Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

aka Still Not The All-Encompassing Wizard World Philadelphia Post (sorry)

One of the things I’ve always believed is that writing is such a deeply individual process that there’s very little I can teach someone else about craft.

I’m not talking about basics like grammar and vocabulary. I tend to assume writers are either already well-versed in those subjects, or recognize that it’s a learning curve that needs to be climbed if they expect readers to engage. Everyone knows That Guy who self-pubbed their novel, and the first page is full of improper Capitalization and stray, commas and too! many! exclamation! points! and nobody wants to be That Guy. Grammar and vocabulary are learnable skills, and trying to write without them is going to get you the same sorts of results you’d get if you tried to fix your dishwasher with a pipe cleaner and some Post-It notes.

(Do you like the mangled metaphor? I think I’ll choose to say it’s intended to be illustrative.)

So when someone asks a question about a work they’ve completed, I tend to respond with the assumption that it’s already well-written. If someone, for example, asks how much trouble they’re going to have getting representation for their 250,000-word debut novel, I tell them, “It’s not impossible, but it’s a longshot.” Which is, statistically speaking, the truth.

Of course, other people tend to provide more useful responses like “You know, odds are at 250,000 words your manuscript is kind of meandery or repetitive or expositiony, so you may want to do some heavy-duty editing before you try querying it.” Which, to be fair, is much more likely the case, especially if you’re talking to a beginning writer. And it’s good advice in any case: don’t write a 250,000-word novel unless you absolutely must write a 250,000-word novel. And don’t write a non-standard query letter, and don’t write any info-dumps, and show don’t tell, and good God, get rid of those adverbs.

All of that advice is good, and solid. And sometimes it’s absolutely, 100% wrong.

One of the panels I did in Philadelphia was called Writing Compelling Science Fiction. The two gentlemen who put it together have been running it for years, and it’s been quite popular. It covers some basics about spec fic and story structure, and is designed to encourage people still feeling their way toward building and completing their stories. How I ended up on the panel is a bit of a tale, but the runners were gracious and inclusive and marvelous hosts.

And I kind of stepped on their advice at one point, even though, strictly speaking, their advice was good.

Someone in the audience had asked about chapter headings. He referenced Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD as an example of a book that did really well but had no traditional chapter breaks. The hosts advised him to absolutely not do that, that no publisher or agent would look at the manuscript without chapter breaks.

I disagreed. I told the person chapter breaks were just a pacing tool, and if the story doesn’t call for them, don’t use them. I suggested they query the book without chapter breaks, and if they found themselves getting rejections on pages they could always add chapter breaks and see if they got a better response. They could then fight the chapter-break fight with their editor once they got an agent and sold it to a publisher.

Now, in fairness, it’s possible the audience member was That Guy, and I just enabled bad habits.

But what if they’re Cormac McCarthy? What if they have something poetic and beautiful and passionate that would be flattened by chapter breaks? How many people have it in them to build something amazing, but take a step back because of an arbitrary Most People Do It This Way rule?

What if that novel really does need to be 250,000 words?

One of the most successful science fiction books in recent years is OLD MAN’S WAR, which I didn’t get a chance to read until recently (after, to be fair, years of my spouse telling me I was missing something I’d love). From a craft perspective, it’s of course written extremely well. The author turns a phrase and knows how to get a reaction from the reader. And past the basics, he writes complex, believable characters, and sets up vivid worlds–pretty much what you’d expect from a best-selling science fiction author.

But narratively? The book breaks a whole bunch of rules. The first two-thirds of it is exposition–fascinating, entertaining exposition (which is possible!), but still. And then there’s the point where you realize this military science fiction novel is actually a pretty traditional romance–once again, beautifully done, but kinda breaks the rules of what one’s supposed to do with a story like this.

I read a book like OLD MAN’S WAR, and I think about all the people told “No, stop writing exposition!” or “You can’t play with genre like that!” and I wonder how many of those people were writing something gorgeous and stopped because they thought they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Is it most of them? Probably not–but if it’s even one, isn’t that too many?

