The Social Web, And A Giveaway!

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
This Friday’s post will be short and sweet, as I have several errands to run, an air conditioner to install (yes, it arrives AFTER the heat wave, but I am not complaining) and a ton of other stuff around the house to do, stuff I put off during the OMG 100+ degree days we’ve had recently.

Today’s question comes from Reader MJ:

You’ve written about the addictive nature of the internet and its dangers to serious writing (and to authors themselves). I’d like to ask about a variation on that topic. How valuable is social interaction to you as a writer, and what part does the internet play in that social interaction? Do you have interactions there you can’t/don’t have face to face, or is the internet the last place you can just “be yourself”?

First off, disclaimer. The Internet is different things to different people. I am not sure I am normal in many ways, especially when it comes to social interaction. That being said, I’ll answer as best I can.

I am not a social person. Social gatherings or even dealing with the public is highly problematic for me. I’m even phobic about my phone, for Chrissake. Working retail was an endless nightmare for me. And don’t even get me started on office politics…

I like email because it gives me a bit of necessary distance between me and what another person wants. Growing up in a family where one’s boundaries were constantly trampled and survival depended on anticipating as best one could, the implication that someone needs something from me is high-stress. I like to save my limited energy and time for interaction for my close friends and family, because there is so little of both.

I am an extraordinarily solitary person. I’m not as bad as Bukowski, but I need stretches of time alone. Being essentially a single mother and the “safe place” for various friends means I have to be vigilant about my solitary time, and make sure to get it in so I don’t have nerve endings sparking like exposed wires. (This makes me, as you can imagine, So Not Fun To Be Around.)

So, social interaction is on the one hand immensely valuable to me as a writer–because I am writing about people, and I observe them endlessly whenever I can–and on the other hand, not so valuable and maybe even actively harmful, because a lot of times people drain me.

The thing that’s valuable to me on the Internet is that I can control my response time. The slight bit of distance and time between receiving an email etc. and the time I answer it provides me with a crucial hairsbreadth in which to consider the situation. To me, a lot of online interaction is safer, and it’s the only way I have of communicating with my fans. Let’s face it–I’m pretty poor. I’m supporting four people and the cats on my writing, and I don’t have extra for childcare. This is partly why I don’t visit a lot of conventions or do a lot of signings–I simply can’t afford the cash outlay.

The Internet has allowed me to have a personal relationship with my readers in a way that would not have been possible before. And it provides me the distance I need in several social interactions, a distance that keeps me from descending into being a twitching ball of self-destructive nerves.

I don’t have interactions on the Internet that make it “easier” for me to “be myself.” For one thing, I’m 33 now. I am myself, and I think I am only going to become more so. (It’s about damn time.) There are certain aspects of the Internet–chat, for example–that I don’t use because there are parts of myself I don’t want to share, as a public person. So my Internet use is curtailed by the idea that I am a public person, and the anonymity of the Web can be pretty flimsy. This is a curtailment I take gladly, because the benefits the Web offers vastly outweigh any pain I might feel at the loss of things I might want to do.

I am friends with a lot of people–my beta reader, the mods on my forum, fellow authors–who I would have never met without the Internet. So, as far as a wider acquaintance pool to draw friends from, the Internet has really worked for me. On the other hand, there’s been a lot of stalking and bad behavior I’ve been subjected to because of–you guessed it–the Internet. Again, the benefits far outweigh the dangers, especially when some simple precautions can ameliorate the dangers.

Still, there is no real substitute for going to a public place, settling down with a coffee or a bottle of water, and watching people. Writers are chronicling the human condition, and you can’t do that without observation of humans–yourself included. I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits of observation, but observation is not quite social. It requires a little bit of standing apart, and in that sense all writers are outsiders.

But to get back to the point, the social interactions on the Web have been very good to me, especially considering my gracelessness in face-to-face social interactions. The crucial little bit of distance gives me time to collect myself before I say/do something. (Sometimes I don’t use that space, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) For someone who is intrinsically a hermit and pretty introverted (despite giving a different impression when I set my mind to it) it is a godsend.

And now, for the giveaway! To celebrate the Dames release week madness, I am giving away two signed copies of Redemption Alley, the latest Jill Kismet book. To win, all you have to do is comment on this post before midnight on Saturday, August 1. Winners will be chosen with the help of Random.org. Please note that I can only send books to US addresses. Sorry about that.

Writers And Social Media: The Should NOTs

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Last week I brought you the things writers should do with social media. (You can also check out Monica Valentinelli’s recent SFWA article about online marketing, featuring Alex Bledsoe, Yasmine Galenorn, and Yours Truly.) I promised the should nots this week, and I shall fulfill.

This week, I promise to try not to rant.

I said try. My spirit is willing, but my flesh, alas, is occasionally weak.

