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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What You Know

(Previously published on my website www.lisalregan.com)

“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”

-Howard Nemerov (20th Century American Poet)

I have never believed in that old adage: write what you know. Or at least I think that people take it too literally. I mean if you’re a doctor then you might write a book featuring doctors or medicine. If you’re a lawyer, you might make your main character a lawyer. If you were in the military then you could write a military thriller. I don’t think this expression should be write what you know. I think it should be “use what you know”. I think write what you know is too limiting.

We’re asked pretty early on in life to curb our imaginations, to reign in our creativity, to fall in line and prepare to have our tickets punched. Go to school. Learn this stuff. Graduate. Optional: Go to college. Then get a job. Get healthcare. Get a spouse. Find a place to live. Have some kids. Put them in school. Continue cycle. Every day life for most of us is not very adventurous. It may make us happy but it isn’t always a thrill a minute. The entire entertainment industry is predicated on this fact. Television, movies, books, video games, the internet. People need an escape, a release, an outlet. People want to get caught up in something outside of their lives, even if it’s just for an hour.

I look at my daughter who is three and right now her imagination is so vivid that she can make a game, an entire universe out of a couple of plastic cups and a magic marker. She’s like the Imagination McGuyver. She is constantly making up her own words and stories, songs and characters. Her world seems so much more interesting than mine and yet, in the grand scheme of things she knows a heckuva lot less than I do. She doesn’t need television or movies or books. That’s not to say that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on all of those things but as far as play goes, she can make something out of nothing. I’m constantly astounded by how vivid her imagination is.

When you get older and that imagination is stunted and antiquated, you need a lot more stimulation.

Let’s turn write what you know around. Let’s say read what you know. You can only read what you know about. So take my life for example. My morning routine is pretty much exactly the same every day. Get up, get ready for the day. Wake the husband and child so they can get ready for the day. Try to extract as many snuggles, hugs and kisses from the child as I can. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Between dinner and bedtime play with the child whilst attempting to coax from her as many hugs, kisses and snuggles as possible. Get child ready for bed, put her to bed. Read/write/watch tv for awhile. Go to sleep. Repeat.

Now look, I love my life. I do. I’m content in a way that I never really thought possible. But for the love of God, I don’t want to read about it. It’s boring. And I certainly don’t want to write about it. I mean you could read what I’ve just written or let’s take a story by Diana Gabaldon, just for an example, you could read about a woman who was a nurse in England during WWII. After the war she and her husband are staying at a Scottish bed and breakfast when she is transported back in time to the 1700s and her fate is thrown together with the fate of a Scottish Highlander who she quickly falls for. Now really, which story is more interesting?

Fiction should not be about what you know. Fiction should be about what you want to know, what you imagine, what interests you, about the questions you have. Fiction should take you on wild adventures to places and with people you will never meet in real life. Fiction should let you enter a dangerous world where you get to be in the thick of all the action but where you are also guaranteed safety. Fiction should let you live vicariously through a wide range of characters. Writing fiction should be fun. It should be intriguing as hell.

When I wrote Aberration, the most fun I had writing that book was when I wrote the scenes from the killer’s point of view because he was having black outs. Does this sort of thing happen in real life? Not exactly the way I have it in the book (and I must say I think Fiction should be allowed to take some liberties but that’s another post). Does this sort of thing happen to me? Nope. Do I ever want it to happen to me? Most certainly not! But it sure was fun to write.

My current work in progress has a protagonist who is exceptionally fun to write because she says things that I would never say—her personality is far more loud and brash than mine. I don’t know how to be like her but it sure is fun to write.

I think if I had to write only what I knew, I wouldn’t write. What would be the point? It wouldn’t be any fun. I like to use my imagination, my creativity!

So I think instead of writing what we know, we should use what we know in our writing. And if we don’t know something, well there’s always research. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one of the best group of books I ever read. In fact, I just downloaded the first one to my Kindle so I can read the series again for the fifth time. (My paperback copy is 15 years old and falling apart). Did Diana Gabaldon travel back in time to 1700 in Scotland? Surely not. But wow, she writes a hell of a story about it. I once read that she had written that whole first book (and possibly more) without ever having been to Scotland. But she had an interest in Scotland and the research she did while writing her book has served her just fine.

I don’t think writers should limit themselves to writing what they know. I think if writers had followed that advice over the years, there are a heckuva lot of books that would never have been written—good books.

