WRITING MYTHS DEBUNKED---MYTH 2: You have to spell things out for your reader. Otherwise, they might not "Get it."
I am writing a series of posts on writing myths and debunking them one by one. This one is short and sweet...
2. You have to spell things out for your readers. Otherwise, they might not “get it.”
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
~ Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
“… I'm just a soul who's intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”
~ Single by Nina Simone, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
And here’s the dilemma, you’re writing an amazing scene, everything is falling into place. It’s complex and carefully woven, but you’re afraid the beautiful subtly of your creation will be lost on a casual reader.
The truth is, a lot of readers don’t read closely and if you’ve spent months and months crafting out a scene, there is a real fear that the effort will be lost if you don’t make it very, very obvious your intentions to the reader.
I don’t know how many times I’ve worried that my meaning will be lost if I don’t state it explicitly. And the conclusion I’ve come to is this—have faith in your readers.
It boils down to the old adage: Show, don’t tell.
We love to say it, but what does it really mean?
Put simply, showing means using imagery and description to create a context where the meaning is implicit, rather than explicit. In other words, you describe the idea in such a way that the reader understands what’s going on without directly stating it.
Imagine a horror movie. Often times, the scariest parts of a movie are when the monster/killer is unseen. What makes it scary? The music creates mood, the dark shadows imply there are scary things we can’t see, but are obviously there, and the sounds, the expressions on the actors’ faces, all of it works together to shape a monster/killer shaped hole. We know he’s there, even if we can’t see him. And because all of our senses are engaged and, most importantly, because our imagination is utilized, to the viewer, this is much scarier than when the monster pops out and we’re faced with the limitations of costumes/CGI/etc.
The same is true with writing. What you’re doing when you show, rather than tell, is you allow the reader to engage their imagination to paint part of the picture. The more engagement a reader has with the writing, the more they’re going to get out of it, the more the story is going to stick with them.
Here is an example of telling:
I was excited. The party would be my chance to show everyone how sophisticated I’d become in New York. I dressed in the really expensive black dress I’d bought in New York, trying not to think about how much money it had cost me. I did my makeup like I’d seen the women in New York do their makeup. I studied myself in the full-length mirror. I looked good. I was happy.
Now, here’s the same concept, but written with showing:
An electric current ran just below the surface of my skin. Three hours until the party, until I showed up, remade. I smoothed the wrinkles out of the dark black dress I’d acquired on 5th Avenue. So what if I had to eat ramen for the next six months? Worth it. I applied the thick, black eyeliner with a steady hand. My lips were a shocking shade of scarlet. Staring back at me was a real New Yorker, not the country bumpkin who was too shy to ask Taylor McCain to the movies. The electric current was radiating up into my throat, now, releasing a tiny squeal.
We’ve all heard this before. But I think what is important to remember is we must put our faith in the reader. And, more importantly, put our faith in ourselves that we’ve shown enough to involve the reader’s imagination in a way that their participation is intricate to the storytelling. Writing may be a solo activity. Reading can be a solo activity. But storytelling… that’s a collaborative process.
I am starting a series of posts on writing myths and debunking them one by one. So, the kick things off...
1. Good writers have raw talent that can’t be taught.
Let’s stop right here and address the important myth: There are “good” writers and “bad” writers.
Nope. I don’t believe this.
There is certainly skill level, natural talent, and extraordinarily amazing writers. But that doesn’t make everyone else a “bad” writer. There are less experienced writers, stubborn writers, and half-hearted writers, sure. But I refuse to believe that a person who sets a goal of writing and really works on learning the craft can be classified as a “bad” writer.
We’re all learning. All the time.
I am going to show you a “before and after” of my own work. I wrote a YA novel in college and submitted it straight to publishing houses (because I didn’t know any better.) Here is a scene from the middle of the book:
Class ended and I tore out of the room without looking behind me. I thought maybe I heard Leon calling my name, but I figured it was my imagination. I sucked in my breath to hold in my mortification. I made it all the way to Texas History without exhaling. No one else was in the room yet, and Mrs. Plummer was setting up the Mexican soldiers in a miniature model of the battle of the Alamo. She looked up from behind her thick, librarian glasses.
“Ah! Kate! You’re an early bird today!”
“Yeah, I ran all the way here.” I muttered, falling into my desk and putting my head down. I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me. A moment later the scent of lilacs hit me like a toxic cloud. Lifting my head, I saw Mrs. Plummer standing right in front of me, bending her head down with a concerned look on her face.
“Why, Katherine? Whatever is the matter?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Plummer.” I muttered. I was getting a headache.
The dialogue is stilted, the imagery is weak, the sentence structures aren’t dynamic, and it lacks voice. I wrote this in my early twenties, and it was my second attempt at a full-length novel. This was a YA story about a girl in 8th grade, who is writing a musical with her friends. Lots of drama. Now, I’ll attempt to revise it as a more “mature” writer.
The second hand dragged and stalled again and again on the ancient clock face above the door. And then, the shrill ringing of the bell sent me out the door at a pace that would have impressed Coach Brown.
Behind me, the sound of my name fell into the muddied, chaotic noise of the busy hallway. It was easy enough to pretend I hadn’t heard Leon calling after me above the clanging of lockers, the shrieks of laughter and outrage, and pulsing of my heartbeat in my ears.
I sucked in my breath as though I could hold in the sheer mortification consuming my very soul.
At the door to Texas History, I let out an exhale that left me empty.
