Growth

As I prepare to start what will hopefully be the fourth and final draft of my novel, I can't help but marvel at how far I've come.  I really have grown as a writer.  More than I thought I would.   And so, based on my own bumps and learning curves and trials and tribulations, here are my 12 best tips for anyone looking to improve their own writing skills (whether you write fiction or something else):

12)   Don't use twenty words when five will do.  But by the same token, don't sacrifice for tone for conciseness.

11)  Don't overstate and don't state the obvious.  Keep your prose clean and tight, and trust that your readers will get it.

10)  Good writing is all about rewriting.  Hardly anything's perfect the first time around. And that's okay.

9) With every project, set a quota and commit to it.  Even if you only write for two hours a day one day a week, you'll still accomplish more than you thought possible when you look back at your work a month or year from now.

8) Ask for feedback and really listen to what people have to say.  Carefully consider all opinions, even the ones you think are off base at first impression.  But also...

7) ... Trust yourself to know what feedback to apply and what to discard.  You're the only person who can decide what will work and what won't.

6)  It's okay to take breaks and do something else if you're stuck.  The work will still be there when you get back, and you'll be amazed at what fresh eyes can spot.

5)  It's okay to write out of sequence.   You can organize it later (I often write endings before I write middles).  With writing, what matters is the final product, not how you got there.   Every writer's process is unique.

4)  To be a writer – regardless of what you write – you have to be a reader.  No way around it.  Carve out time for reading the same as you would for writing.

3)  Network with other writers.  Their successes will inspire you and they give the most practical advice.  And since writing is a lonely craft, socialize as often as you can.

2)  There are general rules for writing well.  Learn every single one of them so you'll know how – and when – to break them.

1)  Stay true to your work.  Readers can sniff out inauthentic writing from fifty feet away.  Don't write "darn" when "fuck" is better.  And don't ever write "fuck" if you're writing for kids.

Wonders never cease

Out of the thirty-four birthday greetings I received on Saturday (yes, I counted for the purposes of this blog post), exactly four were phone calls.

Welcome to the era of the Facebook phenomenon.  Sixty zillion friends on your Facebook friends list, but how many of them do you actually know?  And care about?  Lumped together like peas in a casserole dish, no one person any more distinct than any other, with relationships built on poking, picture commenting, wall posts and, if you're lucky, an actual Inbox message.

A notifier on our Facebook home page tells us when it's someone's birthday.  Convenient, yes.  Easy, too.  And so very lovely when a Facebook buddy actually clicks on your profile and leaves you a thoughtful message.  I'm truly touched and grateful to all the folks who noticed it was my birthday and took the time to wish me well.

But yet, I have to admit it's sad to be wished a Happy Birthday via a social networking site by people I've loved and stayed close friends with for years.  Now that feels wrong.  Especially when you have my number and have used it many times in the past.

It's also the era of the BlackBerry phenomenon.  A BlackBerry has a phone feature that's almost an afterthought.  It pings nicely, but has nothing of real value to say.  I've had entire conversations take place over arduous and thumb-cramping texting, despite the fact that both parties involved have perfectly good long distance plans.  Ridiculous when you think about it.  And even more disheartening when someone who's got your phone number programmed into their phone opts to message you a Happy Birthday instead of calling. Calling would require one button to push.  You'd think it would be easier.

But I'm guilty, too.  As charged, on all counts.  So this, I must acknowledge, is karma.

I got seven times the Facebook birthday greetings than I did phone calls on Saturday.  It was depressing as hell, and I don't blame anyone but myself.  It's my fault, for letting technology take the place of real life.  Somehow I've let perfectly wonderful and intimate relationships slide into something I can fit into the palm of my hand.  I've allowed relationships rich with history to morph into two-fingered typing.  So it's no wonder hardly anyone thought to call.  I haven't set a very good example, and if my feelings are hurt, it's my own damned fault.

I really miss hearing your voice.  Don't you miss hearing mine?  And if you don't, what the hell does that say about us?

Happy birthday

Birthdays, for me, are always a time for contemplation.

And this next one's a doozy.  I thought 30 was bad.  But come this Saturday, August 22, I'll be 35.  THIRTY-fucking-FIVE.  Now before all you over-40's get mad at me, I ain't sayin' that's old. But you have to admit it ain't exactly young, either.

