Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

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Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

Since I was a very little girl–six, maybe, or seven–I thought I wanted to be a writer.

Of course, I had a very romanticized view of what ‘being a writer’ was. Especially in high school. It involved writing longhand and leatherbound books and having a study, whatever the hell that is. It involved typewriters and Hemingway in Cuba and suffering, which is like black licorice crack for Troubled Young Artists. It involved suffering for art, which is like black licorice crack coated in doughnuts and unicorns.

I guess I was more realistic than some. Instead of imagining my Pulitzer prize and immense popular appeal, I imagined myself in some barely-heated Parisian garret somewhere, imagining my Pulitzer. It was all very meta and clever. I smoked a lot of clove cigarettes for that dream.

But I’m an adult now. I’ve supported myself for a while. I know that starving isn’t romantic, and it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t fun. And it isn’t proud, either–you beg your friends for twenty bucks. You beg your parents for twenty bucks. You think about payday loans. You see the interest rates, you know what a royal screwing it is, and you still think about payday loans. Your power gets turned off, you remember that oh yeah, electronic writing devices don’t work without a charge, and you discover that writing longhand by the light of a single candle is not only irritating, but it also hurts, like, a lot, and there’s a reason word processing is a step up, and boy your hand is, like, burning.

So here’s the thing. I can pay my water bill with writing, and that’s enough for me.

People often, I think, confuse the idea of ‘writing professionally’ with the idea of ‘taking writing seriously’. They are, in fact, independent concepts, and one can very much exist without the other.

I take writing seriously. There’s nothing I take more seriously, except possibly soft-boiling eggs (which is a serious subject. Pull them fresh and cold out of the fridge and put them into about 1/2 inch of water in a saucepan at med-high heat, rolling boil. Cover, obviously. Put them in there for exactly six minutes and thirty seconds; pop ’em out and run them under cold water for half a minute or more. Crack and peel with the soft puckered fingers of a baby angel. This gentleman got it absolutely right, and it’s the only thing I’ve tried that works every time.)

Anyway, digressing.

Writing professionally is sitting down at your word processing device in the morning with the intention of making rent. It’s trying to pay for your fashionable Parisian garret, your two-pots-a-day coffee habit, and all those cloves with that 800 word article about dog shaving you wrote last week for the Indy, which took two weeks to research. It’s squabbling over the exact worth and value of your craft with people who’ll make a lot more money off it than you will, and discovering that (surprise!) these people who’re making money off it don’t think your art is nearly as valuable as you do.

Me? I like the illusion my art is a priceless pearl in the oceans of crude commerce. Do I know it’s an illusion? Oh, yeah. Trust me, I do. But I like it.

So I’m content to halfass. I get that royalty payment, I smile pleasantly, and I go on about my workday. Because I have a job for paying my bills–one that I like fairly well, one that doesn’t keep me stressed out or working at odd hours. I have this low-stress job because my bills are small and my needs are simple, and it gives me time to do what I love doing.

When you want to write professionally, a lot of times what you really want is to look your friends and family in the eyes and say ‘I’m a writer’ when they ask you what you’re up to for work. And that’s awesome. Trust me, I wish I got to do it. I hear it helps you talk to people at bars.

But that isn’t my dream. Am I owed payment, for what I do? My answer, surprisingly, is: no.

Because I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid. In a lot of cases, I do do it even though I don’t get paid. Because not making your dream your profession is a luxury and a blessing, even if there’s some stigma attached to it. It enables you to write what you want when you want to write it.

Mind you, I write every day. Probably somewhere between 1,000 to 5,000 words a day, seven days a week, depending on the time I have and how I’m feeling. If we take a low median average and say I write 1,500 words a day, that makes for 547,500 words a year. It’s probably more than that, but you get my point. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so I can say I’ve got Heinlein’s (or whoever’s–who did say that first? Ms. Woodward over here did some research, God bless her), million words pretty well covered, several times over.

I’m prolific. I’m clever. And I’m pretty damn good.

Am I a hobbyist? Yes. I don’t pay rent with my writing. But I’m a damn dedicated hobbyist. And I take my little hobby very, very seriously.

And I think, maybe, happiness for a lot of young ‘unsuccessful’ authors lies in a similar place. Don’t worry about other people taking you seriously. That’s, well, always been unproductive. Don’t worry if your resume can list ‘freelance writer’ as an occupation. Should writing be a hobby for you, or a profession? I don’t know. I can’t make that call for you. But I can tell you that, either way, it demands attention and respect.

So stop freaking out about how ‘professional’ you and your ‘author platform’ look. Worry about how good your writing is. Worry about what you’re learning, what you’re gaining, and not whether you deserve to be called an author. Nobody other than you cares about that. Trust me.

