The Wishing

“One writes such a story [The Lord of the Rings] not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much personal selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mold is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.”  – J. R. R. Tolkien

To put it simply, the question at hand is: What influences you, and what are you doing with the product of that influence?

We can’t know all of it, there’s too much to take in. But, in our fiction there are a great many references to our lives, intentional or otherwise, because we can only write what we know. I laugh a little, quietly of course, every time I hear someone say, instructionally, ‘Write what you know.’ I laugh because that’s as ridiculous as saying, ‘Speak using words you’ve learned.’ Kind of unavoidable really … if I don’t know the word, how can I know to use it? Similarly, if I don’t vaguely, in some form or fashion, know what I’m writing about, then how would I be aware enough to write it down at all?

I suppose the problem stems from people misinterpreting that advice to mean that one should write about things one is familiar with, or well-versed on.

That’s not the point.

Oh, I’m sure some who say it mean it that way, but that’s a narrow way of thinking and we don’t encourage that sort of thing here at the asylum. When you hear ‘average’ advice, we want you to think about what’s being said. Really think about it. Don’t just shrug and accept it at face value or immediately jump to the easiest explanation. In other words, spend time and interpret the words yourself. What does that guidance mean to you personally?

This brings me back around to why writing is so deeply connected to our personal lives … this compost pile, this mold that Tolkien referred to, is part of our whole being, not just our writerly selves. We are more than authors, you know. In a sense, we are the truest kind of human beings because we take all of our experiences and we catalog the liveliest, loveliest, darkest and most beautiful pieces and then file them away to be examined and picked apart and appreciated later. I suppose artists are the same, but still there remains something visceral in the sheer monotony of words. I say monotony because they all use the same letters (OK, not if you’re comparing Japanese to say, English, but you get the drift). The stark sameness of our materials, those letters and words, forces us to get our hands dirty in the muck and mire of our past and of our imagined future. Usually, if we write fiction, this is through the exploration of someone else’s past and future, an imaginary someone, but someone else nonetheless.

As fantasists, we are not exempt from writing what we know, even if we’ve made a great majority of it up. It’s still patchwork pieces of the life we’ve lived. Things we create are kind-of-like-but-not, everything we’ve ever touched or tasted or screwed or slapped or kissed. Sensory tools are all we have in gathering our materials from the compost heap in order to form them into a deliverable story.

The story is there, to us, from the very beginning … from the moment we pull the little scraps and clippings from the pile, the leaves from the mold, but our task as authors is to weave enough of a foundation around those things to give the story a reference point and to make it understandable to others. We’re, in a sense, telling the onlookers what all the pictures in our scrapbooks are of; where the tuft of fur is from, what the golden thread means, what the feathers are for.

Our novels, even the most outrageous ones, are like giant scrapbooks of our lives. Sometimes we lie about what’s on the pages and why … but those things are still ours. They belong, utterly, to us in ways that can only be explained through emotional and physical attachments.

And they say it isn’t personal.

The author, clutching her book of scraps, those bits of bone and shreds of soul all bound up, laughs at this too. She laughs because she knows better. The only things that aren’t personal are the blank pages of the book, the glue in the binding and the leather of the cover. But, the contents … oh the contents are the very definition of personal. Pity those who cannot see it this way, for they truly cannot understand the deeper meaning of art and I wonder, since they cannot see the reasons, are they capable of seeing life as a personal experience at all?

I suspect not. They’re the sort of people who take things at face value … they laugh at jokes they don’t get, comment on medical reports that they haven’t read, news stories that they don’t understand and they hate and love with equally blind devotion. They are not capable of making up their own mind on anything. And so, they bristle to hear that you’ve done so, to hear that you’ve claimed something not only for yourself, but as something that is uniquely and irrevocably yours. It is simply beyond their comprehension.

But … as authors, storytellers, it is also our task to keep that pile cultivated. We have to do more than just exist. We have to live … really live. I know it’s been said a hundred times before, to breathe deeply, love unconditionally, laugh hard, but don’t take this bit of advice at face value either. There is more to just living than reveling in the experience of it. Yes, laugh hard. Yes, love deeply. But, more than anything, don’t waste your time. You only have a limited amount of it, and unfortunately most of us aren’t aware of just how much time that is. So, spend every moment you can of that time you’ve been given either cultivating things to go into your scrapbook later, or weaving what you’ve already saved up into whatever tales you plan on telling.

You’re the only one with that particular compost heap … that forest mold … those leaves … so, that story, the one that’s been placed in your hands and in your pile, can only be told by you. No one else on this earth has your exact set of experiences. You are, despite however much you might have in common with others, unique. So, if you don’t tell that story … if you don’t gather up your scraps and bravely set forth to show them to others, then no one ever will.

No one ever will.

Every moment you waste in fear is a sentence that will never be crafted. Every afternoon you fritter away by worrying about whether or not your writing will be read and loved by others, is a scene that dies an untimely death. Every week that you don’t grab hold of, is a character or plot arc that will never get a chance to breathe. Every month you spend not writing, is a story that fades into nothingness. Every year you allow to pass by, is a world you’ll never create. Every decade is a career milestone that you’ll never reach. Eventually, you’ll run out of things to forego and there will be nothing left but the wishing.

You will not get better by thinking about it. You won’t progress by stalling and crying and hoping or pleading with others to share their secrets. There are no secrets, there is only the act of putting words onto a page, one letter at a time. Your ideas won’t come to life just by remaining in your head unseen and unheard. Fads will come and go, trends will wax and wane. Your style won’t improve just because you get older and mature. You won’t suddenly wake up one day, miraculously inspired, and find that you’ve finally become a writer. It doesn’t work that way, but you’d think it did judging by the sheer volume of ‘writers’ who are … well … not writing. They’re wishers, not writers. And they’re excellent at it. They’ve hoarded an absurd amount of materials in their compost pile, their mold is fermented and ready for use. They are some of the most talented people I know, if only they would brave that first step. There’s nothing there but the dirt to step on … no hot coals (those don’t come till later) … just moss and leaves.

So, what are you waiting on?

Step out. Stop wishing. Start breathing. Start living. Start writing.

Harvesting Engineered Fiction

Harvesting Engineered Fiction: By Vanessa Cavendish

“When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.” –Anais Nin

In her July 7 post, “Wholistic Writing, Part 2,” Breanne posed a slew of questions to get us thinking about our own writing. I personally think each of those questions deserves a post unto itself. I’m working my way through them as best I can.

Question #: What genre do you prefer and why? Would you ever try a different genre on for size?

It’s hard to know, these days, what kind of hybrid vegetable you might find at the grocery store unless you shop organic. Same thing at the fiction store. One hellofalotta genre-splicing going on. Dubya Tee Eff, as they say. What don’t kill you only makes you stranger. A genre is a label, like the sticker you can’t peel off a piece of fruit. We got some engineering yet to do before that bar code is embedded in the double helix of a watermelon, but you can write your elevator speech and start marketing your novel before it’s written, provided you know how to pick a genre and stick to it.

We don’t grow a lot of elevator speeches locally. They are a big city variety of conversating. Out where I live, the only elevator in town has CO-OP painted on the side of it in big blue letters. Red winter wheat might talk a good game as it thrashes to and fro in the wind, but once the custom cutters roll through, it don’t have a whole lot more to say. I’m kind of the same way, being a flatlander. Twister might take you by surprise, but people ought not to. Them you can see coming for miles. Gives you time to size a person up.

We are a reticent people until we get to know you, which might take all of five minutes or five years, but we don’t speak blurb, and what we’re interested in about you has got diddly to do with your unique selling proposition. We might ask who your momma and daddy is and if they’re still living and whether there’s a chance we might be remotely related. Pretty quick after that, we’ll get down to which church you belong to. If you’re me and you see that one coming, you can sometimes head it off with a comment on the weather and then, quick, pretend you got your cell phone on vibrate and you can not afford to miss this call.

Genres are the denominations of fiction. You can talk all you like about how we all serve the same Lord, but the minute you start in like that, we’ve got you pegged as a Universalist Unitarian, which means three things:

  1. Not from here.
  2. Don’t have a clue about Jesus
  3. Fair game for proselytizing

So you better come up with something quick, Vanessa, and quit your stalling.

I write American Gothic. I might could say Country Horror or Rural Fantasy or Farm Punk, but what I like about “American Gothic” is right away you get that image of the couple with the pitchfork that everyone knows is brother and sister but is too polite to come right out and speculate on what the Keerist is going on out there in the wilds of Indiana or Iowa or wherever the hell that is. The other thing is, is I like to think it sounds a little bit less like something I made up. I can point to my “American Gothic” antecedents, which is a fancy way of answering where your folks come from.

Children of the Corn, I might say. Or Frailty or Cape Fear. Because, look here. If you say Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, you risk sounding like a poor relation putting on airs.

So what is my point, exactly?

If I identify with an established fictional religion—let’s say horror, for the sake of argument and imagery—then I begin to feel like I have to toe the line, adhere to the doctrines, the esthetics, the rules of that particular genre. I even get to feeling like if I don’t dress a certain way I won’t fit in, and somebody sooner or later is going to say something to me about my target audience and reader expectations. I’m not going to let it get to that point because, deep down, I can’t bring myself to believe that the only way to get to Writer Heaven is to scrub-a-dub-dub in the blood.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to human sacrifice, I just think we can leave room for the Romantic Comedites and even the adherants to certain forms of Literary Fictionism, if they will but give up their excesses and repent their moral torpitude.

I am more goat than lamb, is all I’m saying. Still sacrificial but a touch less complacent about it. A herd animal that likes to butt heads with the fencing. The meek will always feed low to the ground and where the shepherd lets them, figuring that’s where their inheritance lies. They’ll graze a field down to the stubble, and that’s fine by me. There’s a certain resourcefulness about it that, in a more generous mood, I might admire. Being goatish, I’ll give most anything a try, but I do like to rear up on my hind legs every now and then and, you know…reach?

Alarm, Foredoom and a Ripped-open Bag of Metaphors

Alarm, Foredoom and a Ripped-open Bag of Metaphors:

Vanessa Cavendish

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.” — Garry Winogrand

In her post, “Wholistic Writing, Part 2,” Breanne posed a slew of questions to get us thinking about our own writing. I personally think each of those questions deserves a post unto itself. So if she’s game, I’d like to start with the first one and see how it goes.

Question #1: Does suspense play a part in how you reveal information to your readers, or do you lay it all out on the table in the beginning?

I’ll go first. Feel free to interrupt me if you can or talk over me otherwise.

You should know two thing about me before I get going: First, I got a mind like a pack of neighborhood dogs. Seems like anything I toss into this lidless bin of a brain will end up strewn across the yard like a ripped open bag of writing metaphors. Second, I got a poster rolled up and stashed in a closet somewhere of a portrait by the photographer Garry Winogrand. In the space below an indescribably plain-faced and therefore highly mysterious woman, is that quote I led off with. To my mind, writers and photographers are the same degree of dog. We tell our stories primarily through a combination of imagery, manipulation and disregard for your landscaping. For some of us, like Winogrand and (I wish I could say with less reservation) myself, life is so full of suspense already that we see little harm in showing the cards we deal. The black-and-white school of photography that Winogrand associated with apparently felt that even color film allowed too many opportunities for cheating. They had a profound, zen-like appreciation for the world as it was handed to them through the aperture of a camera. They held sway in the late sixties and seventies. Photoshop I don’t think was even a noun yet, never mind a verb.

