Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Seventh Deadly Sin for Writers

Today we come to the last, and most powerful, of the seven deadly sins for writers:


Fear is the most dangerous vice of all. Fear stops nine of ten writers dead in their tracks before the first word is written. Fear will cause a writer to put away her manuscript the first time she runs into a plot problem she can’t solve or a character who seems wooden. Fear will rob a writer of her dream the first time someone confirms– or appears to confirm– what she has always secretly believed to be true: that her book is no good.

The problem is that you can’t be a writer without fear. Writers live in a constant state of fear. Those who make friends with fear will win the race. Those who do not will never even leave the start line.

Fear of failure keeps you going back to that manuscript until you get it right; fear of rejection keeps you sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher in the desperate hope that someone, somewhere will give you a chance; fear of losing– your time, your faith in your story, your belief in yourself and even your train of thought!– is what keeps you sitting in front of your monitor every day until you get it right, and then coming back the next day to face that same fear again. The fear of dying with his song yet unsung is the motivating force behind most writers. Fear is your strongest ally, and your deadliest enemy. The difference can be found in whether you use the fear, or let the fear use you.

So if the definition of courage is to be afraid, and do it anyway... Do it anyway.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Sixth Deadly Sin for Writers


Or, "It’s good enough."

Laziness, believe it or not, is more closely akin to defeat than it is to arrogance, singularity or ignorance. Laziness is usually justified by "Oh, what the hell? No one is ever going to read it anyway."

Laziness refuses to tweak that one scene that just doesn’t make sense, to rewrite Chapter Five even though it clearly has nothing to do with the rest of the book as it stands, to do the final read-through, to rewrite the last sentence one more time. Laziness won’t waste time or paper printing out a draft for proof-reading, or run the spell checker more than once. Laziness doesn’t show, but tells, resolves plot dilemmas with thinly-disguised twists from last week’s CSI: Miami, sets his stories in his home town so he doesn’t have to research other locations, writes cartoon sketches of characters because he can’t be bothered to delve into what really makes people interesting .

Laziness doesn’t read– his own genre, other people’s genres, the best seller list, the trades, or even blogs posted by experts in his profession. Laziness says, "He got away with it, why can’t I?"

Laziness stops writing when the book is "good enough."

Laziness is deadly.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Deadly Sin for Writers #5


Otherwise known as "He got a 2 million dollar advance for that?"

Make no mistake about it, friends: envy will slap you down, immobilize you, eat you alive. Envy is everywhere. Envy says, "I don’t know why I have to do three different rewrites when everything Famous Writer X publishes reads like it was written by a third grader with a learning disability." Envy says, "I guess the reason Writer Y gets all the great covers is because she’s sleeping with the Art Director." And, "My books are so much better than X’s, Y’s and Z’s, but they get all the attention and I can’t even get paid!" The truth is, publishing is a capricious business and readers are oftentimes a fickle lot. Maybe everything your envious little heart tells you is nothing more or less than the truth. So? And what does that get you?

Write better.

Write more.

Move on.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Deadly Sin for Writers #4

We are on Day Four of my list of the Seven Deadly Sins for Writers, and this is one of my favorites. I could have written volumes on this particular subject, but, you know, brevity is a virtue.

As hard as it may be to believe, ignorance is a vice that afflicts our industry more often than you might imagine. It may have to do with the proliferation of mass media, particularly the Internet, and the belief that if you can post a comment to a blog, send a Tweet, or set up a Facebook page, you can write a book. What truly amazes me is that with such an abundance of legitimate information out there on the subject of writing and publishing-- the numerous agent, publisher and writer blogs, the hundreds of books written on the subject, not to mention the online writing courses offered-- so few people actually bother to research and/or educate themselves in the profession they want to join. I recently scanned through a thread on the "literature" section of a social networking site in which a young man was asking for help in finding a publisher for the book he was "thinking of writing"– in all lower case letters, with three words misspelled. The true tragedy of this post was that in the 46 replies I read , no one pointed out the obvious to him. 1)Learn to spell 2)Learn to write 3)Learn your craft.