And if you can’t pay the bills with writing–and you won’t be able to, at least not at first–find yourself a job. Starving conditions leave your mind awfully full of ways to cook the three hot dogs remaining to you on a piece of tinfoil, and shockingly empty of plot devices and clever synecdoche. If you respect your goddamn art, you won’t do that to it. Writing with no power on is, let me tell you, not the primo environment for ars poetica composition. It’s not the primo environment for much, in fact, except cooking on Sterno cans and going to bed when the sun sets.

Job going to cut into your literary time? Sure it will. Make more time.

Because the illusion that not having a job will allow you to ‘make more time’ for writing is just that–an illusion. Unless you happen to have a patron who believes in you, the alternative is starving, which leaves you about seven days of time before you’re too weak to do shit.

So good luck to all of you. Write well, and don’t waste away while you’re doing it.

Sad Wednesday Apologies

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Appy Polly Lodgies.

Okay, guys. This isn’t going to be an easy post, and a lot of that is because I’m going to spend it apologizing to you.

Emily doesn’t like apologies. But this is a case where Emily really, totally, truly, SHOULD make them. So.

Some of you may have noticed–Little Bird didn’t ship, as it was supposed to, on 9/21. Even though that date was PERFECTLY divisible by threes this year. So it kills me.

Why, you might ask? Well–becaue Emily bit off way more than she can chew this year. Four books in one year is a lot, when only one of them was already written. Emily needs a few more months to get LB coverized and prettified. Because Emily spent most of the time up until the deadline date editing and helplessly dropping fresh stories like turds in the church bathroom. Yes.

So the new, ABSOLUTELY TRUSTWORTHY, release date for Little Bird is now 11/12/15. Just like it was for A&J last year. Because 11/12 is a nice looking number. All spiky, and then that little round bit on the two. (It also happens to be me and DND’s Definitely Not Anniversary. So, you know. Easy to remember).

Again, I have to apologize. I thought I was capable of working faster than I actually am–or, at least, of staying focused on the stuff I needed to do. I’m neither of these things. What I AM is big old liar. Can you forgive me, small cadre of readers? Huh? Huh?

In better news, there are other projects coming down the line as well. I’m writing a sci-fi story for a fiction anthology, and a very fine new friend has offered to help me out with an audiobook version of Aurian and Jin. And, if you’re bored, there are always these stories on Wattpad, both of which I’m updating right now, to slake your Aurian and Jin thirst for the next month-and-change. I’ve got a few more schlepping around on my hard drive: they shall become visible presently.

Again, so sorry to have to do that. But I’m still–STILL–working all of this out.

Why I Hate Wattpad (And Then: Why I Don’t)

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OMG AWESOME AND INAPPROPRIATE FOR THE STORY ALL AT ONCE.

Wattpad: Why I Hate It (And Why I Don’t)

Yeah, you heard me. I hate Wattpad.

Or…okay. Maybe I’m fibbing a little. I don’t HATE Wattpad. Not really.

Even though, as a writer, I feel like maybe I should a little.

Wattpad, for those of you who’ve not yet had the dubious privilege, is a free fiction site similar to the old school fictionpress.com, only prettier. Anyone of any skill level can upload a story–the layout of their app seems to encourage extemporaneous composition. You can upload a cool little cover of your own design, update in installments, even add in celebrities you think would do well in certain parts in a cast of characters. There’s everything, from fanfiction to poetry to short stories by Margaret Atwood and Hugh Howey.

It’s good old fashioned fun. It is. You’ll never hear me say otherwise–I just spent two hours I could have spent doing something MUCH more productive making Wattpad covers for all my Aurian and Jin stories. (Check the one up top out. It’s the cover for Bonemaker. It’s DELIGHTFULLY inappropriate for the story. And it has skulls. And a font that’s MADE UP OF BONES. I am kitsch queen of the universe).

You get to talk to people, too. Many of them are good at what they do: there’s no shame in anyone, from a thirteen year old girl writing her first Edward Cullen fanfiction to a published award winning author, writing for Wattpad. All skill levels are represented–Wattpad makes it possible to find people who write the sort of stuff you write and have a conversation, if you so choose.

But here’s the thing.

Wattpad isn’t rigged up the way poor old Fictionpress used to be. On Fictionpress, back in my highschool heyday of churning out angsty poetry and fanfiction (yes, it happened. I was fifteen. Sue me. Anne McCaffrey, if you’re reading this–not literally, please,) Fictionpress worked pretty simply. You wrote an installment of your story–when you clicked the ‘update’ button, it went to the top of its category for a while. Another person updated–their story appeared on top of yours, forcing yours down the page. If someone commented on your story, your story shot back up to the top.

That’s a decent way to do it. It’s fair. Folks who had more people interested in their story got better exposure, but that’s just the way of the world. You want people to have what they like. But you could also get better exposure by dedication–by writing more. And if someone liked your story, they had to leave a comment to let you know, so a little thought and effort was required.

