Well, here we are. A brand new year brimming with squishy possibilities. Once that shiny ball in Times Square dropped it was like the last 365 days of
waiting for the world to end living day to day were wiped clean. Gone. New slate.
So this is the time we make resolutions. Sure, we’ll break most of them in the first month, but that’s ok because now—right now—is a special time when the world is bright and full of possibility.
It’s with that spirit in mind that I present the nine things that we should, definitely, assuredly, absolutely avoid in 2013. Resolutions? More like persecution, right? RIGHT?
9 Writing Resolutions to Avoid in 2013
1. Only Write When Inspired.
I’m guilty of this as much as anyone. Sure, I should be writing to today but I’m just so…blah. There’s nothing in the tank. Nothing stirring in the down under. What’s the point?
The point, dear friends, is writing waits for no man. Your next great story is sitting there, right down in your kidney, bursting to be set free (I recommend going to the bathroom first), and if you’re not going to force yourself to hit that keyboard it’s going to fester and die. If you’re waiting for your muse to show up and kick you in the crotch, you’re going to be waiting a long, long time (and really, why are you waiting to get kicked in the crotch anyway?).
2. Write the Great American Novel
This is all Salinger’s fault. He went and wrote the elusive ”great american novel” on his first try. Consequently, there’s a whole generation of wordsmiths sitting at their computer, hot chocolate in hand, gearing up to write the seminal work of fiction. The one that changes it all. The one that inspires a new generation of writers. The next century’s “Finding Forester.”
Sure, Catcher in the Rye was Salinger’s first novel, and it wasn’t half bad. But it’s easy to forget that he had a dozen short stories under his belt before he decided to write a book.
Now days it’s easier than ever to sling that word-crack; you don’t have to be a novelist to be a successful writer. Before you (and I, dear friends. And I) lock ourselves in a room and break our brains on a book, dammit, try something short first.
Short stories are a lot easier to burn than novels.
3. Only Share My Work with Family
The publishing world is a cold, dark place filled with soulless agents and blood-sucking ad-men looking to steal my word-cash. Even worse, they’re sitting out there just waiting to reject me.
You know who doesn’t reject me? My mom. She loves my writing. You know who else? My dog. Hell, my four-year-old may not understand all the words, but she still thinks I’m the greatest human being to walk the earth (as long as Mom isn’t awake. I always lose to Mom). And as long as I let them take first stab at my writing I’ll always be filled with sweet, sweet acceptance.
Sure, I’ll never publish, but that’s over-rated anyway.
4. Read Nothing But My Genre
The New Year is a great time to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Something scary. Something like Women’s Literary Fiction. Or Urban Crime Thrillers. Maybe even Cat Detectives (how can you resist? They’re so darn furry).
Anything but your brand of choice.
Hey, I know—it’s great to focus on your novel genre. You need to know the giants in your field, right? But writer beware, because if you swim too long in your own genre pool you’ll eventually get some stunted word babies (and prune fingers).
And no one likes typing with prune fingers.
5. Watch More Movies
I had a baby this year (my wife was involved in some way, but it was mostly me) and missed out on some sweet movies consequently. I had to catch the Avengers six months after theater release like some kind of savage.
Not this year, baby. Never again.
Now, I could use the time to write instead. I could. It’s possible. I live in that universe. But what’s more important, really? Finishing the first draft of my novel, or standing in line for three hours to see Iron Man 3 on release day?
I think we all know who wins that fight.
6. Quit My Job and Follow My Passion
Wow, this is a loaded one.
On the one had, you have Julia Roberts. She quit her job being a famous, awesome journalist, and look how it worked out? She traveled the globe for a year scarfing down spaghetti and frolicking with oiled-up French Men.
Now, on the other had you have reality. Cold, hard, the-IRS-is-watching, reality. Sure, we’d all love to spend a vacation with Javier Bardem, but is quitting your job to become a writer the smartest move right now? Reality suggests otherwise. Reality suggests that instead of dining on rich Italian food you’re more likely to consume a dangerous quantity of Ramen Noodles.
Instead of lounging on the beach, drinking mojitos and watching your novel break the Amazon top five, you’re probably going to be at Starbucks, stuffed in the corner, balancing your laptop and your soy latte on one knee while a nanny tries to wrangle five ADHD children into ordering their drinks.
And lets not forget healthcare. That’s a whole other blog.
7. Write in Marathon Sessions
I can hear what you’re thinking: “But I did eight hour writing sessions during NaNoWriMo and I came out just fine!”
No. Trust me. You didn’t.
Yes, you (and I, my good friend. Always I) spent some heady days during the month of November locking ourselves in a bedroom with nothing but a bowl of M&Ms and way too much French Roast. Only to emerge a day later, word-count triumphantly in hand, reeking of stale chocolate and burnt coffee.
