Writing Is Only The Beginning

Today’s a big day in the world of SFF, so I’m going to write about…something else.

I did a Reddit AMA last month, and as is often the case with such things, I missed a late question, which was a pretty good one. And since it’s way too late to answer it there, I’ll answer it here.

Q: What skills, apart from writing, are required to finish a book?

(Yes, I editorialized a bit there, and added “finish.” Because that’s really what the question is about.)

A: I’ve written Chapter 1 of thousands of books throughout my life. I’ve rewritten them and turned them upside down and tried them from different points of view and chewed on them until they were tasteless pulp, at which point I abandoned them out of boredom.

What I was doing in those cases was not finishing a book. What I was doing in those cases was practicing and refining the art of writing, which is a fine pursuit in and of itself, but is not the same thing. The world is littered with beautiful writers who’ve never finished anything.

To be clear, though: in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes the purpose of writing is creative expression, full stop. Sometimes the satisfaction is in Chapter 1, or that one scene or bit of dialogue or character sketch. Art for art’s sake is a real thing.

But if you want a whole book out of it, there’s more to it than that. And it takes more than just the ability to prettily string together words.

Step 1: Finish the book

Learning to do this was far and away the hardest part of the process, and I strongly suspect there’s no single method that works for every writer.

For me, the key was NaNoWriMo. It’s a cliché, but in my case, it really worked.

Of course, I have some tendencies that work in my favor. For one thing, I write long. I can spew out 2,000 words without too much trouble. Most of them will die a fiery death in editing, but writing them in the first place? Easy. So when I did my first NaNo back in 2010, it felt like a bit of a cheat.

But about three weeks into it, a pep talk arrived over email with an interesting piece of advice: if your story isn’t nearing the end, stop right now and write the ending. Then choose a handful of scenes between where you are now and the end, and write those.

I was reluctant to try this. I’d been writing sequentially, and it had been going pretty well. But I was only halfway through the story, and there was no way the rest was going to happen in a week. So I figured what the heck? I participated in NaNo to try something new. If I got stuck and didn’t hit 50K, who would care?

For me, this turned out to be phenomenal advice, and every book I’ve written since has been done this way.

Writing the end, and two or three Big Bang scenes, works for me like sending out flares. When I’m lost in the weeds or wondering how a scene is supposed to end – or if it should even exist – I can see my destination clearly, and I can see some interim landmarks. That vision clears my head and gives me purpose, and I can move forward again.

What’s implicit in this, of course, is that I don’t do much editing when getting the story down. That’s changing a little as I learn my own methods. But I don’t tend to see what the whole story is about until I’ve written it out completely. Going back and editing before I understand what I’m trying to say is a waste of time.

I’m told this isn’t true of everyone. Some people must go back and edit each chapter as it comes out. Some people outline the entire book in great detail before writing a single word. So there are different methods that work for different people.

Maybe it’s better to phrase it like this:

Step 1: Figure out what you need to do to finish a book, and do that.

Onward.

Step 2: Learn how to edit.

Easy! Right?

…Yeah, not so much. Because in order to edit properly – whether you’re making your own changes, or evaluating changes suggested by someone else – you need to have a level of objectivity about your own work. And that’s neither an easy thing to acquire, or to recognize once you have it.

This is some of what’s behind the exhortation that writers must read. Other people’s writing gives us examples of sentence structure, rhythm, story structure, and workable rule-breaking. Internalizing what’s already out there can help get the words on the page the right way. Even work we dislike can help – everyone’s read something that’s made them think how did this end up in public? While some of that is simply taste, understanding what does and doesn’t work for us as a reader can inform our own writing.

But at some point…you’re going to have to show it to someone else.

This is a chicken-egg problem, really. Because you need to be able to trust your own judgement before you process feedback from a critic, or a beta reader, or an editor. You need to understand what you want the story to be before you can listen to what other people think is wrong. It’s very common, especially when dealing with a large number of readers, to find two people identifying completely opposite problems.

And especially when you’re dealing with people who aren’t professional editors, you’re going to find people making suggestions on how you should fix the problem, rather than identifying what the problem is. The suggestion in these cases is often entirely wrong, but you can’t wholesale dismiss the problem just because the offered solution doesn’t work.

