That Bit’s Gone

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Steve Martin recorded a Master Class. It’s like ninety bucks, which is a screaming deal, but if you’d rather buy groceries this week, just watch the trailer! He has a great line where he’s counseling some wanna-be comedians and tells them that if a bit they’ve written gets no laughs, to cut that bit for the following performance. “That bit’s gone,” he says. And they all nod, trying to not to appear shocked and appalled. “But I worked so hard on it and my mom/high roommate/girlfriend loved it!” they’re thinking.

That’s what “kill your darlings” means. It does not mean you go through your manuscript and find the beautiful bits and cut them off at the knees because they’re beautiful. It means, if a bit is not working—if it does not set the scene, describe your setting, reveal your character’s inner fear, make you worry about the villain, wonder about the hero—if it does not get the laugh, it goes. The constant work of improving your craft means you hold your entire manuscript (or comedy routine, or landscaping schematic, etc.) with an open hand. Your goal is to emotionally connect with another human being, so you’ve got to be willing to cut and mold and shape and twist your story until it does what it says on the tin: entertain.

Like this one time (she lies: correct count is 7 times) I had a dream about something and wrote a novel/wrote a scene/invented a character based on it. And every single time, that’s what ends up being cut. And it’s so annoying because I totally want to be in an interview someday and they’re like, “How did you come up with this brilliant idea?” and I’m like, “It came to me in a dream.” Alas, those dreamy darlings always hit the cutting room floor. The trick is, you have to know your target before you can kill it, as any good murderer knows. Let other people read your stuff and then read their stuff back. It’s often easier to spot other people’s darlings than your own. And then get rid of it! AND MOVE ON. You will write a better bit than that.

Anyway, I think Steve Martin is the bee’s knees.

Also, I hate blogging. I do. I like shouting witty things into the void, but it all feels very iffy, like meringue before it goes in the oven. So if anyone has any questions, about writing or parenting or being in love or making a homemade sled out of a piece of cardboard and a contractor bag, go ahead and ask. I’m your girl.

 

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Churchill yo self

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“A professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

This quote is attributed to Richard Bach, but he claims he didn’t say it, that it’s just a popular maxim. I’m glad for this quote upon the receipt of a rejection letter–a nice one, as form letter rejections go, inviting me to submit additional work at a later date because the winds of change are unpredictable. What have you. I indulged in the traditional wallow, my heart hanging so low I trod its hopeful beats into the ground, and then the next day, Churchilled myself right up. You know, that other quote, “Never give up. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.” Yes, sir!  Onward! Because really, what else am I going to do?!  I love  writing with everything that is in me. Rejections aren’t personal, and they certainly aren’t an excuse to give up. Perish that thought! So if you are reading this and you’ve been laid low by the temptation to quit whatever art you love, don’t. DO NOT QUIT. Just don’t do it, man. By all means, shlub around the house in your worst bra, bemoaning your fate. But only for a moment! There are stories to tell, and no one can tell them except you.

I Am Not Beatrix Potter

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Here is a quote from Beatrix Potter, (saw it on Goodreads and Tumblr):

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

I want you to know, this is not my experience. At all. The first words of a story are fraught with danger, self-loathing, and enough second-guessing to make a superstitious man hug a black cat. The first words of a story have to hook the reader and set up that all-important first page of the story. The first page being the place where your reader forgets they’re in a bookstore and is transported to a magical place where the only thing they ever want to do is read your book until it ends, and then throw themselves down on a chaise lounge in a fit of despair because it’s over.

Like, no pressure or anything.

However, daydreaming the first words of a story, now THAT is delicious. It’s fudge-made-by-old-ladies delicious. No pressure, just dreaming, pondering, mixing all the different ways your character could strut onto that stage you’ve been building in your head. But again, here’s where I vary from Miss Potter (whom I love because she had that secret romance with Ewan McGregor in the movie and then married that younger lawyer, get it girl): I know where I want the first words to lead. I plan my stories, I plot them so hard, I track inner journeys on a hand-written chart and cover countless removable post-its with possible explosive disasters I can throw at my characters. Miss Potter sounds like more of a “write by the seat of your pants” person, which is totally fine for her and countless others. But if her quote fills you with confusion and arguments, which then lead to guilt because what kind of monster argues with Beatrix Potter about anything,  you might be a “planner” type. This is also cool.

I love quotes by other writers because they show me who I am and who I’m not, but we’re all still welcome at the same party. Party on!

Wait! That’s me!

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Page 229. THEY ARE ABOUT TO KISS, WHAT DO I DO!?!?!?!?!

This is the email I just shot off to a friend, the magical unicorn angel who sometimes begs for more pages; the kind of friend who, when you think about throwing in the towel and just writing maudlin fanfic the rest of your life, reminds you that she really likes your book, so don’t quit writing until after she find out what happens next.

Anyway, I am cracking myself up over here, because what happens next is that I have to write a kissing scene. A really good one. Like, the payoff of over 200 pages of UST. I think I should go do some research.

OMG NOT THAT KIND OF RESEARCH.

Well, maybe not. Okay, gotta go!

 

 

 

READ IN YOUR GENRE (?!)

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“Fantasy is my favorite genre for reading and writing. We have more options than anyone else, and the best props and special effects. That means if you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead.” Patrick Rothfuss

 

I know what you’re thinking. We’re all thinking it: unicorns are asexual. But that’s the whole point of the quote, isn’t it? In fantasy, you can write whatever you want and there will be a place for it. Nothing will seem out of setting. (Out of character is up to you.) I’ve chosen to write in the “speculative genre” because I like making stuff up.