I had plans for age 35.   Didn't you?  Don't we all have some kind of internal timeline for the things we're supposed to have accomplished, a list we carry around silently, a checklist of sorts we formulated long ago when we were teenagers dancing in our bedrooms to The Cure and Depeche Mode?   I know I do.  To name a few:

Snag hot boyfriend.  This one's been on my list for as long as I can remember.  I checked it off at ages 17 and 18 (do I sound smug?), but of course, the boyfriend I got at 18 is the one that matters. (Steve reads my blog.)

Graduate high school.  Check, but barely. I nearly killed myself in my last year trying to play catch up after a series of high school mishaps, but I did it. On time.

Get a degree.   Check... sort of.  I actually have two degrees, just not the one I really wanted.

Get married.  Check.  (I married my hot boyfriend.)

Have kids.  No check.  Hasn't happened yet and I'm way behind schedule.  (Insert annoying sound of buzzer.)

Figure out my life.  No check.  This hasn't happened, either.  (Insert annoying sound of buzzer again.)

Do something amazing and immortalizing by the time I'm 35.  (Sound of buzzer one last time, doubly long and doubly annoying.)  Um, yeah.  Not even close.

I've talked often with my friends about The Timeline and I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one who's disappointed with the detours life has taken.  Some deviations were beyond my control and some were simply bad decisions for which I can only blame myself.  But the only real regret I have is that at some point along the way, I stopped trusting my instincts.

There was a point when I was a kid, maybe I was 13 or so, when I never doubted who I was going to grow up to be.  When it never occurred to me that I wouldn't get everything I wanted, and that life wouldn't work out exactly as planned.

But as I got older, external forces seemed to chip away at that belief.  Illusions turned into disillusions, and faith turned into doubt.  Hope morphed into cynicism, and reality got in the way of dreams.

And now, as I approach 35, I look back at the past three and half decades and am filled with regret that I didn't do the things I really wanted.  I took the advice of too many people with "good intentions" who believed they knew me best.  I took the path most traveled one too many times. I cast shadows over my own vision for my life, and focused only on my short term desires without ever contemplating the big picture.

And, somewhere along the way, I stopped listening to me.

I stopped writing, for one.   Life got busy and I quit making time for it.  I decided that shit jobs at Suzy Shier and Hopedale Video and CallStream Communications and Minroc Mines Inc. were all more important than putting pen to paper.  Big mistake.  As a result, my writing skills are about fifteen years behind where they could be had I stuck with it.   I will forever regret this, even if the stories I write now do require fifteen years' worth of life experience to make them worth reading.

But regrets cease to be helpful once you've learned from them.  And I have learned.   I really have.

And so my lessons for the coming year?  Learning to forgive myself and move forward.

Happy birthday to me.

Karma police

There's someone in one of my writing groups – who shall remain nameless – who offends me.  For the sake of ease, I'll refer to this person as a "he" (though "he" could be a "she").

In any case, this dude's an asshole, his critiques are mean, and on the writer's forum we both belong to, he's kind of a dick there, too.

There are two kinds of people in the world I can't stand.  People who are assholes for the sake of being assholes, and people who are bullies.  This guy is both.  His crits are unnecessarily harsh, even borderline cruel, and he doesn't seem to add much to any of the conversations he's engaged in.  Simply put, he's inflammatory.  He's condescending and his crits are nitpicky and unhelpful.  He critiques with the assumption that you had a brain fart, that you couldn't possibly have phrased your sentence that way intentionally, that you couldn't possibly have meant your characters to do that when surely they should have done this.

He's making me want to quit my writing group.

I realize that in any group setting there's going to be mix of different personalities and temperaments.  Different opinions, different agendas, different goals.  It would be boring if we all wrote in the same genre and all read the same kinds of books and all had the same opinions on everything.  Dissonance can be a great learning experience.   But the ultimate purpose of a writing group is to help each other become better writers, through open and honest discussion.  Without insults.  Without pettiness.  Without condescension.  Same as you'd expect in any other relationship.

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in manners.  Politeness.  Sensitivity.  And, above all, respect.

His novel is out on submission now and I can't lie when I say a part of me hopes he won't get published.  But that's bad karma, I know.  Putting vibes like that out into the universe might result in them boomeranging right up your own ass.  I've seen it happen and I don't recommend it.

So I'll send this message out instead:  May he get what he deserves.  Whatever that may be.

Blurry eyes

I forgot how much I hate spreadsheets.  They make my eyes dry.  To think I used to work with them all day... no wonder my vision's regressed, even after having laser eye surgery in 2002.