If a reader trips on something, that’s real. Whether or not you fix it – whether or not you decide it’s a quirk of that particular reader – that’s their for-real experience with your prose.

“But they don’t get my character!”

Is your character fully on the page?

“But I explained this already!”

Has the explanation been lost in the interim?

“But I like the thing that annoys them!”

…Well, okay. I’ve ignored critiques for this very reason. Sometimes you look at a reader’s objection, and you think “Okay, I see that, and I understand where they’re coming from. And I’m going to make a conscious decision not to do anything about that, because it works for the story as I am choosing to tell it, and I do this aware that it might lose me readers similar to this one.”

Which leads us back to the beginning: you’ve got to have some level of objectivity about your own stuff. Every reader’s experience is true, because every reader brings themselves to a reading. But if you take it as gospel that everything they point out Must Be Fixed As They Tell You It Must, you’re going to end up with a contradictory mess of edits on your hands. At some point someone has to choose, and guess what? That’s you.

And you may be wrong. But you are still where the buck stops, and unless you keep working and keep taking the risk, you’re never going to get to the point where you’re right.

The fun part about all this advice is that it doesn’t get any easier. I’m in the middle of a first draft right now, and it’s giving me headaches. I still hit analysis paralysis, fear of first drafts, terror that if it’s not Exactly Right as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard that it’s hopeless and it’ll fall apart.

The only difference now is that I’ve been through this before. I’ve had all of these feelings already, for other books that are actually done now. So something happens that makes it all work, even if right now I can’t remember what it is. If I focus on what’s in front of me, take it step by step instead of trying to imagine the finished whole, somehow I get there.

Step 3: Don’t procrastinate by writing blog posts.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Rules For New Authors (or maybe just for me)

Before the book came out, I started making a list of things I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget. As I’ve finally hit 10, I thought I’d share. And while they are specific to me and my situation…there’s a distant possibility one or two of them might be useful to someone else.

You never know.

  1. Do not compare yourself to other authors.

    This one is at the top of the list for a reason, and it’s this: it’s really hard. With Twitter and Facebook and bestseller lists and Amazon recommendations and what your in-laws have sitting on their coffee table—you’re surrounded by other authors. And they’re all more successful, more articulate, younger, more talented, more loved than you are. They’re all better communicators, and they all have a brilliant future, while you will crash and burn before anyone learns how to spell your last name.

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    Here’s the reality: every author has their own journey, and no journey is easy. I don’t think I follow a single successful author who hasn’t at least alluded to a professional disaster or two along the way. Every author is going to have different opportunities than you will, because they are different people writing different books. Don’t wish you were them. Be you. Have your path. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’ll be nothing like anybody else’s.

    Writers are not interchangeable Lego bricks. Comparison isn’t only unhealthy, it’s meaningless.

  2. Have faith in your publicity people.

    If you, like me, are new to the publishing world, here’s a fact: You have no idea what you’re doing.

    If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a publicist or a publicity team, odds are they’ve done, you know, publicity before. Things that might seem odd or pointless from an author’s perspective are not actually odd or pointless. They are things that have actually worked in the for-real publishing world.

    And you may not have much visibility into how successful these things are. You’re a writer. You are producing the words, weeping over editorial notes, and fighting crippling insecurity. They are making sure the existence of your book is known to the general public, who may then choose to buy, or take out of the library, and read—and, if you’re lucky, like enough to recommend to their friends.

    Because nobody will read you if they don’t know your book exists, and that’s what your publicity people do so well. Trust them. There’s a reason they are doing this and you are not.

  3. Let the future be the future, and today be today.

    Does this need explanation?

    You’ve got a to-do list longer than your arm, even if you leave off the book you’re supposed to be writing. If you look at the big picture, you will panic.

    Everything can be prioritized. Do this.

    And worry about tomorrow’s to-do list when it arrives.

  4. Do not freak the hell out for no reason.

    HAHAHAHAHA Nah, go ahead and do this.

  5. Your publicist is always right.

    See #2.

