10 things writers wish that non-writers understood

OneDoesNotSimplyExplainTheBook

Being a writer is a profession nobody seems to understand. Do you sit around all day in your pajamas? Do you use a fancy pants typewriter? Are you just making elaborate fantasy maps all day?

The answer to all of these is “usually no.”

So what’s the deal? Well … let me clear up a few misconceptions.

Nobody has time to write

We make time. That’s how it happens. Magic, right?

Pretty much all of us have day jobs, social obligations, errands to run, and various other life responsibilities.

Writing the book is the easy part

You heard me. Writing the book is the easy part.

What’s hard is revising it multiple times based on feedback from critique partners and betas, perfecting your query, snagging an agent even after they request a partial or full manuscript, staying motivated / patient while you receive a lot of criticism and rejection or radio silence, getting a book sold to a publisher, etc. etc.

It takes more than an idea

Trust me, just because you have cool ideas and great life stories and your friends love them does not mean they will be golden when you sit down to write them out.

Telling a good story out loud and writing a good story are two very different tasks.

Sailor Moon Writing

We don’t do it to get rich

There’s very little money in writing. The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world are the 1 percent.

Nobody becomes an author to make millions. Most don’t even make enough to quit their day job. We write because we love it — because writing, though incredibly hard most of the time, gives us an incredibly genuine sense of fulfillment.

Mental illness is not a prerequisite

We all know the stereotype: Writers are loners, losers, drunks, cat ladies/guys, and all-around crazy people who stick their heads in ovens.

While many famous authors have suffered from mental illness, most research on the link between mental illness and creativity is lacking. Writers can be gorgeous, happy, social people. They can be short, tall, skinny, fat, gay, straight, white, black, and every shade in between. Yes, they can also have depression, anxiety, or any other number of mental health issues. And yes, there’s a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-loathing that accompanies the writing life.

But it’s important not to glamorize mental illness or position it as a prerequisite to being a legitimate creative person. A mentally ill person won’t “lose” their creativity if they get better. If anything, their illness is as much a detriment, if not more so, to their writing (and their life) as it is a factor in their success.

Asking us what we’re writing is a BIG question

Um, so, I don’t know if you realize this, but asking writers what our books are about is a question that FILLS US WITH DREAD.

Summarizing tens of thousands of words into a few sentences and making them sound cool is super hard. So hard that writers call that summary “the elevator pitch,” and it takes a lot of thinking and effort to make it good.

Of course, that means we need to actually create and memorize our elevator pitch before we can tell you it. So try to be understanding and kind if we’re not quite ready to share.

We work even when we’re not feeling inspired

Key word being “work.” Writers have deadlines. Yes, sometimes, if we’re un-agented, we set deadlines and goals for ourselves because otherwise we’d never finish our books — but rest assured, these are real deadlines and goals, and we appreciate when you respect them.

What we don’t do is write only when we’re feeling inspired or are on vacation or enjoying a perfect day or the kids are out. “This shit is easy,” said no writer ever. We write whenever we can, as often as we can, even when the words don’t want to flow and we’d rather be watching Netflix because writing is fucking difficult.

Writing is actual work. Legitimate work. Like, there’s business involved and stuff.

Being unpublished doesn’t mean we’ve failed

Probably one of my biggest fears — and I think a lot of writers’ fears — is that if we don’t have a big agent or a three-figure book deal and our books aren’t being made into movies (reality: 99 percent chance all that is not going to happen), then people will think we’re hacks and that we’re cute for trying but we should probably give up now and find a nice office job.

This is not a realistic measure of our success.

1) It takes years to write and revise a manuscript. Years. It’s a slow process.

2) Most writers’ debut books are not the first book they’ve ever written.

3) Sometimes, after you get an agent, your book goes on submission but then nothing happens.

4) Even if a publisher picks up your book, it takes years before it’s actually in print.

So if we don’t have “good news” or any real update for you and it’s been months since we last talked, please be patient. We have to be.

We really, really wish you’d buy our books

If we are lucky enough to get our book published, you buying it means more than you know. After all, as you just learned, we work on these things forever.

If you buy and read the book, extra points!

If you leave a review online — we’ll love you forever!

There are a lot of real, meaningful ways you can show your support beyond a simple congratulations.

What Real Writing Looks Like

What real writing looks like.

Writing is ‘boring’

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the writer’s life is kind of boring. It involves a lot of waiting. In fact, when we’re querying or our books are on submission, we refresh our inboxes a lot. Like, A LOT.