When it comes down to it, as a reader, I want to read something that engages and moves me. Yes, most of the books I’ve loved have traditional narrative structures, but not all of them. Another favorite of mine, SHARDS OF HONOR, is basically four separate stories in a single volume, and it’s a book I reread not just for pleasure, but because I’m fascinated by how, despite the non-traditional pacing, it works perfectly beginning to end.

The other side of this–and that person’s question at the panel really brought it into focus for me–is how much of the writing advice given is geared toward getting the writer published. “Don’t write X genre because it’s over-saturated.” “Don’t write a prologue because too many rookies screw them up.” “Make sure you use traditional chapter breaks.” “Don’t write a chapter longer than Y words.” “Always write first person past/third person limited/etc. for Z genre, because otherwise no one will read it.”

It’s a hard line to draw, because most people who write believe the next logical step is being read, and therefore published. Self-publishing has added another dimension to this, and it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t have to worry about X genre being oversaturated or how many words your chapters have, but you also don’t have to pound your craft into submission before you throw something up for the world to see.

And I’m not convinced, having been on both sides of it, that publishing (of any variety) is the right goal for every story.

I can hear the working writers screaming at me for that, or laughing at me, or thinking I’m horribly naive or privileged. Fair points all. I know some writers who are absolutely writing to market, and loving it, and doing well, and they are no less creative or Artistic™ than the people who scratch at parchment with a feather dipped in ink. Writing is a craft on top of everything else, and if you want to sell to the world, you owe it to your work to make your craft as good as it can possibly be.

But at the same time, writing is an art. It’s self-expression. Everything from fanfic to tie-ins to pulp to and-I-thought-ULYSSES-was-weird stuff is self-expression. Here are my guts, wrapped up in words and plot and characters and (sometimes) chapter breaks.

I’m not sure we nurture good writers by telling them the main goal of writing is to write something they can sell. Maybe the goal of writing shouldn’t be make this publishable but rather hone your ability to make your story read on the page the way it does in your head. Screw sales. Screw publishing. Learn how to use your tools, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but the experiences and perspectives that are unique to you. Take satisfaction in translating that piece of yourself that you want to share in a way that’s as true to yourself as you can make it.

And maybe it never sells. Maybe you show it to your friends and they look at you like you’ve grown a second head. Maybe you never show it to anyone. But if it’s what you wanted it to be…is that enough? Shouldn’t it be enough? Because no writer produces Thing 2 if they never sit down and write Thing 1.

I ran across an essay yesterday (that I won’t link to) talking about how important it is not to tell kids that they shouldn’t be professional writers, that somehow telling them they should keep a day job is discouraging or inhibiting their creativity. Apart from the irresponsible naïveté of that–it’s the same thing. We’re telling developing writers that the only goal should be publishing, when the truth is that even if their eventual goal is publishing, it’s far more important to learn how to build their own stories, whether or not they ever get shared with the world.

Writing, for me, has always been equal parts escapism, therapy, and entertainment. That some of my stories have made it out to the world is marvelous…but it’s a different thing than the writing itself. I’ll always write. If I hadn’t sold a book, I’d still always write. I love the craft of it, the satisfaction of re-reading something and recognizing that it really does work the way I want it to. I love writing and writing and realizing only after I’m finished what it was I needed to say.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see nurtured in writers still working on their craft (and we’re all, no matter how experienced, still working on our craft). Yes, there are rules–not just of grammar–that should be broken rarely, or not at all. Yes, there are types of stories that are more likely to be published for money than others. Yes, you should pay attention to that, if publishing is your goal.

But don’t ever forget that writing is an art, and at some point you’re going to have to ignore everybody’s well-intentioned advice, and write your own heart. And remember that the act of creation has a value all its own.

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Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.

REMNANTS OF TRUST: or, What’s Revenge Got To Do With It?

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I didn’t know, when I started this book, that it was going to be about revenge.

Revenge is a funny thing. It seems to be a pretty strong human instinct. You hurt me; I hurt you. Scales get balanced and all is well, right?