But November is one month. We’re talking about a whole year of resolutions. It’s not practical (or healthy) to write in eight hour increments. It might feel great at the time, but more likely than not you’ll find yourself drained the next week and unable to look at a computer without getting the caffeine shakes.
It’s best to stick to the old adage: “An hour a day keeps the word-ghouls away.”
8. Buy That New Laptop
As a rule, writer’s are easily dis—
Writer’s are like children at DisneyWorld. Overexcited and in need of a nap every four hours. We especially like shiny things. The newer the better. And we can’t write without them.
I need that new laptop. My book will finally be perfect if I get the fastest processor. Sure, I can technically write on my current computer, but it doesn’t have face unlock technology. I know I’ll be inspired if I get the new Inspiron.
Well, you’re never going to quit that day job and travel with Julia Roberts if you keep wasting your money on frivolities. So close that NewEgg tab and just say no.
There’ll be a better one next month.
9. Stop Querying. It’s a Waste of Time
Ah, here we go. My favorite.
This year we should all just stop querying agents and publishers. I mean, look at all the time involved. I have to look up each agent, follow each crazy, Draconian submission guideline, then I have to wait two weeks to hear back.
If an agent doesn’t respond to my query within the first day with a reasoned, thoughtful letter showing they read my full three chapters and took the time to appreciate the novel’s imagery and ground-breaking characters, I’m going to cross them off my list. Sorry, Mr. Agent. You don’t get to appreciate my genius any more.
That’ll teach them.
“Happy New Year 2013“ Creative Commons via ell brown
“Dark Knight Line“ Creative Commons via ste3ve
All other images courtesy of stock.xchang
Rejection isn’t pretty. You can present it however you like, call it nice names and spray it with perfume, but it never gets any easier. Or, as my Grandpappy used to say “You can dress a pig like a swan, but it’s still going to taste like bacon.”
Now, my Grandpappy was a great man (used to make the Rocky Mountain Oysters fresh off the bull, which is something you do not want to see), but with all due respect to my elders, he can take his advice and shove it. Sometimes a pig can taste like a swan.
And sometimes rejection can sting in a good way.
Here are nine ways you can make rejection taste like sweet, succulent swan:
1. Merit Badges
Last week I discussed a couple of ways you know you’re a writer, and one of the things I mentioned were Merit Badges. I love Merit Badges, because you usually get them for crap you already know but need to feel special about. Like eating your broccoli, or avoiding the clap.
But I’d like to think that Writer Merit Badges are something else. Something special. Something earned, fought for and paid for with the blood of your fallen World of Warcraft enemies.
And rejection in the queen bitch of Merit Badges.
It’s something every writer has endured. A mark of pride, honor, a badge you can show off to your children (or the totems of idea-babies sitting on your desk). Writers get rejected like Paris Hilton gets herpes. It’s going to happen, so start preparing, take your antibiotics, and toughen up.
And, you know, maybe stay away from B-List Celebrities. Just sayin’.
2. Free Revision
You know how much a good editor costs? It’s more than a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards, I can tell you that. How about a good critique group? Pshhaw, I’m a writer, I don’t socialize with other people. Beta Readers? Umm…does my mom count?
Hey, sometimes it’s freaking hard to get decent feedback for your story. So, you know what? Instead of looking at rejection as a personal attack or a denial of your special writer spark that makes you so much better than everyone else, and eventually Kevin Gardner from second-grade is going to see how good a writer you are, even though he said your story about Space Worms from Dimension Thirteen was worse than the third Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and…uhm…what was I talking…
Oh! Right. Rejection.
If you’re lucky enough to get a rejection letter with some honest-to-goodness feedback on it, treat that shiz like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Because the agent/editor/sister-in-law who sent the feedback actually took time to read your story, note what’s wrong, and tell you. Folks, that doesn’t happen often.
Take the good feedback where you can, and if you’re not feeling like a beligerant ass that day send the agent a thank you note. Just a few words letting them know you appreciate the feedback. It’s something decent human beings do, and you never know, maybe that agent has a friend who’s going to read your manuscript someday.
A kind word can go a long way.
3. Where the Greats Have Gone Before
Let me throw a few stats at’cha:
J.K Rowling was rejected by a dozen publishers before she sold the first Harry Potter novel.
Stephen King received thirty rejections before he published his first book, Carrie.
C.S. Lewis (I love this one) faced rejection over 800 times before he sold a single piece of writing!
I could populate a hundred posts with nothing but lists of famous authors rejected repeatedly before selling their first, second, or sometimes twelfth novel. I’ve already said that rejection is a mark of honor, but it’s also a tradition. A way to compare yourself with the greats. A chance to walk a mile in Stephen King’s
Anyone who has written something great has faced rejection on numerous occasions. Someday you will be able to add yourself to that list.