The rows of empty desk stood ready for the apathetic occupants on their way. Mrs. Plummer stood, stooped over an elaborate model of the Alamo. She pinched tiny Mexican soldiers between her red acrylic nails and set each one in a predetermined place with just a little trembling from her arthritic fingers. She looked up at me from behind her thick, librarian glasses.
“Ah! Kate! You’re an early bird today!”
“I guess so,” I muttered, dropping my bag to the floor, falling into my seat and putting my head down on the cold desk. I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me.
But then, as soon as I alone in my own head, the scene began to replay over and over again. The look of disgust on Maggie’s face, the surprise on Leon’s. I would never live this down. Never.
A moment later, the scent of lilacs hit me like a toxic cloud. I didn’t have to look up to know Mrs. Plummer was hovering above me with concern etched into the fine lines around her watery, gray eyes. I lifted my head to confirm it.
“Katherine? You okay?” She peered down, still clutching Santa Anna and in her right hand.
“I’m fine.” I muttered. The florescent lights above were shooting lightning bolts through my skull and I rubbed my temples with a melodramatic sigh. “Just have a headache.”
I used the little flashes of Kate’s personality from the original to flesh out more characterization in the revision. For example, I kept: I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me.
I could have easily just taken this out as “bad writing,” but it jumped out to me as very melodramatic, which is what Kate, as a thirteen-year-old is. So, I built on that, creating more voice for her, making it clearer who she is and how she perceives the world. I gave her a few more overly dramatic quips and, most importantly, gave her more internal dialogue, which the first was missing.
I also added little details in that create a better sense of place and supporting characters. With a couple of little details like, arthritic fingers, stooped, fine lines around her watery eyes, the reader now knows Mrs. Plummer is older without me having to outright state: Mrs. Plummer was old. In other words, there’s far more showing than telling, unlike before.
I added more white space, because no one likes big chunks of text.
But mainly, I had fun with it. I let it flow and then went back and cleaned it up a little. Is this now publishable? No. But, it’s far better than before.
Don’t get me wrong. The answer isn’t always to add to a scene. Sometimes, often times, the answer is to cut something completely.
So? Here’s my purpose in showing you the original and revised—I got better. I would say, a lot better.
First, I wrote… I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
I got feedback. First from friends, and then I joined critique groups and got feedback from a wide variety of people and experiences.
I attended conferences and took classes.
And then, I learned to revise.
In other words, I worked hard, not on a single manuscript, but on myself and my skills. I learned what worked for me and what didn’t.
I take far more risks now and I write what makes me feel things on an entire spectrum of emotions.
I can only speak for myself, but twenty-something-old Lauren was told she had “talent,” but that wasn’t enough to break through. I got form rejections and rightly so. I just reread my query letter and it’s abominable. (It might get its own blog entry one of these days.)
And the cool part is, I’m just getting started. I have faith that my next novel will be better than the first because I am still learning and still honing my craft.
So, do good writers have talent that can’t be taught?
While not dismissing that raw talent exists, I believe this is a myth. I believe many have writing talent in the rough, that needs to be carved out and polished. Sure, ultimately, you can’t “teach talent,” but you certainly can refine talent, bring talent to the surface, enhance talent.
The thing is, I can almost guarantee that if you are writing, you have a spark of talent somewhere deep inside, even if you can’t see it. I would argue that most people who genuinely have no talent for writing aren’t interested in writing in the first place. Their brains don’t work that way. And that’s totally fine. We all have different strengths. But the fact that you make the attempt, that ideas come to you and you have to get them down in writing, that speaks to an ability inside, no matter what stage it happens to be at currently.
Did you know that a restaurant cannot call mozzarella sticks ‘mozzarella sticks’ unless they contain actual mozzarella. Otherwise, they’re just ‘cheese sticks.’ I heard that from someone and I have no idea if it’s true. I mean, it’s like the whole ‘chicken wings’ vs. ‘chicken wyngz’ controversy. Anyway, iHOP serves ‘Mozza Sticks’ so I have absolutely no idea what to make of that.
Every Wednesday evening, a group of dedicated writers of all experiences, gather in a small community building at a local park and workshop their writing. I have been attending this workshop for the last five years or so. I cannot begin to tell you how much this group and this process have helped me grow as a writer. I recommend workshopping to every writer, no matter what level of “success” you’ve reached, no matter how many books you’ve written, no matter how many rejections you’ve received. (I’ve come to redefine success for myself, but that’s a whole other blog post.)
Anyway, about Mozzarella Sticks... Oftentimes, after workshop, some of the members go to a local iHOP to eat and discuss writing, life, and bad B movies. And nine times out of ten, mozzarella sticks, I’m sorry, Mozza Sticks ™ are ordered for the table by a generous workshop member. This is where conversation becomes less formal… way, way less formal. We’re just, dare I say, friends, colleagues, weirdos united by a common passion and lacking other people to talk to about this thing that we’re really, really excited about.
Some of the absolute best advice I’ve received about my own writing and writing career has been delved out over fried cheese and stacks of pancakes and coffee on sticky tables and in a back corner of an iHOP at midnight.
At that hour, the place is pretty slow. The employees are rolling silverware for the next morning, the people working nightshifts are taking a meal break, the weary college student is hunched over a laptop in a booth trying to finish an assignment. And we’re cackling like idiots over things that only make sense in the moment.
That’s my favorite kind of conversation, the kind that only exists by chance, that doesn’t carry much weight or importance in the real world, but means everything at the time.