Wattpad, on the other hand, has rigged a little social media system based entirely on views and ‘votes’. And that would be fine–if it wasn’t completely geared towards the viewing of stories which are already popular.

A new story on Wattpad, from a completely new writer, has only one chance of exposure that doesn’t involve the more social mediaesque aspect of the site–the ‘What’s New’ column in the story’s appropriate category. Which is slightly difficult to find: when you click on a category, the site consistently displays the most popular stories first, large and in clickbait position, and ‘popular stories’ second. New stories–or the ‘undiscovered’ category, which I’m still not totally understanding–are at the bottom of the page. Depressingly, a lot of people don’t scroll that far. (NOTE: there are a few more similar categories on the actual website, as opposed to the app. They are also towards the bottom of the page, and are based on the reading lists of your followers.)

What Wattpad does, essentially, is force your participation in its community for popularity and proper exposure. There are no bonus points for good writing, no showcase immediately obvious to a random browser for works considered ‘quality’. And, trust me, I get it–I sound ancient, complaining about something like that.

But there’s a part of me that finds it distasteful. Especially as a reader–especially when I have to go searching for something I’d like to read.

Popular vote is a great way to run a country, but it’s a shit way to run a writing community. It leaves you with a showcased collection full of typos, poor writing, and white teenaged heroines. (A note: some of the popular stories on Wattpad are GREAT. I’m not by any means saying this is true in all cases–but it is in several. Sorry. It is.)

I’d like Wattpad better–a LOT better–if there were some sort of ‘moderator’s choice’ column, showcasing skill regardless of votes. Should there be such a thing, I might be tempted to post more on there than I do. I might buy in to the Wattpad Way. A system that doesn’t provide incentives for skill doesn’t retain skilled writers for very long: it’s a miracle there are as many awesome stories on there as there are.

As it is, I’ve tried to come to terms with the elements of the site I don’t like by posting only stories related to my novel on there–something for my fans to read, for free and for fun. Those don’t rely on exposure, after all, for success–I just have to know someone who’s looking forward to Little Bird is reading them and enjoying them.

And that–unless you want to get all caught up in yet another social media web of interactions and likemongering–is about what I’d recommend you’d do with Wattpad. If you’re new to the site and you don’t have a lot of time to spend on it, you will not get popular. It’s as simple as that. Effort breeds success on social media and always has.

It’s not much different, in its way, from the parts I dislike about indie pub.

Just find something to do there where it doesn’t matter so much if you’re a bigshot or not. Enjoy the site’s slick layout and its publishing power, instantaneous and easy and free. Meet some people, vote for some stories you respect. Tell the writer you respect them. Do what you can to help the online writing community–by giving votes where they’re deserved and not just where you think they’re likely to get you votes in return. Wattpad can be a great thing. If nothing else, it’s a cute way of rounding up all those stories without making your folks pay for a whole new book.

Otherwise, One Direction fanfiction and stories about teen wizardesses named Sapphire will rule the day.

I’m just going to sit here, batten down my hatches, and prepare for the angry onslaught of whatev u just jealous type responses to this. Maybe I’m a snot. I probably am. But my intentions are good, and that has to count for something. And what Wattpad does for young writers is, in essence, a very positive thing–it gives new writers and young people, who might otherwise have little opportunity to share their keyboard clatterings, a chance to bring their writing in front of the world.

I think any system that spawns entire books on how to trawl for exposure is unfair to new writers. And the fact that it’s all being done for free–for electronic votes, for God’s sake–well. I’ll leave this post to linger, and let you decide whether or not the internet has turned writing into something totally exploitative.

Why Write What You Know?

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(Quick note: Bonemaker, my Wattpad story about Morda, has a few updates. I’ll be posting this and a few other origin stories on Wattpad for the sheer hell of it. These are Aurian and Jin canon, through and through, but can be read, I think, without prior A&J knowledge. Though I, of course, have the most A&J knowledge of anyone, so I can;t be sure of that, can I?)

I’ve been talking about doing this for a while, but I have, as far as I can remember, yet to do it.

I want to talk about that most famous piece of writing advice–also, as far as I’m concerned, one of them most frequently misinterpreted and abused. That is, of course, the infamous:

write what you know.

I want you to take a second, wherever you are and what you’re doing, and think about what a silly piece of advice this is to take literally. If we all wrote what we know, we’d be at best biographers, and at worst textbook authors. You don’t want to write your own boring life story. Of course you don’t want to write your own boring life story–you’ve been living it for however-many years you’ve been around. And if you don’t write something you find interesting, well. You can imagine how your work suffers, if even you aren’t interested.

