Stages of Deadline Acceptance

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I have a confession to make, dear Reader.

Right now I am avoiding a book. Utterly, shamefacedly, but determinedly.

Part of being the kind of writer I am (i.e., I write to pay the rent since I would be spending hours doing this anyway) is having deadlines. Deadlines mean one has to account for one’s time to that most harsh and forgiving of bosses: oneself. Right now I’m using Google Calendar to keep track of everything, and I am perennially going through the stages of Deadline Acceptance.

Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Here are my stages of Deadline Acceptance.

  • Stage One: “____ months? Okay, that sounds fine, that’s usually what I need.” (Said to agent/editor/self.)
  • Stage Two: “I should really start that book. Get an early jump on it.” (Said to self and beta reader.) Possibly start the manuscript, poke at it, nothing happens.
  • Stage Three: Beta reader tells me I’m not ready yet. “You haven’t done all the initial moaning and whining you usually do before a book really gets going.”
  • Stage Four: Moaning and whining commences.
  • Stage Five: A couple weeks go by. Panic sets in.
  • Stage Six: Panic, panic, panic. Repeat.
  • Stage Seven: Beta reader tells me to quit f!cking whining. “You’ve still got ten months left. Cut it out.”
  • Stage Eight: Moan and flail more. Accept that beta reader is probably right, but still. Obsess about quality of book, what will happen if I “can’t write it”. (Editor will hate me. Publisher will demand advance back. Readers will throw rotten veggies. Sun will go out. Everyone dies and it’s all because of meeeeeeeeee!)
  • Stage Nine: Open blank Word document. (Or the start to the story done at about Stage Two.) Stare at it for ten minutes. Muse wakes up, yawning and stretching. Panic over not being able to reach deadline reaches fever pitch.
  • Stage Ten: First quarter of book falls out of head. Middle of the book doldrums. Third quarter arrives. Long period of hate for the f!cking book. “I’m never going to finish this thing.” (See Stage Eight.)
  • Stage Eleven Moan and whine at beta reader more. Beta loads tranquilizer gun and hunts for chocolate. Children give you strange looks. Husband and teenager hide. Cats flee, except for the stupid one, who perches on arm of chair and tries to help while I snarl in pain. There are still months left.
  • Stage Twelve: Last quarter of book accomplished in dead heat. Sanity (or whatever approximates it) returns. Beta reader is relieved. Children shrug. Cats, husband, and teenager reappear as soon as it’s safe. Deadline has kind-of been achieved. Process of recovery/revision can now begin.

I find it alternately amusing and terrifying that the process fits (at least for me) into twelve steps. Revision isn’t nearly as fraught for me–having a full rough draft eases some pressure, and the remaining months can be spent on revising, polishing, or (more popular and what actually happens) sticking the goddamn thing in a drawer until I absolutely have to look at it again to make it ready. That lying-fallow period is very important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that after you put a novel away for a couple weeks to a month, one can go back to it with fresh eyes and make it a lot better. Not as better as a trained and gifted editor–one is still too close to the work even after that break–but significantly better.

Right now, for the current contracted project, I’m in between Stages Three and Four. It helps that I’m picking at a Sekrit Project, and that I’ve been through this so many times the panic is almost seeming old hat. (Almost. It’s still panic, after all.) So I’m playing with the fun Sekrit Project, and avoiding the other one with all my might and main.

But. (You knew there was a “but”.)

The contracted project is starting to call to me. It’s tickling the Muse. “Look at how pretty and shiny I am. Look. Come over here and look at me. I’m pretty. Pretty and shiny.”

Which will tip me right into Stages Five through Nine, probably in a day’s time. All that panic compressed into a fifth of its natural lifespan. I’m gonna be a mess. Which means I should get some wordcount in on the Sekrit Project that I’m really enjoying before it all goes to hell. (As a means of tricking oneself into working, it isn’t half bad.)

So, off I go. I keep thinking that the more I go through this process the easier it will get. I’m at thirty-odd novels written by now (notice I say written, not published) and I’m here to tell you the process is only marginally easier than it was the first time, and most of that marginal ease comes from just knowing that I’m going to be batshit for a little while. Knowledge is power, right?

Wish me luck.

Winners!

All right! We have the winners from our Friday contest.

Our first winner, of this marvelous tote bag (that you can carry Dame Keri’s latest release home in) is: Comment #19 from Hope, who said “Keri, I love your character Riley, please don’t end the series for a nice long while!?!

Our second winner, of this kickass coffee cup (good for sipping beverage of choice while reading Dame Keri’s latest release) is: Comment #89 from darchole, who said: “Congrats! I preordered mine a while ago, when it shipped I kept checking the tracking to see when it whould get delivered. Number 8 is already on my wishlist to buy when it comes out.

