Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Writer's Middle Finger Part Seven: The critical and the humanist brain & breaking bullshit rules.


This is the final WMF post for now. I'm writing #8 in the next month. 
I post this with no comment. 
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First posted: Jan 5, 2013

This one's about those other rules you need to ignore. The rules out there that tell us what we should be writing about. Oh writer. Please don't listen to these rules.


It starts like this.

Author sits at desk. Brain tells author to write a story...maybe about a kid. Once the writing starts, it turns out the kid has a specific hurdle to clear. Maybe his parent left and never came back. Maybe his parent is dead. Maybe he's doing drugs. Maybe his girlfriend fell in love with his best friend. Maybe he's gay. Or maybe his friend died. Or maybe he has cancer. Or he eats to make himself feel better. Or maybe the kid is a football captain and he falls in love with a cheerleader.

Are you rolling your eyes at any of those?

Which brain are you using? Your humanist brain or your critical one? Oh I know these aren't mutually exclusive. But sometimes one can overtake the other.

The critical brain is there, as writers and reviewers or critiquers, to define certain story elements or plot lines and then look for flaws or well-executed characterizations or any number of story elements. The critical brain is allegedly objective but rarely is. How could it be? Never has a book existed that isn't both panned and raved. But the critical brain is important when we write and read and especially when we review or critique. It has criteria. It has rules...which vary from person to person. It can sometimes be very cynical about life events because they are shown through fiction which it is reviewing. 

The humanist brain, on the other hand, is the brain that translates characters in a novel into real people and is concerned about the characters' welfare. The humanist brain feels the emotions of the characters and relates. It is why we often love a book. It is also why we may hate a book. The humanist brain is allowed to be subjective. It doesn't care. It knows it's spewing opinion. The humanist brain has emotional rules. I know people who cannot read anything about child abuse. Or dog abuse, for example. Those people usually say "I'm sorry, but it's just not my taste."

Here's the truth: Sometimes football captains fall in love with cheerleaders. That doesn't make the book or the idea bad. It's all in what you do with it.

I went to art school. I took classes on critique. It is true that there are elements by which any work of art must be judged when critiquing. And the best critiques stick to those rules. For example: "The image is well framed and uses the rule of thirds expertly." If one mightn't like the actual subject matter, one may add the very fair humanist-brained opinion, "However, I'm not a fan of photographs of infants cradled in cabbage leaves, so I can't say I love the actual image." It doesn't help anyone to be too humanist: This baby grew and is a natural part of our world! Isn't it beautiful? Same as it isn't very helpful to be over-critical: How many freaking baby-in-cabbage leaf pictures can there BE? I am so sick of images like this!

Fact: Anything--ANYTHING--can work if it's done well.
Fact: But you will never please everyone.

No subject matter is a guarantee of...anything.

Sometimes there are lists of what you shouldn't be writing about. Sometimes there are lists of what will  give you a better shot at getting published. Trends. Coming trends. Comments like Why haven't I seen any books about a woman who is a circus clown and cocktail waitress while juggling a meth habit? True. The writer of this statement may want to see a book like this. However, if it's not something you naturally want to write about, then you writing it is probably not going to work out all that well.

Readers are finicky. So your job is to write about something you care about. And even if you do that, some people will criticize it. And that's fine.

I tend to read with my humanist brain. I want to like the book I'm reading. I want to find the human connection that is inbuilt. I want my time spent to be time well spent--enjoying, feeling and wondering Why did the author tell this story in this way? It's a naive tack, I'm sure, to some reading this. I'm okay with that. But know this: I have very little time to read. I am able to find pleasure in most books I pick up.

And I'm just not the kind of person who would read the flap copy, slot the entire book into a tidy labeled box, roll my eyes and say "Oh God. Not another dead mother book." Or "Ugh! Another gay book!" Or "Here we go again! A teen dealing with the death of a friend. Sheesh!"
"If you go into a book thinking you know what it's about, then that's all you'll usually get from it." --Me, earlier this year
(Same goes for writing a book...but you probably already know that.)

The humanist brain is more curious, regardless of whether a subject matter is something it's seen before.  It's allowed to be either interested or disinterested in the story, and if the subject matter is just not their thing, they put the book down. No eye-rolling. No imperious knowledge of what's supposed to be in books.

That's what bullshit rules are. Bullshit rules are what other people believe should be in our books.
You have no idea how many times I've heard that my character should have thought or done or been. You have no idea how many times I've had people assume what I was thinking when I wrote a book. I can tell you this: these guesses are incorrect. Whether stated in a positive or negative fashion, the jury is in: You have no idea what goes on in my brain.

I can't imagine many authors ever woke up in the morning and declared, "Darn it! Today I'm going to write a cancer book/gay book/drug book/dead parent book/ dead friend book/love triangle book/cheerleader and football captain fall in love book!" I'm pretty sure that most of the time these things just happen. And not from lack of ideas or creative power, either. Sorry. Anyone who thinks this is underestimating writers. And to me, that's disrespectful. And hell yes, if you say this, I will call you on it and tell you that you are living by a set of literary bullshit rules.

Why I'm thinking about this today.

I wrote something on my blog back in June. I'm going to link to it here so you know where this post is coming from. You should really go read it, but in case you don't, it was about the flippant comments I see periodically that might say something like, "If I read one more [dead parent] book this year I'll jump off a cliff!" It was about how I know some kids who lost their father this year and how those flippant comments are...too flippant. This internet. It gives us so much power. Oh how I wish we could be more human when we use it.

Last weekend, another teenager I know lost his father. We just buried him yesterday. We are heartbroken. I physically feel a hole in the world because of his loss. I feel a hole in my world because I know the pain this is causing his family. But my hole isn't nearly as big as theirs. My friend's wife, his son, his parents, his siblings, his friends. This hole--it is real. It is nothing to be scoffed. Nothing to be tsked. Nothing to be cynical about.