Besides. There’s a reason people rarely write their own biographies. When someone picks up a biography, they’re looking for true details about the life and times of the biographee. And you, writing your own autobiography, are actually the person least likely to give them.

What, you say? But it’s my life!

Elementary, Watson. It is your life–therefore, you have a vested interest in making yourself look good. And a lot of the ‘true facts’–let’s face it. No matter how awesome you’ve been, a lot of the ‘true facts’ don’t make you look like a hero. Writing an autobiography would be tough. I don’t envy anyone who has to do it.

Anyway. Digressed a little there.

The old write what you know would, I think, be better expressed this way:

Write what you can imagine. Write what you can research.

Why? Because you’ve never been a gourmet chef. You’ve never driven a bus. You’ve certainly never poisoned your lover, and you’ve probably never put a death-curse on an innocent bystander, either. At least, not an effective one.

But you have to write about this stuff sometimes. If you just write about your own life, you’ve got one series in you, at best, and even that’s a series of limited scope.

Mind you, I’d never say not to use your own experience. That’s part of research. Maybe you do need a character who shares your profession, your martial status, your taste in friends. And that’s great: in that case, yes, add what you know into the mix. Maybe you are a bus driver, and you want to write from the point of view of one. Awesome! You know a lot about that already!

But all your MCs can’t be bus drivers. That’s where imagination comes in.

Say, for instance, you do want to write a story where your MC is a bus driver, and you’ve never been one. We’ll call it A Million Miles, because we like melodrama. It’ll be wonderous and heart-wrenching, I promise. Certainly all the imaginary critics will agree. You’ll be like the Oliver Sacks of public transportation.

You, of course, have never driven a bus in your life. But you’ve ridden on one–and if you haven’t, it’s time to take the bus to work for a week. Talk to the bus driver a little (when it’s not distracting them, of course–this person’s responsible for the safety of everyone on that bus, so have a little respect). Listen to the people around you, check out a few different routes.

You don’t know what it is to be a bus driver, but with a few tools and facts at your disposal, you can imagine the rest.

Find out some stuff–how do bus drivers get paid? Do they run the same route all the time, or do they switch off? How many miles has your bus driver buddy driven? (I hope, for the sake of your title, it’s a million). Do they have to take breaks frequently, to fight the monotony of the road? What’s the most annoying thing about being a bus driver? What’s the best? What happens if the bus breaks down?

Once you’ve got a little information in you, you can let your imagination take over. You can imagine the constant hum of the bus, how slowly such a large thing must start and stop. You can imagine what seeing the same scenery all day every day must be like–is it lulling, comforting? Irritating? Monotonous?

And then, since your bus driver’s driving a route, you can people your bus. The ladies in uniform going to and from work. The two young mothers who get on at Stop 5488, whose babies, your MC always thought, look suspiciously similar. The quiet guy who wears the same striped scarf every day in the winter, and the same aviators every day in the summer. The old homeless man who hums to himself the entire ride, and who whistles, sometimes, with surprising skill.

That time a young kid, obviously drunk, threw up in the back seat and didn’t tell anybody. The way that smell stays in the damn seats, no matter how much Febreeze your MC sprays on it. How hungry your MC gets around lunch time, when folks are traveling with takeout in their laps (not eating it, of course. No Food or Drink On the Bus). The young woman your MC lets on, even though she doesn’t have the fare, because she’s obviously frightened, and the look in her eyes says she needs to get away.

You can imagine the last run, at 11:30 or so. A quiet bus, overhead lights glaring. One kid half-asleep in the back seat. The bus lumbering, ponderously, through the night–your MC looking forward to a good night’s sleep and the series he’s been making his way through on Netflix.

A note about imagination–make sure you’re doing it with all five senses (see that? I wrote a post about that). It may even benefit you to get a little woo-woo about it: at some quiet point in your day, close your eyes, sit back in a place where there are few disturbances, and imagine the thing that’s happening, just like you would’ve if you were still a kid.

Some exercises, to get you started thinking with all five senses:

1) Write a brief story about a trip to your mother’s house. Write it, solely, in the language of scents.
2) Describe the execution of Anne Boleyn from the point of view of a blind bystander.
3) Describe the outfit of the person next to you from head to toe. Do it in that order. Keep it visual.
4) Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes, and you’re writing one of his informative essays for the good of the crime-fighting intelligentsia. Describe the sound of at least five different types of shoes on a linoleum floor after a rain. Feel free to use onomatopoeias in spades.
5) Imagine you’re doing a blindfolded taste-testing for a juice company (or beer company, if you want to not be lame). Five different types of juice, five different horrible little plastic glasses. Describe your experience. Identify your juices.

A last note, for all my fantasy beauties out there–I can hear you now, making the ages-old complaint of the fantasy author confronted with write what you know–‘but I’ve never been a damned wizard. I don’t know any wizards. How can I research being a wizard?’