4. Spruce Up That Office Space
And speaking of Stephen King…
There’s a great story in his legendary book, On Writing, discussing how he dealt with rejection. In King’s case, he would meticulously collect every rejection letter, smooth them out and hang them from a spike nailed into his bedroom wall. He would look at them every day and remind himself of what he was doing, what he was trying to accomplish.
The lesson is your rejection letters shouldn’t be stashed away, hidden in some drawer buried next to the dead hooker from that Vegas Publishing Expo (Hey, what happens at a Publishing Expo…right?). They should be proudly displayed, preened, admired from your leather chair as you type away on your next novel, a smile on your face as you imagine how it’ll feel when you finally get that letter of acceptance.
And if nothing else, those letters make a great dart board.
5. War Stories
Rejection can be a mark of pride, a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish, or just some nice wall art. But what it can also be is a great story. And when it comes time to sit down with some writers at a friendly game of strip poker, you can’t be the only one without a story.
They don’t have to all be winners (“I remember back in ’09 I was working on this real piece of work. Sent it out to an agent and got a still beating human heart Fed Exed the following week.”) but you should be able to nod in sympathy when a fellow wordsmith is lamenting his latest form rejection.
And if you’ve never been rejected? If you have no experience from which to empathize? If all your poop comes out gold-plated and covered in mithril?
Well, hell, I’ll still hang with you. I’ve always wanted some mithril.
6. The Seething Fire That Feeds Ambition
Do an experiment for me real quick, k? Reach deep down past your gut, your large intestine, your small, your bowels, the burrito you shouldn’t have eaten on Monday, and find the squirming little bastard that makes you wake up in the morning.
No, not gas, the other squirming bastard.
Ok, got him? Great. Now get acquainted, because that jabbering, poking, squirmy little dude’s called your ambition, and he loves to eat. All the time.
You can feed him with high-fives, speeches from Rudy, and pep-talks from your mom, but you know what’ll trump all that? What the little guy loves to nosh more than anything else? Yeah, you can probably guess (because of the title of the blog, and all that).
Ambition loves rejection. Love it. Loooooooves it.
Nothing will get your fire going like a nice piece of “You can’t do it.” That stuff works every time, because once you get over the sinking feeling in your gut (that’s the opposite of ambition. It’s called self-pity and it has no place in writing. Or Rudy) and get angry, you’re going to hit your keyboard like a schnauzer on epinephrine.
You may not produce the greatest work, but damn if it doesn’t feel good. And sometimes that’s enough.
7. Learn How to Reject the Proper Way (Or Not)
One of my favorite things about the publishing world is that everything is cyclical. Which means that someday you’re going to be the one sending out the rejection letters.
Now, I’m not saying you’re going to become an agent, but if you stay in the writing game long enough eventually people are going to ask you for something. Requests to read manuscripts, invitations to sit on convention panels, petitions for your social security number (What? They said they needed it for my byline), and as much as you want to say yes to everything, eventually you’ll have to say no.
You’ll have to reject them.
Yay! Now you’re in the driver seat. You can fulfill those fantasies of crushing someone’s dream the same way you were crushed by that dumb agent who rejected you two years ago. She obviously didn’t know that Space Worms from Dimension Thirteen were the next big thing.
Only, she was pretty nice in that rejection. She treated you like a human being, gave you a little feedback (turns out Space Worms played better in Young Adult. Who knew?), and encouraged you to try again in the future.
The point? When you get a rejection letter that is courteous and polite, learn from it, then pay it forward when the time comes.
8. Without Misery What Would We Write?
Boy, is there anything writers love more than a nice, hot bucket of misery in the morning? Not the misery of others, of course, we’re not monsters (we just write about them). I’m talking self misery.
Misery fuels authors like Red Bull and Vodkas fuel Lindsay Lohan. We love that stuff. We thrive on it. And the messed up part, sometimes we go looking for it.
Turns out we don’t have to look far, because the next rejection letter is just an agent away. That means a fresh batch of feeling sorry for ourselves is on the way, and that means writing! Sure, we can write without it. We don’t require misery to hit the keyboard, but sometimes it just…it just…well, dammit, it just feels nice.
So turn that rejection into something productive. Let it fuel your spark of self-pity. And when you’re done, go take a walk in the sunshine. You can’t be miserable all the time.
9. If All Else Fails, Go It Alone
So you’ve been rejected. A bunch. And while it’s nice to know that C.S. Lewis had to deal with rejection eight hundred times, maybe you’ve hit the end of your rope. Maybe it’s time to self-publish.
See, we have to remember that rejection is ultimately one person sitting in an office with a big rubber stamp saying your work won’t sell. One. Person. And even though that person is an “expert” in the industry, and it’s their job to figure out what sells, there are plenty of times they’re wrong.
Like, 50 Shades of Wrong.