And before you look for a publisher, you might, ahem, actually want to write a book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Seven Deadly Sins For Writers: #3

Today's deadly sin for writers is:

Sometimes known as stubbornness, inflexibility, or self-importance

This writer is easy to spot. He has a Vision that he refuses to compromise (never mind that no one else is at all interested in reading about that vision). He has a Style that is all his own (and completely incomprehensible). His words are a pure and unmitigated expression of Himself (which is, unfortunately, painfully obvious). This writer never takes a class because he has nothing to learn. He refuses to hire an outside editor or coach for fear his words will be tampered with. He never bothers to read the query or submission instructions on agents’ or publishers’ web sites because those kinds of mundanities do not apply to him. He will never take a suggestion for revision because of the afore-mentioned Vision. And he will never be published.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Second Deadly Sin for Writers

Welcome back to my series on The 7 Deadly Sins of Writers. Yesterday we talked about Arrogance. Here is today's topic:

a.k.a. "I deserve more than this!"

Well, don’t we all? Avarice, when used in reference to a writer, has a slightly different meaning that it might for the average person. While a greedy person is commonly assumed to be seeking more than his share, a greedy writer usually spends his career just trying to get enough. Enough money, enough attention, enough promotion, enough marketing, enough books printed to actually earn out his advance. The problem with this affliction is that it, too, is self-destructive, and after a time it becomes such a way of life that even the writer doesn’t know how much is enough.

Here’s the thing: if you think you deserve more, get better at what you do. And if you still think you deserve more, you’re probably right. And you’re in the wrong business.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins for Writers

Pages written since last post: 5

This week is Graduation Day for my summer writing class (an extraordinarily talented group of people if I do say so myself) and as always I’ ve been searching for a inspirational speech, some weighty last words with which to send them off into the cold harsh world of publishing. I finally decided that in these uncertain times what is needed is a call to the Straight and Narrow Path, and devised this warning against falling prey to the seven deadly sins for writers (I was going to call it The Seven Deadly Sins of Beginning Writers, but then realized how many of them I’ve been guilty of, myself!). Over the next week I’ll be blogging about a different writer’s vice. Do any of them sound familiar to you writers out there?

Here is Deadly Sin Number One:


Also known as the you-won’t-believe- what- I-can-do or the I’m-the-best-that’s-ever-been syndrome, arrogance is often considered more of a survival tool for writers than it is a sin. Anyone who has actually written (much less had accepted for publication) a book is already one in several thousand, and he has a right to be proud. He also runs the risk of seeming very much like the new mother who believes she is the only one to have ever given birth. A quiet walk around a medium-sized bookstore is the generally accepted cure for a writer afflicted with arrogance, but for those die-hards who refuse to believe that their masterpiece is not the most extraordinary accomplishment ever to grace mankind, we may all rest assured: the arrogant writer rarely writes more than one book. Publishers find his demands outrageous, editors refuse to work with him, agents erase his e-mail from their address books. Because he is far too important to promote his book to anyone other than the major broadcast networks(who, for some reason, never got the memo that The Best Book Ever Written was about to be published) his sales plummet and his contract is not renewed.

Arrogance is, indeed, its own reward .

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Good Book Year

Pages written since last post: Are you freakin' kidding me?

I’m not sure if everyone has heard, but this country is experiencing an economic downturn. The publishing industry is experiencing a full-on melt down. Fortunately for readers, the great, cumbersome, archaic beast that is publishing moves exceedingly slowly (think: Ice Age), so the effects of today’s economy may be felt in, oh, 2012 or beyond. Meanwhile, we are having a PAAAAR....TY! I say again, Woooooo!

Look at what just arrived on my doorstep:

Pat Conroy’s SOUTH OF BROAD . His first book in– can it be??– fourteen years. It had better be good.
, his first since Pulitzer Prize winning EMPIRE FALLS . Again, no pressure there.

. This is one of the few authors that I collect. She doesn’t publish every year, but I’ve never met a Kingsolver book I didn’t love.

Margaret Maron’s SAND SHARK. What can I say? I love the Judge Knott mysteries, which are set just up the road from me in North Carolina. Thank you for publishing this year!

And, already making my hit list:

THE RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick.
The opening scene of this book has to be the quintessential example of building dramatic tension: The train is late. Why? Because our hero ordered a mail-order bride. Why? Because he wanted sex. Dark, hot,writhing-in-the-night sex. Now the whole town is staring at him. Because the train is late. Because his bride is traveling by private car, which made the train late. He has an image to uphold. But the train is late. And it’s all his fault. Because he wanted sex. Meanwhile, his mail-order bride is tossing her prostitute-garments out the window and assuming the demeanor of a Reliable Wife. And if you think that’s the only twist, boy are you in for a surprise or two! Well done, well done.

