OK I’m taking a break from my navel gazing and putting my eyes back on my readers and their felt needs. I’ve posted the last couple of times in defense of agents—this was my reaction to conversations I’d heard about how agents are unneeded and less than ethical. Those posts have important information for writers, but I was writing them for myself. You don’t need to be convinced—if you’re here reading then you most likely already believe that agents are necessary.
So today I’m going to switch back and focus on you.
I’m going to post about your felt needs.
Because . . .
I want y’all to read my words.
What is your need, dear reader? You come to my site because you are looking for an agent probably.
When I was looking for an agent, lo those many years ago, I had favorite agent sites I read. I wanted to know the agents better and I wanted to know how to make them offer to rep me. I wanted to hear about publishing and conferences and writing and what they were looking for and how I should approach them.
I wanted insider information.
To my mind agents were some kind of mystical creatures, residing in the clouds, and holding the power of life and death in their hands. Publishing books was a kind of promised land and agents stood at the pearly gates (or the banks of the Jordan . . . whatever) and they allowed some writers in and turned some writers away. And I desperately wanted to be one who got in. I wanted to break through, to storm the gates of Heaven, to cross that river, to be one of those lucky writers who arrived—soaking wet and gloriously happy—with a publishing contract in hand. Hallelujah, amen!
I wanted to read posts by agents so I could understand agents. I wanted the see the inner workings. I wanted to crack the code.
How was I going to get past those agents? Those formidable gatekeepers.
Well, here’s your bit of insider info for the day: agents aren’t really the bouncers checking IDs at the door of the pub board meetings.
You may be on the wrong path, dear writer.
You are in charge of your destiny
OK let’s say up front that God is in charge. I’m not apostatizing. God decides who gets a contract. God decides whether you sail onto the bestseller’s lists or whether you launch into seas that are flat and where the air is heavy and still. And even before you sell and launch . . . God gave you the mind with which you think and the hands with which you type. Yes, Yes, God is in charge.
End of disclaimer.
Underneath God, the next most important person in regards to determining if you’ll be published or not is not the agent or the ack ed. (1)acq ed? nah . . . ACK! ed It’s you, dear writer. You are the master of your own fate.
You have the ability to write or not write.
You have the ability to write and write and write until you’re good enough to be published
You have the ability to speak to felt needs
You have to ability to self publish
You have the ability to write to the market
You have the ability to write with passion
You have the ability to polish your prose
If you don’t have these abilities then you need to try something else. Maybe singing or painting. Writing is not your thing.
But if you are a competent writer—if you understand the rules—then, if you do not have an agent or a publishing contract the reason is not that the agents are too busy or too picky. It’s not that the editors are too hard to please. It’s that you haven’t done your job. You haven’t gotten onto the “felt needs” path that is the only way to be traditionally published.
Even fiction lovers have felt needs.
I feel that I need books with great voice and with winsome characters. I need books I can sell—books that fit industry standards but which have intriguing voices, interesting premises, and fresh new ways of looking at stale old problems. Different editors have different needs. They have holes to fill in their catalogs and they are looking for books that fit their needs.
So if you want to break in, empathize with us. Feel what we feel. Consider our needs. Give us books we can sell. Look at us not so much as gatekeepers but as first readers. Delight us. Entertain us. Make us think. Stir our emotions.
The way is wide open. You only need to get off of the “this is the book of my heart/the book God gave me to write/the book the world needs to hear” path and get onto the “this is the book the reader wants” path.
Do you see that? Don’t write the book that the reader needs. Write the book that the reader desires. Readers—all people—are oblivious to many of their needs, and if they don’t know about the needs, they can’t desire the books that meet those needs. So if you want to sell your work, you should write books that meet the needs the readers feel.
I’m not saying you need to compromise your values or write about vampires, demons, or fluffy bunnies (or whatever else you hate, which you feel editors are demanding). Stay tuned. I’ll unfold this a bit more in future posts.
What put me in mind to discuss why writers need literary agents is that I have been house hunting for a couple of months. My son is buying his first house and my sister and I are going in together on what will likely be our last house.
These days it’s easy to find places for sale. We can look on Zillow or Trulia or Realtor dot com to see pictures and to learn about square footage and construction materials used. We can check out the yard and the neighborhood by looking at Google’s street view and satellite view.
But even with all these tools at our disposal, we wouldn’t think of buying a house without a real estate agent helping us. It’s not that we couldn’t learn how to do FSBO (for sale by owner) deals or how to approach a listing agent and get them to take an offer from us without charging us a buying agent’s commission. It’s that we don’t have the time or money to spend on that.
