We Interrupt this writing session to let you know…that I’m writing

Okay, I admit it. I’m a bad writer. Or I have been, lately. My afternoons (aka my writing time) have been mostly filled for the last few weeks with revising my manuscript, working on my query and synopsis, submitting, and some days, things that have embarrassingly little to do with writing. But not with real, raw writing. I know I can be forgiven for that. At least, I hope I can. But today I thought, “I need to write again,” but I needed a break from my current project. I have another one that’s been tugging at me, but I didn’t know where to start. I generally don’t do much pre-writing; my style just doesn’t work that way. But for this project, it seemed necessary to play. To feel around in my characters and let them do things not related to the plot for a little bit until I’m ready to ruin their lives, er, I mean, tell their story.

So I opened a Word doc, and wrote one paragraph.

And I experienced what can only be described as what coffee drinkers feel when they have their first shot of espresso for the day. Probably. I don’t drink coffee. But you know what I’m talking about. The kind of excitement that’s so wonderful you just have to tell someone. You just want to jump on the couch Tom Cruise-style and scream, “I’m writing again!” You’re getting your hands dirty with words and it feels so amazing.

That, I think, is what being a writer is all about. Getting through the days where the thought of writing fills you with dread until you finally hit that day where just writing a few sentences makes you want to take out an ad in the paper to let people know.

Even if you’re not writing today, I hope you’re doing something that makes you breathe happy!

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YOU Should be Reading

I feel like the importance of reading if you want to be a writer can’t be over-emphasized. I feel like as much as we hear it on our writing journeys, we could always hear it one more time. So this is my contribution battle cry to any skeptical writers out there: you need to be reading.

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I wanted to devote a whole post to it, because I’ve met an alarming number of people who want to be writers but don’t want to be readers.

In college, I had the opportunity to attend a panel of writers that included Stephen King. He had edited a collection of short stories and the other panelists were writers whose work appeared in the collection. They were all wonderful, but for the most part the other writers were younger and had thus far shorter careers than King. At one point an audience member asked if the panel had any advice for aspiring writers. The other panelists gave lengthy, heartfelt answers, but King leaned forward into the microphone and said, very quickly, “Read a lot and write a lot.”

It must have seemed pretty callous compared to the other answers, but it was my favorite. I don’t remember what the other panelists said, but I remember not only what he said, but how he said it. I could tell he was both expecting and dreading that question. I could tell he’d been asked it countless times before. And I could tell that he was used to people not believing him when he said it was god advice.

I think it was the best piece of advice I heard that night. Maybe the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard in terms of writing. But I’m constantly meeting people who don’t believe me, particularly the part about reading. The writing part seems sound enough, but the reading…they’re not so sure. I can understand their skepticism. I’m just a twentysomething with very little published writing and no published novels to my name. If they’re not going to believe Stephen King, why should they believe me?

Most of the time, their objections have to do with time. They barely have time to write; why should they take time away from THAT to read? Another objection I’ve heard is, “I write BECAUSE I don’t like what’s out there. I want to do it better!” And worst of all, I’ve had people just come out and tell me that even though they want to write, they just plain don’t enjoy reading.

All of these are excuses, and none of them are particularly good excuses. If you have time to write, you can (and should) devote some of that time to reading, yes, even if it takes time away from your writing. If you don’t like what’s out there, and you’re not willing to read, chances are you’re not going to actually do it better, and very few successful writers have made a career out of “showing up” the literary world. And as for the last one, I’ll get to that soon.

But first, why is reading necessary? Reading makes you a better person. It’s an opportunity to hone your craft by carefully looking at how other authors have built worlds, created compelling characters, used beautiful language, and all the things that YOU need to do as a writer. It humbles you. It teaches you. There are a million good reasons to read. There is exactly one reason to not read: because you don’t know how. And if you’re reading this, you do, so consider yourself lucky and go pick up a book.

So, how much should you read? I’ve been asked this before. There’s no straight formula, but if you ask that with apprehension, then however much you think is enough is probably not. I read about 50 pages a day, and I wish I could read more. Which brings me to my next, and potentially controversial point… (you’ve been warned)

I don’t think you always need to love writing in order to be a writer. I know plenty of writers who hate writing sometimes. Writing can be a constant wrestling match with the page, and it’s not unusual to have days where you don’t enjoy it. If writing is something you’re meant to do, you’ll probably feel the pull and desire again soon.