There’s something classic about a just-the-facts-ma’am approach to any art form. An old-school journalist will tell you to lay down your who, what, where, when and how in the first sentence of a story, if you can do it, and to get the why nailed down before you call it a paragraph. Say the word “classic” and my mind makes a beeline for Greek tragedy. Oedipus Rex in particular. If you lived in Athens back in the day, or if you got your Sophocles from a college textbook like I did, you already knew the whole story before the actors took the stage. Oedipus killed his father, answered the Sphinx’s riddle, became king and married his own mother.

Got that? Okay. Now we can get to the good stuff.

See what I mean? The introduction to the play reads like a headline from the point-of-purchase rack at the grocery store.

What follows—and what mystifies me more than anything in human literature is that the play itself—is a freaking detective story! The murder mystery to end all murder mysteries—an entire genre killed off some two millennia before it was born. I don’t know of a single thing written before or since that’s more of a nail-biter. Not Psycho, not Jaws,  not nothing. Reason being? Sophocles hid not one thing from his audience. He only withheld information from his protagonist. What we know that Oedipus doesn’t keeps us on the edges of our seats.

My life’s ambition is to tell a story that good. Which means, I have to learn to write like a journalist. Which goes against my nature.

It’s hot where I live. I can’t wait for summer to get over and be Halloween again. I like to hide in the shadows around the corner of the house when kids come to ring my doorbell. Leave the lights on inside and the curtains drawn just a little, the TV playing, everything looking copacetic. Make the little bastards think it’s all cool as shit, like they themselves are the scariest thing ever to set foot on my porch.

I’ll show them.

Why do I, a grown-ass woman, take such delight in scaring the bejesus out of defenseless children? Is it because one or the other of their mothers has probably slept with every decent-looking man in town, and I haven’t yet?

(I don’t have to answer that.)

Is it because those same uptight prisses have the gall to smile and say they missed me in church last Sunday—every Sunday of the year, in fact?

(I will answer that one: Yes, maybe.)

Is it because those kids shriek and run off, but you and I both know they’ll come back for more and bring their friends, since a terrified fit of the gibbering giggles trumps a bite-size Butterfinger every damn time?

Absolutely. But the real reason is simpler than revenge, simpler even than rotten good fun.

It is my nature to be powerful.

How do I know this? Because I pay my “authentic movement” coach good money to tell me so. And to make me repeat it out loud and promise to repeat it again to the mirror when I get home. And every morning when I crawl out of bed, looking way too much like a fact clearly described.

Repeat after me, Vanessa: It is my nature to be powerful.

It is my nature to wear big, ropy gorgon hair and to spread a look of alarm and foredoom across my brow, to carry a big stick and to scream bloody murder and, like the pop-up monster in the Tunnel ‘o Terror, to fold myself back into the darkness once you pass by, and to wait in suspense for the next opportunity. To hide. To bide my time. To keep secrets. I make it my modus operandi to obscure the facts of life from small children, the better to make them shriek and run away and turn to the Lord for deliverance from the likes of me.

It is my nature to be powerful, because I am very, very afraid of what I’ve got coming. It is my nature to be mighty, because I am brief and everything I care about is temporary. It is my nature to say, “Would you look at that bloodshot moon?” and to distract you for as long as possible from the fact clearly inscribed on the headstone of one more friend this year than last.

It is my nature to pull my punches. Not because I don’t want to hurt you or because anybody is paying me to throw a fight, you silly ass, but to soften you up and to blind you to the sledge hammer sneaking up from behind us both. Don’t look now!

Okay, too late.

My nature and my ambition have gone to war with one another. I mean to write like a Garry Winogrand photograph. To tell a story because I want to see how the world looks through the lens of a deliberate fiction. When instead, because I’m not feeling my powerful nature, I attempt to cheat the mystery out of a situation by gaming the distribution of information, it is (in my case, I am quick to italicize) either unnecessary or an outright error in judgment, like wearing a disguise in the dark room, camoflage to a debutante ball, my best poker face to a tarot reading.

I would like to step with greater authenticity into the shadows at the corner of my front porch, not in order to hide, not for the sake of a special effect or a good scare, but because I know what’s coming. Because I am and you are and those adrenaline-and-sugar-stoked children are going to die one day. I want to describe that god-awful gorgeous fact clearly while I still can, through image and the gods’ honest manipulation of light and angle and timing, because I want to see what the everyday mystery and foreknowledge of inescapable doom looks like in a fiction plainly told.

Holistic Writing Pt.2

“Write from the soul, not from some notion of what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.”  ~Jeffrey A. Carver

Take any ordinary shirt and a pair of pants, picture them in your mind, and now picture them on you. Picture that same pair of pants on someone else you know. Then someone else. Quickly, the obvious truth becomes that they look absolutely different on each person. The craft of writing is the same way. We use similar words, most of us. All of us who use the same alphabet use the same letters. The same characters that make up the words of ‘Macbeth,’ make up ‘The War of the Worlds.’ The writer makes all the difference.

I don’t expect this to be a shock to anyone, rather I intend for that simple illustration to be a lead-in to the purpose of this post: What you do as a writer defines your fiction. Let me expound on that a little. As an example, there are certain things that I naturally tend to do as a storyteller. I never, ever, show all of my cards to the reader. Some authors do, and some readers love them for it. I don’t. I am fascinated by the idea of perception and the power of assumption and how those things play into the daily lives of my characters and their relationships with others. I’m equally transfixed by the utility of a reader’s assumptions about what will or won’t happen in a story. That seems to be the driving force, not  behind how I plot, but how I show that plot … how I reveal the events. I love the gentle unfolding of things, be they awful, terrible or beautiful. I write, in a sense, how I like the stories I read to be told. ‘The Village’ is one of my favorite movies for a reason.

Consider your favorite authors and your favorite stories told by them. What are their tendencies? What is the foundation upon which they craft worlds? It’s easier to detect someone else’s ways than our own. We aren’t able to see ourselves as accurately as we see others. Why is this important? Well, for starters, it helps ground you. When things like, reviews for instance, come around … if you know who you are as an author, and what your cornerstone is, then your internal structure is less likely to come crashing down around you.

Do you write with a lot of description, or do you prefer to leave a lot to the imagination (I’ve been told my work is woefully bereft of detail)? Do you excel at dialog, or is your best work done in conveying the subtler aspects of human interaction … the slight turn of hand, or bodily gesture? Do you like drama or do you show all your cards to the reader from the very beginning?

These things are important because when they come into question later, you’ll know in advance that regardless of how the critic felt about it, you did them on purpose. They are part of your signature, per say. I was talking with a friend earlier and it came to light that as authors, we’re trained emotionally in a similar way to how our bodies are physically trained to deal with homeostasis. Right now, are you aware that your left foot isn’t hurting? If I randomly picked a part of your body that was hurting, then pick another part of your body that wasn’t and bear with me. Why weren’t you aware of it? Because nothing was wrong. Your body is designed to only send signals for things you need to pay attention to … to problems that need to be addressed.

As authors, we see criticism much in the same way. Suggested “solutions” automatically equal problems in our manuscripts. We’re trained to only pay attention to the negative, because our sense of balance and literary homeostasis tells us to do so in order to fix what’s “wrong.” Even if nothing is wrong at all.

As authors, we never believe the good reviews. There is a dark side of us that believes those people must be lying. Even the mediocre reviews are suspect. Yet, when the negative reviews come around, we cling to every sentence as if … not only is this person unquestionably a literary authority, they are suddenly keenly educated on the ins and outs of not just stories in general, but our story and all of its intents and purposes. We grant these nameless voices titles and power that they, frankly, don’t have. We’re built this way. We’re wired to see things this way. Those few of us who thrive and flourish under scrutiny should consider yourselves blessed because you are the exception. You’re able to appreciate that your left foot isn’t throbbing right now.

Never mind that you wouldn’t spare this guy a second glance in line at Wal-Mart. Once they’ve penned something about your work of love, they’re deemed “knowledgeable.” Or worse, “educated.” Sometimes they will be just that. Educated. And in truth, it depends on your definition of the word. But in reality, I’ve known an awful lot of quasi-intelligent morons. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The kind of people who still say certificated like it’s a real word.

And that’s part of being a holistic writer—understanding and being familiar with how we are interdependent on our writing and the worlds we create. In a sense, we’re not just what we write, but how.

Now, on another note, assuming what I’ve said is true and holds water, this means that we’re keenly apt to feel threatened when our writerly constructs are under fire. When someone says that how we’re writing is wrong, or lacks skill or interest or any number of things, we fold first. Emotionally anyway.

“Remember: Writing can get you fed to a lion whose teeth draw your whole face into its foul wet breath and cut your skull with knives. There’s no soft way to put this. A black hole swallows you up. Willpower’s no help. Getting in print is like beating cancer but losing a lung, staying in print is hopeless. Your best work goes begging…..Today’s paragraph comes, a word from the heart of the universe, and shines in the darkness, unquenched. And you ask for power, wisdom, and love as you make the anvil sing.”   ~Donald Newlove

Bottom line: Writer, know thyself. It’s the only protection you have against the instant gratification of this fast food world … this five minute mass … this three minute throng of misguided souls who are only passing through your worlds, the ones you create. They don’t live there. You do.

Bonus Round:

Here are a few questions to ask yourself. And keep in mind that your writer identity may change over time … and that’s perfectly normal. But, you’ll go a long way on that path just by knowing who you are right now.

1. Does suspense play a part in how you reveal information to your readers, or do you lay it all out on the table in the beginning?

2. What POV do prefer to write in? First, third? Present, past? Why? Would you ever try a different POV or tense on for size?

3. What genre do you prefer and why? Would you feel comfortable trying on a different genre for size?

4. Do you give lots of detail, or do you leave it up to the reader?

5. Do you plot in advance, or wing it?

6. How do you feel about sequels?

7. What kinds of themes do you weave into your work? Religion, politics?

8. What kinds of things do you incorporate into your writing that are only for you? If you don’t put anything in your work for yourself, why not?

9. Are happy endings important for you? If they are, are you capable of writing a tragedy?

10. What are your pet peeves? Do you like chapter titles, etc?

11. Are there issues that you tackle repeatedly in your narratives (child abuse, etc)?

12. Are you a social author who likes to hear the public’s opinion, or are you private? Do you read reviews or avoid them?

13. Do you work within the familiar or do you stretch to be original (both are OK, so be as truthful with this one as you can. Some authors excel at the familiar)?


A Threat to the Regulators

A Threat to the Regulators: Vanessa Cavendish

“who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you; wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world my blood approves, and kisses are a far better fate than wisdom lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry–the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids’ flutter.”  — e. e. cummings

I first read that in, I think it was seventh grade, before I’d been so much as felt up, never mind syntaxed. But that didn’t stop me from knowing a thing or two about courtship and poetry, both. The first of which is that folks come in two sizes of stupid: those who know the rules and follow them, and those who don’t. I hate to break it to you, but you and I are more alike than you might be thrilled to admit.

Meaning what, exactly?

Meaning that most of the time the best of us will fail to venture out of that first category—the category of the small, of the follower, of the tell-me-what-to-do-and-I’ll-be-a-good-self-starter-I-swear-I-will-if-you’ll-just-give-me-a-chance-and-read-my-query-I-slaved-over-it-it’s-gonna-sell-like-nobody’s-business-and-make-you-and-me-rich-rich-rich-just-please!

There’s a reason why so many of us speak in such tiny and irrelevant voices.

Nothing gets regulated unless it somehow, someway represents a threat to the regulator. That’s a fact of nature, not a rule I made up, and it applies to kissing and telling stories equally. This list of regulators includes, to name a few, People Magazine and Facebook and Goodreads and your English teacher and rapists and publishers and your parents and your agent and your best friend who just wants you to be happy. In other words, regulators are not inherently evil, they just want to be in control. So add me to the list and, while you’re at it, yourself, too.