So, how do you know when it’s time to self-publish? Well, take a look at those rejection letters. Did you get thirty form rejections? Umm, yeah, probably something wrong with your novel, old son. Better hit those beta-readers. If you didn’t get form rejections, if your letters are full of praise but tell you things like your story won’t sell in the current market, it’s too long, it’s difficult to summarize, Space Worms have already been done, well…those are cues that self-pubbing might be the way to go.
And when your self-published novel goes the way of Amanda Hocking and sells a million copies, give me a holler and we’ll go out for a beer. While we’re there we can swap some war stories.
“Pep Talk” Creative Commons via joellevand
All other images courtesy of stock.xchang
Quick aside before we get into the “meat.” Razors and Rust is currently FREE in the Amazon Kindle store, and will remain so until closing on June 21st. The amount of support and quality reviews this story has received so far has me, well…speechless.
And we can’t allow that to continue, so enough on Razors and Rust for the moment and onto your regularly scheduled blog post.
A list on reasons to avoid writers is almost superfluous (ooh, fancy word). Do we really need nine? Where’s the challenge? I almost went the other direction with “9 Reasons to Associate with Writers,” but no one would buy that.
I certainly wouldn’t.
Writers have their uses, don’t get me wrong. We wouldn’t have The Day After Tomorrow without them. But of course, we have The Day After Tomorrow because of them. So there’s that.
Just in case that wasn’t enough proof to kick that wordsmith to the curb, here are a few more reasons to avoid the writer in your life.
1. Trust Us, We’re Good for It
The writerly profession is one of solitude, introspection, and dirty, dirty poverty. We like to pretend there’s artistic merit in scrounging dumpsters for unused (oh who are we kidding, we’ll take used) Ramen noodles and apple cores, but we’re professional liars, and if you believe that one I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
Oh sure, there are some writers that swim in gold bullion like Scrooge McDuck (hello J.K. Rowling), but the reality for most of us is a second job and indentured servitude for our pets. That’s where you, our “friends” come in.
What’s that you say? You want to go see the Avengers? Well, I’m a little short on funds at the moment, but my advance is coming next week and…oh. Are you sure? You don’t mind ? Well, ok, but only if you’re sure. I’ll pay you back. Trust me…I’m good for it.
(SPOILER! I’m not good for it.)
2. The Voices Made Me Do It
Writers are paid to create worlds with believable characters spouting believable dialog. This is why, at any giving moment, you’ll find your local writer sitting in a corner talking to themselves. For hours. When you approach them (slowly, we startle) and ask what they’re doing, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. They’re having a conversation, obviously. You’re the weird one for asking.
I once had an entire round table discussion on what to get my wife for Valentines Day with two of my main characters and Slippy from Star Fox (cause, you know…why not). When she was less than thrilled with the result, I laid the blame at my characters feet. I absolutely believed it was their fault.
I’m still pissed at that frog.
3. You’ll End Up Robbing a Bank
When you know a writer, everything in your life (really, everything) is up for grabs. We look at our friends as a big pool of public domain soup—to be dipped and ladled at will. If you tell me a funny story, there’s a good chance it will end up in my book. If you have a unique name, I’m probably “borrowing” it (some people might call this stealing, but writers never steal. Only borrow) for my new character.
And God help you if you piss me off, because Taylor Swift isn’t the only one who knows how to make an ex-friend/lover/landlord sweat. Maybe you wouldn’t rob a bank in real life, but in my novel…well, “Steve” is starting to sound like a good name for a villian. (You see, Steve? You should have lent me some money to see The Avengers!)
4. The Social Skills of a Sheltered Hamster
You want to know why there are Writer’s Conventions? Sure, it’s a good excuse to meet agents and editors, get tips from the pros, and connect with readers. But the real reason? It’s because we have the behavioral skills of an eight-year-old on Ritalin.
We’re most comfortable among our own kind, because when we stop the conversation to randomly converse with our
imaginary friend main character in Klingon, another writer will understand. Hell, they may join in (where do you think collaborative novels come from?).
That’s nice for conventions, but it doesn’t fly in the real world. When you’re counting on your writer-friend to help you move, and they never show because they had an idea they had to get on paper, it stings a little. I mean, your writer-friend basically told you a story is more important than your friendship.
Unfortunately, sometimes the story is more important.
If I had better social skills I wouldn’t have told you that.
5. What’s That? I Wasn’t Listening?
You’ve probably figured this out—what with the “voices” and all—but writers aren’t known for their stellar listening skills.
It’s not our fault; our stories are just more interesting than what you’re saying. Or, well…I don’t know. I wasn’t really listening.
Remember that kid in school? The one the teacher was always scolding for day-dreaming? The one walking across the courtyard with his jaw open, eyes unfocused, spittle running down his chin? Yeah. That’s us.
If you’re talking to a writer, odds are we’re only catching 50% of what you’re sayi….
Oh! Maybe Steve works at the bank during the day, but nobody recognizes him because he dresses as a woman! Yeah. That could work.
Sorry. You were saying?
