Hidden Hinges, and the Messy Death of a Metaphor

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
My brain is oatmeal today, because yesterday I finished the first draft of the third Strange Angels book. So if I occasionally sound like a babbling idiot, that’s why. There’s a snapback involved in finishing any huge project. This one is all the more intense because I don’t get a break–I go right into last-minute Weasel Boy revisions and short-story reworking. Come August, when everything is turned in, I am going to be so, so useless.

Last week I talked about how writing is not a bloodless art. Several of you have asked me about the “hidden hinges” I mentioned at the very beginning of that piece. (Warning: I am about to beat a metaphor to death in this post. I AM NOT KIDDING.)

Now, this is purely personal terminology, YMMV and all that. I do structure my books vary carefully and put things in certain places for a reason. I tend to visualize a book like a tapestry or a fall of cloth hanging in a certain configuration, and the external and internal hinges are the places where I’ve inserted a hook or something to get the fabric to make the shape I want. It requires both fine close work (trees) as well as stepping back to take a look at how the whole damn thing is hanging (forest.)

What I call “external” hinges are big plot points, major parts of the plot. Smaller plot points are the folds of the fabric itself. Internal, “hidden” hinges are smaller, pretty much invisible underpinnings, and they come in two types: the personal and the reader’s hinges.

This won’t make a lot of sense without an example, so here goes.

In Working For The Devil, the sex scene with Dante and Japhrimel is an external hinge. It moves the story forward and introduces the basic tension in the second half of the book, the tension that was foreshadowed both by Japh’s treatment of Dante and by Dante’s own feelings of being an alien in her own world. The reader’s hidden hinge in that scene is where Dante talks about Japhrimel telling her things she had always wanted to hear. That feeling–that you’re waiting for the lover who will whisper the right thing in your ear–is amazingly human, and it is the reader’s entry into the scene, for all it occurs near the end of it. It’s not quite a payoff, but it is a hidden hinge and part of the reason why that scene works.

The personal hinge is just that–personal. It’s the part of the scene that makes it work for the writer, and no, I’m not going to tell you what my personal hinge in that scene is. It’s not what you think.

The personal hinge is the writer’s entry into the scene–it gives the writer what the scene is “about,” it emotionally invests the writer so that the writer can make it possible for the reader to be emotionally invested. It happens in the oddest places, and most times the reader’s eyes skip right over it. I have yet to identify a hidden hinge in a fellow writer’s book, and I have yet to have anyone guess any of mine correctly–or even mention them.

This is why reading is so important for writers. You have to read widely, in a few different genres, before you start being able to identify where the outer and the reader’s hidden hinges are. Sometimes the hidden hinges are missing–try as I might, I cannot find them in a lot of big “blockbuster” books. (Clancy and Dan Brown come to mind here.) This could be because there is no emotional point of entry for me in those books personally, or it could be because they’re not there. (I will leave that question where it lies.) I can read them for other reasons, but the satisfying emotional gestalt of story is missing.

Hinges are different than worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is how you dye that fall of fabric, but without the hinges it’s just a shapeless mass. Hoisting it properly and making it hang to make the finished shape you want requires structure–both the bigger structure of external hinges and the smaller detail-oriented structure of reader’s hidden hinges.

If the external and the reader’s hidden hinges are at variance or improperly balanced, the work isn’t going to “hang” right and will feel lopsided or misshapen. External hinges without internal hinges make for a choppy mess of events with very little internal logic and no reason to care about why these characters are doing those things. Internal hinges without external hinges are very hard to do, because a story without something happening, even if that something is purely internal, is not quite a story. Sometimes the reader’s hidden hinges can double as external hinges in a story with not much “going on” on the surface, but that’s a hat trick for other writers, not me. Purely internal stories are okay, but I prefer a little more bang and flash. Again, that’s a personal taste.

I didn’t find out about internal hinges until after my sixth novel or so. Before I had a fuzzy idea why some things worked, because I’d read so much and had caught the rhythm of storytelling. But around my sixth finished book I started being able to see the structure of a whole book inside my head like a 3-D model, and I was pretty much useless and excited for a week thinking about it and applying that sight to stuff I’d already written. Which held up okay, I guess, for someone who couldn’t see what they were doing while they were building it. I’d been working blind up to that point, just doing things instinctively, and now I could finally see what I was doing.

It was awesome.

This is part of why I am so adamant that writers cannot stop at their first finished piece and just flog that one, endlessly. I may be a dolt because it took me six effing books to get the structure model inside my head, but I would never have gotten there if I was still flogging smoke and being That Writer. There are two things about novel writing that new writers largely don’t get: that it takes a phenomenal amount of sheer bloodyminded practice/hard work, and that it’s different each time. Each novel’s process is different–the shape under the cloth is unique. Understanding how to get the cloth to fall the way you want requires that you practice enough to understand how cloth behaves, to get it to do what you want.

I warned you I would beat that metaphor to death, but I think I’ll stop now while it’s on the floor begging for mercy. I don’t have the heart to finish it off today. I must be getting soft in my old age. Either that or I’m exhausted from finishing that most recent book and looking at dyeing a whole new batch of cloth…

Oh, crud. The metaphor just died. Guess I killed it after all.