It’s certainly not glamorous like on TV. Most of us aren’t Richard Castle.

So please, please, please — don’t ask us when the movie is coming out.


If you have any questions about what it’s like to be a writer, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

A lesson on writing tension from a bad horror movie

Sleepaway Camp III

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. So yesterday, my fiancée and I snuggled up together to celebrate with a good old-fashioned horror movie.

Too bad it sucked.

Granted, the first Sleepaway Camp was a great movie. Some kids attend a summer camp and wear ridiculously short shorts, and one of the campers starts offing people. Classic set-up. Sleepaway Camp III was free on Amazon Prime, so we thought, “Why not?”

Ha ha.

Sleepaway Camp III follows the same premise as the first film, only the original killer, Angela Baker, has returned to do away with another generation of kids — half pretty rich teenagers from states like Ohio, half gang members and delinquents.

Angela ends up killing almost everyone in the movie, and it couldn’t be more dull. Even Angela sounds bored doing it. (“Just taking care of business.”)

The movie has no tension, the undercurrent of electricity that makes us care, worry for the characters, and squirm in anticipation. Which provides a pretty good lesson on why tension is important to any story.

Problem 1: Sleepaway Camp III is told from the killer’s point of view.

We follow Angela around everywhere, and we see everything she does. That doesn’t leave much to the imagination. She can’t pop up and scare us if she’s in every scene.

Nothing is unexpected. We know as soon as she gets someone alone what she’s planning. No surprises there.

Problem 2: Everybody else sits around.

Half the characters are “troublemakers,” but no one actually does anything. The black kid listens to rap music. The others fool around in the woods. Wow. Such behavior. Much rebelling. Aside from a fistfight fight early on, no one does much else than insult each other or make out.

Most importantly, no one makes Angela’s life harder in a way that actually counts. The kids tease her by lighting a firework in a fish. She retaliates by murdering them.

Problem 3: Angela’s actions are totally predictable.

Angela’s already a known killer who detests swearing, drug taking, fornicating, and … laziness? So we know exactly as soon as someone makes her hit list. She has no secrets left for us to discover, no mystery to her actions or words, and her moods are totally transparent. She’s practically in cahoots with the audience.

Sleepaway Camp III

Problem 4: No one notices anything.

The campers are separated into three groups, or Angela picks them off a couple at a time. Whenever someone walks by, they wonder, “Hey, where is what’s-his-face?” And Angela makes up a lie like, “Oh, she went back to the main camp,” or, “They went fishing.”

No one actually finds the corpses or sees Angela doing any wrong, so no one suspects her until she wants them to (at the end). There’s no urgency. They’re all so oblivious, she takes her sweet time.

Problem 5: Her only opposition is absent for half the movie.

The only character who stands a chance against Angela is a cop/counselor with a grudge against her. Conveniently, he doesn’t recognize her for most of the movie. When he finally figures it out, she shoots him.

Snore.

How do you add tension to your stories? What’s another example of a movie, book, or show that does tension right?

5 answers to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer knows this question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Typically, writers respond with something along the lines of, “Um … I dunno! Ha ha ha!” And inwardly does this:

writer scream

Next time you’re asked this question, give people an answer they can understand … or at least one that’ll make them never want to talk to you again.

Answer: “I had this crazy dream …”

“One day I woke up from this crazy dream, where my underwear was on fire, and everyone was staring at me, and then I had to ride this crazy rollercoaster with a bunch of hamster people. And that’s how I got the idea to write a book about a dystopian future.”

Answer: “I browsed the internet.”

“People post the darndest things on the internet. They take pictures of their food. They rant about who died on television shows. They post a lot of GIFs. They’re basically characters who write themselves. I just copy down everything they say on Facebook.”

Answer: “Television.”

“I was basically so angry about my favorite show getting cancelled that I re-wrote the ending and changed all the names. … Yeah, that show. You know that one. I can’t believe the network, right?”

Answer: “I spend a lot of time with cats.”

“Well, I was sitting around, petting my ten cats, and I started to wonder … What if, like, they’re really people, reincarnated into cat bodies? And we let them watch us take baths and pick our noses and stuff? And we never let them go outside?! And we torture them by talking in baby speak all day! Really we’re just terrible enslavers of an entire once-human race!”

Answer: “I steal everyone else’s ideas.”

“Everyone who asks me this question usually follows it with, ‘You should write about this great idea I had,’ so I turn their ideas into novels and make lots of money, and I don’t have to share a penny. I am totally rolling in cash right now. I am up to my eyeballs in money.”

picard

Writing life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

Rowling gif

As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

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When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

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Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

How do I tell my friend their novel sucks?

