What the Best Writers Know about Making It Work

Sometimes hating your novel is part of the process. That is not a cosmic joke to rail against. It just is. You will sometimes actually hate the process of writing your novel even as you fully understand that there can be no other process, no way around it. This disliking, this worrying, this fearing the worst, this plodding rather than soaring, all this is sometimes part of the process . . . You can choose to say, “I can do this even though it hurts.” That honors the process. Or you can dishonor the process by fantasizing that it must be different for luckier mortals. You can suppose that some writer somewhere, whom you envy and hate, is dashing off beautiful page after beautiful page, turning out masterpieces with ridiculous ease, laughing all the way to the computer and back, doing his effortless genius thing while you refuse to get out of bed. You can fantasize in this fashion to let yourself off the hook and avoid the reality of the process. Don’t. . . . [Much] of the time you are writing your novel you may not be pleased with it. Embrace that! Stop wishing it were otherwise. Stop avoiding nature. Stop hoping that reality were more like a pleasant dream. Stop craving the fantasy that you are a genius and that everything that flows from your pen will be honey. Embrace the reality that some of what you produce will be inspired, that some of what you produce will be dull, and that there will never be a substitute for showing up and moving your fingers over the keyboard.

—Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within

I love hearing the story behind the story: how the author got the idea; how the idea progressed; the author’s struggles and successes with it. Getting a peak “behind the scenes” makes both the book and the author less intimidating, more human.

This weekend I read the mega-bestseller The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In Green’s acknowledgements, he thanks his editor and publisher “who stuck with this story through many years of twists and turns . . . ” I sleuthed around online and discovered a Question and Answer page on Green’s website that talks about the story behind The Fault in Our Stars and the story behind his life as a writer in general:

Q. Are you currently working on a novel? A. Yes, I am always working on a novel, although I guess it depends on how you define “working” and “on.” I’ve become very superstitious, however, about saying more than that, because while I was writing the book that became The Fault in Our Stars, I promised many different stories – a zombie apocalypse novel, a novel about kids stranded on a desert island – and then delivered a very different book. [The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of two teenagers that have cancer and are grappling with mortality.]

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block? A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts . . . so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway.

How many of us give ourselves permission to suck in our writing? And I mean really stink it up—not just kind of, but really letting things get appallingly bad.

I think most of us know deep down that every story has to start out ugly before it can get pretty, yet we still don’t give ourselves the space to mess up. And ironically, that is exactly what separates the professional writers from the wanna-be writers:

Professionals want it badly enough that they give themselves permission to suck.

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

—Maya Angelou

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

—Octavia Butler

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

—Anne Lammott

Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.

—Stephen King

The good news is, it’s never too late to give yourself permission to suck. The beginning of your life as a writer may already be set in stone and it may not have gotten off to a great start, but it’s still in your hands to decide if you’re going to end your writing life. You certainly can if you want to. But if you’re not ready to say goodbye, if there’s still a shred of a writer left in you that’s desperate to stay alive, then let your writing suck. It’s how all of the best writers make it to the top.

The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.

—Diana Gabaldon

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Famous Writers Who Trusted Their Instincts and Made It Big

Never before in history have authors been so readily accessible. If you google “writing advice,” you land 605,000,000 results. Like all things technological, this is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the wisdom of millions of writers past and present is at your fingertips. On the other hand, it’s dangerously easy to lose yourself trying to follow the countless, and often contradictory, advice of writers who may or may not be anything like you.

What can save you from getting lost in this muddle is paying attention to how other writers have learned to trust themselves, even when who they are goes against the grain of what’s expected. For example, a fellow writer said:

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney.