You see, workshop is where the writing advice gets hashed out, the critique is given, the methods and craft are discussed in a more academic way. iHOP is where I find reasons to keep writing.
Now I’m getting too sentimental. Ack! Gross! It’s not like that. Not much of what is discussed is of any consequence at all. But the community it builds is everything.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you want to be a writer, a good writer, get you some people who a) also write b) tell you the truth c) like hanging out with you. It’s fairly simple to get people, the main requirement—don’t be an asshole. Truly. That’s it. Most people like hanging out with nice people.
People don’t like hanging out with people who:
1.Are overly critical
2.Are smug or arrogant
3.Who only want to talk about themselves or their own writing
4.Who lack basic manners
The writing community is a special group of people and it’s hard to scare us off. Believe me… you’re not too weird, too nerdy, too shy, too open, too anything for fellow writers to bring you into the fold.
Yes, I do see how this is starting to sound like a cult. I mean, I wrote a book about a cult and this is definitely not a cult ;)
It’s important to have places where your writing is taken very seriously, like a workshop—and it’s equally important to have a place where your writing is on the back-burner and you, as a writer, as a human being, don’t take yourself too seriously at all. It’s okay to let your book ideas simmer over a plate of fried cheese and good conversation.
Oh my goodness it felt so amazing to be back! The energy, the ideas, the flowing creativity, the cheesecake! I thought I’d take a moment to share some of what I got out of the conference this weekend.
I’ve started each tip with the class I was in when something really spoke to me. Give them all a chance, even if it’s not your genre. I’m not a mystery writer, but some of the best ideas came from the mystery class taught by Jessica S. Olson!
Top 10 Tips I Learned from this Year’s DFW Writer’s Conference 2022
1.Mastering Mood: Mood doesn’t happen by accident. Don’t assume the mood is a given. Not all weddings are romantic, not all funerals are sad. Imbue mood by emphasizing elements that enhance the mood you want, and downplaying the elements that distract. Plus, characters’ thoughts and feelings don’t create mood (at least not by themselves).
2.Mastering Mood: FOCUS. Focus is the real-estate of the page. This is probably the best thing I picked up this weekend, if forced to choose. You only have so much space so every word has to count, has to have purpose. What you choose to focus in on is what creates mood for the reader. (A. Lee Martinez and Sally Hamilton)
3.Writing Historical Fiction: Instead of over-researching, if you find yourself stuck in a blind spot of historical detail, avoid it and concentrate on the universal human experience. The ocean smells the same as it did a hundred years ago. (Jenny Bhatt)
4.Marketing for Traditionally Published Authors: This was a fantastic class for those of us new to the world of marketing. There were so many tips I couldn’t possibly list them all here, from social media to book launches to so much more. As my publishing journey continues, I plan to update this blog with the things I learned in the class. However, the most important I took away was this: Make a reasonable goal and celebrate the small things! My goal has been to hold my published book in my hands. Things will go wrong and that’s okay. We have to take the wins where we can. (Dana Swift)
5.YA Panel: Teenage years are some of the toughest years in a person’s life and we often carry that trauma with us into adulthood, which is why YA attracts teens, as well as, adults. YA authors have a special power and responsibility for their younger audience. (Julie Murphy, Jessica S. Olson, Robin Roe, Dana Swift, and Leslie Lutz)
6.Strong Women Panel: Disclaimer, I was on this panel, but I still learned a lot! Strong women characters are strongly written characters. (A. Lee Martinez, Jenny Martin, Lauren Danhof, and Amanda Arista)
7.Romance Panel: The real destination is emotional understanding, not the climatic kiss.
8.Romance Panel: When you fall out of love, it’s because something within yourself is out of sync. The answer to having characters overcome this and fall in love or back in love is personal growth and development. You have to know yourself to know what you want and to communicate that to another person. (Julie Murphy, Heather Graham, Ellis Kaye, Amanda Arista, and Dana Swift)
9.Mystery: Writing a mystery is like creating a backwards treasure hunt. Start with the “Big Reveal” or “twist” and work backward. Create clues. The speaker even suggested writing the clues on index cards and then playing around with where to put them in the book. Each clue needs to claw at the Main Character’s flaws or misbelief. Which leads to tip number 10…
10.Mystery: A good mystery allows the Main Character to grow and develop. The course of solving the mystery must make the MC reckon with their own flaws and misbeliefs. In other words, just like in other genres, a mystery isn’t actually about the plot, it’s about the characters and making the reader care. (Jessica S. Olson)
a.How is the MC entangled in the crime? There needs to be a reason.
b.Why is it meaningful to them?
c.How will it change them?
(You should know by now that when I do a top 10 list it always goes over 10)
11.Mystery: The perpetrator must also be a fully developed character. They must be the foil to the MC.
a.The perp must have a reasonable (not excusable) motive for committing the crime.
b.It’s helpful to write the scene where the perp commits the crime for yourself and not include it in the book.
c.The perp is the hero of their own story… which leads me to tip #12 from the Villains class…
12.Villains: Again, the villain is the hero of their own story. They need a clear connection to the MC and a backstory of their own that can give reasons for their diabolical motivations. Above all, they believe they are doing the right thing.
