The Elusive Feels

Right up front I’m going to say that every writer hopes to write stories, poems, novels, scripts, or non-fiction that emotionally engages their readers. It would be ridiculously disingenuous to suggest otherwise. I personally hope that whatever I write resonates with at least someone out there and hits some shared chord of truth.

If you’re a writer, you’re a reader first. As a reader the quickest way to eject me out of your work and abandon it is to make me aware that you’re trying to manipulate my emotions. To make me conscious of your words purposely attempting to steer my feelings and thoughts.

When I was ten years old I watched “Somewhere in Time” and was so moved I wrote a bunch of superiorly inferior tortured emotional poems inspired by the way that movie made me feel. I had the feels so bad I could have led a flotilla with my imaginary tears. I worked that lofty emotion to the bone with bad poems. That was the moment I first realized that writing could engage you so deeply that it could make you feel things for imaginary characters you’d never even felt in real life. Which, come on, is serious black magic!

Let’s take a moment to thank me for not subjecting any of you to my lofty early attempts to make people’s hearts heave with the sweeping love that only fiction knows. Because I still have that diary, my friends, I could accost you with ten year old endless love. But I’m kinder than that.

That sense of power that makes a person want to write is natural to feel in the early stages of writing. You want to make people bleed inside – scream – sigh – become better – believe that love is worth dying for – devolve into spiritless pools of darkness when the candy’s gone. Reading powerful poems, novels, stories, and non-fiction can change your perspective, your direction, your life.

But this is just the larval stage of writing. You realize the power of writing and are drunk with the possibilities. At some point you have to evolve into the next instar stage which is forgetting all about the potential readers in order to serve the narrative for the narrative’s sake. You have to dedicate yourself to developing the skill to tell a story with nuance, in layers. You have to be willing to shove ice-picks into the marrow of truth to see what emerges under the microscope of human experience.

In a totally unrelated analogy, readers are witnesses to a story and whether you’re the prosecuter or defender of the story – resist the temptation to lead the witness. Just tell the story.

A writer’s best asset is to be in touch with the magic of a life of reading. To remember all the ways my favorite books have made me think, grow, dream, escape, and sometimes make me exquisitely uncomfortable.  The best books didn’t bludgeon me with words that indicated I should be sad or mad or angry or happy. The stories unfolded and I was free to experience them organically, not always as others (and authors) might have expected.

Readers can tell when you’re trying too hard or when you haven’t tried hard enough. They can tell when you didn’t bother researching things and when you’ve become pedantic about details to a smackable degree. They know when you’re trying to lead them and know when you’re too lost to lead the narrative down a wide open street.

Mind your words. Mine your words.

You’ll never make me cry for trying, but if you care more about what your characters are experiencing than what I’m experiencing as a reader – I just might forget you’re there at all. That’s your truest mission (and mine) as a writer.

Whether you’re writing literature, fantasy, fiction, humor, non-fiction, horror, romance, or mystery – make your work truthful and authentic. Everything else will follow.

 

10 Bad Blogging Habits to Avoid

 

1.  Apologizing for how much more important your life is than your stupid blog.

Readers already know that everyone’s life is more important than their blogs.  Readers are aware that life trumps  blog writing, especially for those blog writers who are writing for fun and social reasons and who aren’t professional writers.  They will forgive you without your constant apologizing.  When every post you write contains some excuse for why you haven’t written in so long it diminishes the quality of whatever else you have to say.  And if every other post is nothing but an apology or explanation about how your life is too important to pause and tell us interested readers what you’re up to, don’t write at all.

2.  Suggesting that blogging is a self indulgent narcissistic activity.

If you feel this way, you should not write a personal blog.  If you put down your own blog writing as a shameful immodest navel-gazing waste of time – you also insult your readers, many of whom are also bloggers.  You make your readers, whoever they are, feel that they are wasting their time reading your blog and worse than that you make them aware that you think you’re better than them.  Would you accuse Steinbeck of being self indulgent for writing “Of Mice and Men”?  Writing is, by it’s very nature, is an introspective art.  Every writer sees through the lens of their own personal experience and all their stories have their germ in the writer’s personal life.  A blog is telling your personal stories, if you don’t respect it, don’t do it.