That writer is Marilynne Robinson. She published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. She didn’t publish another novel for over two decades. Then, in 2004, she finally published Gilead . . . and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Another writer said:

[An] iPad was given to me at a reading . . . It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

The writer here is Louise Gluck and the book she is referring to is The Wild Iris, a compilation of poems she wrote after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues. It also won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m not saying that all writers who trust their instincts will win the Pulitzer Prize. I’m also not saying that the Pulitzer Prize is the only definition of success. What I am saying is that success is capricious. Most of the time success has no rhyme or reason for dismissing one talented writer and choosing another. But if you want it badly enough, your best chance at getting it is to work hard at figuring out who you are. Louise Gluck’s personal motto is follow your enthusiasm:

When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

Real writing, Gluck says, will not show itself until we are living authentically:

I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have any children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.

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The Make-or-Break Element in Writing

Leo Buscaglia once said:

Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey into the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?”

We often hear the advice “write what you know,” but we rarely hear “write what you feel.”

J. K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series because she said it was a story she would’ve liked to read herself. The writer C.S. Forester also said:

I formed a resolution to never write a word I did not want to write; to think only of my own tastes and ideals, without a thought of those of editors or publishers.

After Rowling finished writing her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it spent a year drifting from one rejection to another (about twelve in total). It was finally accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing for an advance of £1500. Rowling, however, was warned to get a day job. Her story wasn’t commercial enough to bring in any substantial amount of money (and at the time she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain”).

Ironically, some of the supposed “noncommercial” aspects of Harry Potter were pulled directly from Rowling’s own life—not from things that she knew, but from things that she had felt.

In an interview with Oprah, Rowling talked about her sadness and grief:

. . . if [my mother] hadn’t died I don’t think it’s too strong to say there wouldn’t be Harry Potter. . . the books are what they are because she died, because I loved her and she died.

Rowling also struggled with depression, and to express that depression she created dementors:

I think I had tendencies toward depression from quite young . . . It’s that absence of feeling—and it’s even the absence of hope that you can feel better. And it’s so difficult to describe to someone who’s never been there because it’s not sadness . . . Sadness is not a bad thing, you know? To cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling, that really hollowed out feeling. That’s what the dementors are.

Rowling started writing Sorcerer’s Stone because she knew it was a story she wanted to read, but she finished writing it because of how it made her feel.

Her feelings of depression, despair, grief, and most importantly, her feeling of failure drove her to finish what she had started. In her famous Harvard graduation speech, Rowling said:

I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me . . . I was set free, because my greatest fear [of failure] had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Rowling is one of the most successful writers in history, but for quite a while she felt like she was the world’s biggest failure:

The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew . . . You might never fail on the scale as I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

Ask yourself:

Did you bring joy?

Did you find joy?

Perhaps writers get a freebie here because one answer can cover both questions: write what brings you joy and your words will then bring joy to others.

The only catch is, writing what you feel—inspiring others—requires you to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest about what what makes you tick and then you have to have the courage to share it with others. Anything less and you’ll be cheating yourself and all your readers.

Let your mantra be: Dig deep. Be brave. Bring joy. Find joy.

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Failure Is a Necessity

“The man who gets up is greater than the man who never fell.”  —Concepcion Arenal

Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer—which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer—maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.

—J. K. Rowling

Don’t Kill the Fun in Your First Draft

Don’t chisel perfect sentences into stone, or try to. That’s no way to write a first draft. Don’t even think that you’re writing; think that you’re dancing, or conducting a symphony, or chasing moonbeans, or soaping windows. Don’t be a slave to grammar or syntax, or even to meaning. Write to the sound of words, not to their logic – not at first. Be guided by rhythms, hues, textures, game theory, astrological charts, whim. Be bold, be devilish; be outrageous. Forget about readers; tickle yourself. Should doubts, misgivings, or disgust arise during this honeymoon phase, shoo, shoo them away. If they persist, consider the possibility that bride and groom (artist and subject) aren’t truly meant for each other. However you manage it, try, at this juncture, to have at least some fun.

—Peter Selgin, By Cunning & Craft: Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers

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Nail Your Pitch: Avoid the Common Pitfalls and Sell Your Story

Many of today’s best-selling books were written by once-unknown authors—authors who had very little to no platform at all—like J. K. Rowling when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So how did word get around?

