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.

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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 …