3.  Being a tease who never puts out.

There are few things worse than a blogger who tells you how much they’re not telling you.  You’re reading their story, you’re interested, they reveal something personal, then they tell you that there are all these details they’re leaving out because it’s too personal to share.  Fuck you.  If you don’t want to share something, don’t share it, but also don’t tell us how much you’re not sharing.  What that does is basically inform your readers that they aren’t good enough to be in your inner circle where all your REAL secrets live.  Congratulations for truly wasting our time and making us feel like a bunch of oily sardines.

4.  Accosting your readers with your music.

The trend for setting up music to turn on automatically when your blog loads is easing up but there are still way too many bloggers who don’t understand how rude automatic music is.  When a reader opens up a blog they are essentially bringing you into their home.  They may have chosen to read your blog but they did not choose to listen to your music.  You forced it on them and while you may think listening to Michael Bolton is the best part of every day, I assure you that many will not agree.  Go ahead and set up your music jukebox but make it mute so that when people come to your blog they can choose to turn it on if they like your play list but will not be blasted with it.

 

5.  Telling us how boring you are.

Nothing kills a reader’s interest faster than a blogger who constantly apologizes for being boring.  If you actually do think you’re boring, don’t write.  If you don’t think you’re boring but you worry that others do, keep it to yourself.  If you think you’re being charmingly honest – you’re not.  Nothing is less charming or disingenuous than a writer constantly apologizing for their writing.  Believe me, if you write a blog for long enough you’ll have something real to apologize for and you want people to actually believe you when you mean it.

6.  Ignoring comments.

Don’t ignore your readers.  It’s insulting.  Especially when they are reaching out to you after you’ve revealed something really personal and painful and they want to give you their warmest thoughts and hopes to help support and uplift you.  Nothing will confirm you as a truly self indulgent and self absorbed writer than ignoring the people who reach out to you because they care about you.  Blogging, at its best, is a communal sort of writing.  You tell your stories and people who read them and are moved (whether in a positive or negative way) have the chance to make a conversation out of it.  If you don’t take part in the conversations you start then you may as well declare yourself the Queen of England.

7.  Whoring yourself out.

I am not of the opinion that it is inauthentic to have ads on your blog.  My personal take is that your ads should never speak more loudly than your content.  A blog whose writing columns are narrower than the ad columns is not a pleasant place to be.  Sponsored content isn’t my personal deal but I’ve seen people do it tastefully.  You are not a whore for trying to make money from your blog.  It’s damn hard for writers to make a living and I cheer on anyone who makes a go of it provided they don’t over do it.  What’s over doing it?  If you have giveaways every week, especially more than one a week, and if you have sponsored content every week – you lose my trust in your authenticity.  Choose your advertising tactics with care.  If anyone is curious – my own ads don’t make me more than $2 a month so far (and that’s up from $0).  I’d love to make more.  Money is good.  Making money from writing is awesome.  It’s my main goal in life – to be paid to write, because I’M A WRITER.  Just don’t ever lose sight of the quality of your content.

8.  Telling poop stories.

The blogging platform allows all women (not just professional writers) to share the stories that matter to them with other women all over the world.  This has created a greater sense of community and shared knowledge and support amongst us all.   Unfortunately the new-found freedom to talk about anything real in our lives – like the fact that parenting involves a lot of diaper changing – has created some distressing trends in women writers.  I don’t know why it is, but telling stories about your baby’s poop is a great favorite on mom blogs and it has become an exhausted topic.  There are no revelations left to share on this topic.  The humor really isn’t there either.  Just stop it.  Same goes for snot and spit-up and projectile ANYTHING.  Stop it.  There are other ways to “keep it real” in your writing.  Find them.

9.  Telling readers what a burden your blog is.

This is similar to telling your readers that your life is more important than your blogging is, except it’s worse because now you’re suggesting that you don’t even like it.  If you have any readers (and most blogs, even tiny ones, have at least a few readers) they come to hear your stories because they’re interested and they probably really like you.  Otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time on you.  When you talk about what a burden your blog is and how you don’t even enjoy it, it’s like having sex with someone and then telling them that having sex just isn’t worth the effort.  No one wants to feel like they aren’t worth the effort.  If you find blogging a burden, don’t do it.  Quit your blog.  But don’t tell your readers they weren’t worth it, just tell them you’ve discovered that blogging isn’t your true calling.

10.  Being an asshole tightwad with your blogroll.

Do you have a blogroll?  If you blog you should have a blog roll.  Sharing the link love may not be required but other bloggers notice.  Other bloggers make up a large proportion of most blog readers.  Not having a blog roll is like saying you’re too important to share your readers with anyone else.  Some of the biggest  bloggers with insanely high traffic have blog rolls because they know that sharing the love is part of what makes the blogging world a largely generous and diverse place to spend time.  So don’t be a tightwad with your connections.