I say use what you know but don’t limit yourself by thinking you should write ONLY what you know. Use your imagination. Don’t let it go to waste.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fallen

I didn't sleep much last week. I was exhausted. I drew dirty looks from my fiance--that is when I deigned to pay attention to him. My three year old had to say "Mommy" three or four times before she got my attention. My boss said I seem distracted. My work in progress was on hold. This could only mean one thing. The new Karin Slaughter book is out! It came out last Tuesday. It was supposed to be released on May 31st of this year but for reasons unknown to us lowly readers, they made us wait another 20 days. I had this book auto-delivered to my Kindle and I happily paid $12.99 for the e-book. Normally I would read this in one night but I forced myself to slow down. I wanted to really enjoy it. And I did. I realized this week that Karin Slaughter is my favorite author. I've never really had a favorite. In my mind, there were too many awesome writers out there for me to choose a favorite. Plus there are all those great, immortal authors whose works are so incredible they live on decades or centuries after the author has left us--Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Wright, James Baldwin to name a few. I've had love affairs with the works of certain authors over the years--Milan Kundera was my constant companion in my late teens, early 20s. But I've never had a favorite author, really. Not an author whose newest book I wait longingly for and buy the day it is released. Most of the time, I'm not aware that my favorites have released a new book until a few months after it has been out. But over the years, Karin Slaughter has become my favorite author.

Karin Slaughter writes in my favorite genre which--in spite of my education in literature--is crime fiction. This also happens to be the genre I love to write. One of the things I love about Slaughter is that she never disappoints. She's got the Grant County Series and then she's got a few stand alone novels. The stand alones feature most of the same characters but you could easily read them out of order. The last few books she's brought the main character from the Grant County series and the characters from the stand alones together and in my estimation, this makes for better books! You can really read any one of her books as a stand alone. I started with the second book in her Grant County series and had no problems following things or falling in love with the characters. It will mean more if you read them in order though. Over the years, Slaughter has brought tears to my eyes and made me throw her books across the room screaming.

A few years back she killed off one of the main characters in the Grant County Series. A character I had been very attached to; a character I could not imagine the other characters living without. It was horrible. I felt betrayed and devastated. I vowed never to read another word Slaughter wrote. I wrote her a nasty letter which wouldn't go through to her email due to technical difficulties. It was just as well. I cannot resist her books. As soon as the next one came out, I shamefacedly read it, aware that all my bluster and nasty words had been for naught. I couldn't resist finding out what had happened to my beloved favorite characters. I read on. I read through the betrayal and now, a few fabulous books later I find that her most recent book, Fallen, is the most satisfying book yet. That's how I felt when I finished it Thursday night. Satisfied. Happy. I'm happy I kept reading. I love these characters. I root for them. Slaughter can be very ruthless--she doesn't pull any punches. I think her depiction of the evil people are capable of is particularly realistic which is what makes it all the more scary. Her characters are battle-scarred and world-weary but they are all the more loveable for that. They grow and they change--not always in the direction you expect or even want but they do change with time and experience. Personally, I love following a handful of great characters over a number of books.

As a writer, I'm always astounded by how tightly constructed Slaughter's plots are and this past week I noticed something that she does in every book that sucks readers in. I'm not sure how I missed it before. It's an old rule--hook the reader right away. Always with Slaughter her first chapter starts out normal--nothing dramatic, no explosions, no CGI. Fallen begins with one of the main characters--Faith--driving home from a work training session, worrying because she is running late and she cannot get ahold of her mother by phone or email. She is especially worried because her mother has been watching her infant daughter while she's been at work. But by the end of the chapter Faith's four month old daughter is trapped in a hot shed, her mother is missing and she's shot two people. The first few pages may not be particularly heart-stopping but the first chapter overall starts off with a breathtaking bang!

I thought back to all her previous books and realized that this is what Slaughter does in each book. The first chapter puts you right into the heart of the conflict at the center of the book. As I said, this isn't an old idea. Us aspiring writers who are looking for agents or publishers hear this all the time--you have to hook the reader immediately. Of course all the things I've read lately say you should try to do it in the first 2 paragraphs or the first 250 words. I don't think that's particularly realistic. I like what Slaughter does. Although the first few paragraphs or pages seem slow, she's giving you a chance to get to know the character before she puts her in peril. If I didn't know the main character in Fallen from previous books and in the first two paragraphs she had shot two people, I would think, "Who cares? Why should I care about this woman and who she killed and why?" But the build-up to the big bang at the end of the chapter is what makes the hook so masterful. By the end of the chapter you know that this woman is a single mother, a detective, a hard-working woman who struggles with diabetes. She has a four month old she cannot wait to get back to. She's close to her mother who is watching her baby that day. You have a chance to get inside her head and connect with her so toward the end of the chapter when she walks into a perilous situation, your heart is pounding. You're invested.