  6. If you’re not feeling it, fake it. Nobody wants to hear your petty insecurities.

    So at some point, you’ll be talking to someone or writing a blog post or doing a Q&A at a bookstore, and you’ll think Why does anyone care what I think about any of this?

    And you know what? Maybe they don’t.

    But this is your job. And part of your job is to write the blog post and do the Q&A and talk to the interviewers with confidence. Even if you’re not feeling it.

    I’m not talking about telling them all I AM THE GREATEST AUTHOR EVER ARGLE BARGLE BLARG. I’m talking about smiling, and answering candidly, and thanking them for their interest, and leaving out all of the But I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t even know if anybody is going to like this book and why don’t I have a twelve-book contract like That Other Author and oh god I’m just a hack and you know it don’t you you know it even while you’re smiling and being polite argh bullshit.

    Because nobody cares.

    I mean, in the existential sense, they might, because we all deserve some peace and happiness, right? But they’re listening to that podcast or reading that blog post because they want to hear an author speak about their experience. Just because you’re new is not a good reason to undercut yourself with this I am so small crap. We are all so small.

    I’m not talking about hiding all of your insecurities. It can be helpful for people to hear that you’re nervous, or that it’s still a surprise when someone is interested in your opinions. But nobody needs to know how insecure you really are about being handed this opportunity that an awful lot of other people would love to be handed. That gets tedious fast.

  7. Do. Not. Respond. To. Anything. Publicly. Ever.

    Ever.

  8. Be fucking patient, you idiot.

    Okay. Patience is not my strong suit. (Those of you who know me IRL can stop laughing now.)

    But publishing is slow. Sloooooooow. Like Friday-afternoon-before-you-have-two-weeks-off slow.

    You’re not going to know anything right away. A good review, a bad review—that’s not data. The only data that’s really going to matter is sales numbers, and you’re not going to get that fast. And even that isn’t going to mean much until you look at it over time.

    You’re new. Relax. Because you can be as tense as you want, and it won’t make a single bit of difference.

  9. Nobody—NOBODY—cares about your work or your career like you do.

    I am working with some wonderful people. They’ve been incredible advocates for my work. They’ve helped me shape it, sell it, polish it. No writer is an island, and that’s the truth.

    But I am one author. They work with multiples. It’s their job to present you with the options, but it’s your job to choose.

    And nobody agrees all the time.

    I haven’t had a whole lot of situations where I disagreed with the people I’m working with. Most of the time, I try to sit back and listen, no matter what my first instinct is, because (as has been mentioned) they know what they’re doing, and I really don’t. But sometimes…it’s too much, and I can’t make it work. At those times, I try to explain my reasoning, but I do it my way. In the end, I have to do it my way, or I feel like a liar.

  10. Remember why you’re doing this.

    It’s hard, some days, to remember that I love writing.

    Being published is exposing. I’ve always, since I was a kid, had this vague dream of publication, which was pretty much limited to seeing my book on a bookstore shelf. And hey, I’m there! But there’s so much more to it, and it can get so distracting.

    And if I’m going to keep doing this, it has to not matter.

    I have a story that I want to tell. I know where I want everyone to be at the end of the third book. What people say about the first book—good or bad—doesn’t change that. Whether or not anybody likes the second book doesn’t change that either. I have a story, and I’m telling it because I want to tell it. And I want to tell it because it says some things I want to say. I like to think someone will read the story and think Yes, I see, I understand, you are speaking to me.

    I like to think there’s one person out there who feels that way already, even if I never hear from them.

    Ultimately, I’ve always written because I have to write. I get unpleasant and out of sorts if I don’t. Somewhere along the way—very, very early in my life—it became the way I process the world around me. I can’t not write. Good reviews, bad reviews—none of it matters. Writing will happen, and I need to remember why.

    I hope there are people who find familiarity in my work. But ultimately? I do this because it’s a thing I do. And as long as I hang on to that, all of my petty insecurities won’t defeat me.

    Shut up, petty insecurities.

First Reading

Last night I did my very first for-real public reading of a bit of my book, as a for-real published author.

This is how I felt:

tumblr_nj8ab6EaUg1u6698to1_500

Because clearly, after the last frame of this, Kermit falls over and knocks himself unconscious.

