Sunday, March 24, 2013

True Grit

This past weekend the Washington Romance Writers hosted Bob Mayer for a two-day workshop. The first day focused on career – what questions to ask and actions to take in order to get moving along your desired writing path. The second day focused on what questions you’d be wise to ask yourself before typing “Chapter One” at the top of the page.

My friend, author Maggie Toussaint, did a fantastic job of summarizing Mr. Mayer’s talk when he presented to First Coast Romance Writers. Her March 18 blog can be read here. Rather than try to improve on Maggie’s recap, I’ve decided to pull out one element of the weekend’s presentation that resonated the most for me.


Grit, Mr. Mayer says, is the determining factor for success. Perseverance gets you farther than innate talent. Grit is the key ingredient that takes you from “I coulda been a contender” to “I did it.” Grit makes me think of the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. To become an expert in your field, you need to put in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. That is dedication. It’s determination. It’s a whole lot of grit.

Mayer shared the story of a young, small town violinist who wangles an opportunity to play before a visiting maestro. After the young man performs, the maestro’s only words are, “no fire.” Crushed, the budding violinist puts down his instrument, never to play again. Years later the maestro returns to town and the man reminds the master of his pronouncement. The maestro shrugs and says, “I always say ‘no fire.’” The lesson, of course, is that the ones with enough grit will double down and try harder while the ones who lack that essential element will accept the judgment of others and quit.

I’ve trained for and completed two marathons and lived through a major kitchen renovation. I know I have perseverance and determination. I’ve got grit. But I’ve never brought my grit to bear upon my writing career – and it’s high time I did. I’ve got goals I want to accomplish. I’d like to move into the realm of “I did it” – or more rightly – “I’m doing it.” No more contending. It’s time to show up, put the hours in, keep an eye on the prize and get to work.

How about you – do you have the grit to go after your writing dreams? What does grit look like for you? 

Monday, March 18, 2013

General Stuff for New Writers

So, how do you like the blog title? Pretty literary, right? I was going to call it "Advice for Writers" but I don't know if any of this can fall under the lofty title of "advice." It's more a general collection of stuff, so there ya go.

When people ask me if I have tips for new writers, I always take a beat (or two or three). Over the past few years, there have been so many lessons I've learned (most of them the hard way), so much helpful knowledge passed on from much greater minds than mine. It can be difficult to know where to begin. But on the subject of writing I tend to divide my thoughts into "Writing" and "Publishing," so let's start there and see where we end up.


The most important thing I can say about writing is simply this: Do it. Write a lot. It can get hard, it can get frustrating, but keep at it. The more you write, the better you'll get.

Write what you love. Write what you enjoy. When we see mega-bestsellers making headlines and getting movie deals, it can be tempting to try and ride that wave. But write your books, not somebody else's. In the words of Robyn Carr: Don't write to catch the latest trend. Write the book that you want to read, and let the trends catch up to you.

Regardless of what kind of writing you do, I always recommend that writers join Romance Writers of America, both the national organization and a chapter near you. You'll find lots of helpful workshops, generous writing partners, and the kind of environment that can foster you while you build your career and become the best writer you can be. (And no, they didn't pay me to say any of that, darn it all!)

Here's a blog post I wrote a couple years ago on the subject of finishing your first novel:  Stages of a Writer's Career Part 1: Finishing Your First Novel.

And here's some advice  that I've found helpful:

Lisa Gardner's Writer Toolbox

Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips


In the past few years there have been major changes in the publishing industry. There are many, many publishing options for writers now. Authors can pursue the traditional publishing route, through a publishing house, or choose to publish independently, working with sellers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Of course, more choices means…well, more choices. Trying to determine the path of your writing career can be daunting. Any way you go, there's bound to be a lot of work involved. So familiarize yourself with the publishing industry. Talk to other writers. Learn everything you can, and then make whatever decision feels right to you.