But I don’t believe you can be a writer if you don’t love reading, if you don’t look forward to cracking open a book and getting lost in the pages. I’m not saying you need to want to read everything, nor do you need to love or even finish every book you pick up. I’ve read plenty of books that I hated, and there are many genres you’ll probably never catch me reading. But I think you have to want to read despite that. You have to hope, every time you open a book, that this time, you’re going to read something amazing.

And this is probably going to be the most harsh fact of all, but if someone tells me they’re a writer and when I ask about books they like to read, they tell me they don’t read, I don’t think of them as a writer. I’ll still like them as a person. I’ll still want to hang out with them and be their friend. I’m not going to be nasty or lecture them or even respond to it or bring it up again. But in my brain, in the part where everyone I know is separated into the “writer” group and “not writer” group, they’ll be in the “not writer” group. I believe it that strongly. You can be a reader and not be a writer, but you can’t be a writer and not be a reader.

Every rule has exceptions, except for this one. There is no author, living or dead, who has been an exception, who has been able to write brilliantly without reading (or in the days before reading, sharing stories and absorbing them). You are not an exception either, and to be honest, if you were, if you could write wonderful prose or poetry but you never had to crack open a book to do so, I’d feel sorry for you. Because I can’t imagine a life without reading.

The Two Sides to Torturing Your Characters

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told this a fair amount. That I’m being too easy on my protagonists. That I’m not beating the weight of the world into them enough.

It’s good advice. It really is. People who aren’t writers might not realize how difficult it is, once you have a fully formed character who you want to follow through a whole novel, to then take that character and CRUSH THEM. It’s hard. It’s so hard we might tell ourselves, “No, you’ve suffered enough. I’ll ease up on you,” when really, they haven’t suffered nearly enough.

Why do they have to suffer? Oh, you know, the usual reasons. Because when a character isn’t challenged or put in danger the story has no tension. No drama. There’s no story at all, when everything goes great for the character all the time.

Assuming you’ve created a character we love and care about, making them suffer is part of the deal. We don’t want to see them in pain, but we want to see what they’ll do in response, how they’ll get themselves out.

But there’s another factor that, though I may have unconsciously known about it already, I didn’t really consider outright until recently.

I’ve been working on my novel for awhile. And for most of that while, there was something about it that just wasn’t quite working. Okay, multiple somethings. But there was one big thing that I needed in order to make the story compelling. My protagonist had to save another character. And obviously there needed to be obstacles in her way. But what should they be? Well, it’s a fantasy, so why not just throw in some riddles, some swords, some growling monsters, and voila! Right?

Well, not quite. There was still an element that was making it feel generic, and I couldn’t figure out how to pull myself out. That’s when I showed it to a friend, who asked me a simple question that changed everything:

What does your character fear?

It was one of those smack-on-the-head moments for me. What does she fear?

When I learned what my character feared, I knew how her story would go. Before, she was wandering aimlessly. Now, she had real obstacles.

Because here’s the thing. A challenge needs to be more than just a challenge. If I put a sword in my character’s hand and told her to go fight a dragon, well, that’d be difficult for her, but it wouldn’t be tied to the story, or who she was. It would just be a random difficult thing that she has to do.

But when I realize that what she fears most is her memories, and saving the day involves forcing her to confront those memories, well, then I’m getting warmer.

Think about Harry Potter. What does he fear? Losing the two most important people in his life, Ron and Hermione. Not having them when he needs them the most. What does he have to do in the final battle to get the Philosopher’s Stone? Fight without them. Not only does he have to fight without them, he has to leave them at the very last second, enter the last room seconds after he was with them. You feel his pain, his fear that he’ll never see them again. You’re not sure if he can do it alone, because he’s not sure if he can do it alone.

He’s not going alone because some random wizard decreed it, mind you; there needs to be a good reason besides “it’ll be good for you to face your fears.” But when you find your character’s fear, and when you find a compelling reason to put them in the face of that fear, then you’re making the reader care more than if you just gave them a sword and told them to fight a dragon.