And (drums please) the Grand Prize winner of the $10 Amazon gift certificate (so you can buy…whatever you want) is: Comment #47 from Firewolf, who ended by saying “Congrats Keri! That is awesome.

All winners were chosen with the help of Random.org. Winners, please contact me no later than Tuesday, April 7 at midnight; include your snail mail address so we can send your prizes pronto! Thanks for commenting–and congratulations once again to Dame Keri and her New York Times Bestselling New Release, Deadly Desires! *cheers and fanfare*

Empathy: Hurts So Good

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

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

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

Laura Anne Gilman said something thought-provoking this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…miracles.

Keep writing.

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

Kill Your Darlings–Send In The Man With The Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilty (Reading) Pleasures

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

Five Guilty (Book) Pleasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what’s your guilty reading pleasure?

Truth And The Intentional Mistake

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Two quick things today, because there is a certain birthday party I must be prepared for. It’s not anyone’s birthday, but we’ve scheduled the party today, which works out well for all concerned.

Right now I’m reading John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, the book the Tribeca-award-winning movie is based on. The premise is good, the story is tightly-interwoven and slow-paced but well done. There are things I don’t like about the book itself. Some of them are translation things, things that you can’t avoid with a book that’s been brought out of another language. Some of the others are stylistic, like the author’s apparent love affair with ellipses. I use too many ellipses myself–my beta has to ruthlessly step on their heads lest they breed–and I understand Lindqvist was trying to capture the way people really talk. That’s the trouble with dialogue. You have to walk that line between how you know people actually talk, with all the ums, ahs, and the things left unsaid, and balance that against what dialogue needs to be, a revealing and unfolding within the story.

It’s a hard act.

Which brings me to the intentional mistake. After you’ve been writing for a while (I want to say ten thousand hours, because I’ve read Outliers recently too, but maybe it’s between five and eight thousand) you start seeing the mistakes a little differently. Once you have the basics down and begin to have a good solid grasp of craft, then you can start breaking the rules.

Just like in life, breaking the rules to break them is a stupid kid’s game with unintended consequences. Knowing the rules and breaking them to effect is something else entirely. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, one of the only two writing books I will ever recommend.

I am willing to put up with what I see as Lindqvist’s mistakes in this book because he has vouched in other ways that he knows the rules and he’s breaking them for a reason. The rest of the book is good enough that I can overlook the ellipses. There is a lesson in this. Readers are very forgiving if you give them a reason to be. Don’t abuse their trust, and they will follow you down the dark road of a book.

The other thing I want to talk about today is truth. Lindqvist’s book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Some of the main characters are children, but it would never be published as a Young Adult novel.

As a writer getting into YA now, I’m running up against some of the conventions of the genre. Well, not exactly conventions. I am running up against the laudable adult urge to protect the young, and the not-so-laudable urge to censor what is said to them.

In my house, we have a “reach it and read it” policy. If you can reach it, you can read it. If you can’t reach it–get a stepstool! I do not believe in censoring my childrens’ experience with the written word. Are there things I wish they wouldn’t read? You betcha. Do I put those books out of reach?

I do not.

Instead, I keep track of what the kids are reading, and I talk to them about it. The conversations are alternately funny (like when Astronomy Girl ran across a fade-to-black sex scene in a book and asked me what “orgasm” meant) and terrifying, like when the UnSullen was reading Food of the Gods and started asking me about hallucinogens.

Ah, the joy of parenting.

In each case I firmly believe in telling the truth in the straightest, most age-appropriate, and simplest way possible. This is, I think, the best policy. (Obviously, or I wouldn’t be doing it.) The more armed with simple knowledge my young oes are, the less danger there is of them doing something stupid. I mean, we all have lapses in judgment. That is not the exclusive province of the young.

But one is far less likely to have a stupid lapse in judgment if one has been calmly given straight answers. And kids who get straight answers, who know they can go to an adult and ask difficult, ticklish questions, are far more likely to check in when something happens they’re unsure of. Check in, that is, before the situation becomes an unholy tangle.

The best way to protect the young, then, happens to be not censoring the information given to them so much. Kids are smart and they love to learn (until the public school/jungle system beats it out of them, but that’s another blog post). They want to ask adults questions, and they want straight answers. A kid who doesn’t feel alone and adrift is a kid who is going to talk to someone before they go and do something silly, at least most of the time. Age-appropriate doesn’t have to mean “complete blackout of information”.

