Monday, May 28, 2018

When Something is Wrong, Don’t Just Do the Opposite

A lot of posts about “writing for yourself,” out there today, usually when someone is dealing with a difficult decision: Don’t play to the market, don’t listen to conventional advice, just “write for the passion of it.”

And there’s sense to it. It’s easy to get hung up in what other people think, which can make a writer ingenuine, frustrated, bored, and limited. Not a lot of good writing comes from trying to write what people will buy.

Yet, writing for strictly for yourself is counterproductive too. For one thing, these statements about only writing for you usually appear in the comment section of a How-To blog or as a response to an author’s question about what direction they should take the work. When someone asks how to market their book better, “You shouldn’t worry about that,” isn’t a useful response. If someone decides to share their experiences, you can voice your concerns about the ramifications of their actions, but trying to shut it down because it’s not a specific goal of yours is self-absorbed. Worse if you are lying to yourself about what your goals actually are, shutting down instead of confronting how to better achieve them. Over-simplification of solutions is the foundation of flawed advice. “Just do this,” “don’t do that,” are easy to say, but not necessarily easy to implement in their actual intent.

“Just simplify everything,” I was told once.

Except that my distinguished voice is the one natural quality I have; I’m the sort of writer that a teacher could pinpoint in an anonymous evaluation just by the way I talk. And my main flaw of being confusing? Doesn’t just have to do with big words, long sentences, or excess words; it’s the world-building, the splurge of unexpected details, the disinterest in helping the reader compartmentalize. It’s not the complexity of the sentence (usually), but the number of simple details I unload.

Would people understand my drafts better if I wrote like a Dick and Jane book? It would certainly help, but it wouldn’t eradicate the problem, and I doubt that people would be too thrilled with it. I certainly wouldn’t.

I write the way I enjoy to write, I write the way I want to read, I write the way I want to be perceived, and I write the way I think will garner the desired reaction.

If I had to write like Hemingway, strictly limited to “a fifth-grade reading level,” I would lose a lot of interest in it. It wouldn’t be as enjoyable. That’s one of the biggest reasons I do it—I like it. If all the other writers wrote on a fifth-grade reading level, I’d enjoy reading a lot less.

But the intent of the message, the idea that my words were not being understood, that was a problem for me. She was right in some ways, and by simplifying some of my words and sentences, by focusing on clarity over effect, mostly by combining a great deal of varied advice and using each piece only in moderation, I slowly pushed my manuscript into being something I am genuinely proud of. I didn’t simplify everything, change my voice, or sacrifice my goals, but I did simplify in places, and it did help.

Which is why I think I cringe when people discuss “write for yourself,” like it’s the only way.

The same man who once wrote about how you shouldn’t write for the money—then complained about asking for books for free, then offered up his skills as a ghostwriter—recently responded in kind to a fellow author’s question.

She asked how readers felt about cliffhangers, in which most people said the same; they didn’t like them, or they were okay with them as long as the book satisfied them in some way rather than seeming like one book chopped into parts or like the author didn’t care to end it/answer the questions.

He, however, told her that he honestly believed you should write for yourself and let the book be whatever it wanted to be, ignoring what readers think.

Again, I understood where he was coming from, but I considered this thought overly-simplified, and somewhat disrespectful.

For one thing, I have never had a book that was limited like that, that it couldn’t be tweaked to work in multiple ways. Most of my works, though written as standalones, could be expanded into series if I wanted. Some, in the state they are now, I wouldn’t recommend it, but if it was truly important to me—for whatever reason—I could find a way to do it.

Creativity often comes best from problem solving. Nothing forces you out of your comfort zone like trying to make something work. This is why I don’t recommend cutting or tossing out as being the first solution to a problem; my most inspired pieces were ones with serious problems that I found a solution for. Their originality came from that, and that uniqueness read as far more organic than anything I could sit down and try to force to be different.

For instance, the manuscript I’m shopping around (the one that has undergone over a dozen drafts) lacked a “pitch” in its first incarnation. It was 180,000 words, about the size of two books really, with a generic dystopian world behind a pretty good love story (if you asked me). The pacing was slow in parts, I couldn’t tell anyone what it was about, and I knew that the setting wasn’t anything different than what people had seen before—and it was written before the huge dystopian boom.

But you know what? I was happy with it. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t up to snuff (I would have sent it out sooner if I had thought so), but it was the first manuscript that came out how I wanted it to. The characters, by the end, were exactly what I had imagined, their love and personalities believable and endearing to me, the climax exciting and satisfying. For the first time in thirteen novels, I knew if it was rejected, I wouldn’t be embarrassed. I had some changes that I wanted to make, but I genuinely liked it.

And I still like it. But I like this version better.

I balked at developing the world more. I wanted it to be just a background. I didn’t want to come up with some irrelevant plot about how the world came to an end; it wasn’t about that. I never cared to read it in any of the fantasy books I loved—the history was something I always skimmed over. I just wanted to live in the world, I never needed to learn about it.

I knew that size-wise the book was way too big even before the first sixty thousand words were done. I had a great deal more to say and not a lot of time to do it. It took me five months to complete which for me, at the time, was longer than most. Usually I had finished a first draft in about 40 days. So I decided to try and cut it even before it was done. However, I told myself that if I felt the integrity of the work was coming into question, I would stop. There were things I’d cut regardless, but had an agent had agreed to pick up my book the length it was, I wouldn’t have bothered to challenge myself in sizing it down.

 I only cut that much it because I knew it wouldn’t sell at that size.

The beginning of the manuscript was initially fairly successful in dictating the type of world it was. People were still confused about things, but the more drafts I went through, the worst (yet at least narrowed down) their complaints on not understanding the world got. Even though I liked what I had done, I wasn’t completely excited about it either, and I could see when people told me it was slow that it, in fact, was slow.

“But don’t a lot of books start out slow?”

Yep. And sometimes you can get away with it. But that’s kind of my point. A lot of times you will do something that is “good enough,” that you can “get away with.” But then you miss out on how much better it could be.