Only an overly-critical brain could be cynical about that hole.

In real life when we lose people, it is rare we act with our critical brain. We are human-thinking through and through. But when someone dies in a book, and we are reviewing a book, we have to run this death through a set of criteria. Was it believable enough? (Whatever that is.) Did the characters react the way they should have? (Whatever that is.) In believable ways? (Whatever that is.) Did the after-effects of the death seem realistic and cause the right amount of tension? (Whatever that is.)

As the writer of that book, you wrote it because you cared deeply about the subject matter and were thinking with your humanist brain, so yes, it's hard when that work is dissected by someone who just didn't get what you were trying to say. But please remember, that's their problem, not yours.

Those flippant commenters can claim Dead parent as gimmick. Dead parent as plot device to give teen main character more experience and savvy. Or my favorite: Dead parent as a very convenient trick to get rid of parents in books.

Convenient my ass. A dead parent is not fucking convenient. Ask anyone who has one. And as for teens having them? Happens all the time. All. The. Time.

Bullshit rules, man. They make us scared to write about what comes naturally as we sit at our desks. They make us wonder if maybe, just maybe, this time we can hit a home run and please everyone.

But then I look for my magic finger. You know the one. (Hint: it's the one who knows I will never please everyone.)

Writers: life is short. You're here to write what you want to write. I told you in my first post not to listen to rules. Dirk and Sally. No confusing tenses. No big words. And whatever other rules out there promising you easier publication if only you'd write what they want to see. 

Today, I want to remind you that those deeper reasons we write--those are more important than bullshit rules that somebody's brain made up in order to tell us how trite it is to write about what has come naturally for us to write about.

Write it.
Fucking write it.
There will always be critics who will roll their eyes at the pain your characters experience. They are not thinking about what it would really be like to, in this case, lose a parent as a child. Their job is to find flaws in your reasoning. In your characters. In your ideas. And ultimately, in your own brain.

And they don't mean a damn thing.

Write the books. Be defiantly creative. When you shy away from writing a story about abuse, don't think of the people who will roll their eyes. Think about the 1 in 4 kids who have been abused. When you shy away from writing a story about rape, don't think about those who will say teenagers shouldn't be reading about rape. Think about the 1 in 4 who have already experienced it. When you dare to write about death, do not think of the "Disney trope" someone's going to wheel out in their wagon full of critique words. Think about those kids you know who have a hole in their life so big, they can't breathe some days.

And do it for them.


It took me a week to write this blog. I see-sawed on posting it. Then I thought about my friend Scott and what he would have done. And he would have posted it. So this one's for you, Scott. Hope they're playing punk rock wherever you landed on this journey.

(There are other Writer's Middle Finger Posts. Six of them. Type "Writer's Middle Finger" into the search box up there on the left. It's like a treasure hunt, right?)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six: (Communication is a writer's best friend.)


So wow. I skipped a year--2011--between Writer's Middle Finger posts. It was probably because I was traveling a lot. I did so many school visits and festivals in 2011 and 2012 that I barely knew my own name. (One of those events was ALA in New Orleans where VERA DIETZ--the book that "could still fail" in WMF #1 was awarded a Printz Honor.) And all of that travel was the most rewarding thing ever. I can't even tell you where I was in the career process at this point. I don't think it matters. This post deals with the editor-author relationship. Also, with arthritis (which has pretty much cleared up, so yay for that.) I guess if I go by my calendar, I was about to release ASK THE PASSENGERS, and was writing REALITY BOY. If I remember correctly, this miscommunication was about ANTS and I was a dumbass about it. But you'll find out why when you read this. 
WMF #7 is to come. 
And WMF #8 will be written one day soon. Fact: I have about 5 WMF #8s written already and in my downtime between VCFA work and my own writing I will find one to finish. If there is such a thing as downtime. It could be a fantasy. 

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First published 10/19/12


Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six: (Communication Is a Writer's Best Friend.)


This is you. You are part of a machine. 
My middle finger is sore. I am pretty sure I am developing arthritis and that’s the first place it hit. My middle finger. On my right hand. It’s sore every single morning when I wake up.

What a timely metaphor for this post! What better way to start off the Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six. Because this post is about the long haul—the reality of an author’s career. The juggling, the ups and downs and the changes we go through as we grow into older-but-wiser writers.  

This is the sport.

Last year, my editor sent me an email after we’d discussed a recent editorial letter. In the email, she wrote, “Thanks for being such a great sport about revisions.” To which I replied, “I’m not a great sport. THIS IS THE SPORT.” I stand by that. Writing is a job. It’s not an easy job. It requires a skill set that grows as the job continues. Revision is a huge part of that skill set. It is the sport. And like athletes, we have to do our part to train, to compete with ourselves, and to learn every technique we can to improve. Revision, then, is the vehicle that many writers both adore and dread. It’s part mind-blowing learning experience/part soul-sucking responsibility.  

Stet: how we keep our middle finger in shape.

Because those around me are getting to know what a writer’s life is like through my experiences, they hear me talk about revision a lot. The #1 thing that civilians ask me these days is: So, do you have to do everything your editor tells you to do?

If you are a writer, you know the answer is no. If you are a writer, you know that there is a glorious word that looks like this: STET. But sometimes as writers, even if we’ve developed our skill set to a place where we think we have the job nailed, we forget this. Here’s a recent scenario:

I sent the finished first draft of a book to my (kind, intelligent and awesome) editor in February. Pretty nice first draft. I was happy with it, beginning to end. Editorial letter #1 arrived in April. No problem. It was long, but my editor is all about long letters—mostly because she is incredibly thorough in her explanations, which I find helpful.