13.Villains: Villains should be fleshed out and interesting. They can terrifying, humorous, or both. They must be compelling. (Leslie Lutz)
14.Idea Crockpot: I LOVED this class. I had never thought about generating ideas in an organized manner. I thought waiting for inspiration and then writing it on my hand and hoping for the best was the way to go. Collect ideas, snippets, and observations, even if, and especially if you don’t know how it could relate to a story. Store them in any number of databases: Pinterest, Google Keep, a physical journal, etc… The one place you shouldn’t store them is your brain, because they won’t stay there long. (Rosemary Clement & Rook Riley)
Top 10 Observations I made from People Watching this weekend:
1.Writers are some of the friendliest people. Seriously. Everyone is so approachable and kind. We are working towards the same goals. We all enjoy the same activities. And even though we are all very different, we are united by the passion we share. Thanks for being friendly, y’all!
2.Some writers are far too critical of their own writing. You are your own worst critic. Don’t EVER apologize for your writing. The only way to fail at writing is to quit writing.
3.Some writers take themselves far too seriously… and by that I mean, dude, you’re going to give yourself a stress ulcer. Some people (just a few) were laser focused on particular goals, whether that was to pitch to a certain agent or get a specific question answered about their WIP. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s okay to relax and enjoy your time at a conference. Make friends, don’t think about your book for an hour. It’ll be okay. And if things don’t go your way, you don’t get the agent you wanted, at least you’ll leave with new friends and new connections.
4.Some writers talk about their WIP too much. (Ahem) We’ve all been there. We meet a nice conference goer and ask what they write. Then we get a thirty minute, one-sided conversation about their 25 book series. I want to hear about what people are working on… but you have to understand, talking about your book is never going to be as satisfying as reading your finished book. As A. Lee Martinez said during a panel, “Every story sounds stupid when you say it out loud.” So, please, talk about your book, but be brief and concise, wait for questions, and return the favor by asking about their WIP!
5.Some writers don’t talk about their WIP enough. At the same time, some people seemed reluctant to discuss their WIP. Maybe they were introverts. Maybe they were afraid someone might steal their idea. (By the way, you shouldn’t worry about that. Even if someone steals your idea, they can’t write the same book as you.) We’re all cool people, it’s okay to talk about your book. We want to know!
6.There are as many different kinds of writers as there are stories to be told. The breadth of stories I heard about this weekend was astounding. People say we’re running out of ideas. Nonsense. Every story is as unique as the person who wrote it.
7.Some writers are extroverts. Hey, yeah, I’m talking to you, the one who thrives on crowds and talking and can’t get enough of it. Good for you! Seriously. That’s awesome. Just don’t forget about the shy people who might need a little push to speak up. Don’t leave anyone out.
8.Some writers are introverts. Hey, yeah, I’m talking to you, and myself, the one who is an introvert and can act like an extrovert, but finds it completely exhausting. Ya did good, kid. You put yourself out there and you flourished. No, don’t think about how you could have said something better, don’t worry that you were “bothering” people by simply joining a conversation. Now go rest and reenergize!
9.All writers are eccentric in their own way. Y’all are a bunch of weirdos! But we’re all weirdos together! Yay!
10.All writers who come to a conference are ready and willing to grow. You are heads above the average writer because you are seeking out opportunities for growth and knowledge. You’re going places, keep it up!
I could go on and on, but if a blog post is real-estate, I must be choosey. Also, I didn’t get to go to all the classes I wanted to. So what did you learn that I missed? Let me know in the comments of my blog!
I have a confession—I’ve become an atheist to the muse.
And for years I bought into this belief that I was touched by some creative whim or random chance or whatnot and it was in these moments of inspiration I must write for my life.
There is no muse. There is you, your keyboard, and the environment you create for yourself. In the words immortalized by Snoop Dogg: ““I want to thank me for believing in me, I want to thank me for doing all this hard work. I wanna thank me for having no days off. I wanna thank me for never quitting.” Words of wisdom, although not as profound as his quote, ““When I’m no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.” I mean, come on, that’s genius!
But what does this mean on a practical level? You see, for ages I was a slave to inspiration. I would have agonizing dry spells where no words would flow and then, suddenly, I would write for two days straight, hardly sleeping, eating at my desk, annoyed when anyone would bother me. I was capturing lightning in a bottle and it was delicate, time sensitive work.
But what I’ve come to believe is that I have far more control over the creative process than that and that is a very freeing thing.
Okay, so there’s the obvious things: You make a schedule, you write even when you’re not feeling it, you read more than you write, you practice, you “vomit on the page” and then revise, etc… but what else? What do you do when you don’t necessarily have writer’s block, but you also aren’t “feeling inspired”?
Here’s what I do: I have fun. When I started writing my last novel, before I’d even written the first word, I said to myself “I am going to write something that I want to read. I am going to write something I enjoy writing.” If it feels like work, if it’s hard to get through writing it, how am I supposed to expect others to enjoy reading it? Writing, reading, creation in general, it’s all entangled. A writer is a reader is a creator is a painter is a dreamer is a writer. When you read, your mind fills in the blanks, you create, you paint a world beyond the words on the page. Reading is not passive. Writing is not passive.
So, if we look at it that way, as not two separate things, but rather all part of the same animal, it reveals something deeper: The only time you have control of the words you write are when you are the only person who has read them. Once you share them, they become more, they become an evolving, living thing. You cannot control how they are received. You cannot control the images a reader creates with the words. And all of that means, you had better get your intention and purpose clearly presented at the first.
Mediocre writing is quickly torn apart by consumers. Good writing, strong writing, it is able to stand on its own, and at the same time, allow for further exploration. It doesn’t lose its meaning as it is consumed, rather it is expanded upon, it becomes a springboard for more creation.
Reading is the muse.
