Friday, 28 October 2011

Good Enough

I think I speak for many writers when I say that the self-publishing boom has been a dream come true. For the first time, writers have an opportunity to publish what they want, the way they want. No more do we have to beg and plead publishers for a tiny fraction of our royalties. No longer do we have to change our fiction to suit the tastes of an editor or agent. Never again will we have to play the rejection game--which, as some of us know, can go on for years. There’s a spirit of “maybe I won’t have to work at my McJob for the next thirty years” in the air. I’m excited about these changes, and I’m glad to be on board.


There’s also a pitfall to this whole self-publishing game. No, it’s not the low book prices (I actually like the low prices). It’s not the hassle of finding a cover artist (a process I’m currently involved in). It’s not even the stink of ‘vanity press’ that still hovers over us.

It has to do with the fact that writing is hard. As Larry David (a writer) might say: It’s pretty hard. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty hard.

Writing a novel can sometimes feel like you’re scaling Everest with a grand piano strapped to your back. It’s a long, tedious, sometimes maddening process. Robert Heinlein famously said that most people who attempt to write will eventually give it up.

But now that’s changed, because self-publishing is easy.

Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty easy.

With sites like Amazon, anyone can publish a novel. This ranges from the seasoned author, to the stay-at-home mom, to your cousin Bob who never wrote anything until last month when he got really high. You know the story I’m talking about--with the magical Cheetos and the wizard? That one.

With one click, he’s now an author.

So what’s the problem? Shouldnt Cousin Bob have the chance to publish his book? Sure it might suck, but what’s the harm?  
Actually, I’m not worried about Cousin Bob. I’m worried about the writers with real talent.

If Cousin Bob thinks ‘The Wizard of Munchie Mountain’ is good enough, fine. But what’s keeping a talented writer from doing the same? I think this is the potential tragedy of self-publishing. When the going gets tough, a talented writer could squander his/her talent in exchange for relief. Where the impossible odds of publishing pushed us forward in the past, the easy out of self-publishing could ruin a great many books before they reach their true potential.

So what’s the solution? You’re not going to like this. I didn’t like it either, but I see no other alternative:

Indie writers must strap on a second piano. We must make it harder for ourselves. A lot harder. If no one is going to raise the bar for us, we must raise it ourselves. We have to set an incredibly high standard and persevere until we reach it.

How do you know you’ve reached it? Believe me, you’ll know. It’s kinda like the ‘wall’ that marathon runners hit a few hours into the race. You’ll be exhausted. Your eyes will burn from staring at the screen. Your head will feel like a hollowed out coconut, and you’ll be so sick of your novel that you’ll never want to read it ever again. 

That’s when you’ll be ready to click the publish button.

But most writers won’t get this far. They’ll go as far as Heinlein predicted, and then call it a day. ‘Good enough’ will become the standard, and a new generation of “writers” will strut around with a first draft of nonsense for sale on-line.

This bothers me, not because millions of readers will be ripped-off, but because millions of writers will never experience the satisfaction of pushing themselves to the limit. We write for the journey, the exploration of our own humanity. How great is a journey of only a few steps? How far can you explore if you’re only willing to go skin deep?

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Yucky Stuff

Twitter is awesome. I’ve never met so many writers in my life, and I love feeling part of a wide, global community. Through Twitter, I’ve learned that a.) I’m not the only one who worries about fictional people, and b.) I’m not the only one who struggles with the love/hate dance of storytelling. It’s a great feeling, and I hope to learn more from the experience.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing a tweet that has me puzzled:  

“I’ve finished writing. Now I need an editor.”

Before going further, I want to say that editors are great. If you’ve been thinking of saving up your nickels and dimes to hire one, do it. But the impression I’ve been getting is not one of:

“I’ve written, edited, and combed through my writing a bazillion times. I’ve done all I can do with it, now I need another opinion.”

Instead, I get the sneaking suspicion (and I hope I’m wrong), that “I need an editor” really means:  

I’m done with the fun, now I need someone to handle the yucky stuff.”

If you fall into the first category, then I’d like to pat you on the back (because I don’t have beer money) and congratulate you on a job well done. You ran the race, you crossed the finish line. Bravo. However, if you fall into the second category, then I’m afraid I’ll have to brandish my Mighty Baton of Justice and lay the smackdown. (Note: I also considered calling it my Daisy of Doom, but it just didn’t have the same ring).

Readers of my past essays know I used to have a terrible editing phobia. Paralyzing, really. The very thought of it gave me stomach cramps. Let me put it another way: I’ve finished two novels, and yet I’ve written eight. How’s that for fear? I could write the first draft no problem. It was the second and third drafts that terrified me. I couldn’t even conceive of a fourth draft. A fourth draft might as well have been the seventh level of hell.  

But I couldn’t keep running away from the problem. After all, a first draft has only one function: to sit on a shelf and never be read by anyone. And one of the reasons we write is to share our ideas with others.