Interrupting myself to say: Please, please do not equate long editorial letters to a lack of quality in your own work. Editors are all different. I have seen lamenting tweets and blog posts that go something like this: OMG! My ed letter is X pages long! That’s a page longer than last time! I must be getting worse. No no no no no. No. No. Okay? No.

Anyway. I returned the revised manuscript about 1.5 months later. Important fact that will bite me in the ass later in this story: I returned the manuscript with no detailed letter to outline why I did or didn’t take certain suggestions. I do not know why I did this. I think I was just confident with the revision and didn’t think anything needed to be said.

I knew I then had a month or more to work on the first draft of the next project. June was great. July was gearing up to be even greater. I was writing 4k words a day. But as July arrived, I saw the shadow creeping up behind me. I knew the second editorial letter was coming, so I wrote faster. I was like a human cup of espresso. Until it arrived.

Oh God.
Oh no.

Something was wrong with the second editorial letter. My editor didn’t seem to understand my book as much as I thought (assumed) she did. She had some great points about pacing, yes. She had some great points about secondary characters and all sorts of other stuff, but she seemed to be suggesting insane things for my beloved main character.

Here’s where my skill set exploded. Kaboom. Reduced to brain shrapnel. It’s like that moment when your husband of 20 years asks you if you want relish on your hot dog when you have never in 20 years eaten relish on your hot dogs. (Okay, we don’t eat hot dogs, but you get it.) It’s that moment when you feel severely misunderstood. Lost. Alone. Think boats without paddles. With rapids.

I tried to continue writing the first draft of the new book for two days, but I really only thought about the letter and came to this conclusion: I didn’t think I could make the book my editor seemed to want.

My editor is probably the smartest, savviest, coolest person I know. We work well together. She gets me. She gets my books. I didn’t want to disappoint her. I didn’t want to write STET that much. I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful for all of her thoughts and ideas. I didn’t want her to think I was somehow becoming “difficult.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe she wants me to be more commercial or more normal and less weird. Maybe she doesn’t like my middle-finger Dirk-and-Sally-free writing anymore. Shit. Shit shit shit.

Why did I think this would get easier?
Photo cred: My kid.

I lost motivation. On the new book. On the revision book. On pretty much everything. I didn’t even want to swim. I drank more than usual. (Don’t worry. It wasn’t that much.) I read and re-read the letter. I tried to figure out how to say yes to all of her suggestions and still keep the story I'd written. I tried to figure out what I would say to her when we finally talked about the whole thing. I had to postpone our first conversation because I didn’t have anything to say. I was blank. Completely frozen. I am really good at finding solutions. It’s my thing. It is the sport. I enjoy it. But I couldn’t find solutions this time. I didn’t know what to do.

My agent suggested that I write a letter detailing why many of the suggestions weren’t working for me. (Oh look. What a smart idea. My agent is a genius. I am a writer. He asked me to write something about what I was feeling.)

That letter cleared everything up. My editor understood my main character better. She understood why I couldn’t do many of the things she suggested. She told me to go ahead and ignore huge parts of the editorial letter, which I have to admit was hard for me because I don’t like ignoring things—especially another person’s hard work. In the end, we laughed about the misunderstanding. I lamented that the whole thing could have been avoided had I not caused the problem in the first place.

By now, if you’re reading carefully, you know what the problem was. Remember that very important fact up there? The fact that I hadn’t sent a detailed letter to my editor with the first revision? Yeah. All this brain shrapnel and freaking out and frozenness was because I didn’t communicate. Me. The master communicator. Did. Not. Communicate. And communication, especially during revision, is a very important part of the writer’s skill set.

Hindsight: It’s like candy corn for breakfast. (Really awesome, but seasonal.)

As I write this, I am involved with many different types of publishing professionals. I can tell you this for nothing: The ones who communicate honestly and effectively are my favorites. 

Why my middle finger is sore

In real life, my middle finger is probably sore from using my computer away from my roller ball mouse more often these days. Or maybe I’m just hitting that age where body parts get sore.

Metaphorically, I am happy to report that my middle-finger books—soon to number four published—have been increasingly well-received, with reviewers often noting that they are different or original. No, I am not driving a swanky car yet, but I didn’t get into this to drive a swanky car. I got into this to make snowflakes, and I am making them and they are beautiful and I love my job, even though sometimes I forget how to do it properly. I wouldn’t love my job if I wasn’t able to write what I want to write.

My middle finger is not an angry middle finger. I don’t want yours to be either. Not when you point it at made-up writing rules, or when you point it at yourself, or when you point it at the internet, or when you point it at an editorial letter. This middle finger business isn’t about being pissed off. It’s about knowing what you want as a writer. It’s about blocking out all the noise. It’s about being true to yourself.

My middle finger is very very sore today. When one of my kids has a sore finger, they want a Band-Aid or ice or something to make it stop hurting. Me? I’ve never been so happy about a minor discomfort. It’s a constant reminder that it’s working.


If you didn't get the snowflake reference or the Dirk and Sally sentence, you can find links to Writer's Middle Finger posts 1-5 by clicking on this link.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

We interrupt this Writer's Middle Finger bonanza for some good news...THREE!

Three is a magic number.
In all sorts of ways.

But this week, three is a magic number because of starred reviews for GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE.

First, there was Kirkus last Tuesday. You already know about this.

Then, there was Booklist on Friday: "Powerful, moving, and compellingly complex."

Glory and her best friend, Ellie, drink a bat. They mix its desiccated remains with some warm beer on an impulsive night, and now they see visions of the past and future for everyone they encounter. But Glory’s not sure she has a future. She graduated high school with no plans for college, and she’s worried that she’s doomed to be just like her mom, a talented photographer who killed herself when Glory was only four. The future she sees for others, however, is plagued by misogynistic violence, and when she doesn’t see herself or her descendants in any of the visions, she starts rooting around in her mother’s darkroom and journals for clues that will help her free herself from a futureless fate. King performs an impressive balancing act here, juggling the magic realism of Glory’s visions with her starkly realistic struggle to face her grief, feel engaged with her own life, and learn anything that she can about her mother. Imbuing Glory’s narrative with a graceful, sometimes dissonant combination of anger, ambivalence, and hopefulness that resists tidy resolution, award-winning King presents another powerful, moving, and compellingly complex coming-of-age story.