When I read, however, I choose novels with a strong sense of place, regardless of genre: Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country novels, Alan Bradley’s post-WWII Flavia de Luce mysteries, and anything by Fannie Flagg. There are no fantastical bits in these novels but their settings are so wholly other to me that I’m transported, and I get the same feeling I get when I read an epic fantasy.

Anyway, I put up this Rothfuss quote because I’ve been feeling guilty lately about not reading enough in my genre. You want to make sure that the brilliant idea you just had hasn’t already been done to great acclaim. (oh, how sad I was to find out that Guy Gavriel Kay wrote novels starring mosaic artists!)  You want to find offensive tropes and avoid them. You want to find something you adore so you can write the author a love note. A lot of my guilt is assuaged by the fact that the library is not stocking mass-market paperback new releases in paranormal romance and my purchasing budget is a hefty null right now, but then I thought of all the books that sucked me in. Some of them are fantasy/sci-fi, but a lot of them are not. When I read, I am learning how to write something that transports the reader into the story I’m telling, and THAT is the best part of finding a good book.

And by learning, I don’t mean osmosis. I mean I take a notebook and write down what happens in Chapter One. Chapter Two. Midpoint. Climax. What swept me up, what I skipped, what dialogue I wish I’d written. It’s part of the journey and I am absolutely committed to getting a book on the “weird shelf.”

So I’m off to the bookstore to read the backs of books!  I am in the mood to read a fairy tale. Wish me luck!

FEEDBACK

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In April, the first 250 words of my work-in-progress were featured as the “real life diagnostics” on my favorite writing help blog, Fiction University. I love the way this author teaches the craft of story structure. And it’s free! Anyway, it was an awesome experience and you can go check out my excerpt and the comments. (she said, nervously)

Squeeeeeeak! Microphone feedback. No one likes that nail-down-a-chalkboard sound. Most of us don’t like feedback on our art, especially when it is called by its professional name, “constructive criticism.” It also has a trendy, hipster name: “concrit.” Eventually, you get to a place in your craft where you can see the problems in your own work and you stop hating the gatekeepers. There are fantastic editors for hire (and some scammers, caveat emptor) and some great fee-based peer review groups. You can also enter contests for a small fee—-even if you don’t win, you usually get feedback from the judges, either in the form of a scorecard or notes written in your document.

But what do you do if you just spent your last three bucks to buy your kids donuts they can eat in the back of the minivan on the way to the thing you’re late for?  I’m glad you asked!  First, you find a few friends who are willing to read your writing. Not all of them will be honest, but ask them where they stopped reading and started skimming. This will at least show you where they got bored. Then, if you’re lucky enough to have family who will read your stuff, listen to their comments. Don’t disdain the family/friends feature. These are the people who will show up at your future booksigning so you don’t look awkward sitting at a table all alone.

Next, read reviews! Authors are not supposed to read their own reviews on Amazon because it turns them into vampires or something, but we can! Go read all those 1 and 2 star reviews and find out what readers abhor. Poor characterization, head-hopping, telling, endings that fizzle, poor editing, etc. Then learn what all these things really mean and avoid them in your work.

(At this point, you might realize WITH HORROR that the prose that seemed publication-ready to you and your friends is really awful drivel that should be shoved into a drawer forever. Mope and move on!  Really. If you skip the moping you’ll only be moping on the inside. So take an afternoon to listen to Chopin and cry because he was taken from us so young! And then MOVE. ON.)

Then, spy. Spy on other people’s critiques. You can do this at writer’s conferences, in blogs, podcasts, etc. That’s the whole reason I submitted my stuff for critique: I learned something every week from the constructive criticism of other people’s work. One time, I was at a conference where a panel of professionals critiqued five different anonymous, unpublished submissions. The twist was that you were asked to submit TEN pages of your stuff, but they only had time to read TWO pages out loud. Before then, I had heard the phrase “hook your reader” but had no earthly idea how fast you actually have to do that. Two pages. Two paragraphs, if possible. The experience was incredible. I still refer to the notes from that night!

All writers must seek to improve their craft. Even the published ones. Good luck. And go read my little thing at the place!!

 

 

PACKRAT

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“No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”
ERIN BOW (via garnetglitter)

 

There is nothing like realizing you just wrote a thousand words of a scene that takes place in a commercial kitchen, say, and then realizing that the crucial bits of that scene really involve two different characters who are cowering under a water tower on the roof. Am I right?!  This quote (via Tumblr, which can be a huge time suck if you’re looking for every gifset from the “Civil War” trailer, but incredibly helpful for keeping all five hundred links to historical fashions in one place)  is true. Someone said you have to write a million words before you know what you’re doing. That is not a direct quote, it’s just how I remember it. And I don’t remember who said it, because I think it might have been Randy Ingermanson, who is just a fantastic human being, but I don’t know if it was his quote or if he was inspired by a different quote so I just paraphrased for the sake of effect which happens sometimes, but I’m copping to it now and if I find the source I’ll….ugh. Hang on. I got a case of the heebie jeebie quote-guilts. Lemme look it up for Pete’s sake.

Found it!

“To develop your voice, I recommend writing one million words.” (source)

In my search just now I learned that a lot of people think that’s malarkey. I guess it depends. I wrote a lot of fanfiction back in the day and I didn’t keep any of those words, thank God, because it was me and a notebook and a full-color poster of Catherine and Vincent from CBS’s 1987 show “Beauty and the Beast.” But those words helped me grow as a writer, for sure. Mostly I’m talking about the words that end up on the cutting room floor in a novel you’re writing for publication: that choice bit of dialogue you cut because it was too maudlin, the villain scene that didn’t fit, the “let’s describe every cobblestone as we walk along to the next scene” scene. Save them, because you might find a place for them later. Save them, because what seemed maudlin at first might be the roots for a future character. Save them, because it’s fun.

No writing is wasted on the journey!