We do not exist in a vacuum. Every great book I’ve stayed up reading, every poem that has made my arms break out in goosebumps, every haunting song, every painting, every piece of human design, all of it is the foundation for my own creations.
Okay, great Lauren, that’s all fine. Very poetic. But how does that help me write a damn book?
I’m not sure. Hahaha! No, seriously, enjoy what you’re writing.
If I’m not enjoying writing a scene, if it’s dragging, if I’ve come to a point and I don’t know how to get from point A to point B, I don’t force it. Forced writing is obvious.
For example, let’s say I have a character named Bonnie and Bonnie is at home having a fight with her mother. The next plot point is she is at work and finds a mysterious box left on her desk.
So here’s how I might have written the scene several years ago:
“I don’t understand you anymore, Bonnie!” Martha glared at her daughter.
“What’s new?” Bonnie rolled her eyes.
“Maybe you should leave.”
“I’ve got to get to work anyway,” Bonnie said.
“Fine, go.” Her mother crossed her arms over her chest.
Bonnie sighed and grabbed her coat off the hook. She put it on and opened the door. She went out and climbed into her car. Her mother stood at the door and watched. Bonnie slid the car into reverse and pulled back out on the street. The traffic was light, at least. Bonnie turned on the radio and jammed out to her favorite songs while she drove the familiar route.
When she made it to work, she parked and went inside.
“Hey, Max!” she said as she passed her coworker. She went across the hall and opened the door to her office. Inside, she set her bag down and took her coat off.
That’s when she noticed the box, a strange, carved, wooden box. It was just sitting on her desk, next to the financial reports.
Ugh! I’m SO bored! That wasn’t fun to write. I see a lot of writers who are obviously writing “filler” to get to the next scene they’re excited about. That’s the problem. If you’re not excited about a scene, then the scene needs to go, or at least change. Get excited about every scene. That’s how you create a story that doesn’t drag, that becomes “a fast read.” Now let’s try again and take out unnecessary information, like the transition to the office:
“I don’t understand you anymore, Bonnie!” Martha glared at her daughter.
“What’s new?” Bonnie rolled her eyes.
“Maybe you should leave.”
“I’ve got to get to work anyway,” Bonnie said.
“Fine, go.” Her mother crossed her arms over her chest.
Bonnie sighed, grabbed her coat off the hook and then she was out the door.
The office was a neutral space, a place where Bonnie could just be, like a plain piece of manila paper. That’s what she envisioned as she arrived and passed by Max’s door.
Inside her own office, she shut the door firmly and shrugged off her coat.
That’s when she noticed the box, a strange, carved, wooden box. It was just sitting on her desk, next to the financial reports.
Okay, so it’s better. I’ve cut a lot of unnecessary writing. Plus, it was more fun to write. This might be all you need. Now, if you’ll indulge me a moment longer, I’ll really have some fun with the scene:
“I don’t understand you anymore, Bonnie!”
The words were unnecessary, they both knew what the other was going to say. Mothers and daughters, especially strong-willed ones, hardly ever hear one another. It was like reciting a script at this point.
“Maybe you should leave!”
“I’ve got to get to work anyway!”
Just words, as blank and meaningless as the beige tiles of Bonne’s office space, as the unadorned walls and uniform doors and windows.
“Hey Max!” Bonnie said out of habit to her coworker, who was half asleep at his desk when she arrived in the afternoon.
She took sanctuary in her own office, but couldn’t escape the fight with Martha that morning, the rote argument that rattled around in her brain.
The day, no not the day, her life--her life was so predictable that Bonnie could have continued on with her eyes closed.
And then she saw the box. Small, wooden, and worn on the corners. It sat beside the financial reports, this strange object, like it had a right to just exist, like it had a right to be unexpected.
I don’t know that this is great writing, but it was a hell of a lot more fun to write! I’ve eliminated the problem of plodding on from point A to point B by merging them into a single moment. Bonnie is lost in her thoughts, she’s simultaneously thinking about the fight with her mom, while coming into the office. The reader now is experiencing both things without the tediousness of “first she, then she, next she…”
I’m not saying this works for every scene. It doesn’t. Sometimes you need a sequential progression of events. Sometimes we need to see Bonnie drive to work, but only if it moves the plot forward and only if it isn’t BORING! In this case, I would argue it works because we are getting a taste of Bonnie’s perception, her state of mind as she encounters the mysterious box. Additionally, I don't believe I've lost any of the vital plot points from the first attempt. But even if I have, they were probably boring and needed to be pruned.
Again, if you’re bored writing it, then how can you expect your reader to not be bored reading it?
Have fun, experiment, try a different style.
And above all, don’t wait for that damn muse. Reach up into your own brain and grab that inspiration and bend it to your will.
It gets easier with practice.
I needed some time to process, but I wanted to record my thoughts while it’s still pretty fresh, to preserve this feeling of amazement and disbelief and everything else that’s come with it.
It’s a strange thing, having a dream come true. I know that sounds super cliche and I’m supposed to be a writer and everything, but there’s no other way to say it. Also this is a blog, so give me some slack. (DISCLAIMER: Unrevised, quickly written blog posts are not my priority or the pinnacle of my writing talent.)
This is long, rambling post, so if you want to skip ahead, I've included ten things I've learned personally from this toward the end.
Since I was little I wanted to be a writer, to have my writing published, to have a physical book with my name on it in my hand. As I got older and gained experience, I learned the many, many difficult steps in attaining that goal. One of those steps is to have representation from a literary agent.