It was a struggle. Over the course of the manuscript, I changed the beginning, trying to make it more exciting and more clear while retaining my authenticity rather than cater to the whole, “readers are morons, write like Hemingway” philosophy that was being pushed on me constantly. I begrudgingly wrote out an entire history of the world, trying to come up with something that was not just another apocalypse story, telling myself I didn’t actually have to use it if I decided it hurt the work. I cut out at least 70,000 words (probably more considering how many scenes I added.)

The manuscript is now an easy read for me. While at first it was sometimes hard to get through, long and slow in places, I can today sit down and devour it in a day. And I’ve read it a thousand times. From these few changes of trying to add a hook, trim it down, and world-build—the most basic of conventional writing advice—a clear plot and pitch evolved.

I liked it on its first draft. I love it on its tenth.

Now part of the reason why I love it is because I didn’t worry too much about trends and taking every single piece of advice in its entirety. If I had been focused on the market, I would have dropped this book the second Divergent the movie came out. I did, in fact, have some sort of existential crisis, but I chose to do what felt right for me and give this manuscript a real chance. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I learned a hell of a lot, more than any other piece I’ve written.

So writing for the love of fiction, doing what you want to do, and not catering to a market can be a thousand times more fulfilling than changing your actions for a fickle business. But that doesn’t mean “you shouldn’t care what other people think,” refuse to ask the tough questions, and to consider possibilities.

If you haven’t started a story yet, it has the potential to grow into anything. Sure, some ideas demand to be told in a certain way, but I, at least, either can predict it and tailor it or can’t predict it and won’t find out until I start writing.

Many times I read a short film, a novella, or a short story and say, “You need to spend more time telling this.” My main critique is ‘more.’ Better pacing, more details, more answers, show me who these characters are to make me care, have an actual ending rather than just stopping when you got bored, don’t summarize the events so much, let me watch them unfold. I think, this would be better if you just took your time and relished in these moments over speeding through it. And then I hear the author say, “But I have the right to write a novella!”

It’s not about that. Sure, novellas get an unfair amount of negativity; I myself tend to pass them up for sheer reasons of commitment. (I don’t like getting into something just to have it end.) But no matter the size of your book, even if it fits right into the zone of average book length, you should always question if it could be better. If people are telling you how they feel, even if you think it’s superficial, don’t brush it off.

I don’t understand why a book could only be a serial filled with cliffhangers in order to be the book the author wanted. Not before it is written anyway. In this case specifically, I don’t see how the benefit to the author is so great. If the consequences to the readers outweigh the benefits to the writer, it seems to me that ignoring it just because you have the right to do something that way is self-sabotaging.

I joke that I don’t write for myself because a lot of it would be me writing, “This is boring. Let’s jump to the good part.” Instead, I feel out the pacing, write the scenes that I know need to be written to make the best experience possible—even if it’s painful for me to do so—and then work it until I know that I have crafted the intended effect. Sometimes the most fun way to write is not the most fun to read (not often I’d speculate, but it does happen.) Sometimes the hardest thing to write is what put your book over the edge. And sometimes its shit. Unfortunately, you won’t know until you at least try.

Never put your book out there to be read if you don’t care what others think. Why would you? And if you do just want to share the world with them, you should still care about their experience at least a little. It’s kind of like asking someone out to dinner and then demanding they go to a restaurant you know they hate just because you love it. It’s very likely that you can find a place you both enjoy.

Mainly, reconsider your priorities. In the case of the question, “How do you feel about cliffhangers?” you should care about others’ opinions while you’re writing. If you find you love them while other people just tolerate them, maybe that’s a sign you should do it. But if you find that you’re just okay with them, that your writing is “good enough” with them, then is it really worth the battle, fighting for your right to cliffhang? You might find that you’re just avoiding finding an actual solid ending (which is the number one reason I don’t like cliffhangers; you read the entire series, each unsolved, to get to the final and realize the author just couldn’t write endings period.)

You also might find the opposite. People don’t like change and a lot of personal tastes in writing are acquired. You decide to do something that isn’t in vogue right now and your readers will come around, they’ll start to love it, you’ll cause a new trend. Many of our greatest writers wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if they had listened too heavily to the critics.

You just have to find the right balance.

Think critically. Say what you want to say in a way that makes people want to listen. Pick your battles, reassess your priorities. Do what you want to do, but remember you might not know all of the options. Most importantly, tell people the answer isn’t black and white; just because one thing is wrong doesn’t make the opposite right.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

When Marketing Works, But You Don’t Want to Do It

I am not bragging. My marketing isn’t working, and neither am I. Or, at least, not to the extent it/I should be.

I follow a lot of independent authors and artists attempting to go self-promotion alone, and the best part is how informative it can be. It, bare minimum, gives you insight to what works and what doesn’t without having to humiliate yourself. It also allows you to be far more objective than when you don’t want to hear something.

The best promotional tool I learned was from a fascinating, yet somewhat assholish man. I never met him, but he abandoned his wife and kids to go across country and promote his book. He hit on my friend (who was about half his age) while talking about what he was doing, why, and offering her a free physical book in exchange for a review. Then made her boyfriend pay for one. She asked me what I thought of it, and we read the first chapter together. He had a great voice—despite my desire to make fun of it—and when I looked at the book online, he had gotten over fifty Amazon reviews.

Most indie books I’ve read have less than ten. Most traditionally published books (produced after 2010) have at least twenty. Fifty is pretty impressive.

Following around other writers, I am aware that a face to face with real people offline, making connections, and just being a friendly, interesting person is powerful. This is unfortunate because social stimulation throws me into a catatonic inner panic, so not something I’d like to hear. All of my experience in selling, marketing, and observing suggests that nothing works like being an old fashioned salesman.

But this isn’t what I’m talking about.

While I don’t want to go out into public (end of statement) and promote myself, it’s not a moral conflict, just an issue of anxiety and laziness.

When I say marketing works, but you don’t want to do it, I’m talking about things you consider kind of skeezy. Or sometimes things that you don’t think are amoral, but that aren’t the kind of writer you want to be. It’s not something you want to do, or it’s something that others do that you dislike artistically.

Why do so many books have cliffhangers? Cliffhangers work. You hear readers complain and complain, but from my experience, they sell sequels.

Naked men on romance novels aren’t all that atheistically attractive—not like a leather bound book with golden letters. It’s not something you want sitting on your bookshelf, that makes you feel glee at every time you look at it. But indie authors with scantily clad men and models they can bring to signings get far more attention than the expensive and artistically rendered alternative.