Short Story Ryan Gosling GIF

Quick answer: You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t tell your friend their book stinks and then chat merrily about the weather or resume whatever else it was you were doing (celebrating their birthday, maybe — please don’t tell them this on their birthday). If someone you know is writing a novel, that means they still have time to improve it. If the novel’s already published, well, then I guess someone thought it was okay enough for other people to read, and you should probably shut up and congratulate your friend. The point is, if you’re friend is in the midst of writing, maybe they’re looking less for soul-crushing judgment and more for feedback on how they can make their story better. Here’s what’s actually helpful for them to hear: “Hey, I don’t like this particular thing, but I think you could make it awesome.” Not all critiquing is constructive. If your friend wrote a story about a dog and you hate dogs, then don’t say their novel sucks because of your personal preference. Plenty of other people like dogs and would read about them. Also, never utter the words “your novel sucks,” because that’s just petty. It will probably also make your friend do this:

Fillion Writing GIF Instead, try to figure out what you don’t like and why. Give them more reasoning than “it’s stupid” or “this is boring.” Maybe your friend needs to do more to endear the reader to their main character, or maybe they need to add more action and dialogue and lose some description. Find something concrete for them to work with. If you want, you can suggest ideas for how they might fix the problem, but keep in mind that the writer makes the final call. Readers are usually right when they feel something’s off, but that’s as far as their power extends. “This chapter needs work, but I loved this part.” Don’t just point out the bad things. Regardless of its quality, writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication, and hearing someone rattle off criticism after criticism can be demotivating. Keep your friend’s spirits high by either starting out with a compliment (“This is a great idea for a story” or “I loved this character!”) or by taking a break from the negative and pointing out something you did like. It can be as small as a sentence or a descriptive image. Your friend will appreciate the mention and feel happy that you liked it. Basically, it tells them that if they keep writing more of that — the thing you liked — they’ll be doing a good job. “Don’t give up.” This must-watch TED Talk teaches an amazing lesson: You are not your novel.

It’s easy for writers to believe that if their novel is bad, that’s because they’re bad writers. That’s not how it works. I’m a firm believer than you become a good writer by writing — and writing a lot of crap before you get good. Skill takes time to develop. No matter how much you read or how much writing advice you digest, everyone needs to put pencil to paper (or fingers to keys) and untangle the very scary and magical thing that is writing. Writing a novel takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. Whole years. Decades, even. People spend a tiny fraction of that time reading the damn thing once it’s finished, and they can destroy a writer’s confidence and hope in a mere few words. Be mindful: Writing is hard work. It takes courage to do it and an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. Whether your love your friend’s book or hate it, tell them the same thing at the end of the day: “Don’t give up.” “You can do this.” “You’ve got it.” Because those few words can go a long way.

Questions answered: Novel progress and New Year’s resolutions

writing

Some of you are wondering how my first novel is coming along. Hard truth: I’ve been slacking. For me, writing for the web — not fiction — is my main job, and with hours of writing, reading, and researching looming ahead of me every day, I’m too exhausted by the end of it to think of doing anything more.

Actually putting down the words was easy enough, but now I’ve moved on to revision, the part where I’m stuck. That’s the most intensive stage of all, and I’ve struggled with developing a schedule that could work for me. Putting in an hour here and there won’t work — revision takes time and investment, which doesn’t lend itself well to scattered half-hour or hour-long sessions, at least not in my experience.

For me, the remaining time in the day goes to one of two options: more writing (and reading/revising) or leisure. I usually pick leisure. It gives me a break and a chance to recharge, which I desperately need for the day ahead. That’s also when I read books for this blog (in addition to what I read for Kirkus), play games (besides the ones I review), socialize with friends, run errands, do housework, spend time with my boyfriend, and basically get as far away from my computer screen as possible.

Not to mention some weeks are hectic as hell and I don’t have time to do my 3-week-old pile of laundry, let alone work on my novel.

But I’m not very happy with this excuse, and that’s what it is — an excuse. Because novel revision isn’t easy, and it requires sacrifice, hard work, and a good schedule. I can handle the first two, but I need help with the last one. Does anyone have any tips that are particularly useful for the revision stage? My goal for this coming year is to update this blog with some sort of monthly progress — not necessarily specific examples, but general problems I encountered and how I overcame them so you can, too.

What do you think? Any ideas? I’d love to hear them even if you’re not writing a novel yourself.