All You’ve Ever Had

I recently heard a famous (living) writer say that writing is “a war against clichés.” I understand the point, which is this: clichés are not actual emotions or thoughts but recycled ones. Fair enough. But in the end, while you can and often are inspired to create what you perceive as the opposite of what you dislike, you cannot create in the negative, by which I mean you cannot create away from something, you can only create toward something.

Imagine, for instance, that you dislike the city of Buffalo. Oh, how you hate Buffalo. You have never spent a happy minute of your life in Buffalo. You are resolved, then, to devote your life to not being in Buffalo. Trouble is, there are a lot of places that are not Buffalo—the whole world, in fact, minus Buffalo. How then do you choose where to go? You have no guide except Not Buffalo.

Plus the mind does a funny thing. If I sit down to write thinking, “No clichés! No clichés! No clichés!” what my mind actually hears is, “Clichés! Clichés! Clichés!” If I were in a war, I’d have lost.

I mention all this not to pick fights with famous writers, but because I believe this writer’s perception is a fairly common one, although more often heard as: Oh, God, don’t let me be ordinary. But this is all fear, and all fear is a lack of trust. There is no formula for original; there is only trust.

Clichés are safe because they are familiar, and we are always comfortable with what is familiar. Your original work is going to appear both familiar and unfamiliar. It will feel like you because it came from you, and so it sounds like you, and so it is familiar to you. But it will be unfamiliar to you as well, because that which was inside is now outside where it has never been before, and you know what people think about clichés, but what about this?

The opposite of clichés is trust in The New. Everyone has been at least a little afraid of that which is new. Nothing new, by definition, can come with any guarantees. If you stumble in this journey and reach for the familiar—it’s all right. Put it down gently, for once it was original too, and look around. All the world is Not Buffalo. Where do you want to go?

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No One Is Broken

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Good advice for living, and good advice for writing. Andre Dubus believes we are better people when we are at the desk writing, and there is perhaps no finer quality to bring to your work than compassion.

Why compassion? Because it is not a writer’s job to judge, it is the writer’s job to reveal. Leave the judgment to your readers, if judge they must. Everyone in the world wants to make up their own mind, after all; in fact, everyone in the world must make up their own minds, even if they make up their minds to let someone else tell them what to do. So don’t bother trying to make your reader’s mind up for him or her – show them what you must, and let it go.

And nowhere is this truer, nowhere is compassion more critical, than in character creation. No one in the world believes what they are doing is wrong; everyone has a logic behind their actions. If you want a believable villain, have compassion for him or her. You don’t have to agree with what the villain does, but I believe you must find a way to understand why the killing makes sense for the killer, why in the killer’s mind, at least at the moment of killing, killing is right.

It does no good to say someone, anyone, is just broken, is fatally and irrevocably wrong. Because if someone in the world, even the lowest sadist, is simply a broken person, then anyone could be a broken person, even you. I don’t know you, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you have failed and lied and been afraid and given up, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you are dynamic and evolving, and nothing in your life is fixed, no failure or success.

Yes, people do terrible things, and some people die doing terrible things, die even believing that terrible thing was justified. This doesn’t matter at all. If you want to believe in your own capacity for redemption, then you must grant it to everyone else. It will make you a better writer, and as the Dalai Lama pointed out, a happier person to boot.

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An Excitable Boy

As a writer, you can spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen. You wait to hear from agents and from editors; you wait for the book to be published; you wait to find out how much the next advance will be. And always in this time of waiting there is the temptation to become excited about those possibilities that lie beyond the event for which you are waiting.

I have decided recently that this is mistake, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. There is that pragmatic bit about putting the cart before the horse and yes, keep the horse and cart where they belong. One should not buy the new car until the royalties are in the bank. But I believe this anticipatory excitement, which can appear to be enthusiasm for all that might be, is actually nothing more than that old bear fear, now in the Trojan horse of joy.

There is no need to become excited about what could be unless you secretly believe it might not be. If you believe in something, then you believe in it, and so there is nothing to be excited about. Excitement is just relief that what we feared might come true did not. So fear not, and believe instead.