Personally, I don’t like when authors post too many non-personal statuses. I don’t like when I go to their social media page to find out more about them and see reams of promotion on books they didn’t write, or Twitter inundated with retweets. A lot of the indies who sell well are publically supportive of others, and I don’t (always) think that it’s a bad thing. But I like pages filled with original content, informing me predominantly about them and their work.

Therefore, on Twitter, I don’t retweet a lot. I only do so if I genuinely find something interesting and funny and want to share it. Basically, if I think others will want to read it. I try to keep my pages akin to how I, as a reader, want pages to be.

Bill Watterson, the author and artist of the comic Calvin and Hobbes, went through a long battle with the syndicate when it came to merchandise and media representation of his work. He decided he didn’t want any films, any lunch boxes, none of that commercial crap.

And while I think we all would love to have a stuffed Hobbes by our side, I agree with his decision. If you look at what happened with Garfield and the oversaturation of the market versus the continued integrity and respect for Calvin and Hobbes, plus the terrible, terrible films that typically come from comics, I would think that if he had allowed for other works to be made from his it would have diminished my love for it. He could have made a fortune, but he chose not to.

I respect that. I wish to emulate that.

But then there’s the flip side where people craft terribly written books, don’t market period, and refuse to put in the work on the guise of “selling out.” Nothing hurts more than when you grab a story with so much potential—that you wanted to love—but it refused to fix its typos and smooth out hackneyed, cringe worthy moments because “that’s my voice.”

When it comes to marketing, you have to do something. The idea that, if you really are great, God or destiny will bring your readers to you causes a lot of unnecessary hardship for some very talented writers. If you build it, they won’t come, mostly because everyone around you has built one too and you can’t fault people for not thoroughly examining the qualities of every one of the thousands “its” out there before making a choice.

Sometimes your so-called morality proves to be plain ole snobbery.

People are most creative when problem solving. When the book starts fresh with all the potential in the world, we tend to conglomerate in the center of our comfort zone. Why not stick with what works?

It’s not until there’s a reason to leave our comfort zone—an inciting incident if you will—that we start to consider what other options are truly out there.

So what do you do?

I think the key here is to honestly and logically consider the pros and cons of the decision rather than let your emotions reign. Research the success of a decision and weigh the potential for consequence against the potential for reward and then, looking towards your personal philosophy on how you want the literary world to be, make a decision according that.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

When Discussing Controversial Writing Tips

Most writers’ advice is directed towards novices even though the vast majority of their audience will be people who’ve written quite a bit. The newcomers tend to go straight to the big names; unless you have a ridiculous marketing campaign for your blog, it’s going to take some digging to find the helpful word of non-household names. Even most of the big guys will take some time to be found. Unless you’re Stephen King, your audience will typically be writers who are interested enough to have found you.

Novice writing advice is pretty easy to spot. It doesn’t involve a lot of thinking, not for the tipper or the tippee.

“Don’t use ‘said.’”
“Only use ‘said.’”

It’s easy to find ‘said’ in a manuscript, easy to change it out—or not. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection or questions to turn all dialogue tags to he said, she said. The criticism is easy in every sense, but the real question is, is it useful?

Did I spike your blood pressure with that question? That’s the real point.

When you find a writing teacher, it’s important to examine their belief in their students. Someone who doesn’t actually think writing can be learned isn’t going to help you improve all that much. Someone who thinks that you’re all a bunch of idiots isn’t going to push you to be the best you can.

It’s also useful to really reflect on differences of opinions. Readers are all very separate people, and you aren’t going to write a book that everyone agrees is genius, especially not as a knee-jerk reaction to a first impression. Same goes for critique partners.

Which is to say, sometimes the person standing before you going on and on about what’s appropriate in dialogue tags truly believes what he’s saying. It might not even occur to him that other authors might disagree. Or, more commonly, that “Of course intermediate and experienced writers have different opinions! That’s the point. To learn the rules to learn to break them.” The beginners, however, need to start from ground one and be informed of these rules, right?

Well, not in my opinion. As I’ve stated many times before, experimentation is extremely important, and the sorts of people who will really absorb these writing rules are the first people who need to be convinced to branch out. Those of us—myself definitely included—who need to set aside our egos and hear options that we don’t want to listen to aren’t going to be convinced by a bossy, one-sided argument.

Most of us either fall on the side of fighter or follower as an overall tendency. The goal is really to achieve a good balance of both. Conversation, the exchange of ideas, is a two-way street. It’s not about listening and it’s not about talking, it’s about knowing when to do which. You honestly won’t learn as much from just smiling and nodding as you would by asking questions, being truthful about skepticism, and expressing disagreement. But you also won’t learn much if you don’t shut up and be open to the ideas of others.

So, you have the new writers who don’t like to be limited or told what to do. They tend to question authority and stand strong behind their own beliefs. They often have to reinvent the wheel, taking a lot of time to produce crap when, if they had just listened to the advice of others, they could have drastically sped up the process. They’re (we’re) hard to work with and can be obnoxious as hell, as well as, ironically, restricted to our own comfort zone.

Then you have the new writers who are afraid of doing things wrong. They absorb everything that everyone has to say, are (with some exception) fun to be around, and are better faster. But they have this ceiling of quality, and—as writers—this generic, personality-less tone that draws no interest or attention. They have no desire to waste time on something that won’t work, so they never take any risks or do anything personal, caring far too much about what other people think to really do something different or important.

The goal is to fluctuate back and forth between the personalities, to know when to stand strong and when to be open-minded. It’s not easy to achieve, requiring a great deal of awareness of who you are and who you’re talking to. It takes years of experience, and most of us will always be able to be labeled as one or the other category.

In any case, it’s useful to realize how your tips might come across to the listener and consider how you might be both alienating those you advise, but also spreading bad advice. Even good advice explained poorly is useless, and if you’re expecting them to only apply your opinion in moderation—expecting them to break the rules—you need to be clear on that. There are definitely some writers out there who will hear, “Don’t speak in full sentences in dialogue,” and restrict themselves to only sentence fragments.