Except it doesn’t work out that way. It should—eye for an eye, and all that—but it doesn’t. Because revenge fundamentally means becoming what we hate, and that in itself has consequences.

I’ve had the opportunity for revenge a few times in my life—emotional, not physical. I got in one good last shot at a cheating boyfriend, which changed absolutely nothing. I said one of those things you can’t ever take back to a family member once, in the middle of a fight—they stopped yelling at me, but my sense of triumph lasted about a millisecond before I realized what I’d done. I was able to verbally eviscerate a friend who had disappeared on me, months after she’d done it. And of course you know where people’s sympathies were after that.

I have a temper, an imagination, and a brain. Revenge should feel marvelous. And in reality, it’s a grain of sand tossed into the black hole of hurt and loss: all it does is suck more out of you, and change nothing.

Raman Çelik, in this book, is in about as good a position as a wronged person can be: he’s been assigned revenge. His ship is essentially destroyed, a quarter of his crew murdered, and his official orders involve getting the people who did it, whatever it takes. License to kill. Hooray! Except…all of his people are still dead. And his ship is still destroyed. And his professional future is still uncertain. And who is he supposed to kill? Who is behind this? Who is responsible?

Raman is the ship’s captain. He knows who is responsible. And so there is vengeance, the only thing he can bring himself to feel, only it’s not just the perpetrators that need to be dealt with, is it?

Raman is a pro when it comes to psychological manipulation. He’s the Steve Jobs guy who makes you cry in the elevator on his way to a meeting where he motivates people to create something brilliant. He’s an accomplished asshole. He knows himself really, really well. And he’s never been powerless before, and he has absolutely no idea how to cope with it.

Powerlessness is the seed of revenge. It’s a great hunger that tells you the only solution is to strike out as violently as you can. Intelligence and rationality are nothing in the face of it. It swallows everything. It’ll swallow your life if you let it.

And that’s part of Raman’s attraction to—and frustration with—Guanyin. More than anyone else he knows, she has a clear notion of exactly what in her life she does and does not have power over. She’s not always happy about it, but her anger never becomes fantasy or denial. (The fact that she’s pregnant in this story is not an accident: pregnancy is a primal way of being out of control.) She can be angry with Raman for the path he is choosing, but it never occurs to her that she can or should be able to change him.

Her clear-eyed acceptance of reality is soothing to him. And soothing is exactly what he doesn’t need.

The ultimate problem with revenge is that it doesn’t fix anything. The US prison system (to get political for a moment) is a real-world example of this: we can’t decide if we want revenge or rehabilitation, so we end up doing neither with any effectiveness, and the gaping black hole stays hungry. Revenge isn’t about justice or moving forward or letting go: it’s is about clinging to a past that is set for eternity. It’s hanging on to the rock while you sink to the bottom of the ocean.

That friend that I eviscerated so long ago. I can look back on our argument, on what destroyed our relationship, and recognize that she had culpability there. I can recognize that I did, too. I can see what led up to it, that it wasn’t a single moment of loss. I can see the people around us, some of whom bore far more of the blame than she did. I said awful things to her, and had my revenge, and I still carry the scar of losing her and knowing that I can’t go back and undo it. Ever. Because she died a few years ago, a young woman, after I had not spoken to her in twenty years, after our lives had been apart far longer than they had been together.

Without knowing I was doing it, I wrote her this book. I didn’t intend it as either an apology or an explanation, but perhaps, on some level, it is both.

And for me at least, it’s also a reminder of how important it is to let go of the rock, and swim like mad for the light.

The Romance Thing

I actually wrote this a while ago, and tabled it. But here, on the cusp of the release of REMNANTS OF TRUST–which is also not a romance novel–it seemed like a good one to resurrect.


WARNING: This post contains spoilers for THE COLD BETWEEN, although if you’ve read any reviews, they’re probably spoilers you’ve already seen. Still: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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If you want to discuss genre, it’s probably closest to say that I write military SF (or possibly space opera).