Kissing, done well, is an act of grace and power and promise. It is a prelude to poetry. When lips rhyme with lips and fingers find their rhythm, form goes out the window and in walks danger.

With a posse of grammarians to insist you wear protection.

The dirty truth is that neither fertility nor contagion will ask permission to cross your bodily or literary premises. When we’re highly charged, we neglect to think about the social, political, moral and practical implications of our speech and behavior. We are liable to shed such useless accoutrements as panties and the prefrontal cortex. We go to a deeper, stupider place where the muses do the heavy thinking. We go there in order to wholly kiss one another. To sanctify our bruises. To get with our genetic legacies and provide for the continuation of the species.

I’ll try and not speak for your muse, but mine, you may rest assured, gives not a rusty fuck for dependent clauses or the agreement of verb tenses. She grunts like a slut and bucks to fill a need that’s got nothing to do with how I define my genre or whether an agent might get me a better deal on a sequel. Because why? Do I need to point out that the poor dork who’s got one eye on your word count and another on your Twitter following has traded true mastery of the situation for a poor attempt to control the outcome? I can’t begin to tell you how wrong-headed, how mean-spirited, how downright unloving that is. You need to dump him pronto. He is not. I repeat: Not. Trainable. Simply getting tested for viruses does not make him a good match for that fine whore of a goddess that’s got you on your back again.

The thing is, you can teach a good kisser how to get the job done in 140 characters if you need to. Or iambic pentameter or whatever the form requires. But you cannot. Never could. Never will be able to teach that part of you that cares more about how many hits your blog got last week than whether you spoke your mind or, god forbid, your heart.

Let me put this in plain English for you. The minute you float a question about your plot twist in your Facebook group or ask your writer friends to vote on whether your heroine should have green eyes or amber, you have entered the zone of the incorrigibly little. Want to take this to the mat with me? If your muse works at Surveymonkey, I am here to tell you, you are both in the wrong line of work. You are making out with a little boy who took a dare to prove himself to his buddies, not to you. He is only dimly aware that you exist, he is the worst kind of liar, and everyone around you knows that he’s lousy in bed to boot. So why do you keep him?

If I tell you why, you might hate me. I can live with that if I have to, but I can’t abide him correcting you all the time for your own good.

You keep him because you are afraid. (I almost said, “of your big girl voice,” but let’s not get cute.) You are afraid that your reputation will suffer if you once fuck like you mean it in a public place. If you take down your defenses and dismantle your readers’ armaments in the process, they might take offense at you.

And what? Look the other way? Talk about you? Not read you?

Listen to me. You were not put on this planet to write a best-seller. No one was. That’s the god’s honest truth, no matter how much you can think you know better. If you’ve bothered to read this far, you might be here to figure out how to observe and tell the truth in the form of a story that gets down and dirty with the reality of pain and the beauty of kissing. Or the beauty of dying. Or the terror of loving. And you might, in the process, agonize over the possibility that the protagonist you got naked with last night might not show up for a second date. And if he does, you might legitimately wonder whether he will pay for dinner this time and provide for the children you neglected to mention—those brats from your first marriage, if you can call it that—or at least keep you entertained enough to want to support his good-for-but-one-thing-and-one-thing-only ass—on a contingency basis.

Your writing life is a private party, I know, and I don’t mean to invite myself and my advice for no cause whatsoever, so let me tell you why I care.

Because when you get naked, you begin to think not for your puny self—which is another way of saying, for your career, for the marketplace, for the sake of your imaginary status as a literary figure or popular icon or whatever passes for cool in your circle; all that shit is truly none of my affair. No. You begin to think and behave the way a human being is born to think and act: for the species, for the tribe, for the long-term survival of the gene pool. You begin to tell stories with the mind and heart and spirit of a moral and social animal, a shamaness, a fertility goddess intent on keeping order in a universe whose rhyme scheme has a deeper, longer, holier scansion to it than we can imagine with our pants up and our skirts down.

Hemming the Bone Veil

Yannick Bouchard

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed in my years of blogging that once an author snags an agent, the focus of their blog usually changes. Once they sell a book, it changes even more. Once their book is close to its release date, they start to seem distant. They talk about publishing a lot. Their posts contain carefully planned honesty. Something seems like its missing, and more often than not, that missing piece is never shown after they are published. A sort of veil goes up. A wall, even, and thus we come to the division between the published and the unpublished.”  ~Michelle Davidson Argyle

I was going to blog today. No, I mean really blog. Not whine and then take the post down less than 24 hours later. But, then I read my dear friend Michelle’s post and realized that she’d eloquently laid out what I wanted to talk about today. We’ve been talking in-depth about this subject for days (months really), so I suspect that it is keenly present on both our hearts.

Here is that post. And I want … nay need … you to read it and even if you’re not where we are right now, at least if you’re destined to wind up there, you’ll understand what’s in your future. Then, come back and let’s talk about it a little. I think there might be more truth in that post than in anything else I’ve read in years on what it truly means to be a career author. And it’s worth a discussion.

Yes, I’m not kidding. Go read it. I’ll wait.

OK, do you understand now why I wanted you to read it? The analogy of the veil is anything but mere analogy, and I want to expound a little on it in a personal context. Or rather, how I see it beyond the beginning stages of its placement … the “why” of the veil, if you will.

We’ve taken an artery, a thing that feeds our hearts and minds, and we’ve made its homeostasis a public matter. We’ve taken our somewhat protected world  of alpha and beta readers (whom we trust) and blown it all to hell, by introducing a third party. The Public. And to me, it feels like the equivalent of introducing a third person into my marriage bed.

In other words, it might sound to some of you like a blast in the moment, but the long-term consequences are reprehensible when you consider how they affect that initial relationship. Nothing is the same. Nothing will be the same, and if you’re going to keep your ‘marriage’ solid, you need to know this going into things. You are, in effect, taking another lover.

The veil is your only protection. Imagine it, if you will, as a separation of your lifelong commitment and your illicit affair. No, you can never fully reconcile with your soul mate, but if you must exist in this way, then do your best to devote 100% to each when you are with them. It’s the only thing you can do. I liken it to an affair for a variety of reasons, but the most important of them is this: The unspoken rules of your affair will change dependent upon the participants, but your marriage vows never will. If you are a wholistic writer, as I suspect a great many of Asylum readers are, then you will always be true to that first relationship. You will always be tied to that fiery love of writing and that dogged determination when it was all about the story, that Michelle spoke of so beautifully in her post.

But, like me and like Michelle and so many others, once you’ve changed the dynamics of that relationship, it will change you. How it will change you, and your craft, is entirely dependent upon you and your intimate details. But, don’t ignore those subtle shifts in the flow of your creativity. They can, and have in some cases, proven fatal and I mean this literally.

Why do you think so many authors suffer from depression, anxiety and why so many creative individuals wind up taking their own lives? Because this one thing … this private endeavor, is not something many of us can afford to lose to public scrutiny. To many of us, this relationship is the very fabric of our beings. It is in a sense, our truest God. We would never seek to harm it or do something to dishonor it. Yet, the world and especially the media and the consumerism of that world, forces those of us who are not independently wealthy to do so if we are to write full time.

I’m not saying that getting published is wrong. Or that I regret it. Physically, financially and realistically, it isn’t. But, to my real soul as an author, it’s more than an abomination, it’s disillusionment at its core and regrettably, has shown me for what I really am. Human. It was bound to happen, but did it have to happen quite like this? With this symbiotic of a relationship? For me, and for a good many of you … yes. It’s meant to be this way.

We don’t live in the world of Dickens, or Tolstoy or any of the greats who had to purposely go buy a paper to hear how people responded to their work … to be reminded of just how crudely commercial the literary world has become. They didn’t know what a book trailer was, let alone a blog or book review websites or the soul-sucking darkness that is Goodreads. Their veil was firmly hemmed to their being. I’d even venture to say that it might have been a tad easier to read reviews in some cases because once you walked away, assuming the author didn’t keep the review, they could really walk away from it.

We can’t. It’s blogged, cached, eternal. That infiniteness of our criticisms does not escape our subconscious. It festers and works at moth-holing that veil. So, the bottom line is this: If you find yourself there … with a wad of fabric in your hands and no clue what to do with it … start sewing it to your foundation. Hem it firm and keep the remnants. You’ll need every last stitch because this fast-food, instant gratification society that we exist in, will require you (if you’re to stay sane) to mend and patch those weak places.

Good news is, we are all hemming the veil together and once you’ve reenforced a hole, it’ll never tear in that exact place again. That’s why I’ve called it the Bone Veil. It isn’t just fabric, since I firmly believe it’s a part of our being. And once torn, the fabric threads back together like a bone, ever stronger for the strain.

The Role of Author Identity

“Father was the eldest son and the heir apparent, and he set the standard for being a Rockefeller very high, so every achievement was taken for granted and perfection was the norm.”  ~David Rockefeller

How do you identify yourself as an author? On your blog, FB page, Twitter … do you specify whether you’re published or not? When you’re introducing yourself to other authors, do you quantify what you mean by “author” by prefacing your title with a ‘published’ or ‘unpublished’? Someone sent me a note on Twitter a short while ago and thanked me for the follow, then said that they were an unpublished author with one completed novel and hoped to “one day get a publishing deal.”

Not to downplay the achievement of publication, but does it really matter? I don’t mean utterly. Does it matter in the context of how you should be seen by others? Frankly … no. Why do I say that? Well, let’s think about this for a minute.

What did I do before I was published? I wrote. A lot.

What did I do after signing my first novel? I wrote. A lot.

What am I doing now that I’ve signed six novels? … you seeing a trend here yet?

In other words, it makes no difference. None at all. Maybe it would if I were bringing in millions of dollars a year. Maybe. But, actors don’t normally specify their calling with “working” or “out of work.” They do in movies, but not in real life. In real life, if they say anything at all about their status, it’s “I’m between roles.” Better yet, artists don’t quantify themselves at all. None that I know does. It would seem absurd for an artist to say “I’m an unknown artist.” Starving maybe … but not unknown. Why don’t you ever hear that? Because they’ve figured something out that a great deal of authors haven’t.

When was the last time you heard a mother say, “I’m a successful mother of two,” or “I’m a mother of two who hopes to one day be good at it.” Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

It doesn’t matter who validates your stuff. You’re still an author. Your personal validation is all that matters at the end of the day. I’ve read a lot of posts on this subject lately and for the most part authors seem to get the general concept, but there are still a few who struggle with their identity as writers. Who am I and what am I worth?

You’re worth a lot.

I know. I know. We’ve all felt the opposite of that statement. Keenly felt it in some cases. But, was Lewis worth any less before he was published? Tolkien? Woolfe? The very thought seems trite doesn’t it? Then why give yourself so much crap? Or is it that you’re not sure where you fit in? You don’t know who you are yet, so you can’t quantify how much your worth is? Let me say it again … with a bit more emphasis this time.

You’re worth a lot.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing you have that can never be truly taken from you. Your name. The worth of your name is directly correlated to the worth of your word. Do you mean what you say? Are you dependable? In that context, if you claim your name as an author, and you state your existence as an author with the authority vested in such a bold act, then you’re cementing your future. Think of it as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you start every session with those high expectations, you will find out how closely related to input, your output really is. You’ll find out that your worth is a lot more than you’d suspected.

My name is _________ and I’m an author.

There is power in a name. There is even more power in claiming that name as your own. You aren’t unpublished, or pre-published, or even published. You’re an author who happens to fit into one of those categories. You’re also an author who prefers your toilet paper roll either over or under, but you don’t bother attaching that to your name as an author, so why attach anything else to it? Why cheapen its value by weighing it down with unnecessary baggage?

