As you read this, I will be ensconced somewhere at the SeaTac Hilton, conferencing. I have written this in the past, but I will do so again now: if you are working to become a professional writer, at some point it would be a good idea to get yourself to a writer’s conference. If you live anywhere remotely near Seattle, The Pacific Northwest Writers Conference is certainly one of the better around, but writer’s conferences are held in all corners of the country.
I am not going to lie to you. Writers come to conferences to, among other things, hone the tools of their craft, but they have come for something else—The Question. There is always a low current of fear running through a writer’s conference. It is the fear that quietly haunts not just writers but anyone attempting anything: Am I enough? Can I live the life I want to live, or must I accept a lesser version, bowing to the hardboiled wisdom that life is about a certain amount of disappointment and being a grownup means accepting that truth with minimum complaint?
You see it’s never about being a writer, I don’t think. In fact nothing is ever about anything, by which I mean, the central question is never, Am I strong enough, pretty enough, smart enough? The question is always, Does it matter? Does it actually matter how strong, pretty, or smart I am at this moment? I would ask you to consider that it does not matter how strong or smart or pretty your are. I would ask you to consider that that question of enough, enough of anything, is a subtle but ever-shrinking prison. It assumes your a fixed commodity, bound by the roulette wheel of birth, looking to discover not what it is you want to do, but what tools fate handed you and with which you will now stoically make the best.
You are not bound by anything. You are hurled forward by desire. These tools, these talents, are nothing more than desire made flesh, not the other way around. Seek what you love absolutely and I guarantee the tools will be there.
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For the record, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, and you are reading this somewhere without air conditioning, you are probably sweating. Strange thing with weather, however, is that stories of heat waves or cold streaks are about as inspiring as stories of someone coming down with and then getting over a cough. One thing everyone knows for certain about weather—it will change. That is hot or cold or wet or dry on a given day is almost never of any consequence to anyone other than the one who is hot or cold or wet or dry.
Unless, that is, the hot or cold or wet or dry precipitated some kind of change within the person experiencing it. Now we have a story. If someone were climbing a mountain, say, the extreme cold of the mountain becomes one more thing the climber must endure, and perhaps he begins bitter but by the end of his climb comes to accept the cold the way a character in a different story might come to accept death.
Weather is also useful when it serves as a (hopefully) subtle reminder of something the character is feeling. In A Farewell to Arms it is always raining when something bad happens. In Finding Nouf, a mystery set in modern day Saudi Arabia, Zoë Ferraris fills the novel with the relentless heat of the desert, which serves as a nice backdrop for the suffocating social requirements central to the novel.
All of which reminds me yet again that setting description simply for description sake is never as compelling as descriptions that in some way reveal what a character is feeling. Feeling is all. Weather is yet another physical fact surrounding your characters, the same as the peeling paint, the barking dog, and the green grass. What you choose to describe has everything to do with what the characters exposed to it are feeling at the moment.
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I remember the day I realized that none of my friends or family actually cared whether or not I ever had any success as a writer; all they wanted was for me to be happy. This seemed very callous to me at the time, until I admitted that I had the same hopes for them. I didn’t care so much about the particulars of the lives of those people I loved—whether they married or became teachers or sold that screenplay—I only wanted them to be happy.
In fact, all the details of our lives, the grievances, the losses, the victories, the midnight fears—none of these are actually of any concern to anyone but ourselves. We all know, in our hearts, that the suffering of another will eventually pass, perhaps to be replaced by yet more suffering, but pass nonetheless. When we look at another, what we most often see is a complete soul marred only by some thought—a thought that is ultimately none of our business.
One of the first challenges of the writer is to separate our lives from what our lives have taught us. None of your readers care about you, you in the small sense, you who must think your thoughts, who must choose what to have for breakfast, who wonders what your friend meant by that little aside, who is wounded and is healed. All our readers care about is what we have learned from all these little battles we call our lives.
And as well they should. Those battles were only ever there to teach us. The battles aren’t the point; they are the vessel for the cargo that is understanding. Share then your cargo not the vessel. No one will ever really care about your life, but they will care about what you have learned. Because if all these struggles align themselves to teach us what we must learn, so too does the teacher arrive when the student is ready. You are both the teacher and the student. Let the light of what you have learned shine through so your students might find you.
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I made the mistake last night of watching a movie right before I went to bed. My wife has pointed out that I seem to have too weak a filtration system for this sort of thing. I’m a bit of sponge, it turns out, and when the movie in question is addictively interesting to me but also incredibly violent—as this one was—the result is a very restless night’s sleep.
So I dreamed of murder and bodies in bed sheets and woke up very glad for the sunrise. I have tried to explain to some friends of mine, many of whom are devotees of action/gangster movies, my aversion to watching execution of any kind – that is, I take no stand against it aesthetically, I just can’t stomach it personally – and they have come to accept me as likeable movie wimp.