So in the matter of just a few pages, you've learned a lot of background about the main character, you've connected with her and then you've been catapulted into the mystery that is the plot of the book. I say catapulted because when you do get to the conflict at the end of the chapter, it's quite dramatic. This actually is my favorite start to any of Slaughter's books. She's at the top of her game in Fallen. This is what I want to try to do in my own work, starting with what I'm working on. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Slaughter's latest book but I learned a lot from her too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Irresistably Sweet

So Friday I got a text message from my best friend and writing soul mate, Nancy Thompson that I should hurry on over to her blog because there was something there for me. I was leaving the doctor's office but I was able to pull up her blog on my Blackberry. I was stunned and humbled to find that she had nominated me for the Irresistably Sweet Blog Award! Thank you, Nancy! I sincerely appreciate it and it means a lot to me that someone as brilliant as Nancy would nominate me for this award.




Well this is a kind of pay-it-forward award nomination which I am happy to pass along to some other wonderful, intelligent and intriguing bloggers. Here are the rules, as I have them:

1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them. (See above)

2. Include 7 random tidbits about yourself (See below)

3. Pass the award onto 5 others and link to their blogs (See below)

4. Let said people know you've given them the award (Will do).

Okay so first, 7 random tidbits about yours truly (and I'm choosing things you wouldn't find out about me by perusing this website).

1. For one of my birthdays in my mid-twenties, I boxed another girl in a bar for money. It was quite fun. I did well although boxing is way harder than martial arts (I kept trying to slap arm-bars on her which was frowned upon). I won $50.

2. I hate chicken. The sight or smell of it usually makes me gag. Sometimes I can eat chicken salad or chicken nuggets but most of the time I cannot eat chicken at all.

3. I hate cooking but I love baking. For me cooking is boring, tedious and disgusting. I lose my appetite when I cook. But I love to bake. I could bake all day but I could also eat my baked goods all day long which is why I don't bake often.

4. I'm totally addicted to HBO's new show, Game of Thrones (and it's not something that would usually catch my interest but it is SO good).

5. I love, love, love romantic comedies. I know I'm supposed to be all educated and not sucked in by how formulaic they are but I can't help it. I just love them.

6. I've worked as a karate instructor, office assistant/manager, certified nurse assistant and paralegal in my adult life. I loved all of those jobs for different reasons.

7. When I was in college I had a writing partner who told me that I was "like a raucous trashman to my sensibilities". I still find that hilarious.

Okay, now here's the real fun. I'd like to pass along the Irresistably Sweet Blog Award to the following wonderful writers/bloggers:

1. Laila at The Untroubled Kingdom of Laila Knight. Laila's insights into the craft of writing always inspire me and make me laugh. She's very witty and I love hearing about her process. So much of what she blogs about resonates with me.

2. L.J. Cohen at Once in a Blue Muse. I just discovered Ms. Cohen's blog and I love it! It's intelligent, poetic and I love her recent posts about revisions.

3. Nina Badzin at Nina Badzin's Blog. A writer and mother, Ms. Badzin's blog particularly resonates with me. Informative and well-written, I've learned a thing or two from her blog.

4. Natalie Whipple at Between Fact and Fiction. I follow this blog with special interest as Ms. Whipple is and has been on submissions (as am I). Like all the bloggers I'm mentioning in this post, she's a great writer and she gives great insight to other writers into how the process of getting published works.

5. Basil Sands at Basil Sands' blog. I first came across Basil on the Kill Zone blog. His comments are always intelligent, incisive and absolutely hilarious. I had the privilege of being a beta reader for Basil's most recent novel, Cold Summer which I very much enjoyed. Basil has a very unique voice and I always enjoy reading whatever he's written whether it's a blog post of his own or a comment on the Kill Zone blog.

I don't know that these bloggers will choose to pass this award forward but each one of them, as well as Nancy who nominated me are awesome writers and if their blogs are any indication they are intelligent, witty and compassionate human beings as well. Worth checking out. Oh, single reader, I hope you will check their blogs out!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Do You Write

Originally published on my website 3/31/11 (www.lisalregan.com)

My brilliant, wonderful friend and writing soulmate, Nancy Thompson had a great blog post recently about why she writes which you can read here. She said she would be interested to know my own answer to the question: why do you write? My immediate answer is: because I have to. I thought about that—about why that’s my answer, why that comes immediately to mind. I think it is because writing is how I make sense of the world. It’s how I process things, how I talk myself in and out of things, how I resolve my issues, how I answer my questions.

How I make sense of my world.