Agents save clients money
Yes, I’m saying it would cost us time AND money to learn to broker our own deals.
It’s worth it to pay our real estate agent a small commission because he makes our lives so much easier—from showing us homes to writing up offers, he makes the process smooth and efficient. And if that was all he did, he’d be earning his commission because he’s saving us time, and time is money.
But I am also convinced that real estate agents save their clients real money.
I know our real estate agent has saved us money on the buying side of the equation.
He told my son about a program for first-time home buyers that will give him a grant to help him pay the down payment. We would not have known about that if not for our agent.
After that he took us to see homes and he told us which homes were good and which ones were bad.
He told us which ones needed repairs and about how much those repairs would cost us.
He told us whether we’d have an easy time or a hard time reselling the home later.
He told us if a home was overpriced.(1)If any of you live in Cobb County, Georgia and you’re thinking of buying or selling a home, give John Visser a call. The man works really hard: you won’t regret having him on your side.
It’s true that I could have used my trusty DuckDuckGo and learned much of what our agent told us, but what about the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know?
I didn’t know, for instance, that a certain kind of siding had been recalled. How would I learn that there was such a thing as bad siding? I wouldn’t know to do a Duck search on “bad siding that’s been recalled.” (I’m sure that the inspection would show if the siding was bad, but by that point I’d have laid out 450 bucks for an inspection on a house needing costly repairs and if I walked away from the deal, I’d be out that money.)
And that’s why I like to hire experts. It’s not that I’m lazy or busy and I just want to pay someone to make things easy, and it’s not just that they know things I don’t know and I don’t want to take time to learn these things.
It’s that . . .
Agents are more than sales people
In the last several years I’ve bumped up against writers who think that literary agents are salesmen, and they don’t think they need this service since they are selling books regularly.
Some of these writers are on faculty at conferences and they meet many editors this way and are able sell projects to these fellow faculty members. Others have sold a few books to some small publisher—maybe an educational press or a niche publisher—and those small jobs keep them busy. One writer I know has put out several award-winning picture books and a middle grade novel that has gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, but she has no agent. She can sell her own books, so why pay an agent?
But every time I talk to these people I find that they are making about half of what my clients are making on projects they sell, and some of them are also selling fewer projects than I could sell for them. Why? Because they don’t know how much they are worth. They don’t know what other writers are making, they don’t know what publishers are looking for, and they don’t know what publishers will pay.
Agents have several advantages when negotiating contracts.
They know what others have gotten
They know roughly how many units the publisher plans to sell
They have other clients that sell well and the publishers want to keep them happy. This benefits all the agent’s authors.
They are able to negotiate without letting their emotions get in the way–
They love and value their clients’ work and they never have to battle feelings of, “Maybe this isn’t very good,” the way authors often do
They see their clients’ work realistically and don’t think it’s better than Harry Potter, and they aren’t offended when editors make lowball offers
They know how to make creative suggestions to get around sticking points
OK if you must put in the cross collatoralization clause then I’m going to need a best-seller clause. Will you give us a 1000 dollar advance for every week our book is on the bestseller list?
OK if you can’t pay more for this one series then you will need to allow my author to publish with another publisher concurrently so she can earn a living. Or can you throw in some extra marketing money? Escalate the royalties a bit faster?
Now you writers can add in some of these things—you can ask for some of these things. What I’ve found, though, is that acquisitions editors are pretty smart. They may work with dozens of writers and agents each year and they know where they can stop a writer (or an agent) pretty well. They will simply say, “No, my publisher won’t let me go any higher.”
And then what will you do?
Are you willing to let the deal tank, dear writer? Do you know the market well enough to know when a publisher is bluffing? Do you have the nerve to call the bluff?
I spend months negotiating contracts sometimes. It can get heated. It can get a little stressful. But if that was the only cost, that would be nothing. The problem is that on top of losing their peace of mind, writers lose money for themselves.
At least every time I’ve seen one of their contracts or heard what they’ve earned, I’ve found that they’ve accepted less for their work than I would advise my clients to take. (I’m talking about big publishing house contracts, not small presses.) I’ve seen some horrific contracts that otherwise intelligent writers have signed.
There are days when I have to let a deal go through for very little money because I have no leverage. But I have learned how to use what leverage I have to get more from publishers than my clients would know to ask for. And that’s one reason you need an agent even when you are selling projects on your own—he will make you money.
So in this age of YouTube we can all be do it yourself-ers, right?
One of the things I love most about living right now is how easy it is to learn anything you want. The limits our parents had are all but gone. For one thing, we have time to learn, now. No need to spend hours washing the clothes in the creek, beating them with rocks. No need to hunt the game, to wring the necks of the ducks, or to spend an hour plucking and scorching them. No need to gather the wood and build the fire before we cook.