Some of you might be saying, “Well, duh!” but maybe not. Maybe one of you is reading this and is thinking about this in a different way for the first time. I know I wish I’d been actively aware of this a lot sooner. I think I always knew it, on some level. I just couldn’t figure out how to translate it to my own writing.

So, what does your character fear? Are you putting up obstacles that force them to deal with it? Are there good reasons to have these obstacles that make sense within the context of your story?

It’s not enough to torture your characters. You need to tailor the torture so that when he enters that chamber alone, I know exactly why that’s so terrifying, so I feel scared right along with him.

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post, Now With Added Rob Lowe

I love Thanksgiving.

It’s literally my favorite holiday. I love everything about it.

I love stuffing myself silly. I love visiting my relatives. I love how my 8-year-old cousin will crawl under the table and incessantly interrupt grown-up conversations in an attempt to be seen and heard. I love the Christmas specials on TV Thursday evening (despite the fact that I’m Jewish). I love people-watching on Black Friday, but I also love how empty the rest of the world is when you don’t go to the mall. I love eating the leftovers. I love watching people watch football (way better than actually watching football). I love getting to experience real winter/fall weather for a few days.

This year I’m thankful for a lot of things. I’m thankful for my new job. I’m thankful for my MFA. I’m thankful that I get to write, and that I’ve actually finished a draft and may even finish this story by the end of the year. I’m thankful for my boyfriend, my family, and my friends. I’m thankful for the time I have with the people I love, however fleeting it may feel sometimes. I’m thankful for apps and a phone that let me obsessively check flights and weather, even if in the end it won’t let me control whether or not I get to Philadelphia on time. I’m thankful that this year, my favorite holiday comes with a Hanukkah bonus (Thanksgivukkah!). I’m thankful that this was the year I finally discovered Parks and Rec.

What do you love about Thanksgiving? Is it your favorite holiday too? What are you thankful for?

Aside

The Definitive Secret to that Book Deal You Always Wanted

Earlier today, a writer friend shared this article on her Facebook page.

The use of the phrase, “Insider Secrets” was concerning to a lot of us. And the more I think about it, the more it bothers me.

I ran a college writing center for three years. In that time, I worked with many, many students who got very frustrated by the writing process. They disliked or hated writing, but they at least wanted to pass their composition classes, mostly because they needed to in order to graduate. They’d get even more frustrated when, after asking me the “secret” to writing the perfect paper, I’d tell them there really wasn’t one. Even hours of hard work isn’t a guarantee of success when it comes to writing. It’s not like math or science courses. You can follow the instructions and still not quite get it right.

They wanted an absolute. They wanted to be told, “Make sure your paper has X, Y, and Z, and you will get an A.” The fact that writing was so nuanced and personal and that they could write for hours and still not get a passing grade was actually terrifying to many of them. So if you’re trying to write something with the hope that it’ll get published, when there is no rubric, no checklist, no formula? Even those of us who like to write are scared of that.

Many people want to write something good enough to get published. I’m one of them. But our brains want an absolute. That’s why articles like the HuffPost one exist, because aspiring authors are asking, nay demanding to know what they need to do to get published. And the reason articles like the above seem to talk about everything but writing is, I think, because when you tell someone to write, you’re asking them to climb a mountain without any equipment. Telling them they have to write is almost as scary as hearing it, because you know just what you’re asking of them. But if you tell them, “Build your platform and connections,” and all these other concrete things, well, that’s a goal that you can actually see. And things that you can see aren’t as scary. But I think it does a great disservice to writers, particularly fiction writers.

Sometimes it feels like I do nothing but writing. Almost every day I spend about three hours writing, editing, and reading, and the only reason I don’t do it more is because I have a full time day job. I don’t think you need to be writing or reading every day to be a writer, but I know you do need to be writing and reading a lot. How much? Think of an amount of writing or reading that you would consider “a lot,” then double it. Maybe double it again a couple more times. That’s how much. And despite countless hours of work, I still might not find the success I want. I might never sell this book.

That’s scary. I enjoy the work, but even I can admit that it sure would be nice to be told, “Here are seven easy steps to reach your goal” instead of spending years and years hoping that maybe this time I’ve gotten it right.