But the first two chapters of THE COLD BETWEEN read very much like a romance novel. (You have to skip the prologue to get the full effect of that, which is part of why the prologue is there.) I always liked that about it. I like the idea of launching the story with an intimate and personal incident, something private between two people. Something nice.

Because boy, it runs off the rails pretty quickly. There’s not a ton of nice in this book, and I wanted to have a little bit of time when Elena could actually be happy and not angry and stressed out. I wanted to let people see the sort of person she was most of the time, the kind of person who could believably be someone’s best friend and trusted colleague.

And to me, it was very clear from the beginning that these two people weren’t going to have a life together.

Elena loves her career. Loves it. More than that, she loves living on a starship. She loves space and travel, and the sound of machines. It’s in her blood, and it gives her strength and comfort. Trey, on the other hand, loves his home planet. He has longed for home for decades. Even feeling ostracized by his fellow colonists, not to mention his own family, there’s a contentment he gets from being there that nothing else in his entire eventful, productive life has ever given him.

How can these people stay together? Spoiler: They can’t. And I wrote it that way on purpose.

Y’all know I’m no spring chicken. I’m 52 years old. I was nearly 38 when I got married. I have a couple of exes for whom I wish nothing but loneliness and unrelenting misery. (Pretty sure grudge-holding is my superpower.) And I have a couple with whom I would sit down for coffee, catch up, and listen with delight to what I hope are the lovely things that have happened to them since we parted.

Because for me, while love was not always Happily Ever After, it was also not always acrimony and bitterness. For me, as often as not, love was real, and nurturing, and not meant to last any longer than it did.

I wanted to write about that: the sort of truly loving relationship that ends not because of betrayal or foolishness, but because sometimes you’re not headed the same way as your partner, and that’s all right. You can be sad, and wish things were different, and still know that the best thing for both you and them is to part.

I love reading romance novels, but I didn’t write one. I enjoy happy endings, but sometimes the best choices life offers you don’t give you a Happily Ever After option, and it doesn’t mean your life is over or you have to be miserable. Or celibate. Or never fall in love again.

I wanted to write that kind of love story, because that kind of love has been part of my life, and I suspect I’m not alone.

There’s sadness in the ending. I love Elena and Trey together. They are so good for each other in so many ways. He helps her see shades of gray. She helps him choose happiness. I cried when I wrote their last scene together. It’s a sad thing, that their paths are so divergent.

But they do not belong together.

In its own way, this book does have a happy ending, despite the severing of Elena and Trey’s romance. The romance is a piece of the story, not the point of it. The point of it is a bunch of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. There’s mystery, and friendship, and mistrust, and misunderstanding, and lies, and explosions, and betrayal. Melodrama.

And if it’s enjoyed as such…that’s exactly what I intended.

Art vs. Commerce

There are two sides to this writing thing: the creative side, and the business side.

This is not news to anybody, right? It’s just that, based entirely on my own experience, I’m pretty sure not everybody knows what it means. sure as hell didn’t understand. Even now I’m only just beginning to see it. And it’s not a matter of missing facts. The facts are out there, and easy to find, and pretty basic, actually. But it’s not the same as living through it.

Two things happened this week that made me start thinking about this. The first was the #WhyIWrite tag that showed up on Twitter a few days back. I didn’t participate. Not because I don’t have an answer to that question — at this point in my life, it’s just a thing I do, like any other lifetime activity.

Not very profound, is it? Especially since there are some days when I’m really at a loss. Some days writing is hard, and uncomfortable, and it feels futile, and couldn’t I find something else to be just a thing I do?

Did you see that word futile in there? That suggests some discrete purpose that the writing is not fulfilling. So what does that mean? What am I not accomplishing that makes the word futile flit through my head? Why do I write? Never mind everything that came before — why do I write now?

It might be easier to ask what’s been making it a struggle. To that, I can only say…publishing is exposing. And yeah, that’s the point. But it’s sort of like rejection, in that I’m not sure it’s a thing anybody really understands until they experience it themselves.