Then, today as I was waiting in line for the flume ride at an amusement park (which eventually soaked my Birkenstocks) and simultaneously trying to make my youngest kid chill about the fear-factor, there was number three, from Publishers Weekly. "Full of provocative ideas and sharply observed thoughts."
✭ High school graduation has already prompted Glory O'Brien to confront the chronic malaise she's felt since her mother's suicide 13 years earlier. Then she and Ellie, a friend who lives in a hippie commune across the street, swirl the ashes of a mummified bat (you read that right) into their beers, and both girls begin receiving "transmissions" from everyone they encounter: "We could see the future. We could see the past. We could see everything." From these visions, Glory learns of a second Civil War, set in motion by misogynistic legislation aimed at preventing women from receiving equal pay for equal work. Writing an account of the events she's learning about from the transmissions helps Glory see a future for yourself and understand the ways in which her mother's legacy and her father's love have shaped her into the thoughtful, mature young woman she is. The bizarre bat-swilling episode recedes, revealing a novel full of provocative ideas and sharply observed thoughts about the pressures society places on teenagers, especially girls.

This brings me great joy. I mean, as much joy as a Vulcan can have, really. (The Vulcan wants to say: It's dust, not ashes. Nobody burned the bat, captain.) Three is a magic number. There is something about three that makes me say: Hey, maybe this book doesn't suck. Maybe people will get it. Maybe I did something right. Thank you Booklist! Thank you Publishers Weekly!

So, tomorrow I will repost Writer's Middle Finger Part Six.

But for now, here is my family. No one wanted to be the little Amish boy holding a puppy, so I said I'd do it.

I don't think Amish boys wear prescription sunnies, but whatever. 

And for fun: What is a multi-purpose spoon?
It's a spoon.
Just a spoon.

Tomorrow, WMF #6.
But for now, let us all eat tacos. Or whatever you do to celebrate with me.
It's a lovely day here, while shit rages on all over the world.
I'm glad Glory O'Brien sees that shit. I'm glad she sees it in our own culture.
I'm glad she drank the bat because she can see that past is present is future.
There is so much work to do.
So much work to do.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Writer’s Middle Finger: Part Five (Middle Finger Deathmatch: Maintaining Control vs. Going Completely Insane)

History: VERA DIETZ was just about to come out. My agent had sold EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS to my present publisher, Little, Brown where I started working with Andrea Spooner who is a genius and my perfect editorial match. There were several interested houses, and let me tell you, when I had to make the decision, it was hard because I'd done a lot of losing hope during that process (see yesterday's post.) Ultimately, I made the right decision. By October when I wrote this, I was already working on my 2011 book, ASK THE PASSENGERS, and was ready to submit a partial to my editor at LB. I was now juggling--the new book, the edits for ANTS, and the promo for VERA. 

And yes, those are my middle fingers dressed up in little puppets. 


First published: October 12, 2010

The Writer’s Middle Finger: Part Five 
(Middle Finger Deathmatch: Maintaining Control vs. Going Completely Insane)

I used to think: When I finally become a published writer, I will be mellow. I didn’t want to freak out or be stressed. I took my trusty writer’s middle finger and flipped off the idea of being pressured. “Up yours pressure! You can’t catch me! I am too mellow!” I did this because I lived the life of a very very very mellow person for a very very very long time. I wrote on my own terms. I grew that writer’s middle finger. And I vowed to never let publishing change me.
That said, I am an admitted workaholic. I work my ass off. Usually past midnight. Every night. I didn’t come here to fail. It didn’t work seventeen years to shrug and leave it up to the gods of publishing. I raise the finger. “Up yours gods of publishing! You can’t decide my fate! I’m gonna do whatever it takes to beat your insane odds!”
So, yeah. 2010 was the year of the Middle Finger Deathmatch. Who would win? Control or Insanity?
Ah, the Illusion of Control
I used to have a schedule. Not for life. I can’t schedule life. I have little kids who vomit whenever they want to and need to have up-to-date immunizations. But my writing life? Was scheduled. It was scheduled so I was always one book ahead. Even though I can’t write full-time, I stayed the course. On track. Always. One. Book. Ahead.
It worked out great for a while. I sold The Dust of 100 Dogs and then the minute it was sold, I started writing Please Ignore Vera Dietz. And right after I sold that, I started the next project, Everybody Sees the Ants. I was on schedule. Things were in control. I was mellow. But then the last year of my life happened. And at the end of it, I had a new agent, a new publisher and I was no longer on schedule. Fact is, for a few months there, I didn’t even know my own name. My career was wonderful and my life was wonderful, but GASP! I was now completely out of control. I was off course. Not mellow.
The Beauty of Insanity
Once you go completely insane, you can act really weird and no one seems to think that’s out of place. And you don’t have to brush your hair or wear “appropriate” clothing. You can ramble. I’m still learning how to do this job. I’m juggling way too much and I can barely keep track of what the hell I’m doing without verbally reminding myself all the time. Sadly, others have to live through this, too.
OTHERS: So, what are you working on?
ME: (eyes dart around room, eye contact at 5% maximum) Well, I’m about 30k into my next book (#4) that I want done before the new year (that should have been done last May as far as I’m concerned) and I’m working on edits for my next book for Fall 2011…they’re due in 31 hours and 8 minutes and I’m about to release the next book in 11 days and I have two other ideas I’m working on for the books after #4 as well as two secret projects that are not YA. And I’m still toying with two of my adult novels. Oh. And there are 77 unanswered emails in my inbox and I have to write about 12 interviews and essays in the next fortnight for promoting the new book and I have to go on a mini-tour in about three weeks that I can’t afford but I’m doing it anyway. Oh shit. And I forgot to wash my good jeans. Dammit. (Rummages through purse to find neon pink post-it note. Writes WASH GOOD JEANS on it and sticks it to her chest.)
OTHERS: Oh.
It’s pretty clear who won the Middle Finger Deathmatch. And frankly, I can’t figure why I ever put my money on maintaining control. Maybe it’s because I’m type A. (After 40 years of denying this, I am admitting it here. Applaud please. It will save me thousands in therapy costs.) Maybe I really believed that I could always stay one book ahead. Maybe there really are people out there who can do that. But for me, Middle Finger Deathmatch has proved I am not one of them.
The Best Part
Being completely insane is fun. It helps me exercise that middle finger even more than I did in the beginning. Being insane helps me flip off the parts of this business that are a major drag. Now I don’t have time to reason with bad advice or those silly people who complain about how I write books with the word fuck in them. Yes. I do. Now go away. I have things to do, vomit to clean up, and apparently, I have to relearn geometry because since when did they move it to third grade math? And then I have to…