As a child, pretty early on I had a lot of stuff to make sense of. I don’t want to disparage my parents in any way because they are all amazing people and they did a fabulous job but I’m a product of divorce. Now I don’t want to make it sound like I had it so horribly because I didn’t but the fact is that for a young child, divorce is hard. It hurts and all of a sudden your perfectly ordered world doesn’t make sense anymore and in your child’s mind it never will again. Plus for the rest of your childhood, no matter where you are, you are missing someone. My fiancĂ© came from a not-divorced home and I can never fully explain to him the lifelong sense of FRACTURE that coming from a bunch of divorces has left me with—how it affects so many aspects of my life to this day.

Again, I’m not saying oh-my-life-was-ruined-by-my-parents’-divorce. On the contrary there were great things that resulted from the divorces. (I say divorces—my parents got divorced and both remarried awesome people who were in my life for decades and who I consider my parents every bit as much as if we were blood-related, then one of those couples got divorced, there was a remarriage and another divorce etc. and so on). First of all I now have a number of (step/half) siblings who are some of the most fascinating, wonderful, kind-hearted, brilliant people I have ever had the privilege to know. I would never know them if the divorces/remarriages hadn’t taken place and my existence would be much poorer for it. I got more than one mom and dad and lucky for me, the people my biological and step-parents chose to marry are also some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. People who made me the person I am today, whose influences I am grateful for beyond words. Then there is the double Christmas/birthday presents, double family vacations, etc. Those are all awesome things about being from a divorced family.

On the other hand, when you’re very, very young and all of these relationships and dynamics are changing around you and custody battles are being waged and lines are drawn in the sand by various other family members and new people are entering your world and changing everything again—it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on in your world and where you fit. The other problem I personally had with the divorce thing is that I had lived in 10 different houses by the time I was eleven years old and by that time had changed schools a number of times. I’m not saying this is the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone—far from it—I’m just saying for me, the impetus for my writing came from just being really confused about my world and my place in it.

I always kept journals—I kept a journal as early as the fourth grade and it helped me process all the changes going on. When I was eleven I started writing books. Actual books. I’ve always had trouble writing short stories. Apparently I’m just too long-winded. I was literally eleven years old when I completed my first book which I called “Black Summer”. It was somewhere around 140,000 words and had some very adult themes. I wrote it for a few reasons. One was for the escape. When the landscape of your life and your role in the lives of everyone around you is constantly changing, sometimes you just want to get away. I loved, craved the escape that writing offered. In this world I controlled everything. I could do anything I wanted, go anywhere I wanted, be anyone I wanted. It was a place I could go where I was completely free and where I always felt good. It was addictive.

The other thing that it gave me was a constant. The writing never changed. It was always there and it was always the same. Good or bad, sloppy or well-written, long-winded or brief—it was there. Wherever I went, there it was because it was inside me. It never left me, never made me feel badly about myself, never let me down, never disappointed me, never frightened me. It always felt good. It was consistent. It was constant.

When I had no one to talk to, I wrote. When I needed to cheer up, I wrote. When I felt confused, I wrote. When I wanted a heady, euphoric rush, I wrote. When everything in my world was in disarray, I wrote. When I needed a release, I wrote. When I had questions, I wrote. It’s just the way I’ve always dealt with life so yeah, I have to write. Plus it feels good. It’s like a really great drug but it won’t land me in rehab, it won’t upset my stomach and it won’t lower my inhibitions and make me do stupid stuff. You can’t beat it.

That’s how I know that I’ll keep writing even if I never get published—because it’s in me, it’s what I do, it’s how I make sense of my world.

Also, now writing has brought Nancy Thompson into my life and she is truly one of the greatest friends I've ever had not to mention a fabulous writer and one of the most intriguing, intelligent and courageous women I've ever met.

Writing is good stuff. I think I'll keep doing it!

Why I Love First Drafts

Originally published on my website 3/18/11 (www.lisalregan.com)

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how I have to find time to write in the little nooks and crannies of my daily life (i.e. while waiting in a doctor’s office, while my kid is asleep, on my breaks at work, etc.). I’ve also talked a lot about how when I get that ten or fifteen minutes or half hour to squeeze in some writing, it often feels wooden and awkward at the start.

Recently I tried Operation Write in the A.M. which involved me getting up an hour and a half before my family and using that time to write. Having uninterrupted quiet time that lasted longer than fifteen minutes really helped with that initial awkwardness. It was going smashingly well until everyone in my house got the flu—that debacle lasted three weeks. So I haven’t returned to morning writing although if I get involved in a new project I probably will.

Recently I finished a major revision of Aberration. (And thus, I have completed one of my New Year’s Resolutions! Go, me!) It took me way longer than I anticipated and trying to find time to work on it was excruciating. Illness had a lot to do with that though—cannot be helped. Anyway, it was painful. I made some major changes to the plot and several times I found myself stuck as to where to go and how to make it work within the existing framework of the book. The truth is that sometimes I love revising and sometimes I hate it. It is hard work. I did many revisions of Finding Claire Fletcher over the years and actually enjoyed working on them for the most part. But this particular revision almost kicked my ass. I found myself to be very irritable and cranky while working on it. I am grateful to my family for putting up with me during that time.