So, starting about ten years ago, I decided I was going to get an agent. This became my goal, my dream, my everything I was working toward. And then it happened. What? What?
So, I’m going to tell you how it went down as best as I can remember.
I believed I had finished my novel “Glinda, the Good” sometime in 2019. (Hahahahahha!) I loved it, it was perfect, it was funny, and exciting, and romantic, and everything in between. I felt good. My last project had been shelved after a resounding no from many, many agents. That’s for the best. Turns out there’s not much of a market for a romantic comedy starring Cthulhu. Also, I just wasn’t as good then. Turns out, writing more makes you better… who'd have thought?
I submitted the first chapter to the Frisco First Chapter Contest (a local writing competition that we here in DFW take very seriously) and won! I won! In my writing circle, that’s a sign of good luck, a sign you’re on your way. I got a certificate.
So, I pitched it at the DFWCON 2019 and got several requests. (Go to this conference if you can!) A couple agents seemed pretty excited. I was excited. It was all very exciting. 2019 Lauren needed to calm the hell down. I plan to talk about my experience pitching to agents in a later post, so stay tuned.
I sent that manuscript out to a handful of agents and waited… and waited… and waited. And then the rejections started. Okay, no biggie, that’s part of the process. I know that. I sent it out again. I got my subscription to QueryTracker, I made spreadsheets, I worked on the first chapter more, the query letter. I read more, tried to find comp titles. I got more rejections.
And then, it happened. I got a revise and resubmit. This is the first time I had received an R&R and I was so confident this meant I’d made it. I took the agent’s extensive notes to heart and revised. A couple of months later, I submitted the revised draft to her and waited.
Then Covid hit and the world stopped.
No DFWCON 2020. No in-person workshops. No late nights at IHOP to pick the brains of my friends and fellow writers.
And then the agent replied with a kind rejection.
I was crushed. I set the manuscript aside and didn’t write for several months.
Thankfully, I have some amazing friends, who keep me accountable, and they weren’t done with Glinda, even if I thought I was. They mentioned it every time we met. They believed in it.
So, I started writing again. I started a brand new project. I mentioned it in a previous post. It's something that got stirred up in my brain because of COVID, because of the months of isolation, of all the books and podcasts and shows I was consuming to stay sane. I got wrapped up in it and officially shelved "Glinda, the Good."
Then, one summer day, out of curiosity, I opened the folder again and read it. It was really good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than I had remembered.
I sent the following text to my friends:
With their encouragement, I did it. I revised again and I changed the name for a fresh start. I sent it to five agents.
And then something changed. I give complete credit to the revisions I’d made. I hadn’t sent it to anyone since and out of those five agents, I got three full requests.
First, just two, pretty soon after I sent the query out. One responded after a couple of months. She was so nice, said she’d had my manuscript on her desk for awhile, debating whether or not to accept it. In the end, she decided she didn’t have a vision for it. Now, this is unimaginably kind and affirming for a writer, but also a little frustrating. I couldn’t help but think, if I’d only written a little better, changed one or two things, maybe, maybe she would have swung the other way. I’ve since figured out that it’s not as simple as that. I think, in the end, agents have to go with their gut. And that’s okay. At the point you make an agent stop and think and feel torn, you’ve crossed a threshold. You’ve written something good. Now, you just have to find the agent that’s going to gel with you and your work. She wasn’t the one.
I got another full request right before Christmas.
I sent the following to my friends:
(Additional disclaimer: I don't advise "bugging" an agent. I used that language in a text with my friends, but what I meant was gently nudge with a follow-up after an appropriate amount of time, which I ended up not doing because of what happened after Christmas.)
(Also, I'm using my friends full names because they are all very talented writers and you're going to see their names on the spine of books soon enough!)
The holidays went by and I still had two full requests out. So I started working on Rattlesnake again and tried not to think about it. The world was waking back up. I was seeing people I hadn’t seen in ages. I was getting inspiration from this weird, imperfect world in a way I’d never appreciated before COVID.
And then I got the email.
She loved my book. She loved my style. She wanted to talk more on the phone.
From that moment forward, I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I was insanely nervous. The morning of the call, I got dressed up, did my hair and makeup, and set up a section of my dining room… all of this, just in case she wanted to Zoom instead.
I am so fortunate to have a couple of mentors at the DFW Writers Workshop, people who have been where I am, people who have gone through the process and now have incredible novels on the shelves of stores and libraries. Three of them talked to me before the call, prepped me, told me their experience, gave advice for what to ask. And each one of them said essentially the same thing: She may make you an offer, but if she’s not the right fit, you have to turn it down and find someone who you can work with, who understands your work.
I haven’t told them this, but it was incredibly humbling and touched me so much. These three believed in me, really, really believed in me. They told me I was good enough I didn’t have to settle. I was good enough, I’d get another chance if this didn't work out. So, Brooke, Leslie, and Dana, thank you. I will never, ever forget the way you believed in me before I truly believed in myself.
But, back to the phone call! The agent called, I took a breath, and then--and then we spoke for an hour. And it was easy. She was wonderful. She was smart and cool and she really believed in my writing. Toward the end, she hadn’t actually said the words “offer of representation.” I mean, we were talking like she had, but I’m still a bit unsure of myself, so I worked up the nerve and asked her. She laughed, realized she’d gone off on something else when she’d meant to say it, and then confirmed, yes, she wanted to represent me.