There are others who will take your small helpful tips with the full implied magnitude and throw the baby out with the bathwater: “Only use said? So what? Other words don’t exist for a reason?” They ignore it, or even intentionally do the opposite out of spite.

When giving advice, make sure to say what you mean. If you don’t trust your students to understand you, it’s even more important not to over simplify. If your tips are really only written for writers who you expect to either quit or ignore you later on, then question if they’re really all that helpful. Trust those you advise to understand the complexities of context when explained, describe your thoughts through anecdotal experience, and take a moment to consider the opposing viewpoint and discuss it.

Any time you order someone around—“PLEASE learn how to punctuate!”—you’re going to have someone who disagrees with you. By being aware of that controversy, you’re more likely to sound informed, more likely to calm hostile audiences, and more likely to have your listeners implement the advice in the way you intended. Also, you’re more likely to actually understand the advice better yourself.

I can’t tell you how much hypocrisy I see in the writing world, and not just from me. “Do as I say, not as I do!” The belief that masters can get away with things the plebeians can’t is prevalent and problematic. I have heard people actually say, “Well, just because it doesn’t work for me…”

Your opinions matter, and it does no one any good to keep them to yourself. But keep in mind that part of the point of expressing opinions is that they’re not shared by all, so be prepared for a discussion, a misunderstanding, and pissing people off. This is normal. Don’t worry about it.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Conviction Does Not Mean Convention

Normally, I hire based on eagerness. It has always been easier to train someone excited to do the work than to bring in a begrudging expert. It’s one of the reasons I suggest giving your family and friends a chance to learn how to give good feedback instead of writing them off for one inadequate experience. Help them grow, get comfortable, and learn how to talk to you before saying, “Oh no. My mother is too nice.”

If you have someone who wants to help you, who wants to read your work, developing successful techniques to communicate is more likely to yield a good partner than trying to find someone perfect and then convincing them to help. For many authors, your mother will be your worse critic, and not necessarily in a useful way, but even for those that “She’s too nice to give real feedback” ring true, you can work your way through that. If they’re willing, you’d be surprised what you can tweak.

But there are some exceptions. Case in point, there was a woman with a fantastic attitude, who asked me if she could read my writing then proceeded to do so in a timely fashion. She was friendly, respectful, and a perfect partner in every way… except she didn’t know what she was talking about.

She didn’t offer up opinions like I had wanted, instead sticking to typos, grammar, spelling, formatting, more black and white issues with distinctive rules. I wanted critiques more along the lines of “I can’t stand this character” over proofreading—saved for later in the process—but I’d take what I could get. Most authors, myself very much included, have a ridiculously hard time getting people to read their work. (On that note, if you are a writer, or a reader, and are interested in giving/trading feedback, hit me up at info.daveler@gmail.)

However, when I began to read her actual notes, I found some problems. Among a few outright incorrect suggestions, she questioned pretty common conventions. She asked me, at one point, why I had included a dash at a certain spot… an interruption in a piece of dialogue.

I see this from time to time. We as readers don’t pay attention to how people write, and that’s often the point. I’m astounded when you have an author who has a completely unique style from what everyone else is doing (not necessarily in a good way) and he is absolutely oblivious to the fact that it’s so different it’s almost distracting, telling you it’s the right, and only, way to do it.

Like the so-called freelance editor who claimed merely inserting ums and ers would make for good dialogue, or the purple poet who thought good style means never ending in a preposition. Their writing was so distinctive and uncommon that you couldn’t find a published piece that did things even similarly, and yet they were insistent that it was THE way to write, that you learned how to do it like them before you could have a “voice.”

No one writes like that; yours is more of a risk than what you’re denouncing. In fact, in my subjective opinion, their rules for the inexperienced writer were actually what was holding their writing back the most.

I’ve used clichés before that people accused of being purple prose:

“He clamped his mouth shut.”

“With what?”

I’ve witnessed long winded arguments about whether or not readers would understand italics being used for thoughts by a writer who’d never seen it done before.

I’ve read a myriad of manuscripts that don’t punctuate dialogue in the way what every single book you can pick up does.

The point is, convention isn’t always recognized.

But I’m not talking about this out of frustration or disapproval, but inspiration. When I see someone adamantly insist of the peculiarity of a conventional decision, it reminds me that everyone’s perspective truly is different. Their experiences, what they notice, what they deem to be true, doesn’t undermine my reality. Just because they don’t remember seeing something done a certain way before doesn’t mean you can’t do it that way, or that everyone will agree with them.

I’m a gullible person, surprisingly enough, and it’s not uncommon that if someone speaks with conviction, even if I know a great deal about the subject at hand, I’m more likely to trust them, question myself, and adhere to the reality that they state. It is times like this, when people insist with the upmost surety, that I am reminded about how unsure everything is.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

When a Critique Partner Gives You No Credit

Sometimes I talk about the worst criticism I have ever received, and it’s a little shocking to me that it’s not the “most recent one.” It has remained fairly consistent over the years, and I keep coming back to it despite most of the things from my early days have been long eclipsed by recent conflicts, stress of rent, and the future, and my current need to pee.

The reason this criticism was so staunchly painful strangely has to do with the ambiguity. She was a friendly woman, but somewhat of a snob in various ways—the sort of person who asked you what kind of bands you liked and you’d say, “Exit Sign,” because simply because you were standing before the doors at that point. Couldn’t say anything real because she’d probably judge you for it. She had an opinion on everything and very little flexibility.

Some of her critiques were dead on, insightful, and relieving. Some of them were just not. I mean, really not. Like incredibly stupid. But, the most, by far, were vague and simplistic, literally, “Simplify everything!”

She had pointed out some good lines to shorten, so I asked, “How do I know where?”

“Just everything!”

Well, I could do that… but I don’t think the results will be what you intended.

Dealing with someone who I both liked and yet conflicted with on certain, we’ll say, philosophical ideas, someone who made comments that were brilliant and those that were outright dumb, while trying to figure out what the others meant, was incredibly painful for me. She was an awesome writer, but didn’t write anything I liked to read too, which threw in a whole slew of considerations.

She was also rude. She wrote in all caps, asked rhetorical questions—“Why did you do that? Just do this!”—last but not least, gave me no credit. To this day, I’ll read lines in a manuscript that I antagonized over and flash back to her comment. As I get into the final edits of it before I submit it off to agents, today I came across one line of interest.