I've spent the last few days working on a list of literary agents and staring at columns and rows that instantly blur together if I forget to blink.  I've got 180 names so far.   Gee, and I was hoping for 50.  Who knew so many agents represented – or are interested in representing – thrillers?  Obviously this is good news for me – the more agents I have to query, the better my chances of signing with someone.  I'm now sorting them into categories called (most originally, I might add) "A", "B", and "C".   This is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires a lot of research.  Very loosely:

A's are the agents I'd kill for.  Those with lots of experience, tons of publishing contacts, and a long list of bestsellers under their belts.

B's are the agents I'd be happy with, but maybe don't have the exact right background.

C's are the agents I'd still be glad to work with, but am not sure would be great fit.  But still worth querying, because you never know.

Note that the above categories have nothing to do with competence.  Obviously I wouldn't put anybody on any of my lists who wasn't competent.   But to decide whether an agent is right for me, it requires a very thorough background check.

First I check their profiles in AgentQuery and Writer's Market to see what types of books they're looking for.  No point in querying someone who doesn't represent thrillers.   Most agents are very specific about the projects they're willing to market.

I also need to know what their submission guidelines are.  Some agents just want a brief (250-word) query letter via email only.  Others want a query, a detailed synopsis, a resumé, and the first 50 pages double-spaced with one-inch margins in 12-point Courier font with your name and book title in every page header, snail mailed.  Don't forget to include the self-addressed stamped envelope for when they reject you.  And, of course, everything in between.

Then I'm checking their individual websites for their biographies.  What's their background?   How are they qualified to be literary agents?   Which authors do they currently represent?

Publisher's Marketplace (a site I pay $20/month to use) tells me all about their publishing deals dating back to the year 2000.  Which editors at which publishing houses they've sold to.  And, of course, for how much. $10,000? $100,000?  This stuff is good to know.

Finally, I read third party reviews to see what other writers think.  AbsoluteWrite (the writer's forum I belong to) has long discussion threads on almost every agent, and thank God for that.  I've dropped agents from A's to B's because of reports of terrible communication skills and even rudeness (the fact that they're even on my list attests to my hope that they'll be better with me).  Preditors & Editors and Writers Beware are excellent sites dedicated to exposing scammers and fraudulent behaviour, so I check those, too.

Totally exhausting and mind-numbing work, but there's no way around it.  I really do want to find the perfect agent.  This is my book, my career, my dream.  Don't I have the right to want someone amazing?  Because if by some miracle I find that perfect agent, hopefully I'll never have to look for one again.

So what am I looking for in a literary agent, anyway?

Ideally, I want someone with a lot of experience, who has a strong sales record in my genre and who has a genuine interest in helping me become a career writer.  It's also important that he/she is genuinely excited to work with a new author.  I'm surprised at how many agents seem to only want to work with published authors.  (And my question is:  Where do they expect to find these published authors?  Wouldn't most of them already have agents?  Are they hoping to snag someone who's not happy with their current agent?)

Which doesn't mean I wouldn't be glad to work with someone newer.  Someone who's young and ambitious with lots of energy can be a good thing, too.  Never underestimate hunger.

Above all, I want someone I click with.  Publishing is a business, but writing is personal to me.  I couldn't imagine going through this process (also known as Query Hell amongst writers) if I wasn't passionate about writing.   And you can't be passionate about something that isn't personal.

High hopes, I know.  But not high expectations.  There is a difference.

Panic

I'm staring at the 2010 edition of Writer's Market and trying to not to freak out.   It's an 1,176-page monstrosity filled with publishing and literary agency info.

A year ago, I started writing Creep. Now I'm going to be looking for an agent to represent the damned thing. I know this is part of the process, but I'm thisclose to fainting from fear. In a few weeks the rejections will start pouring in.  Can I handle that?

Writing the book suddenly seems like the easy part.   The fun part.  This next step is almost too horrible to contemplate.  Because I'll be asking perfect strangers what they think of my work.  And yeah, I've done that before in my writing classes and with my writing groups, but those folks were obligated to help me improve.  Their criticism was supposed to be constructive.  And they really couldn't be too mean lest they risk my wrath in return. Unlike agents, who have no stake in my success or failure at all, and will either love my work or hate it.  No in between.  No gray areas.   Just Yes or NoYou Rock or You Suck.   Send Me The Manuscript or Fuck Off Forever.