It’s especially important, in this changing industry, to learn to identify yourself outside of the institution and its limitations. Don’t hedge yourself in, in an attempt to hedge your bets. It doesn’t work that way. A business doesn’t become successful because it waits for others to deem it worthy of success. It becomes successful because it started out with an identity and a goal and didn’t stop every five minutes to check up on itself. A healthy, thriving business model is one that, while keeping a finger on its customers’ pulse, keeps its eyes and ears on its mission statement. Its goal.

So, what is your mission statement as an author? What’s your purpose? What do you want to see from yourself, regardless of critical success or failure? Only after you’ve determined the answers to these questions, concretely or abstractly, will you be able to see the path marked before you with any sort of clarity.

Who are you? What are you worth?

The Most Dangerous Game

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I’m going to do my best to put this into words, despite my suspicions of their inadequacy to convey what I’m feeling.

We’re told as artists, from reliable sources, not to take things personally. Yet the act of being an author, or musician, or painter, is quite tied to our intimacies and close relationships. Any career that deals, even a little bit, with reputation is by default a career of duality. The self is suddenly shifted from a thing of sole possession, to a commodity to be bought and sold.

Don’t kid yourself—as an author, you are your writing. That simple truth is the reason why many authors choose to publish under pen names. It protects them. It shields them from some of the inherent pitfalls of this industry. In retrospect, I wish I’d used my pen as a true pen, instead of a novelty leftover from when I was a girl who once dreamt of being an author.

Why?

Because—just like in Son of Ereubus, nothing is what I thought it would be. I don’t feel like I thought I would. I am not reacting as I thought I would, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.  Blogging only goes so far. “Getting over it” only goes so far. “Holding your head up” only shuts out so much.

I mentioned, months ago, that everything was changing for me. Part of that change includes  sudden interest in my life, attention from people with whom I’ve tried desperately over the years to rekindle relationships—with whom I’ve tried to start friendships with, in some cases. It’s a double-edged sword. I am both grateful and heartbroken: Grateful because the support has been overwhelming; heartbroken, because it has nothing at all to do with me as a person.

I am now the equivalent of my accomplishments. This isn’t universally true—of course–there are some folks who have been in my life and been by my side since long before any of my dreams started to appear even remotely possible. This post isn’t about them.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s talk about relationships for a moment.

Brutal honesty, while honorable in some circles, is simply cruel in others. Siblings, parents, close friends and spouses often bear the brunt of our less-civilized selves, in part because we know they love us and that they aren’t going anywhere … when in truth, they should be granted only the best of what we are as human beings. They deserve our highest respect and deepest consideration. Yet, we seem to reserve those things for veritable strangers … people we want to impress or from whom we have something to gain.

We are not immune to this as storytellers.

Our fellow authors deserve nothing from us but the kindest regard and the sincerest empathy. Instead, we’re often consumed with jealousy or simply too absorbed in our own pursuits to realize how our actions affect our peers in publishing. It all stems back to this childish competition mode that a good majority of writers fall into … as if one person’s triumph has anything at all to do with yours.

Seriously, as a whole, authors can be the most self-serving assholes on the planet. I’ve watched writers tear each other apart, disregard favors, back-stab and sabotage till they’ve flat run out of ideas. Then they wait till opportunity knocks. If you don’t have any clue what I’m talking about, then good for you. But, read on anyway because if you stay on this career path, you will eventually understand me. It might take moving up the food chain a few notches. The darkness of human nature, in some ways, seems at its most raw and excitable in the creative world. Maybe this is because we deal with the soul on a daily basis. I genuinely don’t know. And religious authors are not exempt from this untoward behavior. They just do a better job of hiding their nastiness.

Not all authors are this way (yet those who are, are unavoidable). Some of us will genuinely do anything and everything we can to help out other people. We want to see others succeed because we remember what it was like to feel the all-mighty Power of Suck. Hell, I’ve given shards of my soul away for the benefit of others, and you know what … it was worth it. I’d do it over again in a heart beat. The problem though, is that a great portion of up-and-coming authors are downright selfish. Pure and simple. A great many mid-level authors, who’ve been in the game for years are even worse. They’re not just egocentric, they’re ravenous and exhausted from treading proverbial water. They’re tired of being the sum total of their achievements to their friends and family, and especially strangers, and some are out for blood.

And in a way, it reminds me of the 1932 film ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ Why? Well, here’s the plot (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Famous big game hunter and author Bob Rainsford  swims to a small, lush island, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. There, he becomes the guest of Russian Count Zaroff, a fellow hunting enthusiast. Zaroff remarks that Bob’s misfortune is not uncommon; in fact, four people from the previous sinking are still staying with him: Eve Trowbridge, her brother Martin, and two sailors.

That night, Zaroff introduces Bob to the Trowbridges and reveals his obsession with hunting. During one of his hunts, a Cape buffaloinflicted a head wound on him. He eventually became bored of the sport, to his great consternation, until he discovered “the most dangerous game” on his island. Bob asks if he means tigers, but Zaroff denies it. Later, Eve shares her suspicions of Zaroff’s intentions with the newcomer. The count took each sailor to see his trophy room, on different days, and both have mysteriously disappeared. She believes their host is responsible, but Bob is unconvinced.

Then Martin vanishes as well. In their search for him, Bob and Eve end up in Zaroff’s trophy room, where they find a man’s head mounted on the wall. Then, Zaroff and his men appear, carrying Martin’s body. Zaroff expects Bob to view the matter like him and is gravely disappointed when Bob calls him a madman.

He decides that, as Bob refuses to be a fellow hunter, he must be the next prey. If Bob can stay alive until sunrise, Zaroff promises him and Eve their freedom. However, he has never lost the game of what he calls “outdoor chess”. Eve decides to go with Bob.

Eventually, they are trapped by a waterfall. While Bob is being attacked by a hunting dog, Zaroff shoots, and the young man falls into the water. Zaroff takes Eve back to his fortress, to enjoy his prize. However, the dog was shot, not Bob. Bob fights first Zaroff, then his henchmen, killing them. As Bob and Eve speed away in a motor boat, a not-quite-dead Zaroff tries to shoot them, but he succumbs to his wounds and falls out of the window where below are his hunting dogs, it is assumed that the dogs kill him for good.

Head on a wall anyone? There are days when this plot certainly seems to do a damn good job hemming up the publishing industry. And it certainly sums up what it means in this current climate to be an author in general. Whether it’s by fellow scribes, or old friends, we’re hunted once we’ve joined the game … one way or another. We can deny it all we like. But, we’re in this for better or worse. We agreed to this. Didn’t we? This most dangerous game?

 

Why it Doesn’t Matter How Your Novel Opens

“He was one of those inexplicable gifts of nature, an artist who leaps over boundaries, changes our nervous systems, creates a new language, transmits new kinds of joy to our startled senses and spirits.”  ~Jack Kroll

The way your novel opens is totally meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

Holy smokes, did she really just say that?

Yeah. I did. Here’s the painful reality: If your book is great, nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … the book is great. If it isn’t great, then nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … it isn’t great.

In other words, NOBODY CARES EITHER WAY!

“Don’t open with a prologue.”
“Don’t open with your protagonist in thought.”
“Don’t open with your main character waking up.”
“Don’t open with the weather.”
“Don’t open with dialogue.”
“Don’t open a novel with immediate action.”
“Don’t open with tons of description and backstory.”

Why don’t you just go ahead and say, “Don’t start your book with sentences … because um … only the good ones work and you may not be able to write any of the good ones.”

I’m SO over the number of authors who blog about this drivel. Seriously, stop with the rules and the strict as iron guidelines. Have you learned nothing from the success of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing?’ It worked, not only because it was Stephen King, but because he didn’t talk down to his audience. He assumed a certain amount of competence.

“But what if the beginning makes or breaks the novel?”

What? Are you hearing yourself? If the opening reeks that critically of the bowels of hellish prose, then nothing can save you. NOTHING. Do you have any idea how many books are on my shelves? Do you know how many of them were good, but not great enough for me to give a damn how they opened? The ones that were great, that stood out, were great because the author chose the opening that best fit the book. And that’s the difference.

There is no universal right and wrong in how to open a novel.

There is, however, a right and wrong way to open YOUR novel. Instead of freaking out over what not to do, why don’t you worry about what you should be doing instead. What does the story tell you? What do the characters tell you? Open your creative mind a little—just a tad—and eavesdrop on what your muse is doing. Deep down, below the industry blogs and posts you’ve got pinned on your FB wall, below all of that … you know how to proceed. You’re not giving yourself nearly enough credit for being the strong, confident author, that I know you are!

Allow me to assume a higher level of competency for you, than you have for yourself. listen to me. YOU. You are capable of writing the best opening for YOUR story. And do you know what’s more? No one else is.

No one else is.

That’s right ladies and gentlemen. Your story’s fate is in your hands and yours alone. You can’t put this off on other people. You can’t blame its success or failure on the weather or rules or Donald Maass. I know … frightening isn’t it? Along with competency comes responsibility.

And it’s your responsibility to focus on only what is true and necessary to the work. Nothing else matters.

Passport Please

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” ~Buddha

Ever have one of those days where you feel like any average exposition class, in any average college classroom in the world could take your novel and use it as an example of how NOT to write fiction?

Yeah … me too.

You read other people’s work and you marvel at their adept prose, their adroit pacing, and their irreproachable characterization. Their adjectives are just the right adjectives. The amount of description they’ve coupled with just the right bit of telling, has you salivating. It has you wondering how you could possibly have ever picked up a pencil (because surely that’s where this misguided calling to be an author started, right?). It has you doubting, with no wounded hands to pick at in your search for hope that what you suspect about yourself is wrong.

And all the blogs you read confirm it. Ten Ways to Plot A Bestselling Novel. You hadn’t thought of a single one of them. Why Your Scene isn’t Really a Scene. And your scene apparently isn’t a scene. Does Your Protagonist Suck … if so Here’s Why. He meets three out of five characteristics for a totally unlikable protagonist. Five Ways To Spice up Your Dreary Ending. Didn’t even know the ending was dreary till now, thank you. Nine Ways to Drop  Your Adverb Habit. Terribly true …

You read all those ubiquitous, helpful, posts … the ones that are followed by nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine comments (that have been featured as Fresh Pressed on WordPress AND by Nathan Bransford himself) … and you feel humbled. No, not humbled. Down-trodden. If you drank, you’d head for the whiskey. If you smoked, you’d have a head-start on half-a-pack for the day. If you gambled, you’d bet yourself right out of a career.

Here’s the thing … those posts, and those books on writing that read more like technical manuals, and all those guest speakers (the ones who tell you that without an agent you’re nothing), they can’t tell you what makes your fiction totally unique and therefore, worthwhile. Do you want to know why?

Because they don’t know.

That’s why I usually refrain from posting specific advice on writing. I could, I’ve got loads of it. But, I can’t account for the subtleties of your individual creativity and style. I can’t just tell you to add some tension to your last scene, without having read your last scene. I can’t tell you to just amp up your pacing, without knowing the rhythm of your novel. I can’t tell you any of these things with any sense of reliability because in some cases, I’d simply be wrong.

But, as writers … especially when we’re feeling that oh-so-familiar downtrodden pseudo-depression, we seek consolation in rules and tips. We want to know that we can get better if we just know where to put our right foot first. We want direction. We want guidelines. We want assurances.

In brave writing … there are no assurances.

Everyone in your critique group can whittle away at your manuscript till it’s a different novel altogether than the one that got rejected 34 times, and yet … when it’s sent out again it can still get rejected. Multiple times. And probably will be. But, we do these sorts of things because we want to share the burden. If you get rejected on your work alone, then you can think to yourself, “God, I must suck at this.” But, if you let a group (and this can be agents’ blogs too) tell you how and what to write, and that work gets rejected, then, “It’s OK because isn’t me or my writing. It’s the market.”