The protagonist, in the very beginning, runs up to his girlfriend’s house. I describe the architecture, the garden, the foggy glass, and the drapes against her window. Did I say expensive? Did I say luxurious? I don’t remember. But today it reads, “Over the distance, he watched through the house’s fine, transparent drapes for movement.”

“How does he know they’re fine?” she said.

“Well, he’s been there before.”

“So it’s a point of contention?”

“Well, he certainly thinks they are wasteful.”

She seemed to accept that, but it didn’t satisfy me.

What people say about not being able to explain things to your readers is true, and it begged the question of how others would respond.

Would other readers think, “How does he know how fine they are?” losing me credibility?

Was she saying the “fineness” of the drapes was an odd thing to point out?

Or, entirely possible, was it that she, holding a draft in her hand by an unknown author, assumed that I was making a mistake that an actual reader would accept and understand with trust?

In other words, did the choice lose me credibility, or did the lack of faith in me bring issue to the choice?

I tell the story about the time a friend of mine accused me of making up the word “chagrin,” only laughing when I point out that his favorite book, which he’d read several times, had been accused for overusing it. He never noticed it once while it was being done by someone he trusted.

I understand the faith in experts and don’t condemn it entirely. We try to tell people not to prematurely judge books for… pretty much everything they’ve been prematurely judged for, but the honest truth is you can’t judge a book until you’ve read it, and blindly devoting your faith into something because it happened to be in front of you and it’s “only fair to give that book a chance,” is foolish. It ends badly. We have to invest emotionally into our reading, and so we should look for signs that it is going to be enjoyable. Expertise just makes sense.


The attitude that you have to earn the right to experiment, that you should explain yourself every time a reader worries that maybe you made a mistake, is silly, restrictive, and homogenizing.

Mostly though, believing a contextual response to be indicative of a broader, non-contextual response goes against the purpose of the interaction. In essence, if you’re seeing the reaction of someone who thinks you’re some hack writer with no ability to track the continuity from paragraph to paragraph, the “problems” they’ll see aren’t going to be what someone who is picking up a published novel to enjoy.

Of course, the bigger fear is where does an agent fall under, being that she will know you first as the unpublished hack who may or may not know a colon from an asshole. Hopefully, you’d get someone who does feel like you know your stuff, but there has to be some slack to get them to that point.

The worst critique in my life featured a great deal of those kinds of comments, constantly questioning each included detail. Why did I include this? Why did I include that? Sad thing was, if she answered the rhetorical questions she gave, she’d find the reason why I, at least, thought the choice I had made was possibly a good idea. It wasn’t obscure.

Sometimes people will ask why I didn’t just make the changes. If I didn’t know how I felt, wasn’t sure whether or not she had a point, wouldn’t it just be simpler to do what you’re told?

Besides the point that fixing a problem when you don’t really understand it (Do I turn my book into a Dick and Jane companion?), a bigger issue is that I haven’t found the criticism of those who don’t give me credit, well, credible.

My first experience with this was in high school, back in the good ole days of all my shits going to anime and cats, and I would write weird and risky essays for… pretty much any time I actually made myself write an essay. My parents, the most loving people in the world, but also the ones who remember when I was struggling with the concept of a toilet, didn’t have faith that my rendition of the Bill of Rights coming to life and arguing with me over the thesis of my history paper would actually suit as a history paper. I got an A.

When I started to apply for scholarships, many of which required essay writing, I did the same old, same old. I never knew how to “play the game” then, for better and for worse, and I would not be convinced that doing anything but telling the complete truth and in the way that I wanted would be acceptable. I also started applying for colleges at around the same time.

Well, my parents read one, and, being parents, told me I really should rethink saying something. I did not rethink it, at least not before sending it out, but then rethought and rethought and rethought it until anxiety tried to emulate an ulcer and burrow out throw my stomach. After that, I refused to show them anything I wrote, knowing that the fear their criticism put in me forced me to seize up any creative muscles.

I won, by the way. And I will say that my college essay received an excited, handwritten personal note back from one of the schools.

Back then I realized how damaging getting responses from people who didn’t have faith in me—even when they cared about me—could be. I vowed to never give my work to my mother if it was important, which led to some tears and hurt feelings, but I stuck by it for a long time.

It would be nice to say that if people think you’re an idiot they don’t have a point, but that’s not necessarily true either, as we all know.

So what do you do when you realize that someone is trying to prove your incompetence? How seriously do you take their criticism?

And the problem with line edits, as they always are, is that this may never come up again. Even if someone else does feel the same exact way, they’ll solve it in a different manner. So I will be left here, confused, cringing every time I look at it.

Does that in itself mean I should remove it?

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Monday, May 7, 2018

What Teenage Authors Should Know…

At age 12 I decided to start my writing career, and, despite what many people told me over time, I highly recommend beginning young, if you can. I also recommend beginning old. Mostly I recommend starting now. Hell, if you’re sitting here, reading this blog, there’s a 99% chance you’re either an author or want to be, 1% that you’re my therapist. If you’re thinking about starting a book and haven’t yet, all I can say is age can always be an excuse, no matter what it is.

Certainly, people have their ageist issues. I have been told by six people, verbatim, that “You shouldn’t start writing until you’re thirty.” These were not people who did much writing themselves.

Just because you’re young doesn’t mean anything. At the beginning of last summer, in fact, I teched a festival of one-acts and found my favorite, the best crafted play, was by a seventeen-year-old girl. Yes, I’ve also picked up on a juvenile tone of voice that seems to trend in younger writers, but it’s not completely absent from the older community, and the best way to overcome it is practicing.

But as a young writer, looking back on the things I wondered about as a teen versus what I think now that I’m in my late twenties, I have some advice for people like myself.

Bigotry is real, and sometimes legitimate.

People will judge you for your age, no matter what it is, really. It’s something that I recommend to all authors to leave out of your bios and query letters unless there’s a particular purpose for including it.

If you are under the age of 18 and are looking to contractually sign with someone—such as an agent—you do need to mention it somewhere initially, otherwise it can be misleading. They have the right to know if they’re going to have to negotiate with a third-party in order to get anything done. But other than that, don’t give people reason to prematurely make assumptions about you. Don’t start with, “Charley Daveler is a 16 year old girl.”

