty damn real to me.

No, I’m not a candidate for the Palace of Psychosis just yet. I know they’re imaginary. But I make myself forget they’re imaginary for long enough to finish the book, and I feel for them. Not so much for the books I write to spec–they’re a different kind of Imaginary Real People. But the organic books, yeah. I feel it when they’re hurt. I know what makes them tick. I understand the fault lines in their heads, the damage done to them, the abandonment or betrayal complexes.

A fellow writer (oh, hell, I might as well say it, hello Jeff) asked me about getting into your character’s head, and I’ve been thinking about how to explain how that process works for me. It was particularly agonizing because I had no words for it. I just did it. (Having no words for something is a special kind of hell for a writer.)

Gilman has hit the nail right on the head. It is empathy–imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you build a person from the inside out to write them, or when they show up in your head with this story they need you to tell, feeling for them, understanding what they feel, is very little different than listening to a friend tell a story and not just saying “That must have felt terrible” but feeling it sincerely.

Sometimes, when a character shuts down and refuses to talk, I get out pen and paper and “interview” them. I put together song lists for them (all my organic characters have soundtracks). When I go for walks, or during workouts, I talk to them in my head–a kind of imaginative sympathy, almost like method acting. This is why I love having a fellow writer as a best friend; she understands when I talk about my characters as if they’re real people. (“But I wouldn’t want to speak for him,” she said once about a character, and after a long moment of ironic silence we both burst out laughing.)

It is like magic. I know “magic” doesn’t objectively “work”. But the techniques make a psychological and emotional change in me in order to get the results I want, in order to maximize my chances of the seed of luck hitting prepared ground instead of stone. Your characters and mine aren’t real, but if we feel as if they are we can feel with them, live with them, and transform with them. Which is the whole point.

When I was young I got into the habit of telling myself “stories” before I went to sleep every night. I had a very rich inner life to compensate for the barrenness of the outer; I would literally imagine myself inside the skin of characters and create whole worlds up from nothing. I think that practice of the imaginative muscles stood me in good stead when I began writing stories–for me the only way to do it was to think about how and why the characters were feeling the way they were, how they would react, why they would choose one path over another.

This strikes on something else I believe very strongly: the key to this skill lies in observation. Are you curious about why people do the things they do? Do you watch them? We spend our lives around human beings, predicting their behavior while they drive, shop, interact with us in the office and in social situations. We know much more than we think we do about why people do what they do.

At bottom, most people are just like you. They are afraid of rejection and are the stars in the ongoing stories of their life. People love to talk about themselves, a principle I’ve used several times while interviewing experts for books. Listen when people tell you about themselves. Observe them going about their daily lives.

I warn you though, sometimes it becomes impossible to stop the “observation”. Everything becomes grist for the mill, food for the work. It will become a deep mental habit. Just one of the hazards of the writing life.

So, feel for your characters. Yes, yes, recognize that they are just characters. But they are yours, and feeling for them will create the “spark” Gilman talks about–the opening in the armor for the reader to peek inside and see the vulnerability. That gap is like the vulnerability between lovers. It creates intimacy and opens up the possibility of being hurt, but human beings don’t stop loving. That’s what makes us human.

And that is what will make your characters human. At the end of the day, all fiction is human stories. We are telling each other over and over again what things mean to us. That vulnerability is the chance we have of helping someone else understand. It is a small seed, and from that seed…


Keep writing.

[1] Winners will be chosen with the help of Random.org. So what are you waiting for? Congratulate and win!

Kill Your Darlings–Send In The Man With The Gun

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
This is a reprint from an advice column first posted on May 4, 2007 at the now-defunct Midnight Hour. I’m suffering a bout of stomach cramps and had a semi-emergency this morning, so…a reprint it is for our Friday advice. Besides, I love this piece. Enjoy.

No, I haven’t finally gone off the deep end, despite this being the week from hell. These are bits of advice every writer is given–or should be given, in my ever-humble opinion. These two things will move a story along when all hope seems lost.

Not too long ago Nina Merrill was stuck in a story, and as per usual, we were hashing it out over onion rings (or was it tater tots? I can’t remember.) Anyway, I set my wineglass down and announced, “Send in the man with the gun!”

At the top of my lungs, in a crowded restaurant.

And we wonder why we’re given corner tables back near the kitchen.

Anyway, I had just re-read Elizabeth Bear’s excellent little essay about the middle of the book:

Send in that man with the gun. Kill somebody. Get somebody laid. Hand him the key to the puzzle and then snatch it away. Change it up!