Honestly if I had a dollar for every word I changed in that book or in Finding Claire Fletcher AFTER the first draft, I wouldn’t have to work. It makes me laugh to think of all those times that I had ten minutes to write and pulled out my notebook only to be daunted by the awkwardness of the words leaking from my pen because it really doesn’t matter WHAT you write in your first draft. It doesn’t matter what the content is or what words you use or how crappy it is—it’s all going to be changed later. Maybe not drastically but it will certainly be revised to some degree. Sometimes there are some passages that you don’t change but you still may have to move them around or even delete them altogether. Everything is susceptible to revision which actually is a good thing.

That is kind of why I love a first draft. It is so liberating. You can write anything. You’re not bound by anything you’ve already written. Sure you’re bound by your idea and the outline of your plot—don’t get me wrong, your book should make sense. I’m just saying that you have a lot more freedom when you’re writing a first draft then when you are revising something that you’ve already worked on ad nauseum. I just love first drafts. There is no stopping, no need for hesitation. You just write. You write whatever the hell comes out and worry about it later. You go for it. You have no inner-filter, no inner-censor and you (should) shut down your inner-critic. It’s just you and the page. The sky is the limit. You can have fun. You can experiment. Try things. Do your worst. I love that feeling—the heady rush of it. Writing a first draft is like the long night of partying and revising is like the hangover.

I tend to be a much happier person when I’m writing a first draft than when I’m working on a revision. As I’ve said, revisions make me cranky—even ones that I am enjoying—because I’m constantly worrying about what changes I am making and if they are going to work. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m not worrying at all. Thus, I am light and happy and somewhat euphoric.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m down on revisions though. The really fabulous thing about them is that your book can become so much better. Also I think you can learn a lot by revising—you start to see how to make a story tighter, how to cut words, how to improve your pacing. I always learn a lot by doing a revision and I think that ultimately makes me a better writer.

My next writing project (and next New Year’s Resolution) involves writing a first draft so I hope to be far less cranky the next few months!

Distraction

Originally published on my website on 2/24/11 (www.lisalregan.com)

A lot of writers complain that they get distracted from their writing by other things in their lives—loved ones, household chores, email, television—and I’ve been distracted from my writing by all of those things. But for the most part, I find myself in the exact opposite predicament. I’m distracted from all of those things BY my writing. My head is always in my book, in something I am working on. Recently, my significant other complained that I seem distracted all the time. “Maybe your head is in your book,” he said, “I don’t know.” He was right.

Right now I’m working on a revision of Aberration that has been far more challenging than I anticipated. I am enjoying it immensely now that I know what direction I’m going in but still, it is not going as quickly or as easily as I would like. So my mind is constantly consumed by the book—testing all the possibilities of what I might do in this chapter or that chapter; what I might cut or keep; how I might change the end; where I can cut words. I’m always in my book.

I also have a work-in-progress (tentatively titled “Paper Dolls”) that I will return to once the revision is done and lately I’ve been toying with taking some elements from my first adult novel (which is currently in residence under my bed because it stinks) and creating a whole new story with them. Again, my head is always in “the book”.

Also because I have a busy life with a full-time job and a family at home, I have to steal my writing time. Fifteen minutes here, a half hour there if I’m lucky. A great deal of my mental energy throughout the day is spent trying to figure out where exactly in my day I can squeak out a few paragraphs or a few minutes to work on the book.

So yes, I’m quite distracted.

I read Pen on Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett recently and in it she talks about writers who say they are “addicted” to writing. She says that in most cases, these writers are not truly addicted. When you’re addicted to something, you think about it all the time and do it every chance you get. If you only write when you have time and struggle to write even then, you can’t really be addicted to writing. I think I’m addicted. I never thought of it that way but it makes sense. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about it. Although sometimes when I pick up my pen, writing feels awkward and difficult, I never hesitate to actually do it. I can always come up with something, no matter how crappy it might be! Besides that, if I had a nickel for every little revision I’ve had to make on my books I wouldn’t need a job, I’d be filthy rich so I never worry about what kind of crap comes out the first time—I’m going to have to make it better later anyway!

So I thought how can I make time for my writing and not be so distracted when I am with my family—because they are fabulous and they deserve every ounce of my attention when I am with them. Well I’ve never been a morning person but I decided to try what many writers do which is get up early and write before the day even starts. Now I’ve tried to do this in the past with exercise. I thought I’ll just get up an hour earlier, do some exercise and get it out of the way.