Publishing a book is a commercial act. You’re putting something in front of the public, and hoping they’ll trade money for it (or take it out of the library, love it, and talk it up to their friends, who will then ask their own libraries to order it). You become like any other supplier in the capitalist system: you produce a Thing, which is worth what others are willing to pay for it. How much work you put into the Thing is entirely irrelevant. Markets are both dispassionate and mercurial. Whether the market is kind or not, you — if you want a career in Thing-making — need to create another Thing, and offer it up to the market again.

I did just that when I was in software. There were far more people between me and the market, but it was essentially the same idea: the development team produced software, and somebody on another team sold it. We all hoped it would sell well and demand would remain high, but in the meantime, it didn’t matter: we had to keep writing software, improving on what we’d already done, thinking of new software that would potentially sell, working to specs and schedules.

I’d never suggest that software can’t be art. But it isn’t art like writing is art. Software comes from problems that need solving. It can be elegant, beautiful, efficient, remarkable; but the precise implementation isn’t generally what gets exposed or critiqued.

By necessity, there is so much more of yourself made vulnerable with writing. In one sense, that’s the only thing that can make a story work: that core of personal truth in the center of the fiction. You’re holding up a part of yourself to the world, and saying, “You know?” And you’re hoping that there will be someone out there who reads it and says, “Oh, yes, I know.”

But whether or not you reach that person, you still have to sit down and write the next book. Because if you don’t, it won’t matter who you reach, because your writing career will be done. Whether or not you have that cosmic connection as motivation, you have to produce the next Thing.

And that is the intersection between commerce and art.

The other thing that happened this week was a conversation about query rejections. I remember query rejections, with all of the frustration and self-doubt they brought. My own querying experience was, in retrospect, not at all bad, but it was bad enough at one point for me to seriously consider just hanging it up and never writing again.

Today I can recognize the absurdity of that moment. Would I really have given up on writing if this one book could not find me an agent? Really? After writing all my life, with everything else bouncing around in my head waiting to get on the page? The failure of one manuscript would have killed my desire to do it?

I didn’t hang it up, but I came awfully close. And I suspect there are writers out there who do, indeed, give up.

There’s this myth with writing: that if you’re any good at all, you’ll produce a novel easily, you’ll find representation easily, you’ll sell it easily, it’ll be insanely popular and get only good reviews. Conversely, if it doesn’t work that way, it means you’re hopeless and should give up. It’s the talent means you don’t have to work at it myth. It’s not restricted to writing, and it’s utter bullshit.

Writing is a craft. This isn’t to say there’s no talent involved, but working with words requires thought and practice. It requires experimentation and failure, and it requires sticking with it when it’s not fun. And it’s something at which every writer, no matter how accomplished, can improve.

The talent myth leaves no room for craft, learning, or improvement.

I suspect there are far too many writers out there who gave up, despite what they might have produced in the future, because they were discouraged by the lack of instant success. I’m not talking about the people who cling to the idea that we’re all just too stupid to recognize their genius. (We all know these people, don’t we? They’re in pretty much every industry out there.) I’m talking about the people who take a rejection as more than what it is. Instead of seeing rejection as “I can’t sell this specific book,” they see it as “You will never be good enough, no matter how hard you work.”

Nobody in the business of writing is going to say that to anyone, because they can’t know that. When they reject, they’re not rejecting a body of work, or an entire writer, or that writer’s future. They are rejecting the work that’s offered. They don’t know the path the writer took to write it. They don’t know what the writer might produce tomorrow, or even what’s lurking on the laptop today. They don’t know anything about the writer at all. All they know is “I do not wish to buy this one piece of work.” And that’s it.

There is no one in the business of crushing ambitions. There are only people in the business of selling stuff. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they fall in love with books just like any other reader. They have to focus on commerce, yes — but for the most part, they want to sell what they love to read. If they don’t love your current thing, they may very well love your next one, or the one after that. You don’t know, and you can’t have a career if you don’t keep writing. Even — especially — when you get rejections.