We do that, because our doubt is often stronger than anything else we’re feeling. This isn’t always the case, but when we feel it … we feel it.

In this world we live in as authors, we’ll have more than a handful of ‘guided tours’ available to us. But the fear doesn’t completely go away even when you sign up for one of them instead of the solo trek. All I can tell you with any measure of certainty is that the solo trek, while positively the scariest way to go, is the most  beautiful. It’s terrifying because at the threshold, you’re not just handing over your passport to be stamped, you’re trading it in for citizenship. You’re making a decision that will mean, there is no going back.

That’s not to say that you have to travel alone. I’m not guiding anyone anywhere. As a creativity coach, I’m damn good at motivating others to keep on, to keep exploring. But that’s not the same thing as a guide. And perhaps that’s the biggest difference: We’re all traveling together, my footsteps just as unsure as yours are. I find comfort in this. More so than having to stand behind a huge crowd and listen to some schmuck ramble on for hours about the local vegetation.

But, there are no assurances. I chose to take that chance and while it looks appealing from where I stand and eavesdrop (read those posts like gospel) … looking at that group of tourists all taking pictures of whatever the hell that spikey thing is … I wouldn’t be any more confident over there than I am here. And right now, for me, is one of those moments where I’m sliding on pebbles and having to stop every five minutes to empty shit out of my shoes. It’s OK though, because you’re with me.

And because I have no choice, but, for it to be OK. I’ve handed over my passport.

Creativity Coaching

“Creativity is a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.” ~Ray Kroc

We’ve all been there … a brilliant idea, a manuscript that’s spilling from your mind like water from a faucet … then something happens. Your boss yells at you. Your main character suddenly takes a hiatus. Your creativity seems to dry up completely. You’ve contacted your alpha readers, and your beta readers. You even broke down and called your mother. Still, nothing helps.

That’s where a Creativity Coach comes in. What we do, is the same thing that a mental health counselor does for a client: We talk things out. It’s as simple a concept as this … sometimes our writer friends and peers are simply too close to help us draw out what’s really holding us back. A third-party can do wonders at helping unblock the creative flow.

And as a Holistic Writer, I keenly believe in the integration of the creative brain and your personal well-being. Which, in a nutshell, is why I’m finishing up my Master’s degree in Professional Counseling over the next year and a half. Long story short, stuff going on in your personal life can seep into your writing and your ability to interpret what your brain is telling you. Creativity coaches help untangle the mess.

Why should I hire you? You’re an Associate Editor for a magazine and you only have a few books under contract … where are all the years and years of expertise?

Well, for starters, I have almost five years in professional writing under my belt. And because for one reason or another, I’ve always been able to cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the issue. I have the psychology training to wade through the muddied waters of your characters’ issues and yours. Believe me, when you start talking about it all, it can get overwhelming and confusing quick. Plus, you can go to all the counseling sessions in the world, but it’ll take you YEARS to put what you learn through those sessions into your personal writing practice. I’m just skipping a few hundred meetings and getting straight to the heart of the matter.

What’s involved? Well, that depends on you and what you need. We’ll tailor a plan to fit your budget and your needs, but here are some general plans to consider:

Kick-in-the-Pants:
Accountability pure and simple. Some folks just need a face-to-face (or in this case, a Skype-to-Skype) kick in the pants. For $15 a call (fifteen minutes), I’ll literally keep your ass on schedule. You set the number of calls per week/month. Better than an app on your smart phone, I won’t take shit from you.

Basic GPS:
Just need an hour to air your frustrations with a manuscript/publisher/ agent or any other career related subject? We can go over everything from plot development and character construction, to career advice and help on queries. $50 for a one-hour session. Discounts for multiple sessions scheduled.

Greetings, I’ll be Your Guide:
Some novels are tougher to write than others and need a full service evaluation. This package includes a thorough read-through of your work, or work in progress and detailed notes on general observations (note, this is NOT editing). Then, a two-hour consultation where we can talk through the issues. $250 – $350 depending on the length of the work. Additional sessions are available to discuss the work further at the $50 an hour rate.

A Second Set of Eyeballs:
Your publisher hands you a PDF to proof, or you’re getting ready to shoot off your newly finished novel to an agent or a publisher, and you just want a second set of eyeballs on it to check for typos. Again, this is not editing, but simple proofreading.

Short stories 500-5,000 words $25.
Novelettes 5,001-25,000 words $50
Novellas 25,001-50,000 words $75
Novels 50,001 – 100,000 words $100
Novels 100,001 – 125,000 words $125
Novels 125,001 – 150,000 words $150
Novels 150,001 – 200,000 words $200
Anything longer than that we need to talk about when to end your story.

** For the record, I take Paypal and I can break anything more than $100 into payments. I will work with you financially. The only thing I can’t do is an I-owe-you. **

If you’re interested, please send me an email to batman0762@gmail.com for more information.

Two Pronouns and a Funeral

“Barring that natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough.” ~Mark Twain

The word anti-hero has been thrown around a lot lately. The concept of a mandatory likable protagonist has also made its loathsome rounds. Both proponents have aspects of them, and applications, that are correct. In the wrong context, and paired with the wrong character, however, they can be devastating to fiction. Allow me to expound.

But  wait … won’t an unlikable protagonist kill the narrative?

No, not unless you’re writing a romance novel. In that case, one of your two leads has to make up for the other’s initial likability issues. But barring that sole exception, no … this is a myth.

But wait … doesn’t your reader have to care enough to read on?

No shit. I mean, really, does anyone NOT believe that? Come on. I can think of TONS of horror novels whose main characters weren’t the least bit likable, but the story/plot/secondary characters were all interesting enough to propel the narrative to the end. Likability has nothing at all to do with whether or not a reader will carry on reading. Compelling is the word you’re looking for.

Hate me or love me … doesn’t matter whether you love the lead or hate them in the beginning, the motivation has to be there in enough measure to make you either want to see the character get his/her ass handed to them; Or, you have to like them enough to see them triumph. There is a breadth of psychological reasoning behind why merely ‘liking’ a character isn’t sufficient motivation to care what happens to them.

Think of it this way … how many funerals have you not attended for people you liked, but didn’t love? We’ve all been there. A distant relative, a neighbor, a classmate, a sort-of-co-worker … you liked them, but not enough to feel comfortable going to their funeral.

On the other hand, and be honest here, how many people have you known (directly or indirectly) whose death (untimely or otherwise) brought a tad bit of … dude totally had it coming? Keep in mind, this includes famous serial killers who were put to death.

So really, you have to create one or more of the following emotional environments:

1). Interest enough in the plot to compel your reader to rubberneck the impending train wreck.

2). Love enough for one of your leads to compel your reader to weep at the figurative funeral.

3). Hate enough for one of your leads to create an urgent sense of heroism (justice needs to be done here) and compel your reader to emotional action.

Still think I’m full of it? OK, fair enough, how about some examples from books that have done well? And keep in mind too that these aren’t anti-heroes. Not by definition anyway.

* The Shining, Stephen King: “Here’s Johnny!”

* Just about anything Jane Austen has ever written: Can we say, Mr. Darcy?

* Just about anything Bentley Little has ever written: The Resort anyone? What about The Vanishing?

* Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment (Dostojevsky): If anyone did like him right off the bat, please enlighten me as to why.

* Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Come on … you can’t argue with this one. You KNEW he had it coming.

* Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair by, William Makepeace Thackeray. She grows on you eventually.

* Just about everyone from Lolita by, Vladimir Nabokov.

* Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by, Emily Bronte: And Catherine for that matter. But who’s counting?

* (I’d be remiss not to include this) Garren from Son of Ereubus by, J.S. Chancellor (ahem … that’s me).

And what about movies with unlikable protagonists?

* The whole cast of Blair Witch Project: No, really, go watch it again.

* Just about anyone in the whole of Stanley Kubrick’s portfolio: Brilliant characters, but … likable? I suppose it depends on your definition.

* Napoleon from Napoleon Dynamite: He rocked … he was a train wreck … but again, likable? Not really.

* Martin, from Martin: That’s kind of a trump card, I know …

I’m slowly realizing that this movie list could go on forever. There are too many horror movies to name them all, and a whole host of science fiction flicks. Frankly, I love Star Wars, but Han, Luke and Leia were all kind of a pain in the ass to start off with. Just go back and watch the scene where they’re about to get squished in the trash compactor and listen to all the whining and screaming. They become likable, but for me … definitely not right off the bat.

Bottom line, is that regardless of whether or not he/she is likable, so long as your protagonist is compelling your reader to either attend the ‘funeral’ or cheer at the ‘execution’ … then you’re good!

Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

Today we’re joined by a delightful writer I met over on Twitter, whose blog I fell in love with (and I’m sure you will too). Her name is Jolina Petersheim, and I hope you guys will make her feel welcome here!!

“Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all -“
~Emily Dickinson

This week I attended an author luncheon in Nashville. Over the course of my hummus wrap, I quietly listened to the realities of the writing life: backs aching from hunching over a keyboard or toting suitcases and laptops hither and yon; flying into beautiful cities that are never seen beyond a smattering of bookstores; the royalty checks that never come when they’re promised–or, even worse, those that do but aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed; the terrible book reviews; the end of the hardback book; the end of the tangible book, period….

Although the authors interjected a few jokes while discussing the publishing Apocalypse, the weight of their words resonated long after the bills had been paid and everyone had said their goodbyes. After I’d said mine, I drove toward Vanderbilt and parked near the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet after her class. Gathering 20 pages of my manuscript and a green Sharpie, I crossed the road and found a bench on the sunny side of the park.

But for a while I couldn’t even edit.

In that moment, with the authors’ words still echoing in my mind, editing that manuscript felt like building a kite when I know there will be no wind to take it up. I could edit and edit until I was blue in the face and my fingers stained green, and if there were no agents to represent my work and no publishing houses to receive it, what was the point?

But when you have time to kill, you do not want to spend it marinating in dramatics; so, I stayed in the park for two hours, doggedly editing. I only stopped when a straggly-haired homeless man came and sat on the bench next to me, took a long draw on his cigarette nub and rasped, “Sorry, you looked comfortable.” Trying to gauge how fast I could run in my boots and prairie skirt should he sidle closer, I decided it’d be best if I left the darkening park, for I was suddenly colder than I knew.

I crossed the street again and walked up to a local bookstore my best friend and I used to frequent that summer Vanderbilt Hospital became our second home. Strolling up and down those aisles, I felt like I should be holding my breath, clasping my hands at my sides like a child told not to touch–treating the interior of that place with the reverence of a shrine. Dust motes sparkled in the fading afternoon light streaming through the front window; the musty scent of books wrapped around the tiny space with a comfort of a grandmother’s quilt. The numerous shelves seemed to bow beneath the intellectual weight of their authors: Dickens, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway, Austen, Chekhov, Steinbeck; newer writers like Ann Panchette, Lee Smith, Joanne Harris, Natalie Babbitt, Edward P. Jones, Frances Mays.

Sometimes I would take a title down and flip through the deckled pages; test the heft of it as a doctor who is convinced their patient is shrinking before their eyes. I stared at the book cover art. At the jewel-like tones of the older books embossed with gold; at the newer titles, all jagged fonts and glowing fluorescence. How can all this change? I wondered. How can we toss all this history, this tangibility, in exchange for a tiny, strolling screen?