But you can’t share a first draft. Remember what Hemingway said: “All first drafts are shit.” You can’t present your friends and family with shit. You certainly can’t send it to a publisher (if nothing else, the smell would alert customs). So what’s the answer?

You sir, or madam, must hit the books. Hard. Yes, I’m talking about grammar. No, the grammar check on your computer isn’t enough (in fact, it often makes it worse). No, you can’t just “wing it” and hope no one notices. No, your disregard for grammar is not some avant-garde attempt at a new style of writing.

“But in your last essay you talked about writing as fun. Have you changed your mind, you crotchety old coot?”

No, I haven’t. But you have to learn the rules before you can bend them.

Look, I know how you feel. Writers like to play. We don’t like to study. But trust a phobic on this one. If you start to study, something amazing will happen: 

Your sentences will start to make sense. 

What a revelation! At least it was for me. I always thought grammar was the literary equivalent of “The Man” trying to keep me down. No no no. Grammar is freedom.

Do you have to learn every grammar rule in the book? No. That would take the rest of your life. You need to learn enough to write clear and clean. Luckily, we are a generation of writers with the Internet. If you’re stuck, look it up. There are many great grammar sites out there (I’ll post a link at the bottom).

Learn as you write. But do learn it.  

“I still don’t see why I can’t hire someone to do it for me.”

Thwack with the Mighty Baton of Justice! Dude, if you don’t study, you and your writing will never evolve. And if you aren’t committed to evolution, then why the hell are you doing this in the first place? To impress your friends? To land a date with that cute librarian? To chase after some foolish notion of immortality? These are all terrible reasons to write (except for maybe the cute librarian one).

If you’ve chosen this journey, then you need to tread the wide flat path and the thorny underbrush. And if you love it enough, you’ll endure the scrapes and bruises. But if you’re not willing to donate the years (yes, years) to this craft, then save yourself the headache and do something else. Seriously. Stop writing this instant because you’ve already failed.

Do I think you can do it? Yes, I do. Persistence is a powerful tool. It’s the real ‘Secret’. Forget about finding a short cut--there isn’t one, and you wouldn’t want it anyway. Many lotto winners are miserable. Most trust fund babies grow into coked up flunkies. They didn’t earn their success, and they know it.

I’m not there yet, but I’m willing to study and push and suffer those slings and arrows until I’ve made it. Are you? Then stop hoping that someone else will make you a great writer. 

Yes, you do need an editor. Luckily, the best one is free. 

My favourite 'how-to' writing books (in order of awesomeness): 

'On Writing' by Stephen King
'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White
'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers' by Renni Brown and Dave King
'Zen and the Art of Writing' by Ray Bradbury
'If You Want to Write' by Brenda Ueland
'Word Painting' by Rebecca McClanahan
'Getting Into Character' by Brandilyn Collins

My favourite on-line grammar site: Grammar Girl 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Leavin' On Your Mind

Delton told Suzie he was shipping out on Monday and she stopped talking. The porch swing stopped swinging. A cigarette smoked in her one hand, an orange popsicle melted in the other. Behind them, an open window let out Patsy Cline singing ‘Crazy’ the only way she could do.

It was a warm summer night. The humidity flushed their cheeks.

“Her voice is like water,” Suzie finally said. “I think there’s nobody like her in the whole world.” She sucked on her popsicle.

Delton thought about touching her hand, but they were both occupied. “We’ll go see her one day,” he said.

She replaced the popsicle with the cigarette. “How?” she said. “You’ll be in some jungle on the other side of the world.”  

“I’ll come home eventually,” he said.

“And if you don’t?” she said, blinking through the smoke.

“I will.”

“And if you--don’t?” she said, the cigarette out and the popsicle back in.

“Come off it, Suzie,” he said, “Of course I’ll come back.” Between his good job at Harlson’s Hardware and his great girlfriend, he’d have to come back. He wasn’t a bad person--God wouldn’t let him die overseas.  

‘Heartaches’ came on and Delton thought about asking her to dance. Sure, the neighbors might see, and he might wake his parents with their feet pounding on the floorboards like kettledrums, but he needed to touch her. It might be his last touch for a long while. He still wasn’t sure how long a tour was.

As if reading his mind, she said, “I don’t want to dance.” Her popsicle dripped. Her cigarette curled into ash. “I just want to sit.”

Moths bounced off the porch screen. Somewhere, a dog barked. “Johnny went driving with Claire,” Delton said.

“Claire would,” Suzie said.

“What does that mean?”

She bit off the rest of the popsicle and scraped the stick on her teeth. Her breath smelled sweet. “Claire’s been lonely for him all week. She said she’ll simply die when he’s gone.”

“She’ll die?” Delton said. He wondered what Suzie would do. He imagined her lying on her bed covered in his letters. She’d listen to ‘I Fall to Pieces’ over and over while biting a slip of hair.

“I’ll be back,” he said.  

“I know,” she said.

“I will,” he insisted. He touched her cold, sticky fingers.

Inside the house, the record stopped playing.