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow is part six. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Writer's Middle Finger: Part Four (When You Lose Hope, or Hey—Don’t Aim That Thing at Me!)

Brief history on this post...
VERA DIETZ still hadn't come out yet--it was due in fall of 2010. My agent and I were still waiting to hear from my editor about EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS. In fact, at this point, we'd waited four months. I had a finished book in Oct/Nov 2009. I think we finally heard a definite no from her in March 2010. In the meantime, I was writing a new book, but I was also struggling to feed my kids because writers don't have salaries/benefits, etc. We just have books. And we need people to buy those books in order to eat.
I was losing hope when I wrote this post. Hope in me, the writer, but also hope in the business.
Waiting long periods of time does this to people, I think.
(And in the end, it did come down to spaceships...though there were no spaceships in ANTS. But you know what I mean.)

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First published Feb 6, 2010


The Writer's Middle Finger: Part Four 
(When You Lose Hope, or Hey—Don’t Aim That Thing at Me!)


You don’t have to be an unpublished writer to lose hope. It happens all the time to all sorts of writers. Maybe you’ve just received your 50th agent rejection letter, and no matter how many times you read the “I really liked the writing and the premise” part, all you can see is YOU SUCK AND I HATE YOU.
 Maybe you’re on submission and you’ve just received your 20th rejection from an editor, and no matter about the fact that your book went all the way to the editorial board, all you can see is OUR MARKETERS SAY THEY CAN’T SELL THIS, THEREFORE YOUR BOOK IS STUPID AND WILL NEVER SELL. (Though I find that one especially annoying. If a plumber said that he couldn’t figure out how to put different types of pipes together, you’d hire another plumber, right?)
Maybe you’re a published author and your house told you that they won’t buy your next book unless you take out the spaceships, and the book is solely about spaceships. Or that your editor has been fired and the new guy hates all spaceships. No matter the fact that you’ve published X number of books, got rave reviews, landed on lists, all you can hear is YOU WILL NEVER GET ANYWHERE IN THIS BUSINESS BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT NORMAL.
I hear a lot of writers talk about how they lose hope mid-way through writing a book. “This sucks!” they say. Boy have I been there. I’ve been in nearly all of these situations. (No spaceships yet, but that’s coming, I’m sure.)
 When You Lose Hope 
So what do we do when we lose hope? We find hope. And how do we do that? Of course, I’m going to tell you to use your writer’s middle finger. The thing is—when hope is lost, that finger is often on vacation. Perhaps it’s seeing Europe by rail or lathered in oil down near the Equator. Most likely, though, it’s right there on your hand, mocking you.
Yes, you. Your finger on your hand, mocking YOU. It’s telling you that you’ll never find an agent, or a publisher. It’s telling you that you’ll never get a freaking break in this business. It’s telling you that you are a horrible writer, and that you should go back to college to become a biophysicist, like your uncle told you to back in 19XX. It will say anything to save you from this roller coaster of self-esteem and heartbreak. It is being logical and practical.
It is full of shit.
If you’re writing books, you probably didn’t get there by following logic. It just happened one day, right? You read a book that inspired you to a degree that you couldn’t NOT do it. You had always dreamed that you’d try, so now you’re trying. There is nothing logical about writing books. Not as an aspiring writer, and not as a published writer. It’s a crazy thing to do, really.
Hey—Don’t Aim That Thing at Me!
Your writer’s middle finger is here to support you on this crazy path, yes. But it will test you when you lose hope. It will turn against you the minute your brain has the first speck of doubt. It will mock you to make sure you’re serious. This business is not for the weak, the lazy or the easily-spooked. Though doubt is a normal part of the process, you can’t do it too much, or else you will never finish writing a book, never query enough agents, and never write another book even though there really was nothing wrong with the last one.
I’d like to stop here for a minute. You read that correctly. There are plenty of fine books that are never published. I can’t tell you if yours is one of them, but it’s a fact. Yours could be one of them. And I’m not talking first books here. I’m talking about this happening any time.There are people who’ve been on Oprah’s book club who have had to put beautifully written books back into the drawer. It happens.
Who’s to say that book won’t one day see the light of day? You don’t know. I don’t know. By the time the day comes, you may say, “No way is that book coming out of that drawer.” This has just happened to me, actually. It’s not that the book in the drawer is awful. It isn’t. It’s a good book. It’s just that the book in the drawer is old. It’s been in there with seven or more other books that are far inferior and frankly, they’ve rubbed off on it. But the good part for me is: I don’t really care. When I put the book in the drawer, I broke off our relationship and moved on. Since then, I’ve written four other books. That’s what writers do, right?  
Well, it’s what we do when we have hope. When we don’t have hope it feels like the worst thing in the world because we feel like fools. Foolish dream-chasing twits. We say things like, “Oh man, did I really say that books are like snowflakes? That I wanted to make a blizzard? Gag me with a Drano-dipped spoon.”
Mocking yourself and doubting yourself and beating yourself up are all normal things. You just can’t do it a lot when you’re out of hope. You might start to believe yourself. You might talk yourself out of the coolest job (whether paid or unpaid) in the whole freaking world. That’s when you need to turn the finger around and point it out again, build yourself a safe little middle finger fort where you still rock, and no one is mocking you.
You may be completely crazy (you probably are) and illogical and impractical and stubborn and delusional, but you’re on a mission, remember? Write what you want to write, write well and write often. Cry when you have to, swear a lot and try not to aim that thing at yourself, okay?