Once I’d been up and down every aisle, I rolled my manuscript up like a newspaper, took a deep breath and moved toward the door. But then I paused, looked over at the silver-haired woman reading a book behind the cash register. Both the woman and the cash register looked like they’d seen better days.

“What’re we going to do about the eBook?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first, just set her hardback book down, took off her glasses and looked up at me with clear blue eyes that reflected the weariness of her soul.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Take it as it comes, I guess.”

“Has it been very hard on you?”

“The dawn of the eBook, you mean?”

I nodded.

“Well, it’s certainly not helping matters, but we were hit long before that. In this economy, people just aren’t buying books.”

I unfurled the papers in my hand, showed the green stains marring the script. “Before I came to your store, I was in the park revising my novel. But…well, it seems kinda foolish when books are coming to an end.” I shrugged. “At least books as we know them.”

“Hey, maybe these changes won’t all be bad….You remember LPs?” The woman smiled, shook her head. “Never mind, you look too young for LPs. Well, I remember my husband saying that LPs were going out. That these little disks about the size of our hands were going to replace them. I couldn’t believe it, but then — within a couple of weeks — LPs were completely gone, replaced by CDs. Now, CDs are gone, too…replaced by iPods.” The woman sighed, ran short-nailed fingers over the glossy cover of her book. “Change is the way of the world. Always has been, always will be….We just have to learn to change with it.”

A dark-haired woman stepped out of an aisle and looked between the two of us. The curious expression on her face made me think she’d been listening. “Do you all know any good classics?” she asked, pointing to the rows and rows of jewel-toned, gold embossed books. “There’re just so many, and I want–I want one to put on my bookshelf. It’ll look so nice. Especially one like these.”

The silver-haired woman and I shared a secret smile. She then stood, adjusted her dangly, stone earrings and walked over to the classics. I suggested a few titles as well and touched the silver-haired woman on the back.

“It was nice talking with you,” I said.

“You, too,” she replied, looking over her shoulder. “Good luck getting your novel published.”

“Thanks, I think I’m gonna need it.”

I walked out of the door with the bell chiming and crossed the street. I went into a store known for its stationary and unique invitations. How long until they go out of business, too? I thought, staring at the shelves of graduation, birth and engagement announcements; old-fashioned red wax seals and onionskin paper tied with burlap string. Who even sends cards anymore?

Then something in the display window caught my eye. A desk. A towering, scarred wooden desk I couldn’t have sat behind unless boosted by a library of dictionaries. On top of it was a typewriter. An old typewriter. The kind that cherrily ding! whenever you reach the end of a row. The kind used in movies so the aspiring authoress can wrap her arms around it and sob into the button-like keys.

Behind it was a toppled pile of books as ancient as the typewriter. If opened, it seemed the covers would waft the tobacco smoke and brandy used by The Inklings; shimmering silverfish would fall out from between the pages like odd, pressed petals. I must’ve stared at that desk and typewriter for a moment too long, for one of the employees came over and asked, “Can I help you?”

I turned around. “No, no…I’m fine. Love your display here.”

She waved her manicured hand. “Oh, we’re getting ready to change it out.”

“I think it’s beautiful, just beautiful,” I breathed. I wasn’t about to burst into tears, but I did feel like wrapping my arms around that worn typewriter, kissing each of those faded keys like a mother kissing her newborn’s perfect fingers and toes.

I’d probably get thrown out if I did either, and this gum-popping girl didn’t seem like she was trembling at the dawning of the eBook age, so I just smiled and left.

Walking toward the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet, I passed the dark-haired woman from the bookstore with her little boy in tow. On her arm was a white sack. I could see the square contents inside it. The books, the classics. I looked over at her and grinned as if she’d just handed me a pot of gold. She smiled and nodded in a I-know-you way.

In that simple exchange, hope fluttered back to perch in my resigned soul, and I almost started skipping and swinging on a lamppost à la Singing in the Rain. But I didn’t. I just kept walking toward that coffee shop, clutched my rolled manuscript a little tighter, and wondered if I could revise a few pages before my best friend’s arrival.

For, regardless if my work will be placed in a jewel-toned hardback embossed in gold or a tiny, scrolling screen, the weight of the medium doesn’t matter as much as the weight of the words. And I must keep editing and editing until I am blue in the face and my fingers stained green, so those words — that story — can bring a smile to someone’s face, put a spring in their step, and a joy in their heart that regardless of the changes of the world, hope in the midst of uncertainty will always, always remain the same.

**Jolina Petersheim’s blog, The Happy Book Blog, at a year old has been featured twice on Southern author River Jordan’s Clearstory Radio. Currently it is featured under author Jessica McCann’s “Stuff for Writers,” award-winning freelance writer Melissa Crytzer-Fry’s Blogroll and numerous other creative writing sites.

A graduate from University of the Cumberlands with degrees in English and Communication Arts, Jolina’s short story, “Security in the Shadows,” and article, “The Support System,” were the university’s 2006 and 2008 Creative Writing Award recipients. Her current publishing credits include Muscadine Lines, Tales of Kindness, Cicada Magazine, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives in the mountains of Tennessee with her Mohican-man husband, their 40 acres of untamed territory, and one unruly but lovable Southern novel-in-progress set on a tobacco plantation in northwest Tennessee that is in the final editing stage.

Bizarre Behavior (and other revolutionary concepts)

 

**If you don’t care for profanity, or get offended easily, or if you already have your panties in a knot, I’d suggest you skip this post and go find something else to read … maybe something about puppies … or the Junior Women’s League.**

“No matter how calmly you try to referee, parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I’m not talking about the kids.”  ~Bill Cosby, Fatherhood, 1986

And I’m not talking about literal parenthood.

This quote perfectly explains how I feel about being a career author. If you’re going to get anything out of this post, then you might as well get over the fact that I use children as an analogy for my writing. Or else you’ll find the next few minutes an utter waste of your time.

You see, I just finished getting my second child ready for graduation. We’ve been through birth, the terrible twos, the worse threes, and all of the educational, meet-with-the-teacher kind of stuff, and here we are, a few months away from taking the final exam (the final exam being the moment where the novel gets sent out into the world). It’s all over. The fat lady has sung. I’ve had my last chance to wipe lint from his shirt or smooth down his unruly hair. And funny enough, I don’t feel like I did with the first one.

Like with children …. you mellow out a little with time. I’ve noticed this more as I speak to fellow authors whose first novels are releasing this year. They’re hyper-sensitive. I was hyper-sensitive … though I didn’t know it at the time. Now, I’m kind of … well … over it. I’m excited, enthralled, and all of those other buzz words. But, I’m OK with everything. I feel a tad less neurotic this time around. It’s nice. It’s a pervasive feeling of, “I’ve been down this road before.”

By the time June 30th rolls around, I will have turned in my third and fourth novel. Come March 2012, numbers five and six will have passed on as well. What then? Will empty nest ensue? Who knows. That’s new territory. I’m looking forward to finishing that horror/dark fantasy novel that has been DYING to be written (Of Blood and Bone). If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to write it a little bit at a time between revising and polishing and proofing everything else.

But, the point in sharing all of this with you, is that if you’re destined … correction … if you work hard enough to make a life out of this calling, then most likely you’ll be where I am as well, and I wanted to tell you that it’s a nice place to be. There is peace to be had. And I think a lot of this comes from steering clear of reviews and media-hype. What am I talking about? I’m talking about getting caught up in blog-talk about the industry, reading reviews of other books (which we’ll invariably relate to our own work), Facebook, Twitter and all of those other, totally-useful-yet-insidious time traps.

I swear a little bit of my soul gets sheared away with every hour I waste ‘marketing’ and ‘networking’ on those various sites. I don’t give a great goddamn what the authorities on this stuff have to say about how valuable all of that can be. It depends on you personally. It’s the same idea as this drivel you read in parenting magazines … not every concept will work in every situation, or with every child. There are thousands of theories on parenting … this isn’t without good cause. The idea of pimping yourself and your work in order to make a career out of your writing, may work for some folks, but I’ve got to be careful how much involvement I have in that aspect of things. Because the separation between my writing life and my personal life is non-existent (see Holistic Writing), I can’t shut off my emotions like a lot of authors can. Believe me, I wish I could. I’d be a better marketer.

What I mean by all of this, is that ever since I made a firm decision to step back … I’ve written more and been more productive than I have been in YEARS. It doesn’t have anything to do with stars on a calendar (though, I’m still doing that because it’s a cool idea). In other words, I stopped giving a flying frack about how other people see my work. Or me, for that matter. I didn’t realize how much I’d started to care. But, after taking a lengthy emotional inventory, my give-a-shit meter was set on ‘high’ and it shouldn’t have been plugged in at all. You catch my drift here?

Two dear friends, Vin and Michelle, came to visit us in January. Vin knows how to do handwriting analysis (among many other really cool things … and you should SEE how gifted his wife is. AMAZING peeps). Anyway, he analyzed my handwriting … and months later, two things that he said still ring loud and clear in my head.

“Wow … you really don’t give a fuck what people think. I mean … I knew you didn’t, but … you really don’t.”

“You aren’t living up to your potential, {insert lengthy dramatic pause for effect}, and heaven help us all if you ever decide to start.”

No, I’m not paraphrasing. I actually wrote that down in the journal I had in my hands right after he said it (yes, all the way down to ‘insert lengthy …’ cause that’s totally how I roll).

I thought long and hard about that. Especially the latter part. And I had to ask myself what was going on that was preventing me from deciding to go down that road, and came to the startling conclusion, that nothing was keeping me from doing what I want to do with my life. I was putting roadblocks up by doing everything in my power to make myself give a damn about acceptance and peer approval. I guess, somewhere down inside, I thought I was supposed to … give a damn that is … that maybe I was a bit inhuman for not caring.

Then it dawned on me, that such a crotchety attitude, is what allows me to write the way that I do in the first place. If I take that away, then I take away everything that makes my life worth living. And frankly, whatever I deem to be a life worth living, is all that should matter to me.

No more crap. No more ploys or gimmicks or wasting time with useless ‘strategies.’ I’m focusing on my craft alone, and sharing what I learn with others here, and that’ll just have to be enough. It’s the only way I’ll keep living that life worth living.

What does this mean, literally?

For starters, I’m not doing another blog tour. Sorry. I can’t slow production down to a crawl, which is exactly what happens whenever I do stuff like that. It isn’t worth the five extra copies that it will sell of whatever book we’re pimping. I’ll still do guest posts and all of my stuff at Best Damn and Suspense (especially Suspense, which has given me some newfound sense of purpose and responsibility). But as far as drawings, or contests, or whatever … sorry … not happening. You’ll have to win an iPad2 somewhere else, from some other really-way-too-excited author.

I’m also done soliciting reviews. If you want to review my stuff, the right people will find you. Or you’ll find them, I’m sure. Or you’ll flat out ask me. Why would I go this route? Because what really, really, really sells a book anyway? Great writing. I can’t give you great writing unless I’m .. gasp … writing. Yeah, I know … all writers must market: **cough cough** I get it. I was there for the memo. Truth is, I can’t remember the last book I bought from a blog comment, a review, or a stupid contest. I buy books because people recommend them to me, or I like what I read of the excerpt. That’s it. Occasionally, I’ll look into a book because the cover is too awesome to bypass, or the title. But past that, it’s sheer dumb luck if I come across a book and buy it without being prompted to. There are all sorts of reasons to argue this, and there is plenty of ‘proof’ that certain strategies sell books. Look at James Patterson. He’s a brand.

I don’t want to be a fucking brand. Allow me to rephrase. I’m NOT a fucking brand.