It all comes down to the pitch.

Two Kinds of Pitches

Most of the time the word pitch is associated with authors trying to pitch their manuscript to agents or editors. But there’s a second, and equally important, phase of the pitch: readers pitching books to other readers.

I recently read (and loved) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was recommended to me by my next-door neighbor. I was one of thousands who catapulted Stockett to fame and fortune (after first being rejected sixty times by literary agents ).

In fact, I rarely read books based on genre or best-seller lists but instead on the recommendations of friends and family:

A pitch can be powerful because it not only advertises one book but all of the author’s books. After having read Unbroken, for example, I went on to read Laura Hillenbrand’s first book, Seabiscuit, which I then pitched to several of my friends.

However, readers will not pitch your book unless you give them a very good reason to. Something about your book needs to be unique and exciting, but at the same time, relatively easy to explain. That’s where a book’s pitch comes in.

Take Harry Potter, for example. The series has many intricate plots and characters, but the overall story is easy to pitch:

A boy discovers that he’s a wizard and that the darkest wizard of all time wants him dead.

How to Craft an Enticing Pitch

If your book doesn’t have a clear and enticing pitch, it will have a hard time getting traction. Randy Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies lists the numbers of times a book has to be successfully pitched before it has a chance of becoming a best-seller:

  1. You or your agent sells your book to an acquisitions editor, who brings it to her publishing committee.
  2. The acquisitions editor sells the concept of the book to the publishing committee, who offer you a contract with royalties and advance payments.
  3. The acquisitions editor then sells your book to the sales team, who are in charge of fulfilling orders from bookstores.
  4. The sales team sells your book to professional buyers, who also place orders for bookstores.
  5. The catalog copy and back-cover copy (which have hopefully been perfected by a production team that’s rooting for you) sell your book as well.
  6. The sales teams at bookstores (or the back cover of the book itself) sell your book to readers.
  7. Your first wave of readers sell your book to their friends, and their friends sell your book to their friends, etc.

If a link is broken or missing anywhere in the selling chain, the road to best-sellerdom becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible. (And if you self-publish, you alone must successfully link all the steps leading up to number seven.)

What Is, and Is Not, a Pitch

This is where many writers get lost. The purpose of a pitch is not to convince everyone of the awesomeness of your book. The purpose of a pitch, as explained by Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies, is to “tell people immediately whether they belong to your target audience.”

Remember that you’ll never write a book that appeals to everyone. If someone doesn’t fit your target audience, that’s okay. You fail quickly, which allows you to move on to the next person. But if someone does belong to your target audience, then you succeed quickly.

Ingermanson also argues that a pitch should actually be called a storyline, because it allows you to focus on accurately explaining your book rather than on desperately trying to sell it.

Now that we know what a pitch is (or a storyline) Ingermanson explains what it should look like:

It’s short. You want it to be short so you can memorize it easily and say it quickly—and so can everyone else in your selling chain.

It’s emotive. Fiction is about creating a powerful emotional experience, so your storyline needs to tell what emotive experience your story will deliver.

It arouses curiosity. Your storyline shouldn’t give away the story. It should raise a question that demands an answer.

Your Pitch Checklist

Ingermanson then gives a detailed checklist on how to build your pitch/storyline:

Shoot for twenty-five words or less. If you can do it in less than fifteen words, you get extra credit.

Limit your storyline to just a few characters. One or two is ideal. Three is the maximum.

Tell only one thread of the story, either the most essential one or the most interesting one.

Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, describe each, aiming for internal consistency that promises conflict. A “one-armed trapeze artist” is infinitely more interesting than “Joe.” (However, whenever a famous character—such as Houdini or physics pioneer Marie Curie—plays a role in your novel, consider bending this rule and naming him or her in your storyline.)

When writing the storyline for a historical novel, tell the time period and geographical setting if they add potency to the brew.

Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as an outsider. The word young frequently shows up in storylines because it implies vulnerability and appeals to modern youth-oriented culture. References to gender may set up romantic tension or show characters who cross stereotypes. You can tolerate some redundancy if it heightens the wallop.

Don’t be afraid to use a small amount of hype with a verb such as battles or struggles.

Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Examples of Great Pitches

Writing Fiction for Dummies gives many great examples of pitches. Here are a few:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (thriller)

“A Harvard symbologist and a female cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Highlighting male and female characters promises a bit of romantic tension, which is always good, even if it’s not central to the story. In this case, the storyline is already high-octane, with three separate phrases that generate emotive responses: “Holy Grail” connotes “religion,” “race against death” is a stock phrase for thrillers, and “Europe” adds an exotic flavor that appeals to Americans.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (literary)

“A young girl watches the turmoil in her family from heaven after being raped and murdered by a neighbor.”

This storyline highlights the unusual story premise—watching from heaven. Note how we backload several traumatic words (“raped and murdered by a neighbor”). The story is too harrowing for some readers, and this storyline tells them immediately that they won’t be able to handle it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (romance)

“A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

This storyline puts on display the weaknesses of both the young woman (“from a peculiar family”) and her suitor (“arrogant”). It raises the questions of whether the man will succeed and whether the reader should want him to.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Notice how very many characters we’ve left out of this storyline: The wizards, the elves, the orcs, the Ents, Gollum, Shelob, Tom Bombadil. We’ve also left out all the important places: The Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Rohan, Minas Tirith, even Mordor. We’ve stripped it down to our hero Frodo and the Dark Lord. In a battle between good and evil, just showing the symbol of good and the symbol of evil is okay.

Writing Fiction for Dummies has many other great tips for breaking into the publishing world; I highly recommend it.

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Using Plot Points and Pinch Points in a Story with a Twist Ending

Recently I’ve had a few readers ask the same question:

What exactly is a pinch point and how do you differentiate it from everything else in a story?

Okay, first, here’s the most important thing you need to know about plot points and pinch points:

They always need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

[For the definition of plot points and pinch points, see my earlier post.]

What a Pinch Point Is, and Is Not

One of my blog followers (politely) argued that he thought the second pinch point in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shouldn’t be the successive scenes of Snape showing Filch his Fluffy-bitten leg and trying to curse Harry off his broom but should instead be the scene in the Forbidden Forest when something creepy (i.e., Voldemort) slithers out of the darkness and drinks the blood of a dead unicorn—because, in the end, Voldemort is the real antagonist, not Snape.

I agree that the slithering something is definitely a what-the-freaky-heck-is-that moment, but let me explain why it cannot count be the second pinch point.

A pinch point, as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, is

an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

Essentially, a pinch point is meant to show your readers the powerful forces pushing against your hero. Which means that your readers have to identify the bad guy as the bad guy for your pinch points to have any meaning.

This is especially important to understand if you’re writing a mystery, or any story with a twist ending (which Rowling has a particular penchant for in the Harry Potter series: Quirrell in book one; Ginny in book two; Sirius in book three, etc).

Plot points and pinch points act like a metronome for you as the writer, giving your story beats and keeping it on tempo, but if you have a twist ending or a hidden antagonist whom your readers aren’t meant to recognize until later, then those “secret beats” won’t mean anything to anyone but you. Instead, your readers will be confused and bored with a story that looks like it isn’t going anywhere (even though you know it is).

That’s why plot points and pinch points need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

An Example: Snape as Antagonist

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling presents Snape as the supposed antagonist. Quirrell (which includes Voldemort) is the hidden antagonist. This means that the pinch points in Sorcerer’s Stone need to be directed at Snape, not Quirrell, in order for readers to feel like the story is progressing.

(But remember, it’s still absolutely vital to drop hints about the twist ending so readers don’t also feel gypped at the big reveal; the fastest way to lose readers’ respect is to trick them.)