Okay, I know they won't really tell me to fuck off, but trust me, when someone doesn't like what you write, it feels like they've said exactly that, no matter how honey-coated the rejection.

I'm trying to take a deep breath but it hurts.

So it begins...

Control freak

You can always tell I've been writing when my desk is neat.

It's when I'm not writing that my space is disorganized.

I can't put a word to a page without first paying all our bills, ensuring every book on my shelf is in alpha order according to the author's last name, and the house is reasonably clean.  Yes, house.  As in, the entire house, kitchens and bathrooms included.

Something about a messy space distracts me.  Last month, when I couldn't seem to get motivated after New York, I looked around and realized I could see lint on the carpet.  I could see dust on our wood furniture.  I could see paw prints on the windows.  It suddenly hit me that it had been a couple of weeks since I'd really cleaned, and it was unbelievably distracting.  So I spent an entire day cleaning the hell out of the place.  And anyone who knows me at all knows that when I clean, I mean business.  It's not about neatening things up. It's not about rearranging loose stacks of paper into esthetically appealing piles.  It's about spraying, wiping, and sucking every speck of dirt – visible or otherwise – into oblivion.  It's about throwing everything unnecessary into a garbage bag. I'm not a pack rat, never have been.

Once I got the house looking and smelling rosy, I was able to work.

Can you say:  Control freak?

See also: Anal retentive.

(Clearly I'm reading Pahlaniuk right now...)

It's gotten to the point where I don't even nag Steve do stuff around the house.  I ask him once, it gets done.  He knows it's not worth the argument. It also helps that if I need something done, I let him know days in advance.  I learned a long time ago that he doesn't share my sense of immediacy when it comes to home cleanliness.  Men don't like to be told to vacuum the stairs when they're watching baseball.  Carpet lint just doesn't hold the same importance as the Blue Jays.

Creativity, for me, springs from a happy place.   A secure place.  A feeling that I am loved.  And, most importantly, a feeling that I'm in the driver's seat, and not just a passenger content to watch through slightly tinted windows as the world rushes by.  I write best when my house is clean, my husband is happy, our finances are under control, and there's a fridge full of food.  Everything has to jive... or nothing jives.

There's no in between.

It's a lot of pressure to put on myself, I know.  To keep everything perfect and balanced just so I can work.

Can you say:  Perfectionist?

See also:  Unrealistic.

Because nobody's perfect all the time.  And if the success of my writing depends on my ability to keep my life perfect, I'm in big trouble.

The words get in the way

I'm trying to expand my vocabulary.

I suspect my range of words is shamefully limited.  And I don't think it's improved much in the past couple of years, mainly because I write the way I speak.  I have a very conversational writing style – which works mighty well for blogging and non-fiction – but since I tend not to drop big words into my real-life conversations, I don't do it much in my work.

But I often worry my conversational style is too informal to be taken seriously.  I once read a scathing review for a novel where the writer allegedly used only "simple" words – and the critic didn't mean this in a good way.  And it wasn't a young adult novel or a book written by a mentally challenged person.  Like, ow, dude!  I'd die if someone said my work was "simple".  It'd be hard not to take that personally.

However, there's got to be a fine line between sounding smart and sounding pretentious.  Nobody likes reading stuff that requires a dictionary.

So I made a list of words that I'm determined to somehow use in my current novel, Magnolia.  No idea if this is possible, but I'm going to try.  Here we go.

Jenny's List Of Cool, Writerly Words Intended To Make Me Seem Smart:

obfuscate
disingenuous
hyperbole
proselytize
hubris
obtuse
ennui
quagmire
erudite
sanguine
fecklessness

Now, I have no doubt that all of you are familiar with these words and can define every single one of them if I asked you to, and use them properly in a sentence.  So can I, and that's not my point here.  The point is try to incorporate these words into a fictional story in a way that sounds natural, either for the purposes of narrative or dialogue.  And that's not so easy for me to do. I mean, when's the last you said the word hyperbole out loud? Me?  Never.  And while the word proselytize sounds comfortable to my ears, I can't recall a time when I've actually used it in conversation.

If you have any more cool, writerly words to add to my list – and they must be reasonable, not words that only a doctor, scientist, or lawyer would know – then please let me know.  Not saying I'm going to use them (they have to work in the story), but trying to make them work would be a worthy exercise.

Challenge me!