Keep writing!

This Is No Bloodless Art

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Today, dear Reader, I will get philosophical. My apologies in advance.

Last night I was working on the third Strange Angels book. I’d revised as far as one of the hidden hinges in the story–let me make an instructive little detour here.

In every story there are visible and hidden “hinges”–places where the particular bits of the story “hang,” for structure. The visible hinges are crisis points and revelations, easy enough to spot. The hidden hinges, however, are harder to see. This is partly because the hat-trick of writing depends just as much on what happens behind the curtain as it does on the visible excitements that make up the outer story.

It is also partly because the hidden hinges mean more to the author, if that is possible, than they can to the reader.

Okay, detour over. This particular hidden hinge was one I knew I had to expand on, but the first time around, in the heat of creation, I hadn’t known what to put there. I was going along in the particular, fierce but relaxed concentration of revision, and I suddenly reached the place where there was a “hole” in the manuscript. And I knew what to put in it. So I did, which just happened to bring me to 60K on the total wordcount, my goal for the night.

And then, sitting there and taking a deep breath, I burst into tears. Because the hidden hinge in this particular scene means a great deal to me, and touched a raw place.

The funny thing is that a reader will maybe spend a second or a second and a half reading this particular line, with no consciousness of how it affects me-the-writer. Their eyes will pass right over it, and that’s okay. It’s a hidden hinge, and not meant to be decorated to draw attention to its little self.

Here’s the important thing, though: I was terrified of writing it.

So much of writing is going where the fear is. Fear is power, and a lot of writers don’t want to go there. It’s absolutely natural. Who, after all, wants to be afraid or hurt? Feelings of fear or pain exist for a reason. They are warnings, and quite effective ones. They’re like the reflex that pulls your hand back before you realize you’ve touched something hot. (Gom jabbar notwithstanding. Ha.)

Harnessing that power, going where the fear is, writing even though your hands are sweating and your heart is in your mouth, is the very least you owe your readers. You have a bargain with them–you tell the truth, they keep reading. Lie, bullshit, pull back or cop out–and they sense it. They smell it. It will get your book thrown across the room faster than anything.

Your method of telling the truth may not work for some readers. They may not like how you do it, the words or the themes you choose. That’s okay. For the ones whose reception matches with your transmission, the ring of truth is what fulfills the bargain and keeps them coming back. It is far, far easier to find those fans who will love your stuff if you’re not bullshitting. Bullshit and punking out effectively close the gate before your horse has even left.

It breaks your legs before you can begin the race.

The temptation to punk out is huge, especially when it comes to hidden hinges. Why put something in that makes you cry or hurts you, reminds you of a failure or a heartache, when you know the reader’s eyes will pass right over it?

Because you’ll know. Because they’ll sense it. Because even if nobody knows you welshed on that part of the deal, you will and it’s still f!cking welshing. It betrays the Muse, it betrays your readers, and you betray yourself. If you don’t care about the first two you should care very much about the third, because you are the only person you will have to deal with 24-7 for the rest of your life. You will know.

Yes, the fear is there. It is overwhelming. Committing yourself to writing is just like committing yourself to anything worthwhile.

It will be painful. There will be blood.

I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.

That’s Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And it’s also true.

Art is the transformation of the world. Transformation don’t come easy and it don’t come cheap, honey. Nothing worthwhile ever does. The fear will try every trick in the book to keep you from writing truly, to keep you “safe” and in the kiddie pool. It’s like the Internal Censor–it will not go away, and it thinks it’s helping you. It is–it’s helping to show you where the power is. But it does not help you if it makes you punk out or look away, even on the hidden hinges.

Find that fear. Face it down. Keep your eye on it and let it snarl at you all it wants. It’s only fear, after all, and with the Muse as chair and grammar as whip you can make it do all sorts of tricks. Commit yourself completely. Let there be blood on the page. Don’t stop. Don’t punk out. Run the fear, don’t let it run you.

Yes, it’s hard. But if this job was easy it wouldn’t be half as heart-in-mouth, adrenaline fun, now would it?

And now, excuse me. I’ve got to go bleed a little more.

Have fun.

Priorities, Toxicity, And Putting Up With Sh!t

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
First off, news! My writing partner the Selkie, aka Nina Merrill, gave an interview to Grace Draven the other day. It might be interesting for readers of my Friday posts about process to see how another writer answers some of the same questions. (You can find Nina’s work here and Grace’s here. Yes, they both work for a small press for the moment, yes, I know about the covers. Really. I do.) I absolutely adore Nina–she’s my writing partner and beta reader, after all–and I love Grace’s kick-ass-and-take-no-prisoners attitude. So, enjoy!

Keri Arthur did a great post yesterday at Deadline Dames, titled Achieving The Dream. It’s chock-full of truth and usefulness, and I’m going to shamelessly borrow the idea and talk a little bit about #2 from it.