The answer–you get to imagine the ‘being a wizard’ part. You totally do. But imagine, as always, within reason–imagine practically. Being a wizard is a job, just like being a bus driver. What’s a day in the life of a wizard like? What do wizards get paid? How does a wizard become a wizard? What’s the most annoying part of wizarddom?

You’re asking, more or less, the same questions of your wizard you’d ask of your bus driver. The only difference is, you’re answering for your wizard as well. So do it practically, and ask the same questions.

Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean you can get away with doing no research. So here, for my fantasy authors, is a list of questions to ‘ask’ your wizard/warlord/unlikely YA hero/thief/dragonrider:

1) How does one become a wizard?
2) What’s the worst thing about being a wizard? What’s the best?
3) How do wizards get paid? Do wizards get paid, or is it more of a side thing?
4) What sorts of conversations do wizards have amongst themselves?
5) How do wizards look at people who aren’t wizards?
6) Describe a typical day in the life of a wizard.
7) What do wizards do to relax?
8) Does being a wizard require one to keep odd hours? If so, what are some of the results of that?
9) Where does a wizard live? Is he rich, or poor? Popular, or spurned?
10) How does being a wizard affect a wizard’s romantic life?

There y’go, kids. Long post, because I love you THAT MUCH.

Bonemaker

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Just wanted to let you Aurian and Jin loving kiddos know, I wrote a companion piece to A&J a while back. It’s about Morda, Bonemaker and Emperor, and his rise to power through, well, what winds up being a lot of blood and gore. I’m posting it in installments on Wattpad, for your free and fancy enjoyment. If you miss Aurian and Jin, you might want to have a looksee.

You should also read The Antidote. Because Jin.

This is Bonemaker. THIS IS SPART–wait, no it isn’t.

Writing: The Wrong Word

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Writing: The Wrong Word

Something I need to tell you, for this story to make sense–in the real world, in my ‘real job’, I frame pictures for a living.

I know. I know. I’m the only person you know who does that, probably. But anyway.

A few years ago, a lady came into my shop. She had an oil painting with her, and wanted to get it framed fairly quickly. It was a nice painting–a landscape, I think. We chose a nice frame to go on it.

“Just to warn you,” she told me, “I only finished it a little while ago. It’s still wet.”

I touched one of the edges lightly. Sure enough, the paint was still gummy, as it is on a half-dry oil painting.

“Okay,” says I. “Thanks for letting me know.” And I wrote a few words on the ticket to let everybody else know, too.

I didn’t think anything more of it until I handed her a copy of the ticket. She looked it over.

Her eyebrows went way, way up. She was looking at the title I’d put on the piece: and, under it, at the condition.

Oh, shit, my brain said to me, as I realized what I’d done. She opened her mouth.

“…tacky?” she said. “You think my painting is tacky?”

Luckily, she was a nice woman, and once I’d explained it to her she thought it was pretty funny.

Why am I mentioning this? As a lesson, writer friends.

‘Tacky’ was, absolutely, the most accurate word to describe the condition of the painting. When an oil painting is half-dry, as that one was, the texture can hardly be described any other way.

However, in that situation, the most accurate word wasn’t the right word.

Why? Because no one wants to see a ticket with the word ‘tacky’ scrawled on it, describing their own artwork. If I’d taken a second and used my person-brain I would’ve figured that out. But I didn’t–I used my framer-brain instead, which is slow and socially inept, but really good at fractions and things like how to apply gold leaf. And my framer-brain, touching the picture, said tacky.

I got lucky. If I’d been in that lady’s place, a framer probably would’ve died that morning.

Some words, no matter how accurate they are, aren’t the right words in a story, for reasons your social-brain will tell you, if you give it a second. Tacky is probably never a good word to describe someone’s artwork, even if the texture fits that description perfectly. It’s better, in such a case, to say the painting is ‘wet’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. People will understand what you mean, and you don’t run the risk of misleading them with your word choices.

Another example: I’m writing a story which features twin brother exorcists (I know, I know). I wrote a scene recently in which they were debating a bunch of lies someone had recently told them, and this sentence happened:

“Oh, brother,” Deacon said.

Deacon is, of course, interjecting due to the ridiculousness. To his brother, Derek.

To his brother.

Is it an interjection? Is it a call for help? If I used that phrase, who the hell would know?

It’s exactly the phrase he would use in that situation. But it’s not the right one.

I guess what I’m saying can be summed up thusly: when you’re debating word choice, spare a moment of thought for the audience. The right word is, after all, only the right word if everyone understands you, and situational circumstances can affect whether people will understand you or not.

In a scene where someone is pooping, no one should stub a toe and say shit.