I’ll start with the biggest and most obvious first. Ready?

Social media is not an ego game. The biggest mistake I see a lot of writers making is falling into the “numbers” trap. As in, “I need X followers/”friends” to be a Real True Celebrity!” I see giveaways–“when I reach X many friends I’ll give away Y” and promo stunts all aimed at upping the follower/”friend” count. Don’t do this, okay? It is not classy. It makes you look desperate.

If you are at a party and a used car salesman corners you and starts trying to tell you that you need to buy a car from him, what do you do? You make polite appropriate noises and escape as soon as possible, and avoid that person in the future. Social media is kind of like that party. Actual mixing is content, hitting the advertising button too hard is desperation and being a cheap shill. The former gains you followers in an organic manner. The latter turns people off and will not get you a quality network. Which leads us to:

Don’t be fooled by quantity. Carla Harker had this to say last week: When I see a new follower has hundreds or thousands of people they follow, I don’t think they are actually interested in what I have to say. I think all they’re trying to do is increase their own follower numbers. I know that’s not always right, but that’s what it appears from my side of things. I’d rather follow someone following a few dozen people–even if I’m not one of them–than be one of thousands.

Too often we mistake sheer quantity for quality when it comes to social media. Now, you can argue that if even a fraction of a sheer-quantity network pays attention, you will reap reward. I would argue right back that those rewards are transient and no substitute for a quality network, where people follow/friend because you provide real content and end up being enthusiastic about you for a variety of reasons. A recommendation from someone in a quality network will carry more weight than spam from a sheer-quantity network, the same way a word-of-mouth recommendation from one of my personal friends will carry more weight with me than an ad campaign, however crafty and cool the ad campaign is.

This touches on the principle of asymmetric follow. On Facebook, MySpace, or Goodreads I accept “friend” requests because the structure of those networks means I have to in order to connect with those fans. It’s a function of the network, true.

On Twitter, however, I “follow” the people who provide content I need/am interested in. There’s a huge difference between my follow list and the list of people following me because I am providing varied kinds of content, while cherrypicking Twitter for content I want to read/personal networking. Which brings us to the next thing.

Do not mistake your followers or “friends” for, well, actual friends. I actually came across this a lot on LJ. If you are a writer, published or seeking publication, you should not think of your followers in social media networks as friends in the traditional sense. They are your customers, they are your fanbase, they are “following” you because you are a content provider. This is a professional relationship and deserves to be treated like one, because you are using social networks as a PUBLIC personality, not for private reasons.

Yes, it sucks. But if you are published or want to be, you cannot be treating the Internet like it’s private. IT’S NOT. For some people, their blog can be private and their Facebook page only a way to connect with their real-life friends. This is not how it is if you’re using social networks professionally. Using them professionally means your cutesy or flirty posts, or the posts where you rant about reviewers, or really any inappropriate behavior, have career consequences. And those consequences are hardly ever good.

So, you’re a writer using social media. Your followers and “friends” like your books/short stories. They do not need to know about your sex life, or about more of your personal life than people at a party you’re attending in a professional capacity. There is a line here that is easy to cross, since you have both the illusion of privacy (you’re sitting alone in front of your computer) AND the illusion of community (we’re built to get emotionally involved with people we communicate with) when you use the Internet. Sometimes the line is in different places for different people–I’ve mentioned that other people put pictures of their kids up, which is something I would never do. Some people do talk about their pets or what they had for lunch. In small doses, personal information helps your fans feel closer to you.

In large doses, it’s a recipe for oversharing and disaster. Get it through your head that your followers and “friends” online deserve professionalism from you. As Maura Anderson said when I put out the call for advice last week: I know it’s easy to be cutesy and flirty and maybe a tad out of line but, again, you are not talking to a few friends on the phone or in person. You are broadcasting this to the world. While it may be easy to excuse it as “being human”, it can often convince potential readers or employers that, at best, you have really poor judgment.

Don’t spam. Don’t spam. DO NOT SPAM. For every 2% of promo, you need to have 98% of actual content to balance it out. Announcing book releases, giveaways, and interviews is okey-dokey. Having that be the ONLY THING you announce is going to make people feel like you never open your mouth except to sell them something. This is most uncool, since it violates the implicit contract in a social network–that you are not there just to sell something, that you are there to connect on some level. Since social networks are so easy to use for spamming, there is a backlash against anyone perceived to do so. Anger at other more blatant spammers will get turned onto you if you’re perceived to be one of their ilk. This is not fair, but it’s the way it is. Deal.

Also, Facebook and Goodreads people? Do not send out invites saying “Become my fan!” or “Read my book!” This puts you squarely in the spam/desperate shill category, and turns me off. If it turns even me off, and I understand the principle behind it, think of how much it would alienate your prospective audience of readers. A fan-based network sending me an invite is cool and comes from a quality network. You recommending your own book to me on Goodreads is part of a quantity network, and is a cheap shill. Don’t do it.