6. You’re Not Doing “Good,” You’re Doing “Well”
Do you love when people correct your grammar? Uh huh. Do you love when they do it all the time. No? Too bad, because there is nothing in the world a writer loves more than correcting grammar (Well…other than free drinks. That’s catnip).
And it’s more than just catching an error—we have to rub your nose in it. We wait in the bushes, looking for that first sign of weakness, that moment of hesitation (“Is it ‘Veteran’s Day,’ or ‘Veterans Day?’”), and then we pounce. We have to show that you’re not only wrong, but somehow a lesser human being because you said “Me and Tom,” instead of “Tom and I.” It’s how we’re hardwired.
I had a friend I used to love correcting. There must have been some kind of genetic predisposition to word-murder in his family, because he couldn’t help destroying the English language with every sentence. I would watch him intently, waiting for the inevitable moment and then…HAH!
“I think you meant ‘fewer’ not ‘less.’”
It got so bad he started flinching every time he saw me smile. This is what writers do…we cause involuntary spasms with the power of our smugness.
7. Bathing is Not On Our Hierarchy of Needs
There are many things a writer needs: pen, paper, computer, smelling salts, brown liquor, clear liquor, orange liquor. But one thing we don’t need? Hygeine.
Yeah, it’s gross.
It doesn’t change the fact, though—writing isn’t an occupation that rewards, or particularly cares, about personal cleanliness. Think about it. A writer is told above all other things to keep their butt in the chair. If they’re successful, it probably means they’ve parked their butt in said chair for a loooooong time. And when their buddies invite them to come a’drinking, they’re usually too busy talking to the voices in their head to remember to shower.
If you insist on associating with a writer, you’d better keep some wet wipes handy.
8. We Care More About Our Blog Hits Than Your Birthday
If you get a “Happy Belated Birthday,” card every year from the same person, chances are she’s a writer.
It probably has something to do with the way we prioritize. See, a normal person’s brain looks something like this:
- God>Family>Friends>Work> School>Cookies> School Plays/Athletics>E.L James>Liquor.
Now here’s a writer’s brain:
(Though cookies still rank pretty high.)
9. You’re Going to Entertain Us…Whether You Want To Or Not
Writers like drama. It’s in our job description. We have a duty to ferret out the inherent drama in nature and ask “What if we introduced some wood-rats?”
But writers get bored like everyone else. And when a writer get’s bored…ouch. Things can get dicey.
See, when you get bored you call a friend and ask about their weekend. Maybe talk about a new movie, or a book you’ve read. A writer is a different creature entirely. Because just talking about the weekend isn’t nearly interesting enough. There’s no drama! And if there’s no drama, then it’s the writer’s job to create some:
“Hey Steve, I’m bored. Let’s build a bunker.”
“Wait! A bunker doesn’t protect against the smart wood-rats, and those are on the way.”
“Steve, try to keep up. We’ll have to get some lumber, but the only place open past midnight is run by an Appalachian refugee who doesn’t take kindly to questions. Now, we’re going to need around fifteen hundred in cash. I’m tapped out because you made me buy that Vampire Hunter’s kit last week…”
“Hold on, I made you buy—”
“Steve, there’s no time. Look, you get the lumber and I’ll take care of the pesticides once the bunker’s built. Trust me…I’m good for it.”
“Money Wallet“ Creative Commons via 401(k) 2012
“Taylor Swift 2010“ Creative Commons via avrilllla
“Untitled“ Creative Commons via starlights
“Pig Pen EXPLORED!“ Creative Commons via Connor Keller
“White-throated Wood Rat“ Creative Commons via J. N. Stuart
The accepted wisdom is to ignore readers at your own peril. Good advice, since—as writers—we’d be nowhere without an audience.
That said—screw readers.
Wait! Hold on, don’t leave yet. At least hear me out.
I love readers, love them. They’re the gooey nougat in my Snickers, the velvety caramel in my Rolo‘s, the, uh…
You get the point.
But sometimes, my beloved, tasty readers, you don’t know what’s good for you. And before you think ol’ Daddy Nic is getting high and mighty, just know I’m including myself in this category. I’m as voracious reader as you’ll find.
1. The Hero’s Backstory
Alright. Let’s start at the beginning.
Your hero has a past, and how much you choose—or don’t choose—to reveal will drastically change the pace of your story. Your hero might be a broody, melancholic bad-boy with a mysterious eyebrow. Or a pampered débutante with the body of a ballerina and the scars of a cage fighter (hmm…I kind of like that one). As the reader, holy crap I want to know where those scars/eyebrow came from!
Tease them. Tantalize them. Give them just enough to satisfy the surface itch (“The ballerina comes from a school that staged fights in order to win the lead role), then leave it alone.
Remember the mistake Papa Lucas made. The world doesn’t need another Phantom Menace.