I don’t understand the physics of it, but for some reason when I believe something will happen, when I cease to become excited about it happening, it happens all the more quickly. Every time. Perhaps I get out of my own way then; perhaps I’m more alert for opportunities I might otherwise have missed; perhaps other people sense my belief and are willing to take a chance on me. Whatever it is, I know it will happen, in some form or another, when I believe it will happen.

The final benefit to giving up on this idea of excitement is that I am happier. The excitement was trying to make me happy, but it couldn’t because, of course, fear never can. We talk about a rush as if we have finally tapped into that delicious current of happiness available only in extremes. Yet this is a very limited view of life. The current is always available, it never ceases, it never hides, it never disguises itself. It is there in stillness and in speed; it is there in isolation and in crowds. If you must be excited about something, be excited every morning for the new day.

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Lessons From an Accounting Major

My first college roommate used to complain to me about his accounting homework. “Oh, there’s so much of it.” “Oh, it’s so boring.” I could sympathize. As a died-in-the-wool liberal artser, I wouldn’t have touched an accounting class with my roommate’s pen. But he did complain a lot about it.  So finally I asked, “What’s your major?”

“Accounting,” he replied.

Now here is a problem. I understood why he thought accountant would make a good profession. The world always seems to need another accountant, the pay is good, and the skill is portable. It’s a very sensible career choice. But there is the accounting part. That is, you actually have to be an accountant. All the money and stability and portability and employability are wonderful, but the overwhelming and undeniable fact remains that to be an accountant you also must practice accounting on a daily basis.

The same holds true for writers. Every writer I have interviewed agrees: being published is nice; setting your schedule is nice; getting big advances (if you get them) is nice. But the biggest reward for a writer remains writing, the very thing all writers, published or unpublished, do every day. In fact, all the external pleasures of being a professional writer stem from that first pleasure, the love of writing.

No matter what you do, whether writing or accounting, you must enjoy, preferably love, the process, the actual act of doing what you do, for that will be a sizable chunk of your life. The love will lead eventually to some sort of success, but you must start with love.  A good way to answer this question, “Do I love what I’m doing?” is to ask yourself, “Would I do it for free?” If the answer is, “Yes!” you’ve probably got yourself a winner.  But if the answer is “ . . . No,” perhaps you should look elsewhere.  Everyone could have some work they love to do, just as everyone could find someone to love.

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The Numbers

At the recent PNWC I found myself telling the same story to a few different audiences, so I thought I’d share it with you now.  It’s all about numbers.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Michael Curtis used to be the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly back when The Atlantic published fiction.  I heard Curtis speak at the first writer’s conference I ever attended and he reported that his magazine received approximately 12,000 short story submissions a year of which he published exactly twelve.

A sound that only writers make when faced with these sorts of numbers rose from the audience—the sound of a group of people possibly coming to terms with the futility of life.  Michael Curtis could have stopped there and left this crowd of aspiring writers to face the harsh numerical reality of their chosen profession, but he was a kind man, and so he elaborated.

Of those 12,000, he explained, approximately 11,000 probably never should have been submitted to The Atlantic. By which he meant, the writers weren’t ready. The stories had not been honed enough, the writer had learned his or her craft well enough, or the writer didn’t actually want to writer short stories, or even be a writer—and yet they submitted anyway and were rejected and added their number to the Depressing Statistics.

Of the other 1,000, two thirds were in the ballpark, as it were, but still not ready.  It was the much smaller percentage that were fully realized pieces of fiction that simply didn’t fit his need or taste. Many stories like this that he rejected went on to be published in prestigious journals or quarterlies and were frequently selected to the Best Stories of the Year collections.

The lesson? Forget numbers. They tell you nothing, really. Be the monkey with you hands over your ears when someone starts reciting “the odds.” If you really want to write, the odds mean nothing. Hone what it is you have to say, learn to say it as clearly and honestly as you can, and when it is ready, it will find it’s readership. If it is ready, if you are ready, it will.