I don’t know about your family, but mine never really took my writing seriously. In the early years, it was considered ‘my hobby’ and was not something anyone ever thought would amount to anything (including me, most of the time). So, they never really considered it an inconvenience to interrupt my writing sessions for whatever reason. (Keri Arthur)

Yes. Oh, God, yes. I know this. And Keri goes on to hit the cause on the head:

In the early years of my writing, it was totally mine. My family treated my writing as a hobby simply because I did. I might have been serious in my attempt to be published, but I didn’t voice that. I let myself be interrupted. I didn’t treat my writing as a job, I didn’t give it any degree of importance. So if I didn’t, why the hell would any one else? (Keri Arthur)

I’ve talked about this before, but I want to tell you something different today. Yes, most people will get the hint when you start making writing a priority. For example, my hairdressing friend MakeMe came over the other night to hang out. “I’m under deadline,” I said. “Two hundred more words, then I can talk to you.”

She nodded, grabbed a book, and sat down to read while I finished up what I needed to do. There were two parts involved with this: I was willing to enforce my boundary and she was perfectly willing to respect it. Both sides were reasonable. As soon as I finished we settled down for some serious power-lounging and gossip.

But it is not always this way, my chickadees. There are people who just don’t care what your priorities are, and it is hard to deal with them when it comes to your writing time. It is even harder when those people are lovers, spouses, friends, parents, relatives–you name it.

Now, my children have a perfect right to expect to be more important than just about anything. My priorities as a mother trump my priorities as a writer–but they do so reasonably. Writing is how I make the money to feed my kids, after all, so it is actually kind of a mother priority. My kids know I have to work during the day, and they know Mommy’s writing is how she pays the rent. They know they can break in for an emergency, and they know that, in absence of emergency, my attention will be fully theirs once I get my wordcount in. We manage all right.

But what I’m talking about is other adults presuming you’re on earth just to please them. Which is, when you get right down to it, what a lot of people assume about everyone else, to varying degrees. It’s natural for human beings to think so. It’s also natural for you, as a writer, to put up with no sh!t when it comes to getting your words in–or to be conflicted when it seems that you do have to, after all, take some sh!t when it comes to getting your words in.

Therein lies the problem. There will be tension and various passive-aggressive and (let’s face it) aggressive strategies you will face at least once in your writing life. No matter how blunt and up-front you are about writing being a priority, there are some people to whom this will not matter. It’s a good bet that at least one of those people will be in your inner circle–family, close friends, spouse/lover.

I’ve had parents who told me writing was never going to amount much, the artsy-fartsy stuff wouldn’t put food on the table, I should get my head out of the clouds and do what their unfulfilled ambitions dictated so I would be Safe and they would Proud. I’ve had lovers and a spouse resent my affaires d’écrires and pull every possible emotional (and sometimes physical) stunt to pull me away from the keyboard. I’ve had friends come over and ignore my boundaries while I’m writing. I’ve even had friends who dumped me once I got published. (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

You have to weigh this like you weigh other Important Stuff. If your lover tried to keep you from going to your day job or the doctor’s office, how would you react? Is your writing that important to you? It is to me, but your answer might be different. Is your emotional investment in this person enough to justify the toxicity of their overstepping of your boundaries? Are there other reasons to put up with this sort of behavior?

A lover who doesn’t “understand” or who doesn’t respect my boundaries when it comes to writing time is not a lover I’m going to keep, for a variety of reasons that might have nothing to do with writing. Any relationship isn’t going to last long if the other person don’t understand I write to pay my rent and cannot afford to stop. Cause, you know, I need a place to live. Besides, if that person doesn’t care about something so important to me, is it really a relationship that’s going to last? That would be…no. Nope. Nuh-uh.

A family member…well, that’s stickier, and you have to factor obligation and family duty into the equation. I am actually in a strange position because I don’t talk to most of my family at all, again for a variety of reasons. I’m pretty much only in contact with my sisters, and they understand both that I have to write to pay the rent and also that they can break in with an emergency and I’m all over it. (Because other things come and go, but sisters? That’s FOREVER, man.) So I’m saved a lot of the toxic and passive-aggressive crap I had to deal with back before I was writing for an actual living.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Lots of people who call themselves “writers” don’t write, or allow drama and crap like this to impinge on their writing lives and time. I hit a point, right about the time I hit thirty years old, that I just could. not. take. it. any. more. I became a lot more willing to tell people to leave if they weren’t going to respect my time and my work ethic. A lot more willing to draw the line, ignore, or just plain avoid the toxic. It’s an ongoing process, of course, but one I have to spend time on or I don’t produce and if I don’t produce I don’t get to buy groceries or live in my nice house.

It’s amazing how one’s priorities shift once it becomes “write-or-be-homeless.”

You might not be at this point, and your priorities may be different. But if you want to write, do yourself a favor and think a little bit about this issue. Think about what will happen when someone decides their emotional needs are more important than your writing and you don’t agree with them. Think about what might happen when and if you say, “Busy. Got wordcount. You can have my attention when that timer rings.” Think about just how far you’re willing to go, how much you’re willing to make writing a priority. If you want to make a career out of it, these are questions you’re going to have to answer sooner or later.

If you don’t, it’s better to know that sooner than later, right?

Over and out.

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.