I always talk about how lucky I’ve been, and it’s true. But I also work hard. I put words on the page. I revise. I kill my darlings (*sob*). I study the edits I’m given and swallow my pride and listen and learn about the story I want to write by working to be open to the ways I’m still getting it wrong.

And do you know, I think that’s #WhyIWrite: to improve. I love the craft of writing. I love reading something that was torturous for me to write, but reads as smoothly as the bits that were easy. I love working out what needs changing, what needs removing, what needs to be added. I love learning how to tell stories I want to tell, and the only way to do that is to keep writing.

So it seems the best way — for me, at least — to do the business of writing is to keep the business part as distant from the actual writing as I can. Hit my deadlines, yes. Know what I’m doing when I agree to new ones, and fulfill all obligations. Answer emails, interact with people, be positive and professional at all times. All of those things, of course. But mostly: write. All the time, write. With or without a contract, or feedback, or even a story goal: write.

Dispelling a Couple of Myths

Regardless of my newbieness, it turns out there’s one thing I do know about the publishing business, and it’s this: sometimes conventional wisdom is bullshit. I hear assertions from people that are downright startling, mostly because I’m a living counterexample. I’d hate to have people reluctant to push their baby novels out of the nest because they’re concerned about things that aren’t true.

So here’s a pair of things people sometimes say you need to worry about that you totally don’t need to worry about.

Myth #1: You need an MFA to publish fiction.

News flash: I do not have an MFA.

I don’t have a masters degree of any kind. I have two college degrees, one in math, and one in what was called interactive media design, which was basically graphic design for people who wanted to pick up a little HTML. (As I already knew HTML, that degree was much easier than the math degree.)

In fact, it’s only in recent years that I realized you could get a masters degree in creative writing. Based on the people I knew in college (back in dinosaur times), MFAs were mainly for art history majors. As paintings bored the daylights out of me, it never once entered my mind that acquiring an MFA was a thing I might actually enjoy doing.

I know better now, in a couple of ways. For one thing, as part of my media design degree, I took an art history course, and it was great fun. I learned more about religious history studying art than I ever did in actual history courses. (TL;DR: Humans don’t change. It’s both fascinating and horrifying.) One of the only textbooks I saved from that degree is my big fat gorgeous coffee-table art history book.

For another thing…wait, you can get an MFA in writing? I would probably have sold several chunks of my soul for that in my 20s, although I was also feeling some pretty strong pressure to get a job and have a Real Life. Given how well that went at the time…the MFA wouldn’t have been an awful idea. And I could have studied creative writing.

On the other hand, my college English courses were an exercise in frustration. I did well enough – I was able to churn out 5 pages on almost anything in just a few hours, which made the coursework pretty easy – but I never could shake the idea that literary criticism was just a bunch of people arguing about their opinions using big words. I was welcome to hate The Great Gatsby, as long as I could explain why. I could write about why I never wanted to read Faulkner again, as long as I argued it against the rich background of his life. It seemed like one long exercise in how to make smart people acknowledge that you’re allowed to disagree with them.

Am I doing a huge disservice to the field of literary criticism? Almost certainly. Then again, sometimes the damn curtains are just blue.

So yeah, I probably wouldn’t have been a great MFA candidate anyway, despite the theoretical coolness of the idea. I would have dragged my lazy brain through an MFA the same way I dragged it through college: reluctantly, with lower grades than I was capable of earning, and this nagging sense that I was wasting a spot that would have been better spent on someone with more enthusiasm.

I’m actually very glad I never heard the “you need to have an MFA, or at least a spot at Clarion” myth about getting published before I actually queried. I’d have never tried. The Book as it was at the time would have ended up self-published, and…well, really, I suspect I’d have been perfectly happy. But it would have been a different book, and a different series, and I’d have had a different career (if you can call four months of having a book in print a career).