For another thing we have so much information available to us. My dad was born 99 years ago today. And what immense changes took place in his lifetime! We are accelerating at dizzying speeds, gaining more and more knowledge daily, and piling it up in our storehouses. Much of it has landed in a giant storehouse called the Internet.
It is a good time to be alive.
It was the best of times and the worst of times.
But with vast access to knowledge comes two problems, I think, that our parents didn’t deal with.
We older folks—those of us who were raised by frugal parents who lived through the Great Depression—tend to think we need do everything ourselves. We can learn online how to change our oil, do our taxes, self-publish our books, or set up our own websites, so we figure we ought to do all that for our own selves. Why pay others when we can do it for free?
The younger generation—the ones who grew up with the Internet—may struggle with paying for goods and services because so much of what they’ve grown up with has been free. They are used to having free music and free books and free movies. Some of my young friends don’t like paying for doctors’ visits or school loans. Health care and education should be free, they think.
The workman is worthy of his wages.
One thing the Bible teaches that has helped me to live a happy life is that the workman is worthy of his wages.
I married a poor man (my mama told me it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man, but I don’t know—there’s something about the character of a poor man who joyfully sits in his wheelchair day after day that is mighty attractive), and so we often had second-hand cars that would break down. And when they would break down, early in my marriage, I would lament the fact that I had to pay a mechanic.
My husband and I tried at first to bypass the mechanic, but after replacing an alternator together one time, we were cured of any desire to be co-mechanics. He could tell me, in many different ways and in various tones of voice, how to loosen the bolt, but if I didn’t have the physical strength to do it, then there was nothing but frustration in store for us. So after that first joint session with him being the brains and me being the brawn, when the cars broke down I took them to a real mechanic.
And I would feel sorry for myself. I didn’t like to have to spend so much on car repairs.
Gee! You’d think this guy went to medical school, I’d say to myself. He’s charging as much as our surgeon charges.
But then it hit me. The workman is worthy of his wages. This applies not only to men who feed my soul. It also applies to men who repair my car. I mean, the metaphor only works to instruct us about how we should pay our pastors as they attend to our spiritual needs if we already understand that we are required to pay fair wages to the workmen, and the oxen, who attend to our physical needs.
Besides all that, maybe that mechanic was praying, asking God to bring in some money so he could feed his children that month. Who was I to begrudge him his pay?
I’m worthy of my wages, as well.
Several months back I read an egregious thread, on an email loop for authors, in which several writers were going off on how worthless literary agents are.They are horrible people who never answer their email, who think they are better than others, and who look at writers as if they are poop on their shoes.
Even before that, way back when Chautauqua was still going, I met a writer there—a very successful writer—who told me literary agents were nothing but worthless leeches, sucking money from hardworking writers. They couldn’t produce anything useful themselves—they had no talent. But they sank their fangs into the lily white necks of sweet young writers and they siphoned fifteen percent off the top.
For doing nothing at all!
She said all that to me because at the time I was a writer who had just signed with an agent and my agent had given me advice the author didn’t like. But though I wasn’t an agent at the time, I was amazed at the venom she had, and I thought, “It’s all well and good for you–your husband is an attorney and he negotiates your contracts for you. But most us need to hire someone to do that.”
But as I’ve gone on and gotten more and more experience, I’ve become convinced that even with a husband who is an attorney, writers would be wise to sign with literary agents.
Because your attorney husband has no way of knowing how much he can get you, he has no way of meeting editors and learning what they are looking for, and he has no way of understanding the market or the pressures editors are under.
So in coming posts I want to tunnel down into this a bit: Are agents blood sucking leeches or are they earning their keep? What exactly do agents do? Why should you get an agent, when should you get an agent, how can you get an agent, and what should you do if you don’t have an agent?
So keep your TVs tuned to this channel (or subscribe to email updates) so you don’t miss any upcoming posts because—Yeehaw!—exciting times are afoot here at Apokedak Literary Agency. Yes, indeedy.
Without plot, a piece of writing is not a story—it is a static description. Plot is what gives the story locomotion, and stories must move or they are not stories at all.
Stories also must have characters who move through the plots. The characters will, we hope, stretch and grow as they move through the obstacles that the plot puts in their way.
So the plot moves and the characters move. Which one drives the story?
As old as the battle is between those who love character-driven books and those who love plot-driven, and as hotly as that debate sometimes runs, I’m convinced it doesn’t matter. It’s as impossible to answer as the chicken and the egg question. Which came first? Who knows and who cares?