And besides, the majority of the ‘evidence’ for low-level marketing hype reminds me of television ratings. Have you ever had one of those boxes in your home? I sure as hell haven’t. Who ARE these people who are buying books out of the great blue nowhere? Who are these illustrious individuals who buy into these gimmicky strategies? Talk about bizarre behavior. It’s like the father I heard behind me with his son a few days ago at target. I’m SURE he sounded like a rational, sane, human being before he had children. But by the time he was there in line behind me … he’d lost at least 50 IQ points. How do I know this? Because he said to his seven year old, “You betcha, sodas are yucky ucky!”

Ahem … yucky ucky? Wow. You’re wearing a suit and tie … and not a cheap suit either. Somehow I don’t get the impression that you use that phrase in your day job. What the hell comes over a parent?  And before you say anything, my parents never baby-talked me. Because of that sound parenting decision, I had a better vocabulary at seven than most fourteen year olds.

What comes over writers? When did writers first get roped into the whole media, one-liner, catch phrase bit and start sounding like total douche bags? We’re not used car salesmen folks! We’re already at the very, rock bottom of the food chain here. No, really, we’re the ONLY part of the equation that can’t be removed, yet our percentages are the lowest. We make less off our own books than anyone else involved in pushing them in the marketplace, INCLUDING the twenty-two year old chick who rings you up at the register at Barnes and Noble. Yup, she makes more than most published authors. **smacks gum to paint a mental image of Obnoxious Register Girl**

I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in …

Take away agents, and publishers would be forced to deal with authors directly. Take away publishers and agents, and authors would become their own publishers and would still continue to write and distribute their stuff. Take away authors … do you see where I’m going with this? Yet the average percentage an author gets for a novel is what? The average advance (assuming you are lucky enough to get one in the first place) is what? And yet … there are some well-known publishing houses who require authors to put a percentage of that advance back towards marketing? Even those who don’t require it, expect it. Most expect it. All of them expect you to market your stuff like hell online, in-person, and on the radio.

I’m not saying that I’m not going to help market my stuff. On the contrary, I’ve decided that I’m going to do what I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the ONLY thing that will help my career and assure longevity in the marketplace (brace yourself for this revolutionary concept): I’m going to be a writer.

A real honest-to-goodness one, who writes more than markets, and who only engages in the kind of bizarre behavior that comes naturally to a Holistic Writer.

Consequences be damned …

Natural Selection: Writers Edition

“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
-Oscar Wilde

Oscar, I love you, but for once … I don’t agree with you. Not after reading about an author’s book review meltdown on Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. I took a good, lengthy read, and couldn’t get over how simple a discussion this could have been had Ms. Howett kept her cool. If you go and look at Amazon, that book has gotten (as of 9pm my time) nine 1 star reviews TODAY. Ouch. {Update: 4:20am. There are now 20 1 star reviews} {{second update 4/28 9:55pm 46 1 star reviews}} {{Third update 4/29 7:23pm 64 1 star reviews}}

And what’s worse, is that the review wasn’t particularly scathing. In fact, there were places in the review where the reviewer pointed out what he liked about the novel (I think it’s a he).

At this point I don’t read reviews. I try my damnedest not to go over to Amazon or Goodreads at all. I am aware of a handful of not-so-awesome reviews for Son of Ereubus, and that’s totally normal and to be expected. It isn’t my place to whine or complain. In fact, if you don’t have any negative ratings or reviews, I would wonder if you’re getting enough exposure. Meaning, is your novel getting reviews beyond friends/family members and FB friends?

I shouldn’t have to remind you that every author who makes it will have readers who will loathe them. Period. Almost every major author who has become vastly successful has been sued—for something or other—so go ahead and get used to the dark side of this industry. None of this is changing anytime soon. If you can’t handle a couple negative reviews with dignity, then there’s no way in hell you’ll make it in the long haul. Natural Selection will throw you out of the game before you’ve had a chance to score a single point.

Don’t ever do what Ms. Howett did. REALLY. It isn’t worth it. Not even a little bit. Controversy sells, but not nearly as well as a well-written novel will sell. In my not-so-humble opinion, this was a career-killing move. If I were an agent or publisher, I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole. And yes, I know she is an indie author. But, considering how she responded to anyone who commented, I’d gather she’s this fiery with readers. Who wants to deal with that?

Further, who wants to support that kind of nastiness? Reviews are important to writers. Even though I don’t read most of them, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deeply appreciate each and every one of them. I will occasionally comment—if a friend or my publisher sends me the individual link. I did so just a few days ago when a reader who’d downloaded the book from our free ebook event gave it a fantastic five star review. But, I will ONLY say something, if that something is positive.

SO, writing tip #327: Don’t tank your writing career by biting the hand that feeds you. Say unto others, as you would have them say unto you.

Got Writing?

“I try to help people become the best possible editors of their own work, to help them become conscious of the things they do well, of the things they need to look at again, of the wells of material they have not even begun to dip their buckets into.”  ~Tobias Wolff

If you’ve been a regular follower of The Asylum, you’ll know that at one point we’d had the ambitious idea of producing an anthology. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a serious lack of publishable material, we decided against it in the end. One reader, whose story had been accepted, responded that this move on our part didn’t surprise him and that for future reference, we shouldn’t promise something that we can’t deliver.

Frankly, we never promised anything. Sometimes, believe it or not, shit happens. I was heart broken over the decision. I’d previously extended the deadline for submissions because I didn’t want to let the idea go (this is likely why said reader responded so negatively. I suppose he thought I was pissing my time away, when in reality, the fact that I pushed the pub date out was my polite way of saying that all I’d received was unpolished material). He wasn’t alone in his negativity. Several contributors were curt in their response to my email. Why do I mention it now?

Because I was just graciously offered the position of Associate Editor at Suspense Magazine.

In other words, there is a lesson to be learned here: Be professional no matter how much something disappoints you. I recall those names quite clearly and I assure you, I’ll remember them if they show up in my inbox. It isn’t retaliation. It’s my unwillingness to work with that sort of an attitude. If you can’t grant me grace during an experimental project (which I was CLEAR about up front when it came to the anthology), then I’m not going to extend you any grace, whatsoever, now.

There are some folks, whose stories/essays were accepted, who I will likely solicit material from because of how they handled themselves.

It’s kind of like those kids in High School who were picked on, only to become their bully’s boss later on. You never know where you’ll run into someone again. You never know what bridge you’ll need to cross back over to reach your goal, so it is in your best interest to refrain from burning them.

I responded as gracefully as I could to the negativity. I’d already apologized for any disappointment I’d caused, so I went on to assure one writer in particular that there would never be a next time. I wasn’t ever going to attempt an anthology again. And I meant that. I’m not. I am now, however, involved with a well-known, established, magazine that needs good writers … with good attitudes.

Oops … guess who I won’t be emailing?

SO, what am I personally looking for? (disclosure alert: if your feelings get hurt easily, stop reading now)

Damn good short stories in the thriller/horror/mystery/dark fantasy genres: And when I say damn good, I mean it. My name is now attached to this stuff, so unless I’m excited about giving my recommendation, I won’t accept it. Period. I might love you like a sibling. Doesn’t matter. So, don’t send me stuff unless you know it has a clear beginning, middle and end. If it doesn’t, then the writing itself must be strong enough to carry the narrative. I’m OK with excerpts from larger works so long as they can carry their own weight. Teasers are fine too. But don’t send me some random snippet of whatever from your unfinished work. If it’s an excerpt, I want to see a publication date attached to it (it’s OK if you’re publishing it yourself, I’m cool with that).

Pieces on the craft of writing. I LOVE stuff that looks like it ought to be a guest post here. If you’ve got something genuinely inspiring and helpful to say, then PLEASE send it my way and let’s make me look good, lol. Don’t send me the stuff you read everywhere else: The Pitfalls of Praise, etc. I HATE that crap. If it’s glaringly obvious, then leave  it in your ‘filler content’ file on your computer.

Interviews. Right now, anyone who manages to track down Bentley Little, will be on my hero list for life. I’m working on it, but if you can track him down first I will owe you a serious favor. Will I accept interviews from debut authors? Sure! But please remember that I need really thought-invoking stuff. It’s in their benefit and mine for you to ask the tough stuff. Dig deep. Make it interesting. If they sound like stock questions (where do you get your ideas from?) then don’t ask them!!

Artists. You’d better be Oliver Wetter or Eve Ventrue calibre if you send me stuff for consideration. Just because your grandmother bought you colored pencils for christmas doesn’t mean anyone else wants to see your stuff. Oliver and Eve work their hind-ends off, so don’t expect to do a half-ass job and have it work out for you. This, above all else, annoys me the most. Why? My mother is a professional artist. I’ve grown up in a house full of oil, acrylic and water color paints. I know what good art looks like and if you think your stuff is high enough calibre to submit it to me, then you’re tough enough to hear me tell you it isn’t. SO, before you hit submit, check your pants to see if you’ve got the balls for this. I won’t be kind if you send me one of those anime/manga sketches that you drew in chem class. And for the record, I’m OVER wolves. So unless yours has Red’s cape hanging out it’s realistic-looking mouth, I don’t want to see it.

Opinion/Essays on the industry, your experience as a published author (successfully self-pubbed or traditional), or on being an author in general. This is a little different than the whole, ‘stuff on the craft’ bit because it deals directly with you, not the craft. In other words, if you got shit for years from family and friends, before becoming a full time writer, I want to hear all about it—juicy details and all. Got an, I Told You So that you want voiced to the world? Let her rip.

What do I NOT want to see?

Stuff that hasn’t even been spell-checked. I don’t care about your learning disability. I’ve got one too, but I’ve learned how to deal with it. If you can’t turn in a polished, professional piece, then you won’t get my recommendation. End of story. I’m not talking about typos. Hell, I make typos ALL THE TIME (I’m sure there are some in this post). I’m talking about consistent issues and laziness. If I see it, I WILL tell you it’s unpublishable.

Poetry. Yeah, I know … there is a trend right now to crank out story-length dark poetry, ala Poe. But unless you are Poe, then I don’t want to see it. No, I mean this utterly. You aren’t an exception.

Graphic erotica, tons of cursing, or anything else I’m not allowed to turn into my own publisher. Look, I just spent two hours taking most of the F-bombs out of Icarus. I’m not saying you can’t curse or slip in an act of gratuitous violence here or there. But, it has to have a point. The fewer words you have to impress a reader with, the stronger your narrative has to be to hold their attention. In a short story, you can’t waste 15% of your verbiage on pointless vulgarity.

So, where do I submit?

jschancellor@suspensemagazine.com

I’ll respond to you within two weeks. I WILL RESPOND. To everything. If you don’t hear from me, don’t bitch about it, send it again. A lack of response means there is something wrong with the correspondence. I’m not ignoring you. If you don’t hear from me after sending your sub a second time, track me down on FB or here. On FB you can reach me under my pen name J.S. Chancellor (fan page) or my real name, Breanne Braddy.

Thanks guys! I look forward to seeing your stuff!

Guest Blogger: James Thayer

A character’s weakness is a story’s strength.

“Your characters are going to make or break your story,’” Stephen Coonts said.  No matter how deftly the plot is put together, not matter how exotic the settings, no matter how vividly written the story is, readers won’t become involved with the story unless they are attracted to a character.  Novelist Sol Stein said, “Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten.”

Sometimes creating that magnetic character is difficult.   James Michener said, “I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my character, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page.”

Here’s a proven technique; give the character a weakness.  Nobility, intelligence, determination, wisdom, humor: all of these attributes can work well in fictional hero, but nothing endears readers to a character more than a weakness.  And Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda said, “Characters’ weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths.”