But my long-winded point is this: No, you do not need an MFA. No, you do not need to be a graduate of an elite writing program. Yes, those things are marvelous, and if you want to do them and have the motivation and the wherewithal, then do them. It is never, ever a bad idea to study something that brings you joy, nor is it a bad thing to cultivate friends and professional contacts who understand the struggle you’re going through. But don’t go into it thinking If I don’t do this I will never, ever get published. Because that’s flat-out false, and no, it’s not just me.

Myth #2: You need to know someone to get an agent.

So, I don’t know anybody.

I’m a (now former) software engineer. I hung out with tech people for twenty-five years before I queried for an agent. What I knew about publishing (which, as I’ve since discovered, was close to eff-all) I had gleaned from reading posts on writing forums. And I didn’t even apply all of that knowledge.

Somewhere flying around I saw an agent say they acquired a little more than half of their clients through cold queries, and I was shocked it was that low. I had no idea that there was any other way to do it. I was stuck on (apparently) outdated conventional wisdom that said “Write a book, find agents who rep that type of book, and query them.” There was nothing about friends of friends or publishing contacts or you are doomed if you don’t know someone who lives in New York City.

I wrote a book. I had some friends read it. I made some changes. I wrote a query letter. I had some friends beat it with a stick. I made some changes to that, and I sent it out. It wasn’t the world’s fastest process, but this month will mark three years since I first spoke with my now-agent on the phone, and I have a book out.

(Let me tell you: In this business, three years is nothing. After the quarter-to-quarter life of writing software, this is mind-boggling to me.)

In those three years, I’ve met writers who have had more than one agent, or who have acquired agents by being recommended by other writers. So clearly it happens, and my ignorance of that side of the process doesn’t make it unreal. It may even help to know someone, but if I had to guess (didn’t I say I wouldn’t speculate? Oh, well) I’d say the only thing it helps with is if you have trouble writing effective query letters. Past that hurdle, you either have a book that particular agent believes they can sell, or you don’t. Same as the slightly-more-than-half of us who contact agents via cold queries.

(If you do have trouble writing effective query letters, go find Query Shark and read from start to finish. Then find a forum like Absolute Write and have your query critiqued by merciless strangers. It is worth it.)

My path to publication was no more or less conventional than anyone else’s. I don’t think any two writers have the same story. I wrote for more than 40 years before I took the time to figure out how to focus enough to actually complete a novel. On the other side of it, our local Barnes and Noble once had a signing for a book written by a 14-year-old girl. We all bash at it in different ways.

And we all get discouraged so easily. That’s just about the only commonality I’ve ever found among writers: we’re all one critique, one rejection, one bad review away from hanging it up and never venturing outside the safe bubble of keep your nose out of my notebook again.

Not to get all serious here, but there are classist implications to these two myths as well. I would have had the option to get an MFA. (I could do it now, economically at least; whether or not I could get accepted at a program is a different issue.) And I did, as it happened, have a cousin who was a published author. I knew people. I had money.

Not everybody knows people. Not everybody can afford a college degree, never mind an MFA. (And I don’t mean only financially; there’s a time investment there as well, and time is a luxury.)

How many stories do we lose? How many people just give up when they hear Oh, you need to have an MFA or nobody will talk to you at all? I see it on forums all the time: people discouraged because they don’t have the right background or the right contacts. And the people on the forums are the ones who still hold out a glimmer of hope, who are posting I know I’ll never get anywhere because I don’t know anyone in the business because they’re hoping someone will respond and tell them it’s bullshit.

For them, and for the ones who aren’t even hopeful enough to be pessimistic on a message board: it is bullshit. All of that stuff you think is going to keep anyone from taking you seriously is bullshit. Ignore it, and write the story anyway.

Who Are These People?

When I was pregnant, I had a picture in my head of what my daughter would be like.

She would be a reader, of course. (Not right away. Everyone thinks their child will be a genius, sure; but even I knew womb-to-library was probably a bit too much to expect.) She would be quiet and introspective and watchful, and spend a lot of time sitting cross-legged in a corner, her dark pigtails brushing the pages of the book she was reading. We’d have to repeat ourselves to get her attention. She would be polite and reserved, and everyone would remark about how well-behaved she was.