A story must have character and plot. That’s all we need to know.
We Care about Characters
Reading a book with all plot and no characters would be akin to watching clothes flop around in the dryer. There’s plenty of action. So what?
Without compelling characters the best plots in the world are forgettable. Who cares if an entire city is poisoned by terrorists squirting chemicals into the water supply if we don’t have a character to zoom in on, to know, to love, to weep with, and to root for?
Think of those disaster films—Poseidon Adventure types—they always focus on individual characters before the disaster. That’s because we can’t care about a faceless crowd the way we can care about an individual. The widower and his daughter on a vacation together so they can bond with one another, the college student on her last trip with the girls before he wedding and her wonderful new life, the woman seeking a new start after a bitter divorce—those are the characters we worry about and root for. They have goals. Hopes and dreams. They’re setting off on adventure looking for good things. And in the background we see the volcano smoking and we know it’s going to erupt and mess up their plans.
In. The. Background.
If we just watched the volcano erupt and didn’t know any of the people running for their lives, we’d not be sucked into the story.
Plot Pounds on the Hero and Shapes Him
On the other hand, reading a book about characters with no plot would be like sitting up all night staring at a corpse laid out for burial. Maybe he has laugh lines around his eyes and he’s dressed in his best suit and he looks like an interesting fellow. Who cares? He’s just lying there. How long will we sit and watch him before we get bored with it?
We can’t fall in love with characters who have no plot to move around in because without a plot there is no way for us to get to know the characters well enough to love them. Plot is the furnace that the character goes into. And it’s the blacksmith who pulls him from the furnace and pounds on him with a hammer.
After he walks through the flames and withstands the beatings, he comes out, hopefully, a strong-backed hero with an iron will. (Conceivably, he could end up as a puddle of molten metal, but if that happened he wouldn’t be the kind of character most readers care about.) So plot molds the character and the reader is vicariously molded—changed—as he suffers alongside the character.
The Character Fights Back
The plot moves, but mere movement is not enough. The plot can’t just move around in a circle like a washing machine agitating clothes. It moves in a line. The character goes from point A to point B. But the best plots don’t move in straight lines. They move in jerky lines.
Because the character fights back.
Just as much as plot shapes character, character shapes plot. Our character is more than a corpse awaiting burial. He’s more than a lump of metal waiting to be formed when the blacksmith pounds on him. He’s a person who fights back. And when he fights back, he changes his life story.
Something comes at the him and he dodges. He sets off in a new direction, his course, and even he himself, is changed by the plot. Something else comes at him and he punches it. He pushes back and sends the plot off in a new direction.
You might think of a plot as a line graph where the character starts at A1 and he ends at F6, but between those two points, there is a lot of zigging and zagging.
So are you writing a plot driven novel or a character driven novel? I think we need both. I think the best novels have really interesting characters moving around in compelling plots.
My dear Les, to whom I am most grateful, has sold the agency. And so I will no longer be able to say I’m with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency, as I have said so many times at so many conferences in the last five years. I will now be with the Apokedak Literary Agency.
What will change? Well . . . we’ll have a snazzy new banner for the website. And a name that may be harder to pronounce than Stobbe was. Other than that? Pretty much we’ll just keep plugging along.
I tell you. Never a dull day here at Apokedak Literary Agency.
Though I was kidding about a big, splashy bash of a launch party, do stay tuned for announcements. I’ll be going down memory lane and looking forward to new exciting endeavors in the coming weeks.
Well, I made it a few months into the new year, posting once a week. I was writing every day—one hour each morning before I moved on to answering email and editing and answering email and submitting and answering email and looking at contracts and royalty reports and answering email.
And then I just stopped doing the one hour a day of writing. Fell off the wagon. Took my fingers off the keyboard. Stopped opening my blog.
Derailed by a deadline
I had a big, hard deadline that I had to meet and I let everything else go and focused on that one job. I suppose I was facing what authors sometimes face—deadlines coming fast and suddenly they’re out of time.
Some authors post stuff like this on Facebook:
I have a big deadline looming. Going to hole up at our cabin (in the Poconos/on the beach/in some other fab place) for two weeks to get the job done.
That’s not my story.
I was holed up in my stuffy little bedroom with my laptop. I stopped sleeping like a normal person—pulled several all-nighters. I quit walking my poor dog. I may have stopped showering, even. (No one in this house will ever leak that kind of information, so you’ll never know for sure.)
I still failed to meet my deadline.
I had to extend it for one week (which turned into ten days), and I worked on nothing else but that one job (I probably took a couple of showers somewhere in the middle of all that. Not sure. It’s all a blur of pain and agony).