When I got off the phone, there was no question. I waited the customary two weeks, let the agent who still had a full manuscript know. He graciously bowed out. Turns out, like the first agent, he had been debating whether or not he wanted to move forward. I had the opportunity to speak with one of my agent’s other clients. She happily shared her experience and it made me even more confident in this choice.
I let my agent know. My agent. Signed the contract. And then I got to celebrate, although I still don’t think I believed it was real. I was convinced she’d reread it and change her mind. (Spoiler alert: She didn’t.) I'm told this feeling of inadequacy doesn't go away, no matter how many books you publish.
So here’s what I learned from this experience:
What made this real for me was when she sent the first set of notes for revisions and I went to work on them. Polishing this book is a pleasure. It’s satisfying and I feel like I’m in my element when I make something that wasn’t quite working, not just work, but shine.
I know this was lengthy and I feel like I just scratched the surface of my experience. This phase of my journey, querying agents lasted years with lots of ups and downs. I don't want to minimize that. Also, I want to talk about what this revising phase has been like, but I’ll save that for a later post, after I’ve done more work.
In conclusion, I am ecstatic. I AM OVER THE MOON! I also think I have the greatest agent on the planet! She’s been absolutely wonderful and she actually “gets” me and my work. I couldn’t ask for anything more!
EDIT: Thanks for the amazing response to this post! I honestly didn't think anyone would read it, but I hope it encourages you, if you're still in the trenches.
Also, I added an 11th thing I learned.
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King
I know, I know, it's bad form to start with a quote. We're not in freshman English, after all. But it's a damn good quote and Stephen King is a genius. So there.
I've run into many writers who have told me flat out that they don't read much or at all. The reason they give is usually that they are too busy or that they'd rather be writing. I get it. This isn't a judgy post or a self righteous post. I've been there. I've had reading dry spells where I've an entire year *gasp* without picking up a book. This is what I've learned.
To begin with, as a child and young adult, I loved, LOVED reading. From sugary pop series like Sweet Valley Twins to The Babysitter's Club, to Beverly Cleary to Lois Lowry. I read Judy Blume and Avi and Roald Dahl and Gary Paulson. I read The Indian in the Cupboard and The Castle in the Attic and Parrot in the Oven. All nouns in all the things, I read it.
And then I read harder books, older books, like Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Pimpernel. In fact, I was so obsessed with The Scarlet Pimpernel that I tracked down the rest of the out of print series online and read those too. One time I heard about an out of print (at the time) book called Vendetta: The Story of One Forgotten by Marie Corelli, saved up my allowance and bought a copy that was no more than photocopied pages of an older edition. It wasn't that great.
I spent 9th grade struggling through Les Misérables (unabridged) and chased that down with some lighter Victor Hugo and read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 10th grade I discovered The Lord of the Rings and after I finished that I thought, I will never again read something that moved me the way that book did. I always do that. It's kinda stupid. I read something great and I feel like I'll never ever find anything as good ever again.
Then life happened. I discussed my writing break in my previous post and it was the same for reading. I was busy and the spaces between books grew longer and longer.
We aren't born knowing how to read. It takes skill and practice and the sad truth is, the longer we go without using that skill, the more and more reading starts to feel like work. That's the sad state I found myself in. I wanted to write. I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't reading.
Remember in my previous post where I said my writing used to suck, like really suck? Yeah, I wasn't reading. One of the major things that changed was that I got back into the habit of reading and *magically* my writing improved.
It was tough at first. In fact, Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is still sitting half read on my dresser mocking me. I haven't picked it up in over a year.
But then I tried something that I'm going to call a "Life Hack" or whatever. It's pretty simple. I used audio books. I listened to audio books while reading along with a physical copy of the book. I read my first book start to finish in a while and was very pleased with myself. Then I did it again and this time, found that I had to speed up the recording to keep up with my eyes on the page. In other words, my reading skills came back and were overtaking my listening skills. That's how I did it.
The other thing I've discovered about reading is that, for me, it's the only cure for writer's block. Any time I go more than a few days with severe writer's block I know it's time to read a book. Reading unlocks my brain, makes the ideas swirl, makes the page more mailable.
I'm not one of those people who reads a hundred books a year and I doubt I ever will be. The way my life is, right now, I don't have time to parent, write, have a life, and then read piles and piles of books. But I read a lot. And I make myself familiar with different authors and new titles.
The final piece of advice I would give anyone who wants to get back into reading is this: READ WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY!! Don't get caught up in reading a popular title because everybody is reading it. Read something sappy or something scary or read Young Adult. I LOVE Young Adult! I want to write adult books that have the same ease and intensity and passion that Young Adult books have.
Whatever you do, read. Reading is essential to writing. After all, how can we expect other people to pick up our books if we don't pick up other people's.
So, to conclude, I will give you my top four book recommendations from my reading this summer:
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: A Novel by Gail Honeyman A contender for one of my most favorite books I've ever read and a debut novel!
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee YA and freaking fantastic!
The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey Hey! I know her! A beautiful and hilarious novel about old age and youth and everything in-between.
Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz YA! Scary and poignant! Great book!
I'm going to go finish Underground Airlines now.
I'm sitting in the sun room. (Sun room sounds so much fancier than prefab addition that stores the over flow of toys and craft supplies that my kids have acquired over the last eight years). So, I'm sitting in the sun room, at a tiny IKEA desk, with the portable AC blowing directly on me because even though it's October, I live in Texas. I want to sit outside, but the mosquitoes are still terrible and I'm afraid of getting West Nile Virus, on top of my usual fear of catching COVID.
