Indiana Writing Workshop Wrapup

Continuing education is part of most professions, and writing is no different. I love attending conferences for both of my jobs, and both for the same reason: leapfrogging.

Ordinary learning is step by step. You have an issue, so you try to find an answer.  You look things up, or consult a resource.  You try something and it works or it doesn’t. One way or another, you learn a new fact and apply it to the problem.  It’s a tedious process, and you only learn the answer to the specific issue you were trying to solve.

Leapfrogging jumps straight over those steps. You aren’t looking for one single answer. You’re attending an educational event where answers are shared freely, to questions you have and to questions you didn’t even know to ask. Industry leaders just tell you things…secrets and tricks that make whatever you do better, easier, more current, and more relevant. At the end of the day you go home with a notebook full of knowledge, having leapfrogged in your study of whatever the lecture was about.

Today’s Indiana Writing Workshop was a serious leapfrog.  Writing conferences generally feature two draws: speakers and pitch opportunities.  There are actual agents there that you can schedule a ten-minute window to pitch your book. It’s how I originally connected with my amazing agent Alice Speilburg, and it’s a great opportunity for anyone who’s trying to get a manuscript represented.

Obviously I wasn’t pitching today, but one of my writing buddies did, and she got a request from one of her dream agents.

I went for the speakers, one of whom was…my amazing agent Alice Speilburg.  She talked about the agenting process, what agents do and what they’re looking for, and her afternoon lecture was a leapfrog event on rewriting a manuscript based on reader feedback. She gave us revision tips equivalent to years of struggling alone, trying to figure out how to make sense of the comments our beloved beta readers give.

Marissa Corvisiero talked about publishing options, and about building an author platform with things like…blog posts.  So…hi, everybody. Here’s a blog post.

Thanks to the workshop coordinators, attending agents, and a big hello to all my new writer friends out there.

Keep leapfrogging. The next jump could land you somewhere wonderful.


Instant Mastery

Writers are an odd bunch.  It takes a lot of ego to create a story, write it out, and expect total strangers to plunk down their hard-earned cash for the privilege of reading it.

At the same time we are often crippled by self-doubt, requiring massive affirmation from our agents, our editors, our families and our fans, constantly assuring us that we don’t completely suck.  The highs and lows of this continuous cycle of doubt and ego are part of the reason why we have a reputation for being unsettled.

Beginning writers have an even stranger affliction, and it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times in my writing group (and also in my mirror).  I call it, “Expecting Instant Mastery.”

So here’s what happens.

We write something.  A story, a novel, a screenplay, whatever.  We tinker with it a bit, “editing” as best we can.

And it’s perfect.

We ask for feedback, and if we’re very lucky, we get some honest critique.

And we learn it isn’t perfect.

This is hard to hear.  Like someone telling you that your adorable pink infant, whom you spent nine months incubating inside your skin on top of your squished bladder, actually looks like Winston Churchill.  Because they do…all babies look like him.  It’s just a fact.  Go ahead.  Find a picture of him.  I’ll wait.

Yep.  Churchill.

Anyway, we’re shocked by the news that this story, this novel, this first attempt at putting words on a page isn’t ready for the New York Times list.

We expected our first effort to be perfect.

Why do we do this?  If we were taking up any other avocation…golf or bowling, or learning to speak Spanish, we would expect to spend months or years being terrible at it before we got good.  If you go to Paint Nite, where you drink wine and follow a teacher in the front of the room, trying to replicate his painting on your canvas, you don’t honestly think your “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” is going to hang on a museum wall.  You know it’s going to look like it was painted by a monkey on a trampoline, and that’s okay.  You’re not a trained painter.

But with writing?  Nope.  That first novel, that first story…they’re flawless.  Every single word a glittering gem.

Look, here’s a really nice painting.  Maybe you’ve seen it before.


Yeah, that one.

Do you think this was his first one?  Do you really think that this masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, was the first time Michelangelo picked up a brush?

Of course not.  We’ve never seen his first attempt with a paintbrush.  He must have painted countless versions of “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” over and over, painting over each one until they got less and less suck, and eventually started to be decent.