And that, I think, is why we have articles like this. We search for the “secret” to getting published not because we don’t want to do the work, but because we’re scared of spending so much time on something and still coming up empty.

The article does say you should, “Write, write, write,” but it’s framed in the sheer amount you’ll supposedly have to get published before you get a book deal. And maybe for some genres, that’s true. The opening line certainly suggests that it’s aimed at blog authors who want to turn their websites into books (ala Julie and Julia or Hyperbole and a Half). That’s nonfiction. In nonfiction, platform is important, so yes, you would probably do well to publish a reasonable amount before you go for the book deal.

But the author also briefly glosses over how you can build a platform as a fiction writer, which implies that this article is for anyone who wants to publish any kind of book. And therein lies the problem. A lot of emphasis is placed on researching the industry, networking, and (good lord) hiring a publicist (a $10,000+ investment BEFORE you sell a book?). I worry that aspiring fiction writers are going to read this and see it as proof that the key to success in writing is doing anything but actual writing. It isn’t. There’s no magic bullet, no shortcut. Yes, it helps to know some people. It might help to get your MFA, or write a blog, or any number of things. But at the end of the day, if your writing isn’t stellar, all the connections and blogs in the world aren’t going to help you.

So, come in close, because I’m going to tell you the secret to getting published. Ready?

Write. Write a lot. Know your market. Read as much as you can. Attend conferences. Mingle with people. But above all, just write the damn thing. And if it doesn’t make it, don’t self publish like the article suggests (unless you’re prepared for the work of being a publisher in addition to being a writer). Write something else. Keep writing. Write until your fingers bleed and you can’t see straight. Because you got into this business to write, didn’t you? That’s what writers do. They write. This probably isn’t the first time you’ve been told this, but I promise, no one is trying to trick you. This is what you need to be doing if you want to be published. You need to be a writer. You need to be writing.

Yes, it’s abstract. Yes, it’s daunting. Maybe even terrifying. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified every once in awhile. But if you’ve really got your eye on that book deal, you need to stop reading articles that promise some magic insider secret that will allow you to bypass all the hard work and just. Write.

You Are Responsible for Your Stories

I started out writing novels. I feel like that’s true of a lot of writers I’ve talked to. I mean, when I say “novel,” I mean an easily-distracted thirteen-year-old’s version of a novel. Which was…20 pages? But that was a lot to me. And I only kept getting longer, and longer. Then I went to school for writing, and they made me write short stories. I learned to adhere to a smaller structure. But I still longed to write a novel again.

At some point during my education, I remember telling two of my professors that in my opinion, novels were much easier to write than short stories. They booth looked at me as if I was crazy. I attempted to clarify. The way I saw it, a short story, in order to qualify, had to be just that. Short. After about 10,000 words, you couldn’t call it a short story anymore, which meant you were confined to those limits. Usually you had to keep it even shorter, if you were seeking publication. That was torture to me. I wanted room to move, room to play. I could do that in a novel. I could do whatever I wanted. Novels didn’t have length rules, unlike a SHORT story, right?

Five years later, I know how untrue that is. And it all comes down to the fact that the longer a story is, the more of it I have to control.

Most of what I’ve published already has been short stories, so evidently I’ve figured out something about the genre in order to find a modicum of success. And now I’ve spent the last two years writing and polishing a novel under the guidance of my grad school advisors (and, during the past year since I’ve graduated, their disembodied voices in my head). And what I’ve discovered is that novels, in fact, are more difficult than short stories after all. At least for me.

Specifically, I learned something about limits: it’s very dangerous to think you don’t have any. Because what I didn’t realize the first few times I sat down to write a novel was that when I felt I didn’t have limits, I also felt that I didn’t have responsibilities. Writing shorts stories always seemed so difficult because I knew from the get-go that there were responsibilities. I had to keep it under a certain word limit. I had to introduce the main characters and their problem right away. Since there would be no sequels, I had to come up with a solution and figure out the best way to end these characters’ stories forever. Every word had to be perfect, precise. There was no space to waste.

It was pretty silly of me to think the same things didn’t apply to novels.