It's three in the afternoon and Wren is still dressed in her Disney Princess nightgown and is sitting in a pile of legos, making the lego knights kiss each other. She takes frequent breaks to climb the chair and sit on my lap or my shoulder, sometimes placing her head directly between me and the screen. She wants attention. She deserves attention. When you're a parent, taking the time to write always feels like time you're taking away from your kids. Am I screwing her up? If I get published will I make enough to cover the cost of her therapy later?
This is my life right now. If I sound neurotic, it's because I feel neurotic. My writing journey has had many ebbs and flows over the years, but 2020 is the detour none of us wanted. I'm sitting here, writing my first blog post and feeling useless because I'm not writing my novel. And if I were writing my novel, I'd feel useless for not cleaning the living-room or doing the laundry or whatever else.
I haven't always felt this way. When I was younger and inspired, writing was a sweet escape, something that sent my soul soaring. I wrote paragraphs of fiction in college lectures instead of taking notes. I stayed up until 3am with a laptop resting on my legs in the dark. Writing felt good. It felt purposeful. And my writing sucked.
It was melodramatic and clunky. I thought it was good. Sometimes it was okay. I thought my career was taking off when I got several short stories published in small literary journals my last couple years of undergrad. But then I stopped. The spark ran out and I got busy going to graduate school, getting married, teaching, and having my first baby. By the time I picked up my pen again, something had changed. I began to realize that the passion was still there, but the craft needed work. I had no idea how much work it needed.
What changed everything was finding my community. I joined a small group of life-long friends who share my love of writing and then, I joined the DFW Writer's Workshop, where I made new friends. Both groups have helped me immensely in different ways. I stopped thinking of writing as a competition with other writers and more of a competition with myself to be better.
About three years ago, my smaller group (WHAM) decided to write personal statements. This was mine:
I want to enjoy the process, get lost in the story, and hold a published copy in my hands. I want to read more than I write, increasing my understanding of the craft, while honing my own unique style.
I wrote a very bad novella in high school that I'm too embarrassed to even get into here. (I mean, I also thought flirting was pouring a glass of water over a boy's head. We all do things in high school we regret.) In college I wrote a semi-autobiographical YA book called Exploits of a Stage Name. It wasn't terrible. It wasn't great either. I wrote without any idea where I was going. There was no outline, there was no goal. And it showed as the book came to an anticlimactic and sudden end. I was in my early twenties and knew nothing about the publishing industry. I had read Little Women and assumed that, like Jo March, I'd open my door one day to a handsome man holding my published novel out for me. So I sent it off to one publisher and was promptly rejected. I sulked and put it away.
And then a few years later I had my first child. During those first few sleepless months, while I was up feeding her in the night, I would pull out my laptop and type a few lines. With the shrieks of a newborn as my soundtrack I completed a very short first draft of what would become my second book, Cthulhu Steps Out. Cthulhu Steps Out is a romantic comedy with the Lovecraftian monster Cthulhu as the romantic lead. I knew it was weird, but I loved it. I still love it. But I was naive, thinking that surely if it was good enough, publishers would make a space for it on the shelf where none existed. It wasn't good enough.
I work-shopped it and got back a lot of positive feedback, but also some more sobering criticisms that I tried to ignore. I even pitched it at my first writing conference. I was thrilled when I got back five or six requests from agents to read the manuscript.
They all rejected it pretty quickly. I came to terms with the shortcomings of the story and decided to let Cthulhu go... for now.
So, I gathered all I had learned and set out again, this time to write something with the goal in mind, "I want to write something that I would love to read. I want to write my favorite book."
So, for the next two years I wrote, revised, revised, and revised Believers, the story of a young woman who must save her mother from a cult. I love this book. For the first time, when I sat back and read the latest revisions, I saw something deeper, something much more profound than anything I'd ever written before. This was it. Finally. This was the one that some agent would fall in love with and this is the book that I'd finally see in print.
As of today, I've received about sixty-five rejections, two requests for a full manuscript, which also ended in rejection, one revise and resubmit, which also got me a big fat rejection.
I decided to let Believers breathe for a little while. And here we are. I've started yet another book.
I'm 15,000 words into what I'm calling Rattlesnake. This is a sci-fi, psychological thriller-ish book. That's part of my problem. When it comes to genres, I just can't stay in my lane. I like books that cross genres. I like books that are weird or quirky. But it does make it hard to sell.
I'm excited about the possibility of so many blank pages ahead of me. But I am also at a place in my life where I can't help but wonder, am I wasting my time? Am I just playing pretend? Am I a grown woman who sits for hours typing up stories that no one will read?
Maybe. I hate that I'm not fiercely confident enough to decry these doubts and concerns. I used to be. But, then again, I used to not be a very good writer. I am now. Of that, I'm confident.
I hope that doesn't come across as arrogant. And I hope you don't judge my ability by this unedited, stream of consciousness blog post I'm creating.
Here's the difference. Before, I loved to write and thought it was good because of how it made me feel. I couldn't tell you why it was good, or what made it special. Today, I can write a scene and I can point out to you specifically what techniques I used to create my style. Today, I love to write and I know it's good, but I also know it can be better. Today I cut myself some slack and realize that the words I type today will be revised and polished until they're completely different.
This has been a hellish year for everyone. I feel the toll on my mental and emotional health. I think just to pick up the pieces and say, "today I am going to write" is enough.
So, in reference to my title, On Starting a New Project... I am here, both confident, but realistic, discouraged, but still optimistic. I guess that's an okay place to be, for now.