Here's a blog post that I wrote about getting published for the first time: Stages of a Writer's Career Part 2: Publishing for the First Time

Also, my friend Karen Cantwell and I put a blog together on the subject of self-publishing. While it's woefully out of date at the moment, there are still a few pearls of wisdom in here that you might find helpful: Self-Publishing Tips & Links

For advice from one of the most successful self-publishing authors in the business, check out Joe Konrath's blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing

And for advice on traditional publishing, try the Writer's Market website.

Two Final Thoughts

1) Not to over simplify, but information is only useful if it works. Listen to advice, but be willing to throw out any information that has proven untrue for you, regardless of where it comes from.

2) Whether you want to write just for the love of it, or because you want to make a billion dollars, your dreams are your own. Protect and cherish them. With hard work, persistence, and good old-fashioned common sense, you can accomplish pretty much anything.

So what are you waiting for? Get writing!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

As You Wish: Success and The Princess Bride

Success. Everyone defines it differently. But everyone wants it.
If you’re a writer—and even if you’re not—you don’t have to look further than your email inbox to know everyone wants to be successful. Personally, I’ve got piles of emails decrying the sale of book reviews, hawking little blue love pills, dissecting the alleged advances from a particular publisher, promising an easy weight-loss solution, complaining about the avalanche of free e-books out there, and more than a few praising this same plethora of free e-books out there. Now, all of these topics are good to ponder, but I’ve often wondered, do these emails have anything to do with actually reaching success? Or do they make success seem like wishful thinking?
And then, curled up on the couch watching the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Princess Bride, it hit me. Everything I need to know about success, I can learn from The Princess Bride.
Sure, if you’re an author you can study William Goldman’s delightful writing. You can also learn from Rob Reiner’s direction, Cary Elwes magnetism, or Wallace Shawn’s skill. But none of that is what I have in mind. Instead, I’d suggest you learn from the film’s “three poor, lost circus performers.”
I’d suggest you learn from Inigo Montoya, Fezzik the Giant, and Vizzini the Sicilian.
Chances are you’ve loved The Princess Bride for years, so pardon me if I don’t print SPOILER ALERT right here. After all, you know how the story goes. Westley, as the Man in Black, chases the three who’ve kidnapped his true love, Buttercup. He must fight each one to save her. And the first he must fight is Inigo Montoya.
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”
Montoya is a supreme swordfighter who’s perfected his art over the last twenty years in the hopes of avenging his father's murder. He doesn’t trick Westley into an early death on the cliffs of a foreign land because it isn’t honest. No, he relies on his studies and his steel.
Some people—and some writers—are like this. Some take classes, go to conferences, and attend workshops. They can learn all they want, but if they don’t put this into practice, they can’t end up like Montoya. Montoya goes on to reach his goal. He avenges his father. And all because he applies his studies to his swordsmanship.
“That doesn’t seem very sportsmanlike.”
Next, Westley faces Fezzik the Giant. But Fezzik can’t bring himself to attack Westley in ambush. Why? He says, “That’s not very sportmanlike.” And that sums up Fezzik the Giant. He’s strong and he’s sportsmanlike.
Some people—and some writers—are like this. Their talent is strong simply because they were born that way. However, just as Fezzik doesn’t look for some kind of shortcut, neither should the rest of us. Fezzik is in this adventure for the long haul. He trusts his strength and he seeks out others who appreciate what he’s got. In the end, he’s successful and he’s happy.
Last, but not least, Westley takes on Vizzini the Sicilian. Vizzini’s weapon, or so he thinks, is his intellect. And his belief in his brain shows in his catchphrase, “Inconceivable!” But his catchphrase is also his fatal flaw. He can’t imagine anyone else’s ideas working. He can’t imagine anyone else’s success. As a result, success eludes him.
Are you certain your friend will never get the promotion she’s going for? Is the contest entry you judged so silly, no editor would ever buy it? Don’t be so sure, especially if you haven’t been promoted or your manuscript hasn’t sold. If you can’t see the possibilities then, just like Vizzini, where you are now may be the farthest you ever go.
So no matter what success looks like to you, take some tips from Inigo Montoya, Fezzik the Giant, and Vizzini the Sicilian, and make your wishes come true. If learning from them seems inconceivable, just watch The Princess Bride instead. In the meantime, let the Rockville 8 know: What does success look like to you? Which Princess Bride character can help you get there?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hardwired: Creatures of Story - Part I