Don’t post while angry. Anger will make you stupid. It will make mistakes for you.

OK, I’m going to halfway break one of my rules here. Ready?

I was angry last night about reviewers (yes, this is plural, there’s been a rash lately) who pan my books when they can’t even spell the characters’ names right. I had a lot of spleen to vent and I could have written a scorching rant of a blog post. Did I? No. It was hard to step away. I ended up leveling to 80 out in Northrend instead, which may have been a waste of time but at least it wasn’t a waste of time that would set off an Internet sh!tstorm and make me look like a jerkwad. Don’t post when you’re pissed.

Respond appropriately. I don’t respond to follow requests on Twitter. I respond only briefly to “I reviewed your book!”–with a “Thank you, I’m glad you read it.” I respond more in depth to fans who ask questions or interact with me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve only been involved in one involved debate, and that was a discussion of DRM with a couple other industry professionals. I pick and choose what to respond to, and will do a general answer when a lot of people ask me the same question. It’s kind of an art form. When in doubt, be brief and polite. Which brings up another thing:

Don’t forget to write. Like, actually write. Social networks are built to be addictive timesucks. That’s why they work–they take advantage of natural human urges and response patterns. Don’t get so wrapped up in your social networks that you forget your job. Which is actually producing those books the fans pick up and read–you know, the reason they are impelled to find you on social networks in the first place.

The trusty kitchen timer is your best friend here, too. Set limits on your social-networking time. This will force you to prioritize and also (hopefully) force you to get your real work done. It is all too easy to lose track of the reason why you’re doing this, because social networks are so seductive and every time you get a reply, you get an ersatz jolt of “connection” that turns your biological wiring into pudding. Pudding doesn’t think straight, and it’s so, so easy toget addicted to that jolt. Don’t make that mistake.

All right, that about wraps up what I see as the most egregious errors writers commit on social networks. Now it’s your turn–the comment section awaits. Be polite, but be honest. Tell me what writers shouldn’t do in social media.

I’m listening.

Special thanks to Monica Valentinelli, Maura Anderson, and Carla Harker for discussions about social media. Thanks also to the people on Twitter and Facebook who discussed, offered advice, and generally gave me the grist for this mill of a post. Thank you all very much

Writers And Social Media: The Shoulds

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Good afternoon, chickadees. Today we’re going to talk about social networking.

Don’t make that face. This kind of talk is good for you. Like broccoli. Or chaos.

This started out with me getting spammed by someone with a screenplay on Twitter this last week. It hit at exactly the wrong time–I was already scraped-raw and frustrated. Fortunately, the spam touched off a discussion of what writers should and should NOT do when it comes to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and the like. This week I’ll be talking about the shoulds. Next week is when it will get fun, because I will talk about the should nots. And probably wax righteously bitchy about them, too.

I just like taking the positive first. This is a good rule in life.

For a lot of people, social media is a way to connect, share their lives, and commit various lapses in judgment. Unfortunately, it is also utterly public, which means that a writer, especially one seeking publication, has to use it a little differently than the average bear.

For example, it’s bad form for anyone to post naked pictures or venomous screeds on Facebook. But it can be just-plain-disastrous for a writer. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the term “career-destroying,” in fact.

So, what should a writer do on Facebook/Twitter/Goodreads/etc.?

* First, realize that you’re not the average user. When you use social media as an author seeking publication, or an already-published author, you are not just a private citizen using it. It becomes part of your public persona, and as such, you need to think carefully about what you want to convey, and just how far into your life you want to invite people.

* Get it through your head that ALL these things are PUBLIC. You can’t erase what you say on the Internet. It’s out there on servers that other people have control of, and screencaps flourish. I cannot emphasize this enough–the Internet is PUBLIC. Like anything in public, you need to think about if you really want to hang that part of yourself out there. Writers have varying degrees of comfort with sharing their lives online–John Scalzi, for example, shares more than I ever would, but still sticks to his limits and (here’s the other thing) doesn’t let his sharing detract from his work of writing. Which brings us to the next point.

* Set time limits and stick to them. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing–all these things are timesucks. They are seductive and can pull you away from actual writing, which is your job. This can eff up your chances of being published–or continuing to be published–bigtime.

* Think about your safety. I worked for a bank for a while, back in my benighted youth. One of their rules was no pictures of loved ones on your desk, period. (You would not believe some of the safety rules they give you in teller training. People are cray-zee when it comes to money.) Because if someone with bad intentions can identify and snatch your kid to get an inside track on a bank heist, and that is not safe for you, your loved ones, or the bank itself.