Yeah, right.

I could not get my ass out of bed, especially for exercise. Hello, snooze button! But I thought if I want to give some real, dedicated time to my writing and be a better partner and mother, I should try this. I’ve read about so many writers who get up one or two hours earlier than they need to in order to write. So I tried it last week. Although I was exhausted—again, I am NOT a morning person by any stretch of the imagination—I felt better last week than I have in a long, long time. I got so much done on my revision and for the rest of the day I did not feel distracted. It was fabulous. I love how quiet and still everything is—how few distractions there are, how none of my attention is required elsewhere. No multi-tasking. Just writing for a whole hour and a half.

Of course then my entire family got the flu so Operation Write In the A.M. is now on hold until the siege of illness is over but I hope that in the future I’ll be able to continue. I would love to see how much more I could produce if I have dedicated writing time.

How You Know When You're Ready

I’ve had a couple of critique partners ask me: “How do I know when my book is ready?” My honest answer has been that I really don’t know. I mean I thought Finding Claire Fletcher was ready about five times. Turns out it wasn’t. Well that’s not entirely true. The very first time I sent it out I had an inkling that it was too long and that there might be a few problems with it although for the life of me—at the time—I couldn’t have told you what those problems might be. Or I would have fixed them!

The first revision I did to Finding Claire Fletcher I cut 36,000 words, added two major plot points and changed the ending. I went over it and over it and over it and I felt like it was ready. But now looking back—did I really think it was ready or did I just think that it was a million times better than the first draft?

It was certainly a million times better than the first draft and I wouldn’t have sent it back out into the world unless I thought it was ready. But after a year or so of querying and not getting anywhere (I had requests for it but all those requests led to rejections) I decided to give it to my very first critique partner and see what she thought. I had no idea what I wanted from her. I just knew that as much as I had improved and shortened the book, I was still coming up against a wall when it came to finding an agent. Bang, bang, bang goes my head against this wall!

So she read it and in a nutshell she pointed out that the book didn’t know what it wanted to be or where it was going. In its own way it was all over the place. Sure it was good and it was suspenseful but it was still rather long and there were a lot of things plot-wise that she thought I could safely drop. Basically she said to me that the book should be Claire’s story. The focus should be on that and that alone. In that one sentence I suddenly saw all the places that I could cut and still have a pretty darn good story to tell. So I cut another 30,000 words, leaving out a major, major piece of plot and dramatically changing one of the main characters. It hurt a little. I mean obviously I liked the book the way it was or I wouldn’t have been querying agents with it. But I knew that if I wanted to make it better, I had to do something. By that time I also knew that I needed to get it somewhere under 110,000 words.

As I said in my post about word count, the number of requests for fulls and partials that I got once I got it down to 108,000 words increased dramatically—using the same exact query. But when I looked at it I could see how my plot had gone from being all over the place to being far more tightly focused. Finally, I believed it was ready. Really and truly ready. I guess it was since that draft got me an agent.

It’s hard to know when your own book is ready. Critique partners are great to help you with that but ultimately you are going to be the one biting your nails hoping for a contract when an agent asks you for a full.

I have a friend who has her first full out and she is looking over her manuscript, knowing that a literary agent now has it and is or will be reading it and she says she is finding mistakes and things that she absolutely hates. I know what she is going through. She is the one who actually gave me one possible answer to the question: “How do I know if my book is ready?” and I think that you have to try to read your book pretending that an agent has it and is going to read it.

There is nothing quite like having your first full out. You’re all nerves and excitement and more nerves and anxiety and trepidation and euphoria. It’s a roller coaster. But most of all I think that when you go back to your book and look at it again, you look at it with different eyes. All of a sudden it’s not the book you spent months or years immersed in. It is something completely different, alien. Now it is in the hands of someone who could either take you to the next step in the publishing process or send you back to square one. A total stranger. A stranger who isn't there to help you revise or critique. A stranger who doesn't care about your feelings. A stranger who is only going to tell you one of two things: yes or no.

So I think that my answer in the future to how do you know when your book is ready will be this: read your book as if you were standing over an agent’s shoulder while he or she is reading it. If nothing in it bothers you then it is ready—then you are ready.

I want to make a distinction here. Don’t re-read it as if you were the agent. We all read our work over and over again as if we were the agent. I mean that’s the idea right? We read it thinking “it should look like this or like that to an agent”. But when we do that, we’re constantly correcting as we go. We feel relaxed and low-key. We don’t feel any pressure. That’s how mistakes and/or things we don’t like creep into the book without us even realizing it.