Notice, then, that Rowling sneakily interjects Quirrell into Snape’s pinch points—for example, when Harry’s scar sears in pain while looking past Quirrell’s turban at Snape. It’s such an innocent detail that we breeze right past it, not realizing that it’s actually critical. However, since that turban clue doesn’t mean anything at the time, Rowling needs to keep us interested until it does.

How?

By focusing on the red-herring antagonist, Snape, so we feel like the story’s going somewhere—just not where we think.

Same goes for the second pinch point. We think that Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at the Quidditch match, but Snape is actually trying to protect Harry from Quirrell’s incantation. Rowling ties everything together below the story’s surface.

The What versus the Who

All of this goes for plot points as well. Whatever is presented to the readers as “the story” (even if it’s a farce) is what needs to follow the story structure of first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point. Between all of that, you still need to squeeze in the clues that reveal “the real story.”

But that’s actually not very difficult, because a story’s red-herring antagonist (as depicted in the pinch points) typically determines the direction of the real story anyway.

For example, the two big plot questions in Sorcerer’s Stone are:

What is hidden in the third-floor corridor, and who is trying to steal it?

Like most of Rowling’s Potter books, we eventually figure out the what (the sorcerer’s stone), but we’re as confused as Harry about the who. We think the antagonist is Snape, but then we realize that it’s actually Quirrell, who is, ultimately, Voldemort.

So, the plot stays the same; it’s only our view of the characters that changes.

In short, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone could arguably be viewed as a pinch point for the whole Potter series, since it’s where we first come face-to-face with the evil power of Voldemort, but that individual scene with Voldemort drinking the blood of the unicorn cannot be a pinch point for Sorcerer’s Stone because a pinch point depends on the reader’s understanding of who the antagonist is.

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3 Things You Can Do Right Now That Will Get You Published Faster

If you want to get ahead of the publishing game before you even hammer out that first draft, you need to write these three things first:

  1. Your pitch
  2. Your synopsis (or your book jacket, for you pantsers who don’t like much detail)
  3. Your query letter

You do not have to know every detail of your story before you sit down to write it, but you absolutely do have to know the details that will make your story unique and riveting. In other words, you have to know the details that will make the publishing industry give a damn about your book. 

I’m not saying that you should only focus on what you think will sell (which usually never works anyway because you either guess wrong or you find yourself at the tail end of a dying trend); what I am saying is that you need to be realistic.

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to win over an agent, an editor, and eventually an entire publishing house before your book hits the market. That means you need to know how to pitch your book to their bottom line.

(And if you want to indie publish, the game is pretty much the same. You still need to convince people—i.e., your readers—in a very short amount of space that your book is worth buying.)

So it makes sense that the first thing you need to do with a potential story is figure out how you’d pitch it. The worst thing you can do is finish writing your book, only to rudely discover that what you thought you were going to write—and what was going to skyrocket your book to best-sellerdom—isn’t actually what you ended up writing after going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

Why You Need a Pitch Before You Write

A pitch isn’t just to sell your book; it’s to keep you focused during the writing process. Tape it above your computer and ask yourself every day, Is this still what I’m writing about, or has it changed?

If it’s changed (and if you’re a pantser that’s probably the case), that’s okay. But now you need to figure out what it is you are writing about—because there’s a good chance you’re not writing about anything, at least not anything publishable, and you’ll have to do a lot of re-writing.

Must-Haves for Writing Pitches and Queries

For some great examples of professional pitches, subscribe to Publishers Lunch, the free daily email from Publishers Marketplace, which lists recent book deals and their one-sentence descriptions. Simply by reading this one thing every day you will better understand what sells and how it sells (i.e., how to write a pitch that’s worth pitching). 

For query-letter writing, check out this excellent article from Jane Friedman: The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests.

And to top it off, in an upcoming post I’ll share the best advice I’ve found on how to nail down your pitch quickly and painlessly.

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