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may be my favorite book of the year, perhaps the decade. But it does inspire me to give a seminar on choosing titles. I have never once recommended this book to anyone by its correct title– hint, hint to the author/publisher for future projects. Otherwise, I was utterly and completely enchanted, from opening sentence to last. I simply loved this book.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. I grew up in the South in the 1960s. My mother did not have Help, but my grandmothers did. I thought I knew both sides of the story. I didn’t have a clue. THE HELP was deeply disturbing, heartwarming, enlightening, brave. I was changed, having read it.

HANDLE WITH CARE by Jodi Picoult. What can I say? Every time I read Jodi Picoult I say that this book will be my last. Her books are formulaic, predictable, and absolutely irresistible. Jodi Picoult has the courage to ask the hard questions: What if the only way you could get the money you needed to care for your special-needs child was to swear in court that you wished she had never been born? I say, You go, girl!

I have only skimmed the surface of my extraordinary book year (so far) but want to close with an homage to Blake Snyder, who passed away far too young this year. His book SAVE THE CAT is a guide to dramatic form that was the result of his outrageously successful career as a screenwriter and, in my opinion, will never be surpassed. If you have ever cast a wistful eye toward a career as a story teller, this is the book you need to start with.

And, guys– you won’t BELIEVE what’s coming this fall!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Writing Fever

Pages written since last post: 297

I have just written an entire book (yes!with words and everything!) in 62 days. Do you know that wonderful scene in Romancing the Stone in which Kathleen Turner finishes her latest masterpiece, blubbering like a baby (and searches all over the apartment for tissue, paper towels, toilet paper, anything on which to blow her nose but of course there is nothing because she hasn’t left her desk in weeks, perhaps months)? The average movie-viewer thinks that she’s crying because she’s so caught up in the beauty of her work. The average writer knows she’s crying because she is undergoing a complete meltdown due to a) sleep deprivation b)starvation and/or dehydration c)she knows (or believes) she’ll never have a high like this again.

This is what I call Writing Fever. It is a rare degenerative disorder that affects only the most talented, the most brilliant, and the most dedicated of our kind. It happens when the writer gets so caught up in the passion for his book that he is writing pages almost faster than he can read them. It is not a sustainable state, and it has absolutely no relationship to how good (or sellable) his opus might be. There is no cure. There is only management. But, oh my, when it strikes you, there really is no choice but to hold on tight and ride it through.

Here are my guidelines for surviving a bout of writing fever:

1) Don’t fight it. It may never happen again.
2) Lay in a stash of bottled water. Yes, I know that walking all the way to the kitchen will disrupt the flow, so keep it by your desk. People have died from less,
3)Try, at least once a week, to have a dinner more nutritious than Chex mix and wine spritzers. I know it’s hard to swallow with all that adrenaline surging through your veins. Try protein drinks. If you can manage it, a 250-calorie Lean Cuisine meal or a microwaved veggie burger will keep you going till midnight.
4)Every two hours, stand up. This is not optional. You may recall one of our vice-presidents suffered an embolism that was directly attributed to his remaining immobile on a long flight– and he didn’t even have the stress of writing a book! So stand up, walk around the room– and then succumb once again to the magnet- pull of the keyboard.
5)Don’t neglect your friends and family. Of course they have no place in your universe right now, of course they haven’t the faintest inkling of what you’re going through, but, as hard as it may be to believe at the moment, one day you’re going to need them again. So the next time you open up your browser to Google “everyday life in a Tibetan monastery” or “flight times from Amsterdam to New York”, send them an e-mail. “I love you. Please be patient.” are time-honored classics.
6)Exercise. Oh, what the hell– plenty of time for that when you finish the book.
7) Don’t lose perspective. Just because you are so caught up in the magnificence of this story that you can’t sleep, eat, drink or breathe anything else doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to your agent, editor or reader (although, I have to admit, it’s a pretty good sign). Take a few days after you write “the end” to step away. Go back to it with a clear eye. See what you’ve written. It’s absolutely fantastic, isn’t it? Yes, yes, yes, the best book ever, destined to be a bestseller, to change the world of literature forever, never will this degree of excellence be achieved again... but I digress.
8) Give yourself time to grieve. It’s over. You’ve been to Jupiter and back, but now you must live again in the world of mortals. They have no clue what you have accomplished; they can’t begin to relate to your struggles. Pity them. Because they also will never know your joy.

And... wait for it. The idea. The speeding heartbeat. The burst of inspiration. Could it be...

The fever has struck again?