You can’t read it like that. You have to read it as if you’ve already sent it out and you cannot correct it. You have to read it as if there was no turning back. Read it as if it is the performance, not the rehearsal. Read it as if you don't get to correct it if you screw it up. Read it as if it is already the final product. Read it pretending the agent already has it and knowing that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

I’ll say it again: read your book as if you were standing over the agent’s shoulder while he or she reads it. If you do this and there are things in your book that make you cringe—it’s not ready. It might help (and this was suggested to me by the brilliant Nancy Thompson) to put it in PDF format and read it that way. That would eliminate all temptation to edit as you go. I would even go a step further. I’d put it into PDF and then email it to yourself—symbolizing your having emailed it to an agent. You have to use your imagination. You have to pretend—to mentally trick yourself into believing an agent already has it in order for this exercise to be effective.

It might be one of those things you aren’t really able to do unless an agent actually has it but I think it is worth a try.

When Good Isn't Good Enough

One of the most frustrating parts of searching for an agent is you will quickly learn that talent has very little to do with landing one. Sure, you have to have a little talent. Your writing has to meet some minimum standard of readability. But overall, whether or not you’re a good writer doesn’t mean as much as you might think. To get an agent, someone has to love your book. Really love it. Love it so much that it takes their breath away, that they can’t put it down. That they want to tell everyone they know how great it is. That they’d buy it for a friend or give it as a gift. Someone has to love it.

When I started out I felt that my writing was good. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn. Certainly I’m no literary genius. But if I didn’t have some confidence in my work, I certainly wouldn’t be asking literary agents to read it! This was quickly confirmed for me by several agents who read the full manuscript and later passed.

I love your writing.

You’re a great writer.

Your work is compelling and gripping.

This is a home run.

Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. That line about how this is a subjective business—the one that makes the agentless, pre-published writer sigh heavily and roll their eyes skyward?—it’s not bullsh*t. It’s true. Publishing is a subjective business. Not everyone likes everything. Not every project, no matter how well written, is going to speak to every agent or editor.

I never understood this better than after I read Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Now that book took my breath away. That was one of the most incredible, amazing literary feats I’ve ever read. I’m not kidding. When I got to the last page, I was literally out of breath, the suspense oozing from its pages was so palpable. I had a physiological reaction to that book. I was out of breath and my heart was racing. Reading Sharp Objects was like doing a really awesome drug.

I gave it to my mom to read. She never even finished it. She didn’t like it. Later I went on Amazon and read the reader reviews of it. They were crappy. How could people not be passionately, insanely in love with this book? I read many, many other great reviews of it but you see my point. Not everyone likes everything. Not everything is for everyone. That was kind of the moment I realized what agents were talking about when they say “it just wasn’t for me” or “this is a subjective business”. I wanted an agent to feel about my book the way I felt about Flynn’s book. It made sense. I’d read a ton of books that I thoroughly enjoyed in that same year but I didn’t enjoy any of them quite the way I did that one. Just like agents read lots and lots of partials and fulls but only choose a few to represent. Suddenly all those it-just-wasn’t-for-me-this-is-a-subjective-business rejections didn’t seem so bad.

Also I don’t think many people who didn’t like Flynn’s book could argue that her writing was bad. Her writing is quite good, excellent I think, but good doesn’t mean everyone will like it. I’ve read plenty of books wherein the writing was indisputably good. But I didn’t like the books. I’ve read books by authors who are literary geniuses and not liked their books. Not because the writing stunk. I appreciate good writing, even when I’m bored to tears but again, not everything is for everyone. Tastes are different. People enjoy different styles, different subject matters, different perspectives.

So you should be good at writing, for sure. I’m not saying write the worst crap you can think of and try to pass it off as the next multi-million dollar best seller. I’m just saying that you should understand that being a good writer does not instantly guarantee publishing success. Don’t be discouraged by the this-just-isn’t-for-me rejections because they are not necessarily a reflection on your talent. The publishing industry is made up of people with different tastes and different interests. You just have to find one or two who really, really love your book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Readers and the Rule of Three