In a scene where two SeaWorld employees are feeding killer whales in a tank, neither one of them should talk about how they’re drowning in something plentiful, or how difficult it is to stay above water.

Sounds easy, no? It’s harder than you think. (A phrase which, in turn, shouldn’t be used if your geologist MC is cracking through rock strata).

The exception is, of course, when you’re going for a deliberate pun. I leave you guys to figure out when that’s applicable, as puns usually speak for themselves.

But there is nothing–nothing–more painful on this Earth than an unintentional pun.

There isn’t an easy way to avoid it, sadly–except to be on your guard, and have a beta reader or two. Other people tend to notice pretty quickly when an explorer makes ‘no bones about’ the skeleton he just found in the ruins.

Writing: The Wrong Word

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Writing: The Wrong Word

Something I need to tell you, for this story to make sense–in the real world, in my ‘real job’, I frame pictures for a living.
I know. I know. I’m the only person you know who does that, probably. But anyway.

A few years ago, a lady came into my shop. She had an oil painting with her, and wanted to get it framed fairly quickly. It was a nice painting–a landscape, I think. We chose a nice frame to go on it.

“Just to warn you,” she told me, “I only finished it a little while ago. It’s still wet.”

I touched one of the edges lightly. Sure enough, the paint was still gummy, as it is on a half-dry oil painting.

“Okay,” says I. “Thanks for letting me know.” And I wrote a few words on the ticket to let everybody else know, too.

I didn’t think anything more of it until I handed her a copy of the ticket. She looked it over.

Her eyebrows went way, way up. She was looking at the title I’d put on the piece: and, under it, at the condition.

Oh, shit, my brain said to me, as I realized what I’d done. She opened her mouth.

“…tacky?” she said. “You think my painting is tacky?”

Luckily, she was a nice woman, and once I’d explained it to her she thought it was pretty funny.

Why am I mentioning this? As a lesson, writer friends.

‘Tacky’ was, absolutely, the most accurate word to describe the condition of the painting. When an oil painting is half-dry, as that one was, the texture can hardly be described any other way.

However, in that situation, the most accurate word wasn’t the right word.

Why? Because no one wants to see a ticket with the word ‘tacky’ scrawled on it, describing their own artwork. If I’d taken a second and used my person-brain I would’ve figured that out. But I didn’t–I used my framer-brain instead, which is slow and socially inept, but really good at fractions and things like how to apply gold leaf. And my framer-brain, touching the picture, said tacky.

I got lucky. If I’d been in that lady’s place, a framer probably would’ve died that morning.

Some words, no matter how accurate they are, aren’t the right words in a story, for reasons your social-brain will tell you, if you give it a second. Tacky is probably never a good word to describe someone’s artwork, even if the texture fits that description perfectly. It’s better, in such a case, to say the painting is ‘wet’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. People will understand what you mean, and you don’t run the risk of misleading them with your word choices.

Another example: I’m writing a story which features twin brother exorcists (I know, I know). I wrote a scene recently in which they were debating a bunch of lies someone had recently told them, and this sentence happened:

“Oh, brother,” Deacon said.

Deacon is, of course, interjecting due to the ridiculousness. To his brother, Derek.

To his brother.

Is it an interjection? Is it a call for help? If I used that phrase, who the hell would know?

It’s exactly the phrase he would use in that situation. But it’s not the right one.

I guess what I’m saying can be summed up thusly: when you’re debating word choice, spare a moment of thought for the audience. The right word is, after all, only the right word if everyone understands you, and situational circumstances can affect whether people will understand you or not.

In a scene where someone is pooping, no one should stub a toe and say shit.

In a scene where two SeaWorld employees are feeding killer whales in a tank, neither one of them should talk about how they’re drowning in something plentiful, or how difficult it is to stay above water.

Sounds easy, no? It’s harder than you think. (A phrase which, in turn, shouldn’t be used if your geologist MC is cracking through rock strata).

The exception is, of course, when you’re going for a deliberate pun. I leave you guys to figure out when that’s applicable, as puns usually speak for themselves.

But there is nothing–nothing–more painful on this Earth than an unintentional pun.

There isn’t an easy way to avoid it, sadly–except to be on your guard, and have a beta reader or two. Other people tend to notice pretty quickly when an explorer makes ‘no bones about’ the skeleton he just found in the ruins.

Killing Your Darlings With Coffee

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Today’s story begins with the phrase which had begun many a morning for me:

So I was in line at Starbucks.

Judge me. Go ahead. Because I’m sure you always have time to hunt down an indie coffee shop. I’m sure you and your indie-coffee-shop-finding buddies enjoy the sweet nectar of free-trade hubris in recyclable cups every morning, with a soupcon of disdain for people who don’t shop at farmer’s markets available in organic creamer-form on the dash.

No? Boo hoo.