2. I Want the Protagonist to Date my Daughter
The reader (hopefully) loves your character. That’s well and good. And the reader wants your character to succeed, which is also good. But beware, beware, the temptation to make your protagonist too…damn… likeable.
I know that’s weird to hear from a guy purporting to give writing advice: ”But Nic! Don’t we want the reader to like our main character?”
Yes. Obviously, if your character isn’t likeable your story’s D.O.A. But you’re equally likely to kill it by making your protagonist the nicest, most friendly chum in the world. A man who takes in strays, saves damsels in distress, and volunteers his free time at the Children’s Hospital.
Sometimes readers want their protagonist absent of flaws (whether they know it or not…I’ve been guilty of this on several occasions), and that makes for one hell of a boring character. So fly in the face of your audience and give that MC some meat. Some messed up, serious, unlikeable issues that aren’t easily resolved.
Your readers (myself included) will thank you.
3. The Smoldering Lovers Get It On
There’s nothing better than good, old-fashioned romantic tension. Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristen and Isolde. Sam and Frodo. Love stories based on the desire, the need, the bone-numbing desperation to make with the, uh…whoopie (let’s keep it PG13, folks).
These stories are great because of the inherent drama behind a lowered glance, a trembling caress, a quivering chin. Small, subtle movements that telegraph the characters romantic turmoil without broadcasting their need to get it on (I’m looking at you, E.L James).
Can you imagine how different the Arthurian Legend would be if Lancelot and Guinevere had jumped in the sack right away? “Hi, I’m Lancelot. I’m taking you to meet your future husband. “Why, Lancelot…is that a sword on your hip or are you just excited to see me?” (start porn music)
It’s OK to make the reader wait. The payoff is worth it.
4. A Safe Haven
Your characters are on the run. They’ve just escaped a coven of undead jackalopes and need a place to hide, and…oh! Oh! Didn’t I read earlier that Billy has an uncle with a bunker sprayed in jackalope urine? That’ll keep them safe. Hurray!
Look, sometimes pacing requires a time-out. A moment for the reader to catch their breath, reflect on the jackalope carnage, and recharge. Be wary, though, of giving your characters a Free Pass. A “Rivendell.” A place stocked with food, ammunition, and wise elves.
Your readers really, really want it. WHY WON’T YOU GIVE IT TO THEM? ARE YOU A SADIST!?
Yes. All writers are sadists.
Allow the readers to catch their breath, but not for long—there are more jackalopes around the corner.
5. Tall, Dark, and Handsome
Hey good-looking, have I seen you here before? Ooh, you sparkle—I like my protagonists sparkly.
Here’s the thing—I have nothing against attractive characters.
They exist in the wild, afterall, so why shouldn’t they be in your story? Your protagonist, though…that’s different.
If your main character is unusually hot, your story loses credibility. It’s unrealistic, self-indulgent, wish-fulfillment—the worse kind of Mary Sue—and you want no part of it.
It’s not fair, but it’s true.
Unless your characters are vampires. Obviously.
6. More Magic!
This is for my fantasy writers. Feel free to replace with the appropriate noun if your story doesn’t have magic (“mystery,” for Mysteries, “action” for Thrillers, uh…”science” for Science Fiction? I don’t know, I’m not a scientist).
There are two schools of fantasy writers: I’m of the school suggesting less is more when it comes to magic. (What’s that? The other school? Why are you obsessed with school? It’s summer).
Magic is ephemeral. Mysterious. Its power lies in subtlety and careful application—notfireballs every other page.
This is tough on the reader, because, dammit…they want to know. They want to see the supernatural, to experience the otherness that attracts them to fantasy in the first place. But you’ll hold their attention longer—and beef up the atmosphere and mood—if you keep the magic felt, not seen.
George RR Martin (whom I consider the all-time master of fantasy) is a perfect example. Keep the story fantastic, but the magic mysterious.
7. You Can’t Kill my Favorite Character!
Oh, but I can. I CAN! I’m God, and my killing pen flows with swift, terrible justice.
Also, I stay young by swimming in reader’s tears.
But really, narcissism notwithstanding , you want me to kill your favorite character. You may not admit it (go ahead, deny. I can wait. There’s a Twilight marathon playing), but in your secretest of heart-spaces you want a martyr. A death you can feel in your colon. Something memorable, worthy of reminiscing with loyal fans over tea and crumpets.
What is Harry Potter without the death of (SPOILER!) Dumbledore? Or (MAJOR SPOILER FOR GAME OF THRONES) A Song of Ice and Fire without beheading Ned Stark?
Sometimes a character has to die for the story to run its course. Not all the time, but as writers, when that moment comes, we can’t hesitate. Even if it means hatemail.
Like, a lot of hatemail.
8. Answers! Answers! ANSWERS!
No matter how many questions you answer, how many clues you give, how many mysteries you tie with a pretty bow, it will never be enough.
Never, ever, ever.