This is why I’m feeling okay and not so okay about my forays into YA. On the one hand, I feel like I have something of value to impart, a story to share with younger readers. On the other hand, dealing with a lot of forces who want kids kept in the dark about a lot of things–sex, drug use, violence, abuse–for a variety of reasons, whether to “protect” them or because of an adult’s profound discomfort with kids knowing about the darker things in life…well, it gets wearying. The fear in the publishing industry of being “too edgy” and setting off some of the more conservative elements in our society is immense. The writer gets asked to change things, to dial it back and not be so direct. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not.

There’s a fine line to walk there, too. You need to know when you’re too attached to something that doesn’t really move the story along. Conversely, you need to not give in when someone is asking you to bullshit for the sake of selling more books or not pissing someone off. The two are not mutually exclusive, and they’re hard to tell apart.

Telling the truth in this way is difficult. It’s dangerous. But I think it’s worth it. My kids are worth the truth. I think every kid out there is. It doesn’t mean I have to force the knowledge of the darker side of the world on them, but it does mean that I have a trust (I would go so far as to call it sacred) to tell the truth when I’m asked, and when the occasion calls for it.

Why else would I do this job?

Some Short Advice

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Since I’m currently moving like a little old lady (I’m in the body-aches section of the Cold From Hell) this Friday’s writing post is going to be shorter. I poked through the Ask A Dame questions and none of them really set me on fire, though a few of them did give me springboards into other things to think about. But I’m probably going to blaze my own path today.

Like that surprises you, right?

So, here’s three things I’ve found out about this career. Your mileage may vary, of course. Ready? Okay.

Getting published might cost you a “friend”. The instant I got published, some people decided they didn’t want to be around me anymore. I agonized over it and tried to make it better until the Muffin told me flat-out it wasn’t me. Success (of any stripe) is threatening to the people who don’t want to work for it–people who expect it to be handed to them. (I still thought it was me for a long time, though. Before I got a little wiser.)

It was with great surprise and a sneaking sense of relief that I read about someone else’s exact same experience on an author loop the other day. The recollection involved a “friend” getting nasty and knocking someone who had just joyfully made it into print as a result of years of backbreaking work. The writer who had gotten published beat herself up over it and felt terrible for months until she realized it wasn’t her. This is, by the way, part of why I feel the way I do about “writing” groups.

I’m not saying that every friend who falls away is jealous of one’s success. I’m just saying, it happens. It’s happened to a lot of writers. Some people think that success for one person means nothing for everyone else–a zero-sum game. I don’t happen to think it is. My friends getting published means more connections for me (and publishing is such an incestuous little business, those connections are GOLD) and a reason to break out the chianti and celebrate. It’s awesome, and if I’m a little envious, well, then it’s a reason for me to find the discipline and means to work harder. And feel grateful that my friends are so awesome they provide me with motivation. Nuff said.

An agent is not a panacea. Getting an agent is a big step, but it’s not ALL you need to do. In fact, getting an agent means the stakes are higher–one needs to produce and act like an adult, or one won’t get invited back. The agent is there to handle business so you can concentrate on writing.

An agent is not a foolproof path to the NYT Bestseller List. An agent is a help and a refuge in times of contract negotiation (God bless my agent, who puts up with my frantic calls during That Time) but s/he cannot write the damn books for you, and cannot make you look like less of an ass if you do your editor wrong. It’s all up to you.

Just like it always was.

Do not get involved in Internet imbroglios. Don’t pile on during huge Internet arguments even if you have an opinion. (The last big SF/F fandom blowup was a perfect example of something that could have been a great discussion destroyed by high emotion, nasty behavior, and different brands of entitlement on both sides.) If you feel the urge to respond to a negative review, DON’T. Just don’t. Get used to letting things go on the Internet.

A lot of people behave badly on the Internet because of perceived anonymity. Still others (and part of the first group) behave badly because the distance between their physical body and what they’re typing feels so large. It feels like there’s no consequences. But there are. There are consequences to Internet imbroglios. Think very hard about what you want out in the open.

The Internet is not ubiquitous. It just feels like it is to people on it. On the other hand, it’s becoming a useful tool for people to dig up dirt with. Don’t make it easy for the dirt to be dug, don’t give people ammunition. You don’t need the aggravation; it takes time away from writing. The Internet is already a big timesuck for a lot of writers. It’s a tool, and a wonderful one–but like any power tool, it needs to be used with caution. It can give you a wonderful time if used wisely, and it can give you a huge effing pain if it’s not.

All right, chickadees. That’s it from me today. I’ve got to get back to revisions on the YA. I have this scene with a girl crawling on a slate roof and a boathouse meeting interrupted (I think) be werewolves to get down. No rest for the wicked, eh?

Keep writing.

ETA: OK, so I lied, I do have more to say! Great news! The Demon’s Librarian is now listed on Amazon and on BN.com! Huzzah!

I am ultra-excited. Can you tell?