But the movie brought to mind something that I can often forget: stories do affect people. It’s easy while caught up in the business of trying to become a writer to lose sight of the reason we write, which is to communicate with other people. Because once the book has been written, and once you find an agent, and once the agent finds a publisher, and once the publisher gets the book into bookstores, at some point a person, just a regular person, is actually going to pick that book up and read it for the same reason you pick up books and read them—to be moved and entertained.
You will affect people. People will think about what you’ve written, and maybe cry and laugh about it. And this fact will be surprising and maybe even a bit alarming. Yes, it will be nice to get paid to write, and yes, it will be nice to be your own boss, but in the end, if you look at it honestly, you will see that the responsibility that comes with writing—no matter the genre—outweighs any personal gains to your lifestyle. The money will be spent, your hours will come and go, but the reach of your words will endure beyond the book jacket.
With this in mind, what then do you most want to share?
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Jennifer Paros has a great article about mistakes in this month’s issue. I think that what we call mistakes are often most misunderstood when viewed from the outside in. That is, a writer we love puts out a book we find mysteriously unsatisfying. What has happened? Are they slipping? Critics, sensing blood, might even rip that writer, declaring that she has spent her creative juice.
This always assumes that each book is a discrete event disconnected from the last or the next. But nothing is discrete, really; the book jackets merely contain a portion of your ideas. Which is to say, one book grows from the last and into the next. Mistakes are usually the artist attempting to grow, and growth is not always pretty.
But grow we must. So be kind to yourself as you find your way. We are always seeking the new, the new, the new. Eventually what used to work for us will not, because like it or not we ourselves have changed. This will be uncomfortable as we resist letting go of some familiar story or another. And then it will be uncomfortable perhaps again as we begin exploring the new direction for our work.
So it must be. I ran the high hurdles in high school, a race that requires maximum flexibility. At first, I would dread the stretching exercises I had to put myself through before I started my training. My hamstrings burned as I touched my toes. But after a time I came to expect and then, after more time still, enjoy the burning—what had begun as pain became instead what I knew expansion felt like.
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China Miéville writes novels that take place in worlds of his own invention. This presents particular challenges, namely, how does one reveal this world to the reader while also carrying on with the business of telling the story. After all, if I set a book in modern New York, most readers immediately have their own stock images of that city; as a writer I need only fill in the most telling details.
But in a world of a writer’s own invention the reader begins with a blank canvas. How then to paint this picture efficiently and with narrative oomph? Interestingly, China believes (as do I) that it is most often what the writer chooses not to describe that gives the most fantastic worlds their own sense of verisimilitude. For instance, by simply mentioning (but never describing) Mount Cragmore, or Oracon 6, or The Army of Nin, the writer invites the reader to give flesh to the world of the novel using his or her own imagination.
Lazy? Not at all. Every writer does this every time they write. As uber-realistic writer Andre Dubus pointed out, we are only seeking the “essential details” when we describe a setting—the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. As it should be. Everyone believes what they decide for themselves. You can’t tell your readers that your protagonist is angry, you must, as you know, show that your protagonist is angry, and then let the reader make up their mind for themselves.
All art, writing included, is the discipline of living empty space. We create fertile open spaces for our audience’s imagination to flourish. It is the greatest gift you can give. By trusting your reader to finish your work for you, you are allowing them to make their world their own, which it always has been and always will be—a truth so constant and reassuring we can often forget it.
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A confession—I can get kind of grumpy, especially when my work is interrupted. Recently, my father-in-law had surgery and so my assistance was needed upon his release from the hospital. The very threat of my writing schedule being impinged on, albeit for such a worthy cause, put me in a state. Worst yet, I didn’t know why I was in such a state until the inevitable dust-up between my wife and I when all the ugliness was revealed.
Perhaps I am unique in this dysfunction, but I think not. Most writers I interview—at least those who keep a daily writing regimen—report a similar experience. Their writing is interrupted for a few days and the next thing they find themselves barking at their children and spouse for the smallest infractions.
As if there is not enough time to get done all that needs doing. Everything always gets done. It’s never about the time, it’s about the connection. A teacher I much admire said that when someone we love dies it is not the person we so miss but the connection to Life that we experience through our relationship with that person. The same is true of missing your writing. Everyone always wants to be connected to Life—or their soul, or God, whichever suits you—whether they are aware of it or not. For writers, that connection often occurs through the writing.
But we mustn’t forget that that connection is always available, every single moment of every day no matter where we are or what we are doing. It is Life’s enduring promise. We have perhaps identified with reassuring certainty that we can find this connection while writing, but we mustn’t become too enamored with familiarity. It is like realizing you love pizza and so deciding you must eat it every night.
There will always be enough pizza, and there will always be enough time to write if writing is what we want. Because more important even than writing is Life itself. It is thing, after all, we are all writing about.