The reading was at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, VT. I hadn’t been to Montpelier since I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure we mostly drove through it – or past it – on the way to Burlington to take the ferry over Lake Champlain to New York. But it’s pretty, Montpelier. I almost regretted not bringing The Kid along on the long drive, because she would have loved it – it has small, charming shops and sidewalks easy to traverse, and because it is Vermont and people there are not barbarians like we are in Massachusetts, all the cars stopped for us on crosswalks.

I knew enough about readings to know that any expectation was likely to be wrong, one way or another. The only authors who get massive crowds are already pretty famous, and for everyone else, it’s somewhere between nobody and a small horde. I brought my own cheering section, and frankly I would have been perfectly happy if it were me, the bookstore staff, my husband, and the other author.

Of course, the other author brought his own fans. The other author was Brian Staveley, who I’d met a few times before. (We share an agent, and once had a discussion about portals and chickens.) Brian’s first book came out in 2014, and he’s just released his third. He’s a Genuine Established Writer Person, and he’s done this speaking thing a LOT. So I figured I could duck behind Brian if I was too timid to cope.

We arrived early enough to have a leisurely dinner – with the world’s most cheerful server, even though we didn’t order anything to drink – and then we headed to the bookstore. And sure enough, there in the front was a placard with a familiar picture on it.

placard

Yes, it’s a dreadful photo – I caught the reflection from a bad angle – but eek, those are my people, aren’t they?!?

We arrived around 6:40 for the 7:00 event, and Andrew Liptak (who put the event together) cheerfully waved us inside. GIven the hour I elected to browse for a while, instead of sitting in the provided Author Chair and quietly freaking out. (Keep in mind that “browsing,” in this context, meant both looking at books and gripping my husband’s arm as I quietly freaked out anyway.)

When Brian showed up, Andrew took a photo of us outside the store, and in the process of chatting, I mentioned to Brian that I’d never done this before.

Have you ever started a new job, and been nervous and excited at the same time? Have you ever encountered the sort of co-worker who, rather than hover over you and make you even more nervous, instead says, “What do you need?” and actually listens to your response? That’s what Brian did. +1 superior professional colleague. What my mom would call “a good egg.”

There were 16 or 17 people there, which felt like a nice size to me. Brian let me read first (the back half of Chapter 5, if you’re curious), which was good, because he read the prologue of his first novel, which is a gut-puncher and not something I would have wanted to follow. (Seriously, it’s one of those openings that makes you say “This is someone who knows what the fuck he’s doing.”) And then he began to chat about world-building (the topic of the evening), and he effortlessly pulled me into a conversation…and very quickly, the audience became involved, asking questions and playing off what Brian and I were saying. I did some of the super-rambling I tend to fall into when I’m nervous, but for the most part? It was…not bad. Fun, even. It’s something else, having people sitting there, willing to listen to what you have to say just because you’ve written a book, even if they haven’t read it.

After we yakked for a while, it was book signing time, and much to my astonishment, I had a few to sign. With names. People smiling and thanking me and telling me they were looking forward to reading it.

Do I sound silly? I’m still in the “strangers like my book!!” phase of all this. It’s possible I’ll never leave it.

I had some wonderful chats with people. I talked with someone about the things we’ll forgive of a book or series we like, even when we won’t forgive it from other books. She told me a friend of hers had recommended my book, and compared me to Bujold, which was one of those “wow/yikes” moments. I talked to someone with her first book coming out this year, and we discussed workload and crazy deadlines. She said it must be exciting, having my book out at last. I thought, and said, “It’s weird.” And even though I’m a writer, I was unable to elaborate on that point. (There’s a blog post there, I suspect.)

I signed a few copies for the bookstore, and got Brian’s signature on a couple of copies of the promotional poster. (He’s got a great signature. It’s as illegible as mine, but kind of looks like a starburst. Very SFF.)

And then we drove home. (And by “we,” I mean “my husband,” who took the hit and drove 3 hours in the dark.)

All in all, the whole evening passed Liz’s “Don’t Think I Made An Ass Of Myself In Public” test, but that was mostly thanks to the company, who made it really easy.

And I’ve got another one tomorrow, which will undoubtedly be entirely different.