Bottom Line:

Don’t make your readers feel stupid, creepy, unwanted, inferior, or that they wasted their time reading your blog.

Excellent Reads for Writers

When I started working on Cricket and Grey I wanted to work in a more organized way than I had with The Winter Room because I wanted to avoid getting lost in pages of emotive crap that leads nowhere.  What I really wanted was to avoid emotive crap altogether.  I looked for a book that could serve as a guideline and found a great help in the book “Write Away” by Elizabeth George.  I didn’t want someone to tell me what to write but how to structure a plot and story thoughtfully.  Taking the time to work out a plot outline, do some character analysis, and to play with POV before digging myself into an enormous grave full of words made writing my second novel a completely different experience than the first.  Each draft I wrote accomplished very specific things.  I know that all writers have their own processes and mine, as it develops, will not match anyone else’s exactly.  Still, I think it’s useful for writers to listen to other writers talk about writing.  I think it’s useful for us to share notes, to compare notes, and to share ideas.

Through doing my agent research, looking for support with other writers, and reading advice from the trenches I’ve compiled a number of great reads (and a video) that I think most writers will find encouraging, interesting, and useful.

Write Away

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite mystery writers.  Though I admit I stopped reading the Lynley series a few books ago because I got really sick of Tommy and Helen’s inability to work their shit out and then she went and killed Helen anyway, so that’s alright.  I have seen George speak and I really like her.  So I bought her book and have found it very useful.  Her message isn’t “If you write exactly like me you’re guaranteed success!” (because she’s not stupid), her book is meant as a guideline to writing fiction, not a gospel.

Bird By Bird

Anne Lamott is funny, she’s real, she’s honest, and her book “bird by bird” is a great collection of essays about writing she’s taken from the writing classes she teaches.  It isn’t a manual (can you tell I don’t want anyone telling me the ONE way to write?) so much as it’s collected perspective from a seasoned and respected author.  Reading her book was illuminating and made me want to shove the book back on the shelf, roll my sleeves up, and write.

The Writing Life (writers on how they think and work)

Edited by Marie Arana.  This book is a collection of essays written by writers about writing (the process, the editing, the rejection slips, the magic, the slogging).  There are a couple of essays I didn’t get much out of but most of them had interesting perspectives and showed the diverse range of ways one can approach and succeed at writing.  Some of the writers have written only a couple books that took years to write while others write a book a year.

Here are some blogs I’m finding useful and entertaining right now:

The Novel Doctor An editor talks about novel writing and reveals your deepest insecurities.  He also says some useful things and cracks the whip against your indolent ways.

Query Shark Excellent site a friend shared with me while I was trying to write a query letter and was 100% bombing.  I’m still working at it but at least I’m avoiding many of the biggest mistakes thanks to this witty and ruthless agent who really wants you to write better queries.

Rachelle Gardner Another literary agent whose blog has many truly interesting and many useful articles about the business of publishing books.  She’s not the agent for me as she almost exclusively represents Christian fiction, but I think her blog is great.

Agent Query This is a great site to look for agents with.  It is reputable and has good information on query writing, looking for agents, and other things you’ll want to know such as how long an unpublished author’s first novel should be (yeah, this is useful to know before you’ve finished writing it).

Terrible Minds I would truly love to get Chuck Wendig together with my Grandma just to see who would win that inevitable clash sharp tongued titans.  His profanity is breathtaking (as in – I’ve never heard anyone swear so much who wasn’t a stand up comedian) and he finds the most shocking ways of making everything sound pornographic.  His writing advice is gritty but completely sound.

Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…  I loved this post and am enjoying her blog.

25 Things You Should Know About Suspense And Tension In Storytelling I had to give you an actual post to check out from Wendig’s blog.

Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing This is a video interview with a written transcription.  It’s long but well worth watching.

Ditching Strategy For Instinct

I keep trying to figure out what my strategy should be for my career as a novelist.  Should I start working on the next Cricket and Grey?  After reading a lot of industry blogs and articles about getting published, what agents are looking for, what people are actually buying, and how writers should build their careers and their “platform”*, I thought that was the way to go.  I don’t want to just stumble down the road towards some ill-defined goals, do I?  I need to know EXACTLY what I’m aiming for, make a plan, follow the blueprint to success without wavering.  Right?