Books, movies, TV, songs. They’re all prevalent vehicles of popular storytelling. When we experience story, we allow ourselves to be swept away on a journey orchestrated by the storyteller. So whether it’s Katy Perry’s Wide Awake, the television series Justified, the animal cruelty commercial overlaid with Sarah McLaughlin’s music, a sports caster providing pre-game commentary, the local evening news, or the latest best-selling novel or blockbuster at the box office, much of how we relate to the world and process information comes through story. But why?
Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytellying Animal: How Stories Make Us Human sums up the problem, “Fiction, fantasies, dreams--these are . . . a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot--should not--penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfish genes. … [S]tories--from TV commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of professional wrestling--saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe and what they reveal about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about how fiction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics--how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits . . . force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?”

When stories are told well, we cannot resist their pull. We’re instantly tugged into an alternate reality where we live out the story the narrator is telling. But we are active participants. We fill in the gaps and provide much of the true working detail in the scene. Gottschall says, “[A]uthors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard. … Our minds supply most of the information in the scene--most of the color, shading, texture.”
Story invades every area of our lives, awake and sleeping--yes, we even dream in story--so how did we become such creatures of story? And why do we tell stories at all? There are many theories out there. Gottschall argues that fiction (storytelling) “confronts the problems of the human condition head-on.”
So as writers, what do we do with that? And how can we use that information as we craft our own stories?

Lisa Cron in Wired for Story helps us understand it this way: “Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it. … Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.” We become intoxicated by story, but not just for the joy of it, but in order for it to teach us something more, something bigger, something beyond our own experience. By understanding story, we can better understand the world around us. We learn about life through the stories we read and watch.

Writers hold a great power in their hands. A well-told story can rewire a reader’s brain. It can move someone with a strong bias to empathy. We can give a reader a glimpse into a life they might otherwise never have experienced. Cron says writers play an important role. “They can transport readers to place they’ve never been, catapult them into situations they’ve only dreamed of, and reveal subtle universal truths that just might alter their entire perception of reality. In ways large and small, writers help people make it through the night.”

However, in order to captivate a reader’s imagination, a writer must meet a reader’s hardwired expectations at every point, leaving crumbs along the story trail to guide them. This isn’t easy. And dissecting story is hard. Understanding what readers want from stories is like trying to perform a complicated algorithm to solve a mathematical problem that’s just beyond our skill set. Cron believes this is “[b]ecause of the ease with which we surrender to the stories we read tends to cloud our understanding of stories we write.” We easily recognize a good story when we hear it. So we believe we should be able write one just as easily. When we can’t, we get frustrated.
So unless we write stories that meet the hardwired expectations of our readers, we’ll never find the success we desire. Our brains are hardwired for story. It’s how we make sense of the world around us and it helps us find meaning from everything that’s happened to us. Cron says, “Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters. Other people’s stories are as important as the stories we tell ourselves. Because if all we ever had to go on was our own experience, we wouldn’t make it out of onesies.” Through story, we can experience intense situations without the danger of living them. It’s a way we can explore our own thinking and imagine future possibilities that help us survive both physically and socially.

Now that you’re beginning to understand why we’re such story creatures, join me here in May for “Hardwired: Creatures of Story - Part II,” where I’ll lay out Cron’s explanation of those elusive reader expectations writers need to meet to capture the hearts and imaginations of their readers.