An example is Sherlock Holmes, who was brilliant, daring, and witty.  But, as Sol Stein points out, Holmes’s “drug addiction worried his friend Dr. Watson.  Watson is critical of Holmes’s habit, but does not condemn him for it.  The reader wishes Holmes would abstain, and knows he can’t.”  Holmes can sometimes be arrogant and waspish, but Stein says the addiction helps the reader feel compassion for the detective.

Even well-crafted superheroes have weaknesses.  James Poniewozik said that we need superheroes “to suffer our heartbreaks, reflect our anxieties, embody our weaknesses,” and notes that Clark Kent’s “sad-sack personality is as essential to fans as Superman’s ability to turn steel girders into pasta ribbons.”  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics listed Spiderman’s weaknesses: “Despite his super powers, he still has money troubles, dandruff, domestic problems, allergy attacks, self-doubts, and unexpected defeats.”

What about more down-to-earth characters?  In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s weakness is blind love that makes her fail to find true love and happiness. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s weakness is an amoral scientific curiosity.  Macbeth was undone by arrogance, and Othello by misplaced trust.

In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels, Jack Aubrey’s weakness is befuddlement regarding how the world works on land, as opposed to the sea where he is indeed a master.  In John LeCarre’s novels, George Smiley’s weakness is his baffling tolerance for his wife’s affairs.

Anne’s weakness in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a touch of haughtiness.  In I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Charlotte’s weakness is naivety,  Same with Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.  In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is plagued by a prickliness to insult stemming from a sense of inferiority.

A weakness endears a character to readers because we aren’t perfect, and so we see ourselves in character’s weaknesses.  We root for people with whom we sympathize, and so we want to accompany the character on her adventures, cheering all the way.

**You can find out more about James, and get more of his sage advice at his website here. I haven’t personally read his book yet (as I just recently had the pleasure of ‘virtually’ meeting him through comments on Best Damn), but if it is anywhere near as excellent as his blog, then it ought to be well worth the money to purchase it!

In the In-between

“Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe.” ~Truman Capote

Authors have love affairs. Some of them are lasting, life-long affairs that wax and wane like the cycles of the moon. Others are short bursts of passion whose fires fizzle out as quickly as they were lit. We don’t … however, marry.

I’m talking about our writing, of course. I’ve been happily married in real life for nearly 10 years.

And I’m not talking in general terms about our storytelling either. I’m speaking literally of how we feel about our ability to write. We crush on it at times, especially when we get a particularly glowing review from a blogger or critic, or better yet from an agent, our editor, or our publisher.

But we don’t love it.

We love the act. We love the stories, the characters … the worlds we create. We even think we love our writing at times. But, like all affairs, the truth comes out in the end and we, being the fickle lovers that we are, we change and look for other mistresses. Other mistresses, being however you chose to interpret this analogy. It’s different for each of us.

I’ve never read a single blog post where the author raved about their talent with words. Storytelling, sure. But don’t think for a minute that we don’t all feel that deep-in-your-gut dread that says none too quietly, “Wow, I’m absolutely horrible at this. I’m that girl in the church chorus whom they’ve doled out solos to because they pity her.”

Even the great Capote, who knew damn well that he had a firm hold on the English language (as evidenced by his many self-indulgent quips), had his darker moments. Note that in the quote above, he didn’t say how good his writing could be—how skillful his prose could be. He said my book. Big, big difference.

There are moments, however rare they may be, when we read a paragraph or a chapter (or if we’re really blessed, a whole book that we’ve penned), and we think to ourselves, “That was incredible.” But, it just doesn’t last—that feeling. It fades as quickly as oak furniture in direct sunlight.

So what do we do?

We love like hell in those passionate moments—in the in-between. And we learn. My God, do we learn. And we wait. We wait for the next breathtaking moment.

I promise you … if you are patient, it will come. Remember, feelings are fickle and are apt to betray. Promises however, if you mean them, can last lifetimes. And I promise to stay faithful to my writing, for better or worse.

Do you?

Shit My Muse Says Pt.1

Shit my muse LOVES: Morior by Tom Barczak

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”
Robert Benchley

What is that thing in the picture?

That, my dear friends/family members/random passer-byers, is a Morior. This particular Morior has a name, Eralos, and he’s a quite a nasty, boorish sort of Morior. He also happens to be a fallen immortal. This is, of course, from my Guardians trilogy. A fellow author, Thomas Barczak did this sketch last week and I’ve stared at it ever since. I fully intend to have Thomas do a series of drawings for me for future use either on the Guardians blog or perhaps additional publications for Guardians (such as an E-encyclopdia). Why am I showing it to you?

Because I can…

No, really it’s because I think there is something to be said for indulging yourself a little as an author—your muse likes it and will behave when you do.  Which per usual got me thinking about what ELSE my muse, specifically, likes. So I thought now would be a good time to start a series about all the shit my muse says. Everyone in the blogosphere is doing “series” these days, so for once in my life I caved to the peer pressure and I’m now doing what all the popular kids are doing. This is my lame attempt at going with the flow. So, without further ado: Shit my muse says…

* You know, when you drink that much coffee, you’re only writing faster—not smarter. There is a difference. The more caffeine you consume in one writing session, the more of a dumbass you make me out to be. I’m not overly fond of this.

* I like split-infinitves. You can sort it out with your editor later. Yes, I know they’re bad. That’s your problem, MRS. Fancy Pants Author, not mine.

* For Christ’s sake will you PLEASE Stop reading reviews on Goodreads and Amazon? Or anywhere else for that matter? Every single time you ‘glance’ at your stats or a group of reviews, you’re effectively clamping your hand over my mouth. Then, you have the nerve to get mad at me for not saying anything?!

* There is a CAA meeting at the local Y next Wednesday. I’m signing you up. What do you mean you don’t know what CAA is? Comma Abusers Anonymous. It’s like AA without the occasional boozing and with, ridiculous, unnecessary, pausing….and a worse hangover.

* Do you realize how often you nod? Your husband nods. Your mother nods. The dude chewing gum at the DMV nodded when you lied and told him you only weighed 110 pounds. Do you have some perverse need to voice aloud every single instance you perform or see someone commit this act of normalcy? No? Then why the hell do you insist on typing it ALL. THE. TIME. (My muse shakes her head, frowning)

*Ahem….same goes with the whole shaking-of-the-head bit. Knock it off already!

* It’s perfectly reasonable to tell you all about other works while you’re trying to write to a deadline. My name is not Motivation, it’s Muse. I’m much better looking, I come around more often and technically I don’t require you to *do* anything. You should be grateful that I feel so inclined as to whisper, ever-so-gently, into your ear.

* I like adjectives and adverbs. So, either learn to use them effectively or fill out an application to flip burgers ’cause I have NO intention of losing my affinity for them. Yes, I know what a word search is and I don’t appreciate the tone you’re taking with me.

* Hot wings … all flappers … with extra hot sauce, extra ranch dressing and extra celery, are all totally necessary to write this next scene. No, seriously, you’re not typing a single word until these items are procured. I don’t care that it’s Sunday or that Willy T’s is closed.

* Still no hot wings? Such a shame. It’d be a PERFECT day to write, don’t you think?

* Readers, some of them, don’t think writers ever make mistakes. The well-read ones will realize that, while ideal, this ridiculous concept is not true. AT. ALL. So do the best you can and learn from your errors. You have an editor at Rhemalda who will catch 99% of the things you miss while drafting your fiction. Learn from that instruction. But, DON’T let your fear of the public’s perception hinder you from blogging as honestly as you always have. You will make mistakes. You are only human. Whoever has an issue with it can come take it up with me in private. It won’t be pretty.

* 3am is a perfectly reasonable time to send you inspiration. Perfectly. Reasonable. Why are you asking?

* I know I’m getting on your nerves, but that major info dump you just dropped into chapter five isn’t going to make me go away.

* YES?!? You have to write down the verbal picture I’m painting rightdamnow! I’m only giving you this idea once, and then that’s it. Your time with that idea will have passed and I’ll hand it off to someone else’s muse who will listen to them.

* OK, I lied about the too much coffee thing. WE NEED COFFEE NOW!

Part II coming next week. Meanwhile, what kind of shit does your muse say?

I’m Just Saying…

“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”
Eli Wallach

I just read ANOTHER post on the pitfalls of praise. It even had a cute trendy title and came from a, gasp, respected trustworthy source.

Why is it that somehow praise is always to be regarded with a skeptical attitude, but criticism is not? I realize that this is rarely stated as being 100%, but it still seems like every other blog post I read these days is all about gleaning nuggets of wisdom from the negative reviews and “plugging your ears” when the praise comes around. I’m not saying that there isn’t some truth in being cautious with how you interpret reader reaction, be it positive or negative, but this #trendy topic I think has grown a bit big for its britches.

You know how small our percentages are as authors, how much we get paid in reality (even those of us on bestseller lists), and yet the one thing we get to really enjoy … we’re to plug our ears to? This was a great post that I just read, and I understand where she was coming from, just like I’ve understood the perspective of every other post on this subject. Yet, it still chaps my ass a little. Why?

Because we grew up in a world where things like 5th place exists. Because every other profession gets to celebrate, regardless of where they fall on the continuum except, it seems, for authors. Honestly, I’m a little tired of it. Who really stops growing as a writer because they think that they’re made of awesome? Seriously, are there that many authors out there who are throwing all their forward momentum into the trash because their latest novel was well received and they’re reveling in it a while?

I doubt it. Maybe one or two … but it’s hardly the epidemic that the blogosphere is making it out to be. If the temperature of the literary community is in any way related to how bloggers see this subject, we’d all be proclaiming our own worth like Capote on steroids. But, we aren’t.  No one writes blog posts about how much they rock (no author I’ve ever heard of anyway).

Unwarranted praise? I believe in the existence of unwarranted criticism, but a wealth of praise from the anonymous public without cause seems … um, legendary? I can’t even think of the right word for this. I get what she’s saying if the praise is coming from friends and family, but give us some credit for not being totally brain-dead here. We know genuine praise from total crap. And even if it is from family, it depends on which member of the family the praise is coming from. If your uncle has told you that your stuff is shit, 9 books out of 10, then you’re more than free to take that 10th book’s praise to heart.

I’m SO tired of hearing this chanted like a mantra for newbies. The Pitfalls of Praise. It’s cute. It’s catchy. It’s everything you’d want in a viral blog post. It probably even looks good printed out and posted over an aspiring author’s desk, but I can’t bring myself to agree with it. I think if you’re in-tune enough with your voice, as an author, and your editor, as a professional, then you’ll be just fine.

If, for some ungodly reason, there is a giant steaming batch of unwarranted praise hanging out there for a novel, your publisher/agent and/or editor, will tell you not to let your head get too big over it. I’m sure. Can’t say that I see that scenario actually happening in real life, but perhaps for someone the words, “All those comments about how strong your characterization is, are total shit. You need to seriously work on it in the future,” have been spoken.

Whatever. All I’m saying is that I doubt Stephen King takes advice like this. Or J.K. Rowling, or Dean Koontz. Or hell, even James Patterson. Maybe they just don’t care and I’m too bitter to see the forest for the trees … or, just maybe, we’ve let Twitter and Google Ads overtake our want for genuine writing guidance and sound mentoring. Most things worth hearing don’t fit into the viral scheme, so that stuff doesn’t get blogged about all that often. It doesn’t easily fit into packages with shiny ‘totes fave’ Blogger of the Week badges, or into the top five sponsored Twitter topics.

Real gold takes a little searching. It doesn’t pop out at you from a laminated sticky note above your desk. It comes from inside your head or your heart. The real gold is you, your special gifts, and your unique voice as an author. It’s the stuff only you’re capable of telling yourself.

So, instead of shunning praise and scouring criticism … how about we spend a little more time invested in finding out who we really are as authors?

I’m just saying …