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Tomorrow: Part Five. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Writer’s Middle Finger: Part Three (Dealing With the Business of Publishing a Book While Remembering What Really Matters.)

We continue with WMF post #3.

History: This post was written after my second book, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ (the one I wrote about in WMF #1) had sold at auction...and during the most grueling copy edits I ever had the pleasure of working on. Those CEs were insane. I have the manuscript here to prove it. The CE tried to change my characters' names, street names in a fictional town, and she really believed that food in dented cans would (not could, but would) kill you stone dead.

Anyway, the business had changed me. I'd been agent-less for about two months that summer, then signed with a new agent. We were trying to sell the next book to my editor. That didn't work out all that well, but I didn't know it when I was writing this post.

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First published Nov 13, 2009


The Writer’s Middle Finger: Part Three 
(Dealing With the Business of Publishing a Book While Remembering What Really Matters.)


By now, you know how I feel about writing advice. If you don’t, here’s the gist: what works for others may not work for you. What works for you may not work for others. In many ways this mirrors the kind of thinking you will need to get through the business side of this journey, as well.
But I want to make this clear. Your writer’s middle finger is for when you’re writing. You have to save it for the important stuff. Save it for the days when you doubt your own vision or gut or read advice that makes you feel confined. Once you publish a book, you will feel the urge to raise that finger in all sorts of directions, but say it with me, reader, “Books are like snowflakes. I want to make a blizzard.” (If this seems obtuse, read The Writer’s Middle Finger Part One.)
If you use your writer’s middle finger to flip off things you can’t control, it will lose its magical powers. Sometimes it’s easy to forget why we started this journey. Which is why today’s blog is about a few things that might suck, because they come along with being a published writer, but do not deserve our valuable middle finger.
Dealing with negative reviews and commentary
Everyone has a different way of dealing with bad reviews and commentary. If you must look, try to have a sense of humor. When I got my first snarky review, I was pretty bummed out for a few days. I wanted to say stuff about it. I felt defensive and angry. But what could I do about that review? Nothing. Reviews are like haircuts. Of course, if you get a bad haircut, it will grow out. Unfortunately, bad reviews do not grow out. But tell me: is a bad haircut a reflection of you? Or the hairdresser?
If you try to please every complainer who writes you a letter, you will make very boring books. (If I was to remove what some people complained about from The Dust of 100 Dogs, I think there might be two pages left.) If you’ve published a book, there’s a decent chance someone will think it should be set alight. If these people approach you in person, smile and nod.
Remember this: "What other people think of you is none of your business." –Unknown
You have an even more powerful tool than your writer’s middle finger to deal with this stuff, if it tends to bug you. Break Up With Google. Stop Looking at Reviews. Stop Caring About Negativity. Then, Write More Books.
Dealing with the publishing business
Editors and agents move or quit or get fired. Publicists get you a gig at an empty warehouse with rats for an audience. Your local Barnes and Noble treats you like month-old garbage. Contracts fall through. Books don’t get stocked. Co-op gets pulled. Promoting gets tiring. The list of hurdles is long.
Set your own goals and adjust accordingly. If you don’t like online promotion, or touring or school visits, that’s fine. I like bookmarks, but some people swear by postcards. You set out to write children’s books, but you found yourself writing a memoir or a science fiction novel? That’s fine. Keep at it. Adjust your sights. There is no wasted time when you’re writing. Everything you write will be practice for the next time around. And there is no doubt about this—the publishing business is not in a hurry.
A successful author friend said to me recently, “Remember when you used to think that when you reached a certain point, it'd all be gravy?” What a smart guy. It’s never gravy. It’s a job. It requires work and involves stuff that might piss you off some days. But it’s good—with all its weirdness and uncertainty and its knack for moving at the pace of a stoned tortoise. Without the publishing business, we wouldn’t meet editors who make our work sparkle, or publicists or booksellers or librarians or fans. Without the publishing business, we would not have an outlet for what we love to do most. You are responsible for juggling the love and the bullshit. Only you can dictate just how many balls you have up in the air at once. (For the record, I try to only juggle the love, man.)
The separation of writing and business
I keep the writing and the business in different mental rooms. That way, it’s easier to remember what my number one job is. I wrote for fifteen years without being paid a penny. You probably did, too. So when you finally make a buck off this? Remember what the most important thing is. Writing. Snowflakes. Blizzard. Block out the uncontrollable bullshit. You may think that because you’re getting paid money, that it makes the business more important than the writing. But you did this long before you got money for it. You did it for free.
Here’s my theory: The uncontrollable bullshit is what the money is for--eating the toasted craptart that is getting a bad review and licking the melting poopsicle that is getting unsolicited criticism from your child’s teacher or a guy who knew you in grade school. The money is for dealing with covers you might not like, or a new editor who can’t remember your name.
Here’s my cure: Each time something negative happens to you in this business, write yourself an imaginary $100 check as compensation. Then, go back to the desk, stretch your middle finger, and write for free.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Writer's Middle Finger Part Two (On Avoiding Disappointment.)