I questioned this myself because I thought, “Isn’t it more impressive to realize that I’m only 16 and written a book? Isn’t that a selling point?”

No, it isn’t. If you’re writing at the quality that they would accept you no matter your age, then yes, but they’re not going to give you credit if your work doesn’t speak to them because both business and art are very different than an education. You’ll have to be up to snuff period, and your age actually is a huge red flag.

Teenagers are hard to work with.

This may or may not apply to you personally, but even if you are a level-headed, kind, hard working person, you still need to be aware that most teens aren’t and tackle that assumption gracefully.

Query letters aren’t just about having a good story, they’re about showcasing how professional you can be. Agents have to deal with arrogant and entitled nutcases constantly; no matter your age, you need to subtly tell them you’re an easy person to work with. If they see a teenager, you have a strike against you, so you need to work extra hard to prove you’re not like that.

There’s a good chance that you are.

Hormones have larger effect than you’d think. It wasn’t until I was about 24, as I patiently allowed a customer to complain at me about her meal, that I realized just how much your body chemistry controls your tolerance. I would have never been able to let her talk to me that way when I was 22—it would have emotionally perturbed me just because of the juices that were flowing. As I get older, I find I don’t react physically the same way. I never would have suspected it when I was living it; it wasn’t until I had the comparison to realize just how much hormones messed with me.

The other side is simple inexperience. You’ll find new authors of any age to be a pain due to uninformed expectations, but most older people have some life experience. As a young person, it’s possible you’ve never even had any sort of job before.

-Teens tend to quit when it gets hard. I work in a restaurant that pays very well and is comparatively laid back too many of the other jobs I’ve had. We have problems because of teenagers coming in and quitting when they had to do something they didn’t want to—bus tables—or got diplomatically lectured for obvious mistakes—you can’t take your lunch break during lunch rush.

-They are less likely to take criticism well, or be aware of their own failings. This ties directly into inexperience, not age. Taking criticism well is a skillset that comes from practice. People who haven’t been criticized tend to get upset, period. As for self-awareness, psychologists believe the newer you are in an area, the higher you mistakenly evaluate your ability (and the more skilled you are, the lower you rate yourself). You’ll see this occur in a lot of new authors, no matter the age, but with older people, it’s more likely that you’ve experienced an epiphany of your failings in some other skill and can supplement that awareness to your personal evaluation in writing, i.e. you’ve realized the more you know, the more you understand how much you don’t know.

-Teens are less likely to pick their battles and play the game. In some ways, this is a good thing. Teens are more likely to make creative decisions, question that status quo, and find more efficient ways to do things. But they are also likely to act unprofessionally, be rude, take time “reinventing the wheel,” and show disrespect for futile reasons. It’s important to achieve a balance in the arts and remember that looking trustworthy from first impression isn’t the same thing as being trustworthy, and if you’re not putting effort into areas that show, it’s highly likely you’re not putting in effort period.

-Teens are more likely to criticize… insultingly. Sometimes when a teenager criticizes, it’s not a sign of disrespect, more like a means to establish their voice. Again, that’s not a teen thing either. Lots of people try to impress others by putting them down—how can I know more than you unless you’re wrong?—but I see it most frequently with teens: the constant barrage of opinions, the staunch assertion they’re right, and the complete lack of malice when they say it. When they (I) think (thought) someone is capable and confident, they’re less likely to curb their ideas and look for ways to point out that they know stuff too, not aware that it’s actually incredibly insulting. You’re different than them because you’re a professional, so you can’t be made to feel bad by some teenager’s opinion.

Many people brag about their bluntness in criticism—which I find foolish—thinking that not being afraid to speak their mind is all that it takes to give good feedback. Giving constructive feedback is more than just having verbal diarrhea, but requires consideration, speaking with clarity, and not allowing yourself the catharsis of tearing someone down. It can feel good, empowering, to bluntly instruct other people in your thoughts, but isn’t the most effective means to help them improve their work and themselves.

Also, it takes maturity to realize that if someone is doing something different than you, they have their reasons. Respect is not about writing them off as stupid, but asking yourself, why are they doing it that way? Is it better? Is it partially better? Are both ways perfectly valid? Are there things that you’re not considering?

Teens are less likely to mind their own business with their coworkers, teammates, and even authority figures. They are more likely to boss you around. They are more likely to defend rudeness as the moral right.

Just because you are a teenager, doesn’t mean any of these things are true for you, but it does mean you have to do work to prove it’s not.

Red flags are superficial in nature. They are parts of deeper flaws that are exposed in subtle ways, so it’s often hard to tell if you’re stereotyping or protecting yourself. But no one can give everyone a chance, and so it’s up to each of us to acknowledge how we look on a first impression and consider how to make our fellow man more comfortable.

Not all teenagers are hard to work with. Some are much better than the adults to choose from. But if you’re a teen, it’s important to consider your flaws, tackle them, and learn how to showcase your qualities in a quick and accessible way.

As a teen writer consider…

-How self-aware am I?

Do others like working with you? What evidence do you have? In what circumstances? What are your biggest issues when working in a group? What are your writing strengths? Where do you want to improve? Do you like your work? If not, why are you submitting it?

These are not rhetorical questions, nor am I implying the answers should be against you. The trick is not to be humble or self-effacing, but honest. Try to see yourself from an outside perspective, understand your good side and try to fix your bad. But mostly, try to gauge how others see you and especially how you see yourself.

-What are reasonable expectations for a debut author?

The big mistake authors make is to think they’re the exception to the rule, and that destiny or God has their back. Do your research and make sure you understand what is statistically most likely to happen in the paths you choose. That way, you are less likely to be disappointed, more likely to keep up your motivation, and feel pleasure when you actually do something difficult. You are also less likely to say something foolish like, “I know I have a bestselling novel on my hands,” in a query.

-How do I look to others?

That’s the thing about being young. Our teenage years are when we first start to realize other people can see us. It’s unfortunate, because the moment we become aware of judgment, we are affected by it. But it’s hard to compare and contrast how we were treated when we were younger with when we’re older, how we saw teens when we weren’t them, and how our opinions about ages changed when we reached them.