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Blake Snyder

Blake Snyder died yesterday morning. I knew him only by way of our interview, but in that short time I felt privileged to have talked to a man so warm and so excited about writing screenplays. I was surprised to learn he was 58. Perhaps his face had come to show some of those years, but his voice was all youth and all joy for the process of writing and teaching,

I learned about Blake because of the address he gave at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. Though he had sold twelve screenplays in Hollywood bidding wars, Blake remained passionate about teaching and sharing all that he had learned in over twenty years in the business. This is a good example for all writers to remember. It is easy to get caught up in building your career and making as many contacts as possible and hustling here and bustling there, but perhaps the best networking tool of all is generosity. Give freely whenever you can, and it will come back twofold.

Usually, after I sign off from an interview, I keep the author on the line for a few more minutes for an extended, informal chat. This is a preference of mine, simply because I like to talk to writers, and not usually what the authors are expecting. In Blake’s case, however, after I clicked the record button off, Blake said, “Great! Let’s keep talking.” I wish we could still.

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The Blank Slate of You

Writers sometimes complain about the terrors of the blank page, but we all know how delicious a project can be before it has actually begun. There in its fetal beginning, the new book is pure potential, not yet tangled up in a slow opening, a confusing middle, or a flat ending.

To an editor, I have just learned, new writers are this way also. At the recent PNWC, I listened to several editors describe the delight of working with new authors. After all, what is more exciting for an editor than discovering the next . . . whomever? Editing stories and working with writers is satisfying, but to be there at the beginning of something big is a reward in and of itself. And until that first book actually hits the shelves, any first time novelist could be that next big thing.

Secondly, just as your unwritten novel doesn’t yet need to trim 100 pages, so too the first-time novelist doesn’t have a track record working against him or her. The editor is free to pitch the writer’s potential to her sales team, as opposed to reassuring them that the last book, which didn’t quite sell through, had been an anomaly.

So take heart, new writers. The editors are looking for you. I admit it would not have occurred to me until this past weekend that this was the case, but of course it makes all the sense in the world. Editors are not that different than writers—or anyone else for that matter. They take comfort in what works, but are thrilled by what is new. So dare to be you, because if you’re still unpublished, to some editor out there you are pure potential.

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Look Forward

I have found myself again and again talking to writers and agents and editors this weekend about marketing. Bob Mayer, an author of over 40 books and a prolific teacher and speaker, was particularly pointed on the subject. He felt that a lot of time is spent teaching writers how to write while not nearly enough is spent teaching writers how to be authors. I thought it was a great distinction, and absolutely germane even to relatively new writers.

To define my terms, I consider an author someone who has decided to make a career of writing.  Most new writers focus all their attention on just getting a book published. That seems hard enough; that seems like enough of an accomplishment on its own. Which it is. But I would encourage you to look ahead, and even if you haven’t published much yet, begin thinking of yourself as an author.

From a purely practical standpoint, it is useful, should you get a book published, to have an idea of what is going to be expected of you. You will save a lot of time if, before the deal, you learn about websites, blogs, speaking engagements, promotional materials, rewriting—all the nitty-gritty that comes with being published writer. We endeavor to teach as much of this as possible in Author.

But there is a somewhat less practical but equally important reason to view yourself not merely as a writer looking to get published but actually a writer in the process of building a career as an author. If you allow yourself to think about life after the book deal, you can begin to put publication into its proper perspective. Publication is not the end goal. It is nothing more than a milestone, pleasant to reach, but quickly moved on from, because life forever calls you forward.

Allow the goal of publication to shrink; allow it to become a small, attainable thing. If you do, you might be able to get a glimpse of what lies beyond it, all the wealth of choices this one opportunity provides. If you have set the trajectory of your life farther forward, you will be carried that much faster, and what once seemed like a final destination reveals itself as a simply the farthest sport of land you could see when you began your journey.

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The Question

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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It’s Not the Heat, it’s the Character

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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