Another installment of the Writer's Middle Finger today which includes a hilarious picture of me at age 15 or so. Again, this is old. It was published days after my very first book came out. It's fun looking back.

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First published Jan 13, 2009


The Writer's Middle Finger Part Two (On Avoiding Disappointment.)


So, you’re ready to write what you want to write. You’re ready to ignore dumb advice and name your characters Saffron or Millicent and have them drive obscure cars named after small South American mammals. You’re ready to hoist those middle fingers and say, “Screw you world! I’m gonna write something TOTALLY ORIGINAL and not think about what shelf it might land on in a bookstore!” Some business-minded readers are shaking their heads. This is not the way to sell books. True, maybe. But I think it’s definitely the way to become a writer.
Growing a writer takes time.
Do you remember those people in junior high school who arrived in Izod sweaters, then met the weird girl in class, and suddenly chopped their hair, layered on the eyeliner, and bought a Clash album? Those might have been the same people who moved up to high school and traded in their Clash album for rap music and a pair of baggy jeans. I mean no offense to anyone who did this. We all did this in our own way. We were growing and learning and figuring out who we were. Bravo to us. But it took a while, remember?
I like to think that writing has an adolescence period, too. Like life-adolescence, writer-adolescence is an awkward and exciting time, filled with the influence of whomever you allow in. Be careful. A few cynical thoughts from the wrong people can steer you away from yourself. There are plenty of bullies and downers and know-it-alls in this business – people who want to startle you with publishing “facts”. You need to remember why you’re here. You want to write, right?
Publishing and writing are two completely different things.
Only fifteen years ago, it was hard to find out about publishing. You had to buy Writer’s Market books and read trade magazines and find real flesh-and-blood humans to talk to about how to write a query letter, or what a royalty statement meant, or how to double check your contract. Now, with the Internet, we can find out a lot about publishing in a matter of days – which is a great thing and also not a great thing. I’m all for being educated, but I meet a lot of writers who are over-interested in the publishing side of things before they really start writing. After a story or two, or even a novel, they ask, “When should I just give up?” Give up? Give up what? Are you writing? Are you enjoying writing? Isn’t that what you’re here for? “I do like writing, but I thought I’d be published by now.” I understand this. I understand that it’s nice to be rewarded for hard work. I understand the need for concrete success. I also understand that every time you tell someone you’re a writer, the person asks, “Are you published?”
For this scenario and others, I feel fortunate that I grew my writer’s middle finger in a cave. No Internet, no email. No outside opinions, no unsolicited advice, and no dangerous comparisons. Once I got a computer, my worst procrastination enemy was solitaire. I didn’t talk to anyone about writing. I didn’t read about query letters or the publishing world – I don’t think I knew what a query letter was until I was writing my third novel. I’m glad I didn’t, too. My writing pretty much sucked.
Here is a picture of my writer-adolescence.
Actually, only part of it. There are four more novels in a drawer somewhere.
These were written on a typewriter, so they're easier to take pictures of.
Look. While you suck, embrace your suck.
Really. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Writing isn’t everything. It probably isn’t going to make you much money. It especially isn’t going to make you money in the beginning, because we all suck then. Yep. Beginners suck. Saddle up. Set realistic goals and have some fun. Work until you can tell what sucks and what doesn’t, all by yourself. You don’t want to be one of those totally-sane-yet-tone-deaf American Idol contestants, do you?
On one hand, you can ask every passerby, “Do these jeans make my ass look fat?” and you might learn something about other people’s perceptions from their answers. On the other hand, you’re the only person who matters. If you think your ass looks fat in those jeans, no one else’s opinion counts. Once you embrace your suck, you are less likely to believe it when your mom says your sucky story about robot kittens is “Just wonderful!” but you’re also more likely to believe it when your gut tells you how good something is, no matter who doesn’t like it. (Because someone will always dislike it.)
While you rock, embrace your rock.
Life is hard is hard enough without having to fight yourself through the good times. Don’t be one of those downers, okay? When you finally get a story or poem accepted, say, “Yay!” and not, “Whatever,” and when you get suggestions or rejections, try to learn from them gracefully, but hold your ground about your ideas. Anything can work if it’s done well, no matter what the so-called experts say. In your beginning years, celebrate every improvement and aim always for better writing. This leads to a healthier personal writing environment – which you’ll need, because one day, if you keep at it, you’ll be juggling copy-edits, future proposals, promotion, and events while you’re writing the next two books. There will be no room for negativity.
Isolate yourself from time to time. Turn off your internet. Blow off your writer’s forums*. Stop reading the deal pages at Publishers Marketplace.** Listen to your gut – even if it suggests something completely insane. You will know when you are on the right path for you. I once owned a Human League album and had a hair tail that I dyed pink. I once wore a white beret and pierced my nose. While I loved both looks, and know they served their purpose, I’m still glad neither made it to the author page of The Dust of 100 Dogs.
That is a white beret. 
*The author would like it known that she loves her writers forum and is not trying to say anything bad about writers forums.
** Similarly, she loves Publishers Marketplace and means no offense to it or anyone affiliated with it.
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Tomorrow: WMF #3


Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Writer's Middle Finger (How to Grow It, Groom It, Love It, and Stretch It.)

Yesterday, my friend Joanne Levy alerted me that my Writer's Middle Finger links in the sidebar didn't work anymore. I came to the blog and tried them only to find that RedRoom (described many years ago as Facebook for writers) had upped and disappeared. Luckily I was able to grab my archived RedRoom blog content and store it here on this blog.