He practiced. He learned his craft.

But not us.  No, not us writers.

It’s because we’re readers, and good writers make it look so easy.  All we see on the bookstore shelves are the final, rewritten, edited versions of their work.  We read these stories, these novels and we say, “Well of course I can do that.”

And we can.  Just not very well at first.

But we read, so we think we can write.  Which is akin to saying, “Well, I’ve been eating food my whole life. So I’m sure I’m a master chef.  Just hand me that knife.  Now which is the sharp side?”

Or, “I’ve always lived in a house.  I work in a building.  I know what walls and floors and stuff are all about.  So hand me those blueprints and a hammer, because I will certainly be a master builder this first time I grab a nail.”

Ridiculous, of course, but it’s what we do as writers.

There probably are a few out there, writers whose first attempts really were excellent.  And if you’re an newer writer, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, and I’m one of them.”

Maybe you are.

I wasn’t.

But I learned.

I’m still learning.

I’ve surrounded myself with the best support team I can find to help me get better, and I think I’m improving, one word at a time.

So all you new writers out there banging away at your first novel, your first story, take heart.  It might not turn out to be the flawless, sparkling jewel you imagine.  But it will be a start.  A first attempt, which can lead to a second, and a third.  And maybe, eventually, to something that belongs on the ceiling of a chapel, adored by millions.

Meanwhile, hand me that pair of scissors.  I’ve had hair almost my whole life.  How hard can it be?

Writing a perfect novel

My editor saved a guy’s life today.

I didn’t want her to.

I argued a bit.

Told her she shouldn’t do it.  But she convinced me, and now there’s a character in my upcoming release who should have died but doesn’t.  One life saved.

We’re in the final stages of editing Horizon Alpha: Predators of Eden, which is due to be released by Future House Publishing in less than two months.  I’ve been working with my developmental editor Emma for weeks, making changes and moving things around.  Future House is much bigger than Flamewalker‘s publisher, so the editing is a lot more intense.  This will certainly turn out to be a good thing, but it’s resulted in some interesting changes in the manuscript.

One of those changes involved the guy who died in the original version.  Emma didn’t like it.

But here’s the thing:  it’s what happened.

He died.  He did.  But now he doesn’t.

And Emma is right.  He needs to live.  It didn’t work for my target audience to have this character die, and certainly not the way I killed him.

It’s led me to think a lot about how manuscripts change over the course of editing.  I’m fortunate to be the current group leader and head cat-herder for Cincinnati Fiction Writers, a critique group that’s been meeting since long before I opened my first Scrivener project.  We’re always dispensing helpful advice, telling each other how best to edit works-in-progress.  Most of the time our members are really psyched to put the group members’ opinions to work.  Sometimes they’re hesitant.

“But it’s perfect,” they’ll stammer, tears magnifying their dilated pupils.

Of course they’re right.  It is perfect.  It’s the way they wrote it because it’s the way the story happened for them, and because of that, it’s perfect.

Just like my original manuscript was perfect.

Perfect for me.

And that’s the issue.

I’m not the reader.  I’ll be buying, at most, ten copies of this thing to give to friends and family.  I’m hoping other people will also buy it.  For that to happen, it needs to be more than perfect for me.  It needs to be right for my readers.  And that means making edits.  Sometimes difficult edits.

It means killing my darlings and saving people who should have died.  It means moving chapters and deleting chapters and writing new ones.  It means changing this manuscript from those original words that first flowed from my fingertips, and turning them into something other people will want to read.

Hopefully a lot of other people.

Because this book isn’t for me anymore.  From the moment Future House said YES, it ceased to be just mine.

I’m confident that the changes Emma and I hashed out have made the novel stronger.  I think readers are going to love the new version.  The real version.  The only version that anyone besides me is ever going to see.

But deep in the dusty catacombs of my hard drive, I’ll keep the original version tucked away.  Like the Lost Ark in a box on a shelf in the middle of a government warehouse, it will hide away forever, its contents fading from memory in the passage of time.

You’ll never read it.

It’s only for me.

Because for me, it’s perfect.