I will tell you this: people don’t like teenagers. It’s not like high school when your teachers want to encourage you. You become competition that we feel like we have to handle with kid gloves, and if you do succeed, we wonder what the hell we’ve been doing with our lives.

The best thing you can do is to talk to others about how they perceive you. Ask older people what they think of teenagers, ask your friends how you hold yourself, as acquaintances to describe you to them. Most importantly, reflect on your actions and determine if they yielded the desired reactions from others.

-How can I make the lives around those I wish to work with easier?

Teenage boys have no spatial empathy. They’re always underfoot, standing in your way, stepping on things instead of over—it’s a strange phenomenon that doesn’t quite hold for girls. They don’t get, “Hey, she’s carrying a heavy object in my direction, I should hold open the door for her or at least step to the side.”

Unlike in academia, people don’t have to work with you, and if you demonstrate a certain level of self-involvement, they’re going to cut you free. Not all teens are especially self-involved, but it’s pretty frequent.

If, however, you develop foresight and concern for others’ needs without them expressing it, they’ll be impressed.

Little things like, “Someone’s going to have to pick up that trash, so I might as well do it,” or, “She’s going to need this object in a second, so I should push it over to her,” can do wonders. When writing a query, don’t just think about how to impress the agent, consider using words that express an interest in them and their needs. Start out by telling them why you picked them, and don’t make ridiculous demands just because you know you’re that good.

-What are the professional ways to tackle what I want to do?

Many new writers want to be immediately recognized for their genius and so don’t think they should have to be professional. They have typo-ridden queries and manuscripts, they don’t want to do any of their own marketing, they’re rude to their fellow writers and agents/publishers and even readers, they don’t shower, they just fight other people every step of the way with this attitude of “You should know my book is good!”

That’s not a teen thing. But as a teenager, it’s likely you lack experience in a professional setting period. It’s important to consider your goals, not sell out, but also learn how to put on a presentation, learn how to talk to people, and push yourself to being the best you can be.

Think about what you actually want to happen with your book and the best steps to making yourself seem capable despite your age.

-What is important to me? What isn’t?

As a teen, I at least was told to never compromise who I really was to appease others. Which is good advice, except that who am I actually? Am I my flaws? Do I have to stop procrastinating just because it makes other people’s lives harder?

It’s a more difficult aspect of writing; you need to reflect on your actual opinions and be honest about what you feel and why you feel that. Sometimes you need to stand up for an unpopular taste—many tastes are acquired and you do your book with passion, it will suddenly be the next big thing because it’s different. Other times, you need to suck it up and accept you’re just being stubborn and hurting your book because of it. And sometimes it’s somewhere in between.

It helps to start identifying your thoughts before someone tells you their opinion how you feel about things. You’re more likely to be honest with yourself if there’s not some buttface insisting, “No one likes it that way!”

-Do I know how to critically evaluate advice?

On that same note, the most important thing I have to tell a teenage writer is that people are much more inclined to give you un-thoughtout advice. Even though teens are more likely to speak their opinions, they’re also more likely to take you seriously, or at least not tell you off for being bossy. Where an adult will be more likely to stand up for herself, a teen is more likely to obey, even begrudgingly. For a lot of different reasons, a young person is a greater target for criticism, judgment, and micromanaging.

Before you go out into the professional world, you need to start learning how to recognize being taken advantage of while still handling criticism in a graceful and effective way. I have a lot of blogs on the subject, but my main suggestion is to always try and follow their train of thought and ask questions.


Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re too young to write.

The work from my earlier years was not perfect, but it had some great qualities to it that I’ve lost in my old age and am trying to return to. Many authors did their best work at a young age, and even if you’re not a top-notch writer now, the years of practice will do you good. I wouldn’t trade anything for my experiences writing as a teen, and I’ve never met a person who told me I was too young that was satisfied with his own work.

Trust yourself, work hard, and always remember that the confidence and energy you have now can propel you to great heights.

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Death Grip that Optimism

Shoshone Falls will spit on you if you let it, but Idaho can be a surprisingly warm state in spring, and the shower in the breeze felt nice. I stared at the yellow waters of the epic falls and lamented the sadness that overcame me. I did not miss my ex. I missed the fantasy of traveling with a man I loved. I resented him for redirecting my thoughts from possibilities of the future to the ways he ruined things. He had always made trips (and everything else) unbearable, and yet when I traveled across America this spring, I thought of him frequently, constantly brought back to sour memories of hurt and disrespect. It had been years, and I was still wounded. I was supposed to be having fun, and all I could do was grieve over the loss of optimism. It wasn’t that I thought of him, it was that when I tried to fantasize, I would be slapped in the face by what actually happened when I sought companionship.

During my travels this last month, I also received several rejections on multiple projects, including a local one-act. I had known my dark, sarcastic comedy about anorexia and depression would have a hard time getting a leg up, but something about this rejection struck me in ways most didn’t. The critiques on my one-act went well prior to submitting, and I’d had a conversation with one of this year’s judges about the low quality of the few early submissions. For a minute I felt confident I might see some signs that I was connecting with people and was surprised at how demoralized I became when it was passed up this time. Usually there is one extremely fun play in the three picked, but historically there have been plenty that, well, we’ll say, weren’t indicative of experience. I consider my script to be focused, emotional, and funny, some of my best work, and I could only picture what it will feel like if the one-acts this year are as painful as some of those in the past.

I was struggling with my unhappiness. I had plenty of reason to not feel terribly, but negativity constantly claws at my back. I had slacked off from my duties the last few months and struggled to induce inspiration or even daydream. I not only didn’t feel like creating art, I didn’t care that I wasn’t either. I had shortened my hours at work to give me more time to create, only to do God knows what with my days. Which wasn’t really like me. In my youth, I was fairly productive. What happened?

Something happened on the sunny trip around the American National Monuments. As I confronted a stronger feeling of unimportance, I also could face exactly what it would mean if I just gave up. When the pains in my neck grew too intense to bear, I decided to stop in with a highly-praised massage therapist a friend of mine had used. In one hour, I realized just how much tension I chronically held in my shoulders, (plus everywhere else) and the fact that I haven’t been truly able to relax in over four years. He explained a lot to me about what I could do to help my chronic pain and why some of it was happening, more so than the dismissive doctors ever did. Leaving there, I not only felt better physically, but I had more hope that something could be done… about anything. He had a lot of the answers I’d been seeking—in the wrong places.