So stop stressing for a moment and allow a few questions to remain unanswered.
I want answers as much as any reader, but sometimes I have to accept that what I want, and what I need aren’t the same thing.
A great example is “The Dark Tower.” Give it a read. Then proceed to curse Stephen King. Then praise him. Then curse him again.
Stories are a series of mysteries strung together by bubblegum and duct tape. There are big mysteries and little mysteries, and in order to keep the reader’s attention you have to keep a few unanswered until the end.
The problem lies in how to answer them when you get to the end, because any time you’ve kept a reader guessing for several hundred pages—and I mean, head-scratching, spreadsheets-of-possible-killers guessing—they’re going to have large expectations.
You have to give them something—probably a lot of something if you want to avoid getting a brick through the window—but keep a couple of secrets for yourself. Spread some breadcrumbs and allow the reader to search for their own answers. You’ll be surprised at what comes back.
9. A Happy Ending
Who doesn’t love a happy ending?
You don’t, you heartless bastard!
This is the ultimate betrayal, the moment when your reader leaps from their chair and throws your book against the wall. “What do you mean the jackalopes win!?”
Well, sometimes, no matter how you force it…the bad guys win. That’s why Shakespeare wrote tragedies, folks, and I studied that stuff in school, so it must be good. Your book isn’t a Disney fable (unless it is, in which case enjoy your buckets of cash and remember to hire me for the sequel), so don’t pretend you have to write it like one. Your loyalty is to the story, and nothing else.
Remember Romeo and Juliet? “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Shakespeare wrote that, and it’s true…because Shakespeare’s a boss! He wasn’t afraid to kill some lovers, some cousins, some wives, mothers, sisters and brothers. He knew that sometimes the best ending is one drenched in the tears of your audience.
And in the end, is there any greater compliment?
“Vader“ Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported via braincorp
“Aragorn and Arwen“ Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported via greatart4jeff
“Magic Missile“ Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported via NorthboundFox
“Gustave Courbet“ Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Hate is a strong word—my wife tells me I’m not allowed to say it around my daughter. And yet, there are some things I really don’t…like. Cooked spinach, for one (it’s so green), or maybe shovelling the sidewalk. But you know, strongly dislike isn’t cutting it for these next nine words. I hate them. And so do you. You just don’t know it yet.
Or maybe you do. I don’t know, I’m not a mind-reader.
There are all kinds of reasons to loathe the nine—and don’t worry, I’ll get there—before I do, a disclaimer: there is a time and a place for each of these, and I’m not advocating stripping them from your writing entirely. I’m suggesting you identify them, learn why you hate them (or love them, if you’re into that), and then sprinkle throughout your prose with discretion.
9 Words You Hate (But Don’t Know it Yet)
“That” is an insidious little bugger. Like all the nine, it has a purpose and (with proper application) can improve sentence structure and flow. That said, it’s also a nefarious cad who will weasel its way into every sentence if you’re not paying attention. While writing the intro to this blog, “that” snuck in twice (feel free to gasp). But why do I hate it? Why should you? Why can’t we live in a world where “that” is cherished and used appropriately?
Because “that” wants to kill your writing. It wants to add itself extraneously, and there is no place for that (AHHH! You see what it did??).
Ok, example time. Let’s take a sentence from the blog’s intro and compare: “And yet, there are some things that I really don’t…like.” The sentence is sound, it serves its purpose as a conduit for information. But, dammit—it’s wordy. Wordy kills your writing. Let’s try this instead: “And yet, there are some things I really don’t…like.” Mmmm…better. Warmer, softer, gooier. Like cooked spinach.
Remember the cardinal rule: if you don’t need it, cut it.
Ok, I shouldn’t hate “lay.” It’s a fine word, and when used properly we have no beef. But, oh…OH! It’s so freaking hard to conjugate. If I ever find out who decided to use “Lay” as the past tense of “Lie,” I will punch them in their conjugating FACE.
The problem is thus: “Lie” is the present tense verb when there is no direct object: “I lie on the floor.” “Lay” is the present tense verb when there is a direct object: “I lay the blood-spattered halberd on the floor.” Fine and dandy. The problem lies (doh!) in the past tense. As it happens, the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” So now it becomes: “I lay on the floor,” and the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” so: “I laid the blood-spattered halberd on the floor.”
AHHHH! BRAIN ‘SPLODED!
I don’t use “lay” anymore. Is it lazy? Eh, maybe. But it makes my brain happy, and I need all the help I can get there.
“Have you heard about John? What’s that all about? I went out and about. About last Saturday…”
Ug. You see where I’m going? “About” isn’t inherently bad, it wasn’t born with a knife in its hands—rather we made it that way. We let it down, we used it up, we delved too deep. And now look where we’re at? We can use “about” for EVERYTHING! It’s so easy. And when it comes to writing, easy usually mean’s bad. If you don’t believe me, do a quick search on your WIP and tell me how often “about” rears its ugly head (really, let me know in the comments). Take my advice and cut that number in half. Trust me, you don’t need it.