Please understand that, beyond babysitting as a teen, I’d never really had children in my life.

We were gifted, of course, with a bouncy, golden-haired hellraiser who wanted to see EVERYTHING and do EVERYTHING and touch EVERYTHING and had no intention of staying still, ever. She was a delight. She was a stranger. She was nothing that I had anticipated.

That’s how I felt about the book cover.

I don’t describe people much in my writing. This is largely because I rarely have strong pictures of them in my head. They are a collection of emotions and impulses and flaws and desires. They are voices. They talk to me. I don’t often see them. This is something I’ve worked on changing on the page; but even so, I tend to stick with general things, because in my head, I don’t have specifics.

So I had some trepidation about having someone put actual people on my book cover. And that was before I understood that I would be helping to choose who those actual people were. I did not know that cover artists, at least sometimes, work with real models.

I was asked to describe what I thought they would look like. I tackled all four POV characters, although we knew it was unlikely more than two of them would appear on the cover. Then, of course, came the task of finding models who looked “right.”

And wasn’t that weird.

Elena, it turns out, was pretty easy. My editor found someone perfect very quickly; my daughter looked at the model’s picture and said “She looks like she’s in charge.” (I look at the book cover sometimes when I’m having a rough day, and imagine that woman saying “GET BACK TO WORK, LIZ.” She would never let the vaguaries of real life skew her focus.)

Trey was more difficult, which was interesting, because long after I’d written the book I actually saw Trey in a movie. So describing Trey was pretty easy: Asian, of Chinese or Mongolian descent, muscular, black hair, dark eyes, mustache. (I left off the tattoos; but really, you should add them in your imagination when you read.)

That was not the difficult part. The difficult part was his age. Because it seems that in addition to seeing characters as Caucasians unless (and often even if) you’re explicit about it, readers will also see young people.

I’m not cagy in the book about Trey’s age. It’s in Chapter 1. It’s referred to throughout the text. It is, in a way, a plot point. The models I got were handsome Asian men of about 30. I pointed out the discrepancy, and there was a moment of “Oh. I didn’t realize he was THAT old.” The model we ended up with is still younger than Trey, but he could plausibly be Trey’s age. (Or perhaps I onlly think so because I chose him.)

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that anyone over the age of 40 is, in one fashion or another, Grandpa Simpson. (“But we don’t mean you, Liz!” I hear you shout. Which is fine. So since Trey is, in point of fact, an aspect of me, y’all can grandfather him in as well.)

So after the models were chosen, I got to see them drawn as my characters. And that…that was strange. Because they were my characters, but they weren’t. They weren’t the people I’d had in my head, but at the same time, they were right.

My mother has taken some remarkable photographs of my daughter. She captures moments, expressions, things that fly by in real life and don’t leave the same impression. Strangers would look at some of those photographs, and look at my daughter, and have a hard time believing they’re the same person. I see it because I know her so well, and because that evocative snapshot is an aspect of her, albeit usually a fleeting one.

I feel the same way about the people on the book cover. They don’t look like my characters…but they do. One snapshot, one moment, one emotion, frozen. In this moment, I forgive them for being more beautiful than they are. Every mother likes lovely pictures of her children.

It is an emotional experience seeing an image in your mind made real, concrete, fixed. There’s a weird sort of letting go that has to happen: These are the people your readers will see when they turn the page. I did the best I could to choose faces that would make that as close to the experience in my head as I could get.

And I’m lucky, really, that we started with these two characters. Other characters will be harder for me to see visualized. I’m less emotionally entangled with Elena and Trey. I am caught between being very curious to see what we could come up with for the others, and feeling deeply protective toward them. Elena and Trey – well, they can fend for themselves, can’t they? I look at the book cover, and I think they’ve done rather well.

With endless, heartfelt thanks to Chris McGrath, who brought Elena and Trey to life so beautifully.

The Cold Between book cover

Don’t they look nice?