When you’ve reached that place where you don’t know what happens next, start shaking things up. I firmly believe one must mistreat one’s characters. Smack them around. Up the ante, dish out some injury. Plenty of new authors treat their characters like fragile flowers. Don’t fall into that trap. Beat them up! They can take it–they’re tough! Really!

I’ve read plenty of books that fall prey to Teh Boring in the middle, for pages and pages, because the author won’t send in the damn man with the gun. You have to, and sooner rather than later. Conflict is the thing that’s going to keep the reader from setting the book down. Plus, nothing makes the Muse as happy as upping the ante and making the situation more complex, so she really has to exercise her pretty little self to resolve everything.

The only trouble with sending in the MWTG is that you can have lovely little conflicts that you adore, but that do nothing for the story.

Here’s the other piece of advice every writer should have: if it does not move the story along, kill it.

In other words, it may be beautiful, the best writing you’ve done in decades. If it doesn’t move the story along, kill it quickly. Put it somewhere else in a slush pile and use it for another work. These little bits that you love so much are your darlings, and you must ruthlessly excise them in order to keep the story going.

Stagnant story is an abomination. And it makes it easy for the reader to set the book down and walk away to fix dinner. Which can be the kiss of death for a story.

In my writing classes, I’m famous for getting out the red pen. A student is never required to submit their work for an in-group critique, but if they do they must expect no mercy. The catchphrase my students love most is, “I know you love this…but it has to DIE.” Dead weight in a story, unless it’s slowing down the pacing for a good reason, must go. No matter how beautifully written dead weight is, you’ve got to get rid of it. You don’t have to delete it–many a good book has been spurred by a choice nugget in the slush pile–but you can’t afford to weigh a good story down.

Don’t ever think your characters are immune to misfortune or injury. Don’t hesitate to mistreat them. I’m not sure how much of an enjoyable reading experience is schadenfreude, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a large chunk. Get ruthless, my dear fellow writers. Kill your darlings, send in the man with the gun.

Not only do readers love it, but it’s a heckuva lot of fun.

Guilty (Reading) Pleasures

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Guys, I’m sorry. My brain is a big smooth billiard ball inside my noggin. I’m pooped. A big in-depth post about writing today? Forget it. Instead, I’m going to give you a Bulleted List. Because a List is what I do when I’m too tired to tango, you know.

Five Guilty (Book) Pleasures

You read that right. Five books I love, that I feel a little bit guilty when I read. Maybe because they’re pulpy, maybe because I enjoy them so much…maybe for no good reason. They’re not quite Cheeto reads, but they’re still guilty pleasures.

* Stephen King’s It You know, it just doesn’t get any better than this monster. I really think this is King at the top of his game, even if I stop reading the moment Bill puts Audra on the bicycle. For me, this read is all about the Losers growing up, and I love every minute of it, even the terrifying parts. You know, it probably says something if this is one of my comfort reads. I’m just not quite sure WHAT it says.

* Nancy Price’s Sleeping With the Enemy Forget that silly movie with Julia Roberts. The book is seven different flavors of awesome. I think I love it for some of the same reasons I love Frankie & Johnny–not so much for the main characters as for the glimpses of life that go on around them, and the characterizations of the secondary and tertiary people in the story.

* Charles Bukowski’s Factotum On nights when I can’t sleep, Bukowski helps. Yes, the book is about the adventures of a misogynistic, alcoholic, ugly, and emotionally stunted individual. It is also one of the most searingly honest looks at poverty and wage slavery around. And even though I hate Bukowski’s attitude toward women, I also think he was terrifically talented as an honest writer. Oh, and Post Office kicks major ass too.

* LJ Smith’s Forbidden Game series I love LJ Smith’s YA novels, specifically the Forbidden Game and the Dark Visions series. I loved them like candy and read them over and over again. Her Vampire Diaries series is enjoying a resurgence, but it didn’t set me on fire the way the other two did.

* Last but not least in any way, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, quite frankly one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. From the very beginning (I can quote bits of the opening chapter from memory and get a chill each time I do) to its inexorable conclusion, to everything in between–it’s just gorgeous, and Smilla herself is one of the best female characters in fiction. Hoeg’s other stuff hasn’t really impressed me the way Smilla has, but I keep coming back to this book over and over again–and, like White Oleander, I buy copies to give to people.

There you have it, five of my guilty pleasures. Some of them are books that I enjoy and luxuriate in so much it feels, well, sinful. (There’s the Puritan in me struggling against the chains of reasonable hedonism. I like to sip a mint mojito while I watch that struggle.) Others are books that just feel like eating junk food, but won’t make me feel slightly queasy afterward. (Much better than junk food.) And all of them, I think, are worth a try.

So, what’s your guilty reading pleasure?