Friday, March 22, 2013

86 Things I've Said on Twitter, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a continuing series of things I said on Twitter last week. Part 2 is found here. Today, there are ten items. Rock on.

I'm an editor. My job is to help you get your story/creation/thing into the best shape it can be. Not a "gatekeeper", unless YOU say so.

"Gatekeeper" as a buzzword cropped up a few years ago (at least as far as I can tell), to explain that in traditional publishing models you have to get your work past some literary Cerberus before your creation can hang out in the word-Underworld.

And this idea set up this them-vs-us sort of barrier, that whoever was a gatekeeper was an obstacle, some additional wall you had to climb or hoop you had to jump through.

Yes, there might be some old crusty guys still adhering to the old model of publishing, and they may very well be quite the gatekeepers, arbitrating and adjudicating whether or not your work is "good enough". But by and large, that model is on the decline.

I'm an editor. It says so on my business cards. I don't ever feel like a gatekeeper. I am an enabler. I help you get your creation into the best shape it can be, both so that it may later blow the socks off whatever gatekeeper in encounters, but also so that you can see that you're good at this, and that you tell good stories and that your stories deserve to be a part of the marketplace and pantheon of creations.

I'm no gatekeeper unless you make me out to be one. Approach me timidly, approach me coming from that place of "Oh John I hope I'm good enough to have you look at this." and watch me have no choice but to play that role for you, even if I don't want to. You are good enough to have me (or any editor) look at your work. You just are.

P.S. Please don't make me be a gatekeeper. It sucks.

If writing is important to you, if it's a thing you want to do or a thing you want to be called, why aren't you making time for it?

Far and away, the biggest complaint I hear is how people don't have time for writing. And they're quick to trot out a ton of reasons why - they have jobs, they have kids, they're tired, the phone kept ringing, etc etc. Some of these reasons are valid. Some are not. Usually when this statement gets made at me I point out that some of the reasons aren't valid and don't have as much weight as the person thinks they do.

And other times I ask the person to write out their schedule (in big blocks of hours), so that they can see where exactly they're spending their time, and to see that (for example) while the dishes run, that's 30 whole minutes where they just sort of sit on the couch. In those same thirty minutes, I bet they could write several paragraphs.

I wrote a whole blogpost about this - Making Time To Create.

If it's really and truly important to you, you'll make the time. Just like you make time for exercise or playing with your kids or tending your garden. Make time for what matters to you.

How long are you going to call yourself "new" at writing? When are you going to accept that you love it, and it's okay to succeed?

Next week, 60 workers are descending upon my home and installing nearly two dozen new windows. This has not only set off a great deal of anxiety (because, hey, new people) but also really rubbed my comfort level the wrong way. In order to give them access to the windows, I've had to move all my furniture and bookshelves. This gave me a chance to count my books on writing.


There are three whole bookcases (the floor to ceiling kind) lined with books about how to write, how to plot, how to figure stuff out. And for a long time, I thought that I could find the "right" book that would tell me the perfect way to tell the best story from start to finish. I found a few that came close, but they didn't exactly  get me there.

Books are often aimed at new writers, or people about to become new writers, because they're hungry for advice. You know why there aren't so many books aimed at experienced writers? Because the experienced writers figured something out --

That you figure your own process out as you write. The act of doing the thing teaches you about the thing. In your own way. Tailored precisely for you. That's not something a book can teach.

How long are you going to chase the books? Sure there are great morsels of advice in those books, sure they might help you. But there's no substitute for sitting down and writing and discovering yourself by taking the action.

It's okay to be new at this. It's okay not to be new at this. It's okay to succeed. People want you to succeed (not all people, but that's for another time). You want you to succeed. So, get writing. And succeed. Book or no book.

You know what's great? An author excited about their work. You know what's not great? An author paralyzed by bad advice and fear.

Here's the other danger in books - some of them discourage people from writing by making the process sound scarier or confusing, when in fact, writing is just taking an idea out of your head, and painting it into other peoples' minds with words.

How can a book of bad advice get published you ask? A couple reasons: 1) If bad advice leads you to not get published, it makes it all the easier for other people to get published (smaller pool of applicants for a job) 2) Some people don't realize that their advice is bad, thinking so highly of themselves that what they spout is verbal gold, not verbal sludge. 3) Anyone can get anything published (see: whatever awful book you most recently suffered through).

Be excited about your work. Don't let yourself be dissuaded from your goal. Keep writing, keep going. You can do this. (I mean, unless you can't, but that's for another discussion.)

You can curse in your work. In your work, you're like Aladdin, showing us a world. Do whatever feels best for the story.

I have a client who loves to write arguments. They enjoy creating back-and-forth moments between characters. They love the tight exposition and the chemistry between people in those moments.

And then they write a line like this, "[Character A], you're a real lame-o."