It’s the same thing on the Internet. I do not post pictures of my children or my house. I use pseudonyms for everyone except other public figures who use their real names on the Net. I’m not uber-famous and I have only had one or two deranged fans/stalkers, but still. I don’t want to take that chance, and I don’t want to make it easy on someone with bad intentions.

Some people do post pictures of their friends, family, loved ones, house, you name it. I just can’t, and the fact that I am a public person because I’m a writer just solidifies my intention to never do so. Call me paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

* Think about what image you want to convey. It’s not inauthentic to sit down and really think about your brand. Every time you go to work, to the grocery store, to the library, to a party, etc., you are interacting with other people and making judgments about what to tell them and what is inappropriate in that venue. Online is no different.

And really, let’s be practical here. If you’re submitting to agents or publishers, they will Google you. What do you want them to see? Just think about that. Measure what you say online, even in forums, by what you really honestly want other people to see. If you plan on being published and you’re on the Internet, you will be public at some point. Plan for it now.

You do not have to be “fake” to do this, by the way. Being polite and being yourself are not contradictory with thinking hard about your public persona and showing what you want to show.

* Your primary job is to provide content, not market yourself. Yes, a website and a Facebook account will help your fans find you. They are marketing tools, but their primary purpose cannot be marketing. That will turn your fans off because it makes you look desperate and pushy. It turns what should be a conversation into you constantly pushing other people to buy your sh!t. It’s inappropriate at a party or a grocery store, and it’s inappropriate online.

Your job in interacting in social media like Twitter and MySpace is to enrich your fans’ experience and help them feel an emotional connection to your books. It is not to feed your ego with how many “followers” you have, and it is not to flog your books mercilessly. I cannot say it enough: the hard sell doesn’t work. You don’t want to be an oleaginous car salesman.

You need to be a content provider. Post links to things you think are cool, new blog posts that are fresh content, things that make you go “hmmm” or interest you. Yes, you can also post book releases, short story releases, and contests. But those things cannot be ALL you post if you expect to have an interactive relationship with your fans. You do need to provide content or you’re just an empty noise. Empty noise grates on the nerves. 98% of your posts, tweets, whatever, need to be ACTUAL CONTENT. The rest is naturally marketing–book announcements, contest announcements, etc.

* Get away from the computer when you’re angry. So much trouble could be avoided if authors just stepped away from the Net while they’re pissed. Give yourself some time to cool off before you post that rant. Like, 24 hours. Or a week. If you have a strong emotional reaction to a subject, chances are you’re not thinking clearly. Not thinking clearly means a higher chance that you’ll do something stupid online, and those stupid things get a lot of clicks and bad publicity. (Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity.) I really can’t make it any simpler than that.

* Do occasionally respond. Several people mentioned during the discussion this week that they dislike it when an author has a presence on a social networking site that isn’t updated. One or two content streams that you do update are better than a million of them that you never get around to. Ease of use and your liking for a particular platform can enter into this. For example, Twitter is my main social networking tool because it’s easy to use and can propagate to Facebook, where a lot of my fans can connect with me. My MySpace page, while occasionally updated, has languished because MySpace makes it hard for me to update with third-party applications. Other stuff like Digg and Delicious I just don’t have time for. I pop in on Goodreads about once a week, but I have no time for LibraryThing or Shelfari.

There’s a balance to be struck between the timesuck factor and the interactive factor. Twitter gives me the most bang for my “time spent” buck, mostly because I can use Tweetdeck to keep track of everything. I do read my @replies religiously, respond where it seems appropriate, and if a lot of fans ask the same question I make a GENERAL reply rather than replying to each. bloody. one. I do have to set a timer and tear myself away from Twitter, but that’s a small price to pay for the ease of use and the connectivity.

That about sums it up. However, there’s one other thing I need to mention before next week. This is very, very important.

Be someone you’d like to know about. A constant barrage of criticism of other authors, complaints about how you’re ill-used, or just plain whining is not “being yourself” or “being artistic.” It’s passive-aggressive attention-seeking, and there are few things that will turn fans off sooner than that.

Making a list of the things you’d like to follow in other people’s social media streams is an invaluable tool for playing to your own strengths when it comes to using social media. It’s like the old strategy of finding friends–make a list of what qualities you’d like in friends, then start practicing those qualities on your own to attract them. It’s a sneaky way to force your Inner Censor to show you how to get where you want to be, and I’m all for making the Inner Censor do actual good work instead of sitting around whining and making your life harder.

Now it’s time for you to share your own advice. Remember, this week we’re talking about what writers SHOULD do with social media. Save the should-nots for next week.

Yeah, I know, I just killed the real fun until next Friday. This is me being sneaky. What better way to keep you coming back?

Ready? Discuss!

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!