Anyway, I was in line at Starbucks, and I noticed it was taking the guy in front of me a while to get his drink. Six or seven minutes sort of a while: in Starbucks language, that’s geological ages. Like, I was checking my phone wishing I could die.

When the barista was finally done sacrificing to the coffee gods, or whatever it is a barista has to do to produce a cupload of soylent coffee-substitute, I could see why. The thing that had been produced–this coffee-esque item–was a modern marvel. It had more sugary shit on top of it than Miley Cyrus after a night on the town. There were sugar drizzles, sugary whipped cream, flecks of sugar, chocolate sugar scrimbles. It was probably four thousand calories, and provided enough diabeetus to keep four third-world countries in insulin for the forseeable future. It probably had extra pumps in it.

(On a related note–why does it not bother people to order things with extra ‘pumps’ of stuff in them? Nothing natural–nothing–has ever been pumped into anything. Anyway.)

This quivering gelatinous pile of almost-coffee–this southern-style cream pie rendered as a potable liquid–this degenerate fuck-you to good taste and simple living on all seven continents–was picked up by its proud owner and, unceremoniously, slurped down on the way out the door.

As though he got one of those every morning.

As though it were perfectly normal–perfectly–to suck down a sugary showboat that took some poor kid seven minutes to make on the way to your car, balancing your phone in your other hand.

Now, don’t get me wrong–there are times when we all want a fancy ten-layer coffee beverage. There are times when even I, diabetic curmudgeon extraordinaire, am okay with paying eight dollars for a frappa-crappa-cuppa-zuppa-mocha-latte-hazelnut.

But these times aren’t every day. I want one of those maybe once every three months, and even then I usually ponder the craving for a month or so (‘how badly, really, do I want a diabetic coma?’). And I usually get a small. And I tip the poor barista.

My point:

Don’t listen to all those people who tell you whether or not to kill your sugary-sweet darlings. They don’t know what the hell your darlings are–you do. Some of them might have literary merit. Just like, sometimes, that ridiculous coffee confection is just the thing you want–sometimes, you need fillings and a serious sugar-coma.

Writing, my dears, is the Starbucks of the soul.

Most of the time, you should probably go for the plain black coffee of prose. A pack or two of sugar if that’s how you like it, some milk or creamer if you’re that sort of person. Nonetheless: plain coffee. It wakes you up. It gets the job done.
If you drink mostly plain coffee–if you keep your writing style simple and direct–it’ll only mean you appreciate your moments of prosey frappa-mocha-fucka-whatever better.

Because it’s hard to appreciate two pumps of extra whatever-you-pump when you’ve been having it every day.

And plain black coffee isn’t so bad–there’s a lot of subtle difference in plain black coffee. You might even argue, for that matter, that the person who can wax rhapsodic about a cup of plain black coffee is a gourmet–whereas the person who waxes rhapsodic about a cup of sugary, milky, coffee-putrescence is a future diabetic.

It’s up to you, of course, to decide what the appropriate amount of time between frappa-fuckas really is. But, believe me here–there is one. I know, I know, you’ve all heard that old adage, kill your darlings–it’s true. For the most part.

But if you kill all your darlings–if you drink nothing but black coffee from now until the end of time–I can’t help it, I find that a little sad. There’s a fun, sugary part of your soul that no one else will ever see again, that makes your writing what it is. And, sure, indulging in it too much is bad for you–but a little self-indulgence, from time to time, is medicine rather than murder.

The expression ‘kill your darlings’ teaches us, wrongly, that something is harmful to us just because we like it. And, like the Starbucks coffee, it certainly is, if we let it rule us–but if you use your darlings judiciously, if you pick the best of them and apply them with care, there’s no reason that bit you like shouldn’t stay in.

Just because you like it doesn’t mean you can’t make it work.

And in the end, you should be getting a second (or third, or fourth) opinion anyway. If they give your sugary baby the axe, maybe it’s not quite time yet. But if they don’t, let your darling live.

Because people who never ever get a frappuchino are just a little bit soulless. You need to play a little, give in to your cravings a little. They’re part, after all, of who you are.

Unless, of course, you hate frappuchinos. In which case: get one once. Just so you know. If you don’t break the rules ever, you’ll never know what happens when you do.

By the way, this whole post is me not killing a darling. There’s nothing we like over here in Emville like extended metaphors…regardless of how well they work.

What Makes Writing Great?

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Writing: Hard Work Isn’t Everything

Well, it’s a good question.

I’m not talking about proficient writing. Proficient writing can be accomplished easily–well-defined characters, a working plot, scenery described as much as it needs to be, a satisfying denouement. Good spelling and grammar. That’s all you need, for proficient writing.

But here’s the thing: there’s some strange and magical element that makes writing good.