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I read an article in the NY Times yesterday about Ernest Hemmingway, and as is often the case with Hemmingway, it wasn’t long before the dreaded S Word came up. I am talking of course about style. Don’t get me wrong. I know that by style we often mean the precision and originality of a writer’s language. Precision and originality are all to the good.
But there is a very slippery slope one approaches when talking about style. What begins as simply a different or more practical way to tell a story soon becomes a platform for the writers themselves. Stories become compartmentalized into sentences, each one an example of how well the writer did or did not handle a particular moment. In the end, the stories are not a vehicle for the readers’ transformation, but are instead a test of the writer’s originality and then a test of the reader’s ability to appreciate “good writing.”
Style gets a lot of play because the well-turned phrase is the moment when we as readers most often think, “Wow. That’s some very good writing.” The ego always wants all the attention it can get, and so the temptation remains, especially if you have a particular facility, to perform as many back flips as possible so that in the end you the writer will be remembered more than the story you told.
But if this style is not in absolute service to the story it is nothing. It is a cry for attention. When critics mention the style Hemmingway “discovered,” it is as if he struck out on his own and found a new route through a wintry mountain. And maybe he did, but his tracks were covered as he went. Hemmingway forged this path only because he was searching for what he most wanted to share with the world—a path in which we would all soon get lost if we attempted to follow because we would never really know when we had arrived where he was headed.
You have got to find your own path, and maybe that path will catch people’s attention as Hemmingway’s did and maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are known for your style. Transformation and revelation and understanding are all. What use is all the clever language in the world if it takes you nowhere? What use is originality if it serves no purpose other than to remind people that you are original? You are always original. Life is original. The sooner you accept this as so the sooner you can forget it and get on with the business of being truly original—which is to say, just you.
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In a few hours I will be interviewing P. J. Campbell, author of 101 Author Tips, and we will be talking about marketing. I used to loath the idea of marketing, especially as it pertained to what I had written. Selling oneself seemed like such a craven act, always carrying the vague reek of obsequious desperation. At best it, you might come across as an untrustworthy huckster, at worst, a glorified beggar.
Yet I heard once that everyone in America is selling something. This seemed cynical at first, but I’m not so sure anymore. There is always that moment, whether at the kitchen table with your husband, or across the pitching table from an agent, where you must reveal to another human being an idea you think worth considering. And it doesn’t matter if you’re explaining your vision for new living room curtains or a new series of Young Adult mysteries, the job is ultimately the same: Here is an idea that I think is worthwhile; here is why it think it is worthwhile; here is why I think you could benefit from it.
Such is the business of living on planet earth. For me, however, the key to marketing is believing in what you are selling. You always start from there. If you’ve written a book, you must believe it is worthy of publication, worthy of being read – and if you don’t, it probably needs more work. Don’t wait for agents or editors or other writers to tell you so—you believe in it. Hucksters are only dishonest if they are selling junk disguised as jewels; beggars are only beggars if they offer nothing in exchange for what they are asking.
I understand, however, that believing in the idea hatched in the privacy of your imagination can be tricky sometimes. What if my husband doesn’t want the curtains? What if the agent hates my mystery series? The answer, of course, is so what? But this is critical. You will only fear marketing if you believe everyone must want what you are selling. By allowing others the room to make up their own mind, uncluttered by your need for them to want it, you stand the best chance of what you have to offer being received.
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Trust your tuner, people. What is your tuner? It’s your antennae. You’ve got one, you know, and you’ve absolutely got to listen to it. It’s your first and best tool, aside from what editorial writers like to call “common sense”, for writing and publishing.
I just finished looking at an interview I did recently with Heather Barbieri, the edited version of which will appear in our September issue. Hers is not an unusual story. She needed an agent (a new one actually, as her old one had stopped representing fiction) and so set about her search, which involved scanning through listings on agentquery.com. When she saw her eventual agent’s name, Heather for some reason thought to herself, “She might be the one.” And indeed she was. The agent took her on one day after receiving the query and sold her novel a week later. Talk about a good antennae.
But what is doubly interesting about this story is that when she began her search, friends – and by that I mean published writer friends – had recommended various agents to her. Conventional wisdom says, start with recommendations. But she had the idea that these recommended agents weren’t right. Whether they were or not, she certainly found an agent who knew how to sell her book.
You’ve got to trust your antennae. To be sure, in the beginning stages of your publishing career you won’t have the opportunity to meet face to face a lot of the people you’ll have to deal with. So listen closely. I understand that for some folks intuition on this level seems like so much transcendental hocus-pocus. Fair enough. But I have spoken with so many writers who have talked about information “coming to them” both for their books and when searching for a publisher.
So trust the antennae. Because it’s really just a muscle. And the more you trust it, the stronger it becomes.
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