I mentioned in an earlier post about how letting close friends and family read your work with the expectation of constructive feedback can be dangerous and downright pointless.  When I finished the first draft of Finding Claire Fletcher I was very excited.  I loved it.  I had loved writing it.  I thought it had great promise but I knew that it needed work.  I had been so immersed in it that it was simply too hard for me to figure out where it needed the work so I gave it to a couple of close friends and family members.  They all raved about how good it was and I kept saying, “And?”  I wanted to know what was wrong with it but I don’t think they believed me.  I mean I don’t think they really believed that I could take the criticism.  I guess what they didn’t know or what I didn’t make clear at that point was that by the time I finished FCF I had reached a point in my writing life where my ego was completely out of it.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy hearing nice things but I had finally come to a place where I knew that negative things would only make my work stronger.  Sometimes when you are the creator of a work, you’re just too close to it to see all the cracks and flaws.  You need someone else to point them out. 
My philosophy then is the same as it is now and it’s quite simple:  It’s about the work, not about me.  I want the work to be good and if getting good means hearing some really painful stuff, then just bring it on.  My ego only limits me when it comes to my writing.  I don’t take it personally.  You saying, “This wasn’t believable” or “This part really stinks” or “The second half of the book just completely degenerated” or “You need to cut this character altogether” or even harsher things is not a reflection on me.  It’s a reflection on the work.  I don’t get upset.  I get frustrated, yes—when you work for years on something you certainly don’t want to hear that it needs to be completely rewritten or overhauled.  You definitely don’t want to face the possibility that the book is just not going to work—ever.  But being frustrated is not the same as having hurt feelings.  I get frustrated but I don’t get hurt. 
As I said, I really believed that FCF had great promise and I knew right down to my bones that in order to make it the best it could be, I would need some constructive criticism.  I didn’t get it from my friends and family.  I didn’t get one negative word, even when I asked for it. 
So I sent it off to agents.  As you know if you read my post on Agent John Doe, one agent actually took the time to send me a lengthy list of suggestions.  As I said in my previous post, perhaps I should have been demoralized but instead I was exhilarated.  Everything he said made so much sense and all I could think was, “Holy Sh*t, if I change the book with his comments in mind it is going to be a million times better.”  He didn’t tell me what to do or how to change the book.  He just said, “Here are the fifty things I think are problems and/or that need improving” and just reading all the things he had problems with got my creative juices flowing.  In trying to figure out how to change things so that they weren’t problematic, I came up with new ideas that I thought would serve the work so much better.
I told my friends and family members who had read FCF all the things that he had said and every single one of them said the same thing:  “I thought that too when I read it but I didn’t say anything”.  I grinned and nodded and then after they left, I punched the wall.  Just kidding.  But I was very angry.  They could have saved me months of time and about 50 rejections if they had just been honest with me.  So now it’s my rule, in terms of readers, to never give my work to someone I know unless I think it is done.  I’ll never give one of my books to a loved one or pal to read if I think it still needs work. 
If I think it needs work, then I will send it to a critique partner.  Critique partners are a relatively new concept to me.  I only started working with them this year, thanks to Nathan Bransford’s forums.  It’s fabulous!  If you want help then you have to give your work to someone who has no emotional stake in it whatsoever.  Someone who doesn’t know or care about you well enough to care about your feelings!  That’s a little strong, I know but you get the drift—you want someone to be honest with you.  Most of my critique partners have been wonderful and so gracious and able to be brutally honest with me in the most tactful ways.  I am so grateful for them and feel that because of them, I’ve come a long way in being able to evaluate my work for trouble spots.  (Incidentally, one of my critique partners, Nancy Thompson who I think is an accomplished writer in her own right has become a very, very close friend and confidant to me.  I’m truly blessed to have her in my life!)
So I think if you are looking for a reader who is going to help you make the work better, you need someone objective.  A critique partner, a beta reader.  I love working with other writers because they understand the process and know what you’re going through and they work hard to help you get to where you’re going.  I only had a couple of negative experiences with critique partners but those experiences barely register next to the great ones I’ve had.
Now to my Rule of Three.  This is a rule I’ve developed for loved ones and friends in my life who know that I write and show interest in my stuff.  I never, ever give my work to someone close to me to read unless they ask me three times.  On three different occasions.  Because people will ask you about your writing to be polite and that’s great.  Inevitably many of them say, “I really want to read your book”.  After awhile you get a feel for who really would like to read your book and who is just saying that to be nice.  For most people I say well when it gets published you can!  I think that’s the best tack to take.  I mean really if you do get published someday, you don’t want everyone you know to have already read your book.  You want them to buy it!  But I do have a few very close friends and family members who express interest in my work and I wouldn’t mind it if this small circle of people have already read it when someday (hopefully) it gets published.  I hope they’ll have liked it and tell their friends to buy copies.  But I still make them ask me for it three times and I never, ever give it to them unless I feel it is finished.  I would say in the last year I’ve had about 10 people ask me if they could read FCF.  Only two people actually have. Those are the people who were interested enough to ask me on three different occasions. 
So to sum up, if you’ve got family and friends who are nice enough to be worried about your feelings—don’t give them your work with the expectation of getting constructive criticism.  Get a critique partner for that.  When your book is done, if they still want to read it, make sure it’s finished and make them ask more than once.