The only posts I saved were the Writer's Middle Finger posts. They're old in many ways. This first one was about writing PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, but no one knew it then because it didn't have a title yet. When I read those words at the end--I May Still Fail--I find it interesting looking back. I had no idea VERA would become what it did. I was, and still am, just a writer writing books.

In order to get all these posts live somewhere, I plan on posting one per day until they are all up. So, I'll see you every day this week and over the weekend. I will fix the links once there are links.

Also: the plan for tomorrow was to post some spectacular fan art by Ana, but that will now be pushed to next week. But D100D fans: just wait. There's a cape here to die for.

And so, I give you WMF #1.

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First published: June 2, 2008


The Writer's Middle Finger (How to Grow It, Groom It, Love It, and Stretch It.)


Last winter, I hit a bump. A big bump. I forgot why I write.
Here’s the relevant backstory. I wrote seven novels over twelve years before I found an agent. It was nearly fourteen years before I eventually sold a book. What I want to write about today is what I possess, and what many of you possess, that makes us continue writing and investing ourselves for such long stretches of time without the so-called ‘success’ of publication.
This winter, when I came down to my office day after day with a big empty nothing where the novelist in me used to be, unable to pinpoint why I even have an office, I considered these things. How did I get here? Why did I want this so much? And how do I get it back?
How Did I Get Here?
By the time I’d written a few books, and submitted them, and had them rejected, I’d learned to overcome the frustrating, heart breaking road I was on. Frankly, I learned to write with my middle finger up. I’d had it with the changing fads I never fit into. I didn’t want to do what the how-to books told me to do. I didn’t aim or outline. I didn’t learn a formula for fiction. I didn’t read the right books for pleasure. I didn’t join internet writing groups. I stayed away from advice and articles and books about writing. This wasn’t about selling. It was about learning. So I wrote – what I wanted to write – with my middle finger extended.
Sheer stubbornness. It’s how I got this far. (I bet it’s how you got this far, too.) How else does a person write for years in the land of continuous NO?
But then the YES came.
And you can’t give YES the middle finger.
Why Did I Want This So Much?
I’m not sure if this happens to every writer who finally sells a book, but I felt a massive pressure to hurry up and write another one to sell. In my case, The Dust of 100 Dogs sold as YA, so I knew I wanted to write another edgy YA. That’s where I was this winter, when I hit the bump.
I’d trudge down to the desk, in hopes of inspiration. I’d write openings and more openings. I’d wade through pages of notes, or unfinished manuscripts. Or – God love me – I even revisited the novel that we shopped first and never sold. I realized that this – the writing the next book thing – was the hardest part of writing. And yet, it’s the whole reason we started to write, right? To…keep writing? I found myself in the oddest position. I’d sold a book, which was wonderful, but now I had to sit myself down and write the next book, which was no easier than the last ones I’d written. Actually it was harder, due to non-existent inspiration, total lack of purpose, and a growing awareness of ‘my career.’ (Though I did manage a few shorts, which helped keep me sane.)
Then, something great happened.
In late February, I was skimming the internet for sites with tips for writers and I found so many of them teeming with awful, limiting advice! One should always write in a particular tense and never use certain POVs, and never use certain words (big ones) and should also always name their character Dirk or Sally, because they are so-called ‘strong’ names.
I’m sure it’s true, to some degree, that to sell in certain arenas, a book has to closely resemble all books that came before it, but the idea that there are strict rules in this way, in any genre, was simply ridiculous to me. And invigorating. Because finding advice so poor reminded me that I needed to find my middle finger again to write another book.
Tell me what tense to write my book in? (See it going up?)
You say I can’t write in second person? (You see it don’t you?)
Tell me what to name my characters? (Dirk sees it.)
Don’t use big words? (Can you visualize me hoisting my medial phalanx?)
Suddenly, I remembered why I wanted this. I wanted this because I wanted to write books. I wanted this because I wanted to write books I would love to read, even if nobody else did. I love books that much. I love the process that much. My process – void of Dirks and Sallys, sometimes in multiple tenses, often from several points of view, occasionally requiring a dictionary. It may not follow all the so-called rules, but it’s mine.
(Books are like snowflakes. I want to make a blizzard.)
And How Do I Get it Back?
On my birthday in early March, I drove through my old hometown on an errand. This is still a complete novelty for me, because I never thought I’d move back to the US, let alone anywhere near my hometown. It makes me oddly chirpy. I relax, or something, when I’m there. I passed a place I used to work. A story setting came to me, and a theme. Two characters formed in my head on the bypass home. Later that day, I pulled over into a church parking lot and jotted down the plot idea.
Four weeks later, I was done with the 60k first draft.
After spending January and February staring at the screen, wondering where the novelist in me had gone, without warning, I was me again. Because I remembered to exercise my middle finger and allowed myself to write in frowned-upon tenses, in four points of view, covering bizarre and awkward YA subject matter, while incorporating enormous words as part of the plot. What started out as a boring drive across town to buy organic rice ended in this multi-colored stack of scribbled-on paper here on my desk.
I May Still Fail
The book may not sell. Every one of us shares the murky long game this business offers, no matter what kind of books we write and no matter how many we sell. But I’m starting to see this as a good thing. Without something to rebel against, to make me explore my own fears and deep corners, I am uninspired. Without boundaries to push, or hurdles to clear, I grow lazy. Without something to flip the bird at, I’m bored.
So it’s good for us to read bad advice and get rejection letters and endure the next distant relative who asks, “Have you sold a book yet?” with that mocking smirk on his face. It’s good for us to toil in the land of NO. It’s fuel for the bubbling pit of stubbornness and crazy determination we need to do our job long enough to finally succeed. It is the perfect environment to grow and groom your writer’s middle finger.
The trick is, no matter where you are in your journey, to remember to stretch it.
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Stay tuned for tomorrow's post. WMF #2.