EXAMPLE: “Dinner is about ready.” Oh, is it? Is it really? What the hell does that mean? Ten minutes? Thirty seconds? RIGHT NOW? How about “Dinner is almost ready,” (still bad), or “Dinner in 30,” (colloquial, but better).
Give “about” a rest. The poor guy’s earned it.
I admit, I’m guilty when it comes to overusing “look.” Read through my first draft and you’ll find characters constantly looking at each other, studying each other, watching each other. But it’s lazy writing and I know better—and so do you. If two characters are conversing one assumes they occasionally make eye contact (or not, it’s your story), but it doesn’t need to be said every flipping time. “John looked at Frank and said, ‘Hey guy, I don’t think we’re going to make it.’ Frank nodded, then looked up and motioned to John. ‘Come here, big fella. I need a hug.”
You see? Be judicious, let the reader know where your character is looking and let it be.
Unless you have a character who speaks sarcastically all the time, “bit” has no place in your writing. It weakens your prose with each step, undermines your sentence structure with every breath, stalks you mercilessly until you find yourself in a closet, humming Police lyrics and wondering where it all went wrong. If you find the following sentence lurking in your story, “That’s a bit much,” take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why.
Observe the following: “A little bit of sugar.” Unless you’re Julie Andrews and follow with “makes the medicine go down,” your sentence would read better as, “A little sugar.” Remember, ”Bit” can be removed or replaced almost all the time, and doing so will improve your writing.
But seriously, if you’re Julie Andrews you can do whatever you want.
I don’t believe that writers should always avoid adverbs (alliteration on the other hand…), but in this case they should. “Very,” might be the worse word on this list. Dastardly in its application, seductive in its evil—it brings your sentence to a crawl, limits your vocabulary, and worse yet, invokes the angry shade of Mark Twain(more of that in a minute).
Why? Because it’s unneeded.
Behold! “I’m very tired.” Great. Boring, but I get it. You know what isn’t boring? “I’m exhausted. I’m running on empty. I’m weary.” You see my point.
In the end, Mark Twain said it best: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Another list, another adverb. “Quickly,” almost didn’t make the nine because everyone already hates it, but you know…haters got to hate. And “quickly,” despite enjoying its status as the most despised of adverbs, still manages to pop up in my writing, rearing its head like the Hydra, sprouting two more every time I think it’s dead.
The problem with “quickly,” is the same as “very” and “bit”—it’s unnecessary, ruins sentence flow, and chokes the life out of surrounding words like the vile weed it is.
“I ran quickly across the road,” tells us what’s happening, but so do paint-by-numbers. A Monet shows us. “I sprinted/raced/roared/bounced down the road,” is a prettier picture and a tastier sentence (I don’t know. I’m hungry).
Blame Nike for this one. “Just do it,” is arguably one of the greatest catch-phrases of all time (“Waaassssuppp” being a close second), and its easy to see why: its simple, to the point, and manages to simultaneously motivate and gently sneer. But maybe I’m alone in thinking the famous catch phrase improves by removing “Just.” I might be onto something…Don Draper, watch out!
“Just,” has a time and a place, but it’s also a crutch, and one to which we must remain ever vigilant. So often I see (in my writing, as well as others) the following: “I just feel like I (insert some overly melodramatic statement here).” Uh-uh. Nope. Cut it, cut it now. You don’t need it. I know, it’s how your character talks, you like the cadence, you think Nike probably had it right. But come on, you’re better than this.
“Just,” is sneaky because on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it, but cut it out o’ that sentence and watch how the whole thing suddenly comes together. Ignore Nike this time, and take my advice—”Do it.”
Wait…what? An exclamation mark isn’t a word! What are these shenanigans?
I know. But sometimes punctuation is so vile, so insidious, it crosses over, taking on traits and characteristics that were never intended. Hey, I love me a good exclamation mark…when I’m feeling whimsical. But if you’re writing a piece of serious prose you need to get that punctuation behind you.
The dembanger had its time in the sun, say, a hundred years ago. Today is different, and nothing ruins a nice story more than overusing exclamation points. Look, here’s the thing, if your prose is tight, your character’s realistic, and your mood thorough, the exclamation comes through without needing a “mark.” If you require a specific tag to let your reader know you’re excited, then it’s time to re-examine your style. Strunk & White is a good place to start (and required reading. Seriously).
I know I’m going to get blow-back on this—some people really love their exclamation points—but in my book, your writing improves when you limit that nasty mark. Let your characters make their points through dialog and action—not punctuation.
“Chicken and Thyme?“ used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user pdstahl.
“Julie Andrews” Creative Commons / Mark Kari
“Mark Twain by AF Bradley“ Wikimedia Commons
“Nike Wallpaper“ Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.