I just read Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a good book. It’s won and almost won a ton of prizes, so I know other people agree with me. It was…well, to put it mildly, it was heartrending.

Ishiguro never goes to great length to describe scenery. His characters, also, are never fully ‘described’, in the traditional sense. Though it’s technically sci-fi–the sort of book people in horn-rimmed glasses like to call ‘speculative fiction’–the world in which the characters move is never laid down clearly, either. The plot, which isn’t much of a plot, exists pretty much solely to offer a slow dramatic reveal (which I can’t reveal to you, because it would ruin the story).

There’s nothing special about Ishiguro’s prose. The tale is told simply and personally in first person, largely through flashbacks (which is, according to a lot of writing gurus, a big no-no). His language is almost childish.

None of what I just said sounds very good. And yet–and yet. This is a great book. And I’m not the only person who thinks so.

In the indie writing world, there are a lot of folks who’ll tell you (and, if you let them, try to sell you) the ‘secrets’ to good writing. I’d argue that, from what I’ve seen, there’s a good deal more money in ‘helping indie authors’ than there is in actually being an indie author. And most of the advice I’ve seen (but will never, by God, buy) focuses on the things I mentioned in paragraph two–well-defined characters, descriptive milieu, rock-solid plot, etc.

Those things are good things, and they’re important. But they aren’t the whole game.

To write well–to write a good book–there is a little bit of magic involved. That’s something nobody wants to hear, but hell, that’s how it is. In America, a supposed meritocracy, we’re afraid of magic–we’re afraid of things we can’t necessarily control ourselves, that we can’t achieve through hard work and stubbornness. The American Dream tells us we don’t have to be especially talented, or smart, or pretty, or lucky, to succeed. It tells us we just need to work hard, and good things will come to us–a very unique sort of intellectual laziness.

If you want my opinion, this is why there’re so many goddamn murders in this country. You can work hard and succeed to some extend just on that, sure. But hard work will never make you a geniusit’ll only make you better. This is true for writing, just the same as anything. The ‘hard work’ comes in from the fact that you’ll only ever know what to leave in and what to take out if you write a hell of a goddamn lot, and ignore all the ‘How To Write A Great Novel In 100 Days’ type pamphlets.

Good writing–truly good–comes from instinct, I suppose. It comes from knowing when to say ‘answered’ and when to say’ replied’. It comes from taking risks, when risks are justified.

It comes from failing, occasionally. Never Let Me Go, which seems like a simple enough story on the surface, would’ve been complicated as hell to write. Mr. Ishiguro plays with suspense and dramatic reveal like some mothers play with a two month old baby. And his simple, golden-days reminiscent prose is perfectly calculated against the horrors deep within the story. It’s the sort of story that took a master to write.

And those of us who aren’t masters are going to fail, many, many times, before we write something like that. As I’m sure Mr. Ishiguro did. And most of us aren’t masters, will never be masters.

But you’ve got to try, right?

You’ve got to take risks. You’ve got to try. To learn anything, you’ve got to sometimes get away from well-defined this and that, and speak with silence rather than words.

The hard truth about good writing is, simply, that no one can tell you how to do it. There are no secrets that can be revealed in a 40,000 word pamphlet, for only $1.99.

I could talk, at great length, about all the elements that came together to make Mr. Ishiguro’s novel. I could talk about how they play together, which element evokes which feelings. I could tell you, more or less, how the book works.

But could I tell you what makes this book great? No.

So take a small dose of humility. Accept that none of us–no, not even Stephen King (given the uneven quality of his work, I’d say especially Stephen King)–understand precisely what makes writing good. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about composition and format, point of view and allusion. We can get PhDs in it, spend a bunch of time paying back our student loans, and still not really understand it.

So let’s step away from some of the common criticisms I see around here, and focus on whether or not a story works. Just because something’s F/SF doesn’t mean the world has to be described down to the last mudfish in the castle moat. Just because something is written as ‘literary fiction’ (more on this term and how I hate it later) doesn’t mean you need showy prose. A mystery doesn’t always need a complicated plot.

Ignore the ‘proficient writing’ formula. Ignore it. Ignore everything, in fact, except for how well something works for you.

(And I know the comment someone is going to make to this. I can hear it, in my head, right now: ‘well, you have to play by the rules before you break them’. I couldn’t agree less. Sorry. Do you need to know the rules? Yes. You sure do. But if you feel that a story needs to be written in second person present tense, goddamn you if you write it any other way. You’re just churning out crap, and derivative crap, at that. You’re operating, like an animal Darwin forgot, against your own instincts, for the sake of perceived safety. Have some balls. Accept failure and make it constructive.)

We can’t define good writing, but we can try to do it ourselves. And, in the end, if we try enough–if we’re bold enough–we might just get there. If nothing else, we will’ve made a hell of an attempt.