The trip that ended in Disney World gave me a childlike glee, bonding my mother and me together, giving me some sorely needed sunlight and exercise, and exposure to the possibilities of design and art. The desert landscapes I had traveled gave me inspiration about the worlds that could be created in fiction or reality. I met with a good friend whose Etsy store had taken off. Inspired previously by the television show, Boss Girl, and a ridiculous work schedule, I had decided at the beginning of this year to try and be self-sustainable with what I love. But at the same time, I didn’t expect a lot out of it. Until a cold on the last day hit, I felt great. Free.

My experiences had left me feeling that dreams are painful. I worked hard to be with a man I wanted to marry who proved a dishonest invalid. All of that effort and all I got was years of emotional consequences. I worked for half a decade on a novel to feel joy when I got an unsigned form rejection, because at least there was a response. I’ve drawn prolifically since I was 12, but God forbid I come up with a style I actually like. Each time I’ve tried to overcome chronic pain, put myself into the dating world, or ask for help, I’ve found myself humiliated, tired, and nothing to show.

Yet, depression lies. Negative experiences might make optimism shy away, but you can coax it out again. There are ways to solve problems and even though blindly putting yourself out there can lead to literal injuries and stalkers, the only way to convince yourself good things can happen is by feeling more in control. Bad shit makes for good stories, and mistakes for good lessons. There’s a lot of bad advice out there and it takes way more work than it should to shift through it, but you can understand how to solve things through trial and error. I can’t say what to do when faced with depression, and know first hand how trying can sometimes make things worse. That being said, there’s not much else to do with our lives, and one of these days, something has to click.

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People Who Get Rejected Frequently Have the Same Attitude

Before we begin, let’s start with one very important question: Do you actually get rejected, or do you just not get accepted? Because if you’re like me and avoid putting yourself out there, you really shouldn't be crying in the corner about how no one likes you. Suck it up and get it out there.

They introduce themselves by criticizing.

“Wow! You have way too much free time on  your hands!” begins an author asking me to interview him.

It was a sort of backhanded compliment. He was impressed with the amount of work I’ve done while acting like that must mean I have less of a life than him. Surprisingly, this didn’t say to me, “I’m a charming, hardworking guy.”

To hear others tell it, this happens all too frequently. Whether it be job interviews, story submissions, or even romantic pursuits, many people start by announcing what their gatekeeper is doing wrong.


I’ve felt the compulsion to do this. Negativity is interesting. When I go out of my way to engage with someone and am searching for topics, it’s really easy to discuss differences of opinions. It’s possible to do this right too, and there are some who believe that it’s an easy way in when dealing with someone insecure.

But typically, it’s just starting out on the wrong foot. Acting superior to the other person isn’t going to endear them to you, and I personally don’t want to deal with someone who doesn’t know the time and place for criticism. You also are taking a risk because you don’t know the factors that went into the decision, proving how naïve you are. While it could make you look like you know what you’re doing, it can also backfire; people who know what they’re doing don’t need to prove it.

If you do have ideas for what a person or company could change, save it for when you’ve gotten on more familiar terms and better understand the factors they’re working with.

They don’t understand how things work.

Unrealistic expectations can be really frustrating even when you’re not directly dealing with them. What is it about delusion that rubs people the wrong way?

It’s important to have an idea of what the other person has to consider, especially because it will help you not take rejection so personally. If you’re going to be working together, they don’t need to be explaining to you that setbacks are normal. Anyone who thinks it’s going to be easy is likely to be very difficult to work with; they’re more likely to get demoralized, accusing the agent or publisher of not doing their job, and simply be unpracticed in how to best handle bad situations.

Knowing the industry will tell you when to be pushy and when to back off. People with ridiculous expectations will make outrageous demands. The most diva-like behavior comes from those new to the field.

And, besides that your attitude will be a hazard, there’s also the fact that people want to work with someone who can hold their own weight.

They only think what the other person can do for them.

Acceptance isn’t worth much if there’s no investment. Demanding someone’s energy and time is obviously a selfish act, but it can be symbiotic in the long term. Most importantly, you don’t want your existence to be a burden, at the bare minimum. It shouldn’t make their life worse than being on their own.

The other day I listened to a conversation between two guys about dating. One suggested that three obvious things the other could do to be more appealing to women: 1. Better hygiene. 2. Get some hobbies. 3. Go to the gym.

The other guy went off, claiming women were shallow with their clinical checklists. Why not just like him for him?!

But would he want to date someone who smell bad, looks bad, and had nothing interesting to say?

People who get rejected a lot tend to think they should get accepted for what they already have naturally. They don’t critically evaluate competition, or put themselves into the shoes of the other person. Instead they see rejection as this unfair judgement passed down on their total worth.

You’re a team, and you want your best players. In the same way you shouldn’t just accept anyone just because they have a couple of good qualities, you should expect to fill a certain role in their lives yourself. You should you try to make yourself useful in your interactions. More commonly, you need to recognize what you can already offer others.

They don’t take pride in their work.

In this day and age, you can judge a book by its cover. Self-publishers often out themselves as lazy through the easily viewed, superficial aspects they cut corners on. They claim that these things should not matter, that the story itself is all that matters, but because superficial things are the easiest to see, it means that it would be the easiest to fix. If you’re not solving obvious errors in your work, it’s unlikely that you’re solving the more subtle and abstract ones.

Regardless of your situation, you always want to make people think you care. I recognize that a lot of current trends paint apathy as power, and often “cool,” but apathy tends to make you a difficult person to be around. Sure, desperation reeks, you have to hold yourself to higher standards, but that’s all a part of the same framework.

Show people you care about making your work the best it can be and you’re willing to do what it takes, including turning down bad offers as well as compromising, or needling out the more tedious details.

Passion is contagious, so let your love for your work show in your dedication and precision.

Keep in mind that rejection is often more complex than just, “THIS IS TERRIBLE.” It’s possible to do all of the right things and still get a no. But in a competitive world, it’s a good idea to show the best parts of yourself, to do what you can to make people feel like you are competent, dedicated, and pleasant to work with.

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