When I flag this sentence as being both an eyesore and not indicative of tension, I ask "What's up with 'lame-o' and get told something to the effect of "I didn't think it was okay to curse."

It's totally okay to curse. It's okay to have sentence fragments. It's okay to do whatever you need to (short of totally wrecking grammar and punctuation) in order to give the reader the details they need to see this created experience the way you see it / the way you want them to see it.

Curse like a sailor. Kick ass. Take names. Do whatever feels best FOR THE STORY.

Rule #1 - Writing is the act of making decisions. The sky is blue until you say otherwise. Make choices. Own them. Go forward.

I teach this rule to as many of my clients as possible. This is the first thing I say to new writers. I usually say this three or four times during workshops.

How do you know what happens next in the story? You decide. How do you know where to start? You decide.

You're in charge. Make choices. Put your foot down. Go forward from that point. The only "wrong" choice is not to do anything at all.

Don't tell me you're only an author AFTER publication/sales. Are you writing? You're an author. Sure, you can love how other authors write, you can want to be like them. BUT YOU ARE AN AUTHOR TOO, AREN'T YOU? BE YOU!

There's a lot of focus on the end-goals of writing. Being published. Being "legit". Making tons of cash. Living the jet-setting high life. But you don't get the title of "author" after you write. You get the title AS you write.

This usually partners with another thought - that in order to be an author, you have to sound like an already established author, or you have to do whatever they do. Curse like a Wendig. Emote like a McGuire. Explain like a Hammett.

You don't. You have one job to do -- to write like a [whatever your name is].

That's what readers want. Not a clone. They want you. Your voice. Your way. Your words.

How much writing is "enough" for a day? You need at least one new word a day. Everything else is icing on cakes.

I'm a big fan of "two new pages a day". It works great for screenwriting. It makes short work of theater pieces. And in text, when you're double-spacing, two pages can fly by if it's a conversation. But that's my pace. That's a speed I figured out that works for me, given my schedule and how fast my fingers hit keys. Your speed may be totally different, and that's okay.

But don't conceive of writing as a race. It's no sprint. There's no bonus waiting for you if you write faster than the person to your left. Your pace is your pace, and at its heart, even one new word a day on the page gets you one step closer to being done. If you can get one more word, then the next words come all the easier. One word at a time. And if you can string several words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into pages, and pages into chapters...that's just awesome.

Worried about your "platform", your "presence" or [other buzzword here] ? JUST WRITE YOUR STORIES PLEASE. AND THEN TALK ABOUT THEM A LOT

Want to find the people to avoid at a mixer, cocktail hour or slightly douchey conference? Find the people who spout buzzwords more than pronouns. Your life as an author is not about your platform. Yes, you need a platform (read: website, social media presence) if you want to engage/interact with your audience, but it's just a set of tools to interact with people IN ADDITION TO writing. It's no measure of your quality as a person, nor a reflection on your work. And anyone who inflates your platform ahead of your writing needs a swift kick in the pants. And/or they're trying to sell you something.

So what do you do? You write. Then, in whatever media you're comfortable (me, I like Twitter, podcasts and blogposts) you talk about what you've written. Then you write more, then you talk more about it.

Buzzwords can suck it.

How do you make a scene more tense? Focus on big AND little details, but in tighter sentences.

You watch TV? Ever pay attention to the where the camera focuses? Sure it shows up close-ups on our favorite actors, and it shows cars on a road, but did you see how the camera focused on the picture of the character's wife on the wall when the guy was talking about missing her? It's showing us a detail that isn't the character, so that we learn more about the character. 

And that builds tension. See, tension isn't just what you build when you want to make the next scene more exciting. Tension is any built-up feeling. It could be comedy, like we're all waiting to laugh. It could be nervousness - will the spy get caught before she can escape? 

How that gets built in visual media is by the camera. In text, we have to go with sentences. Long sentences draw our eye across the page slower than short sentences. 


He moved across the room with all determination and purpose, a skulking panther in fleece pajama pants and a grubby t-shirt. 

In his grubby shirt and pajamas, he skulked across the room with a purpose.

21 words versus 14. Shorter sentences have a greater punch, moving us from one thought to the next faster than the longer sentences, which consume time and energy to read. 

Also, what the sentence talks about gives us a clue about what to think about. A character who forever gets dumped upon and is weighed down by the world has a lot of power in their first, "No". 

During the scene where we're to be focused on what the character is feeling, try anchoring that feeling to something tangible. A mother's locket. A picture of a spouse. An image of their kids playing ball in the yard. The dog at their feet.  

The details that aren't expressly about the character say as much about the character's world and the character's place in it as the description of how the character felt at a particular time. 

Remember: You control what the reader pictures. You paint the images on the mental canvas, so what do you want to show us? Where should we pay attention?

Part 4 will be up next week (likely not Monday, maybe Tuesday). Happy writing.