Novels do have word count limits, especially if your aim is to publish them. Sure, there’s always the 200,000 word debut YA, but that’s the exception. I had to shoot for about 70-75k. Depending on your genre, there is both a maximum and a minimum, and yes, you need to stick to it.

And length, honestly, was the least of my problems. Because what I discovered when I wrote was that it was that with great word count comes great responsibility. For your characters, for their arcs, for the dialog, for everything. And responsibility is probably the best way to describe what I experience: a great, overwhelming sense of it. When I started taking the craft of my novels really seriously, I realized that it meant that I was responsible for the content of every single page. And right now my current WIP is 263 pages.

I’m the boss off all those pages. But when you’re the boss of something, you’re also responsible for it. And if you wanted proof that a story is a living, breathing thing, consider that like a living thing, a story that you haven’t taken responsibility for, haven’t taken the time to care for and nurture and push it to be awesome, will spiral out of control. 

Take responsibility for your story. Be kind to it (and I DON’T mean be kind to your characters), nurture it, and don’t let it out of its room until it’s the best damn story it can be.

Dogs, Iced Tea, Squirrels, and Relationships

You won’t see me post about personal things here much, but if there’s something to be gleaned, I’ll talk about it. This is one of those times.

My friend Ariel likes to tell a story about her two dogs: Kimi and Tai. Every day, she’d give them both a biscuit, and being dogs, they’d promptly eat both up. But one day, Kimi discovered that if she didn’t eat her biscuit right away, she’d have one for later and Tai would not. So instead of eating it like Tai did, she decided she would wait, and she carried that biscuit around the house for not hours, but DAYS. This did not make Tai happy. Tai didn’t understand why Kimi would do such a thing, and the longer she went without eating it, the crazier it made him, and for some reason, the more it pleased her. She would leave the biscuit in the middle of a room, hide, and then when Tai came in to try and eat it, she would run out barking wildly at him. All to prove that it was HER biscuit and she was planning on eating it when she was good and ready. It didn’t matter that the biscuit was getting old and gross. It was hers.

One day, Kimi was distracted long enough for Tai to successfully eat the biscuit. Ariel describes it as one swift movement. The biscuit was there, Tai came out in a flurry, and then it was gone. No crumbs. No trace of it. Kimi was confused and devastated.

I’m like Kimi. I mean, I don’t squirrel food away for spite, but I have discovered that if I don’t eat all my food right away, there’s more for later. And sometimes this leads to me never eating it, because I was “saving” it. And sometimes this leads to tragedy.

On Saturday, my boyfriend and I went to a restaurant. I got a flavored tea, and since it offered free refills, I asked for my refill in a to-go cup so I could enjoy it later on. I intended to store it in the fridge and bring it to lunch on Monday.

Sunday night, right before I went to bed, I noticed an empty cup next to my boyfriend with the restaurant’s logo. He drank my tea. The worst part was, he’d actually drank it Saturday night, and I was right next to him the whole time. I was just too engrossed in whatever we were watching to notice he was drinking it. He admitted that originally he’d intended to only have a few sips, to see if I’d notice, but when I didn’t, and he discovered the cup was running rather low anyway, he just finished it off, not realizing what a big deal it was to me.

He apologized. I was pretty sad (yes, it was only tea. Yes, it was that good). But we talked about it and I realized that we grew up in very different households. I always remember that if someone in my house bought or asked for something specific at the grocery store, or if one of us brought home something from a restaurant, it was generally understood that item belonged to that person (with the exception of certain communal things), and you didn’t eat it without permission. Thus, I thought my iced tea was safe. I’d ordered it. It was mine.

In my boyfriend’s family, apparently the fridge was just total freaking anarchy. If it was important to you to save something, you couldn’t put your name on it and expect that you were good. You had to make it so that no one else even knew it existed. He described how his younger brother would hide Dr. Pepper cans around the house so that my boyfriend couldn’t find them.

I always knew communication was important, but here I found a new reason why: you can’t assume everyone is on the same page. You can’t assume that everyone else’s experiences are your own.

There’s also probably something to be learned here about what separates us from the animals, but whatever.

So now I have a new nickname at home. Squirrel.

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