Right?

If I set aside all the research I’m doing that says a book series will sell better than a literary fiction one-off, if I ignore all the formulas for writing success that are offered by the published masses, my instinct tells me to work on the first book I wrote.  The one I had to set aside for two years to let it breathe.  I mentioned it here a few times since finishing Cricket and Grey that Jane is speaking in my head and won’t shut up.  It’s a complete wild mess right now, that story.  I don’t quite know what to do with the plot and I know I need to figure it out before I dig myself deep in the hole of writing it again.  While doing agent research I have this nagging thought that Jane Doe is more likely to get printed.  It makes no sense.  I feel very good about Cricket and Grey but the other story is something powerfully visceral to me and it isn’t good for a series.  It’s a one off.  It’s very dark.  I made a concerted decision that I wanted to write mainstream fiction because I want a career writing novels, I want to actually sell books.  That’s strategy.  That’s smart.  But does it matter what’s smart strategy if underneath everything there’s a story that really needs to see the light of day that doesn’t fit into the plan?

I’ve come to an important conclusion.  We all have our roles in life, in our chosen industries, our chosen paths.  In the publishing world it takes editors to polish manuscripts, agents to sponsor them- to get publishers to publish them, and marketing firms to market them, and book sellers to bring them to the public.  There’s such a long string of people that have important roles in bringing books to life and light.

The writer’s job, as I see it, is to put their fingers on the pulse of their community and the world they live in and translate what is living underneath the surface of life that everyone feels but don’t have the words to describe.  Writers say what others are powerless to say for themselves.  Writers are the eyes and ears of our times, just as other artists are, and tell the truth with lies.  And sometimes, their greatest work is to make you forget your own life for a little while so you can face another day of it.  Each writer has to trust their own instinct for what they have to tell, what they are here to reflect, share, voice, or expose.  There’s no one way to do it.  There’s no one method to be the writer you’re meant to be.  Keeping in touch with and trusting your own instinct is the only way you’ll truly know.

That there is an opinion.  You may contradict it if it isn’t true for you.

See what I mean?  Everyone has their own version of how to become the writer they need or want to be.  I have been paying too close attention to what other people think I should do and how to appeal to the right people.  I think I will appeal best if I follow my instincts.  I have never been steered wrong following my gut.  Never.  So I will continue to send queries for Cricket and Grey because I think it’s a great story and when I find an agent who’s excited to represent it maybe they’ll tell me I need to immediately write a second book.  I’ll listen, at that point.  But right now, while I look for an agent for that book, I know I need to sort out the first one because it is taking up too much space in my head and so must be finished to make room for whatever story is next.

This week I finally figured out what the real title of the Jane Doe book is.  Ready for it?

THE WINTER ROOM

I was talking about it to another writer friend and I suggested this might be the title and as soon as I said it I knew it.

It’s nice when things are so clear.

I am opening files now as I finish this post.  Files of notes, notes about the disaster of the first draft which is such an emotionally heavy work trying to get to the surface of the ocean from the floor.  My job is to cut the cement from the body of the story and stitch it up before the sharks find the blood.  It will continue to be heavy with water but clear with light.

I can do this.

*I loathe that expression as much as I loathe describing oneself as a “brand”.  It’s just splashy marketing words that have become obnoxious and pompous.

Food Photography Advice: Food Crusted Dirty Dishes Aren’t Appetizing


It caused me pain to take this photograph.  I’ve gone soft, because what I really should have done to make my point was to photograph what my plate looks like after eating something smeary and thicker than soup.

Meet the newest trend in food writing and an enemy to appetite: sharing pictures of your dirty dishes.

Perhaps it’s an effort to be more “real” like hard hitting journalists who aren’t trying to get you to eat food but are, instead, trying to show you the underbelly of human life through an anthropological study of its foul post-dinner litter but with the added bonus of being able to make the decimated food rise fresh from the ashes in your own kitchen…

Knock it off.

If you want me to see your real life, that’s great.  If you want to show me the detritus of your appetite, I can take it.  I’m a tough slob myself.  But photographs of your dirty dishes, even the artiest ones you can stage, will not inspire me to cook anything you’ve told me about in the same post.

I want to see the food you’re telling me about in its pristine state – before you finish it off yourself and leave me with nothing but the slobber covered crumb crusted dirty fork you used to eat it with.