Writers sometimes miss deadlines
When you sign the contract the due date is so far away—you have six months or a year. Plenty of time. But then, for some strange reason, you look up one day and see you only have three months. And, oddly, you can’t make the plot work or you can’t make the character likable.
You worry and sweat.
You glue yourselves into your chairs and you squeeze out words. Only they all come out sounding wooden. Your pages are full of clunky, ugly sentences set in drab paragraphs.
And then, you suddenly have thirty days.
And then ten.
And finally, you are asking for an extension on the deadline.
The more extensions you get, the worse you feel and the harder the work is and the worse everything sounds to your overwrought, critical ears.
But the deadlines are good for us
Writers are often their own worst enemies. Many of us will keep tweaking a work to death until someone pries it away. Some us never think our WIPs are done simply because we can’t manage to make any of them perfect. This is why we need deadlines. They force us to finish a thing and move on.
I was working last month on a new Udemy course, on plotting novels that will keep the pages turning, and after I had edited the living daylights out of the audio, I almost threw it away. I was bleary eared and sleep deprived, and I was sure that Udemy would turn it down due to bad audio quality. I was about to tell them I couldn’t make it in May, and I’d have to give it another shot in July, but I decided to send one video through and see if they could give me any helpful advice. They wrote back to say the video and audio quality were exceptional.
They went on to say that the content was also exceptional. And the delivery was exceptional. Really? I didn’t even know it was possible to get an exceptional score from them. All I’d ever gotten on the previous two courses was an acceptable rating.
And here I thought the course needed to be trashed.
So . . . if you have worked on a project so long that you have come to hate it, pass it off to a reader and see what feedback you will get. It may not be as bad as you think it is.
I went ahead and published the Udemy course and it’s gotten some kind reviews. If you’d like to give it a look, I’m extending the Grand Opening sale through June (I figure since I miss all my other deadlines, I might as well miss this one, too and let the sale go for an extra month(1)A word (or a couple of hundred words) about Udemy prices: They often run sales so I never know what my course will be selling for, but if you wait you can eventually get almost any Udemy course for ten bucks. So I have a hard time selling my course for more than ten bucks at any time, simply because I know if you wait a few weeks, you’ll be able to get it on sale. Why do I list the courses for 185 dollars, then? 1) I think they’re worth that, considering that students have lifetime access to me in a private Facebook group. I charge a bundle for phone consults and Udemy students have me on retainer, kind of, and 2) I have to price that high to compete with the other writing courses. If you are a new to Udemy and you see my course at 30 bucks on sale for 10 and you the other guy’s course for 200 bucks on sale for 10, which one will you buy? So? That’s the story of the Udemy pricing system. It’s not a system I like a lot, however, I do like to make money, and Udemy pays my bills for me. So there you go. You can get the course for ten bucks by clicking on this link.
All those exceptional ratings notwithstanding, it’s not some great work of art—I need to disabuse you of that notion. It was hard for me to produce, but that doesn’t mean the course is brilliant. It was hard because I’m a lame video editor, that’s all. However, many people have told me it was just what they needed to fire them up and get them plotting their next novel or to help them fix a broken novel with which they’ve been struggling. So go check it out. You may want to take it for a spin.
And that’s partly what I’ve been up to lately. What about you? Are you all still writing? Have you stayed on track? Are you meeting your goals? We’re halfway through the year already–wow!–and I’d love to hear about how you’re doing.
A word (or a couple of hundred words) about Udemy prices: They often run sales so I never know what my course will be selling for, but if you wait you can eventually get almost any Udemy course for ten bucks. So I have a hard time selling my course for more than ten bucks at any time, simply because I know if you wait a few weeks, you’ll be able to get it on sale. Why do I list the courses for 185 dollars, then? 1) I think they’re worth that, considering that students have lifetime access to me in a private Facebook group. I charge a bundle for phone consults and Udemy students have me on retainer, kind of, and 2) I have to price that high to compete with the other writing courses. If you are a new to Udemy and you see my course at 30 bucks on sale for 10 and you the other guy’s course for 200 bucks on sale for 10, which one will you buy? So? That’s the story of the Udemy pricing system. It’s not a system I like a lot, however, I do like to make money, and Udemy pays my bills for me. So there you go
We have to move some. Get outside, breathe deeply, notice things—the flowerpots on your neighbor’s porch, the blue bird who sings in the bush on the corner, and the cat who stalks the bluebird. Notice the way the trees smell after the rain and the way the wind blows through the leaves. Listen to the cars honking, the trains clacking along, and the ice cream truck singing a merry song.
Don’t think about your work all.
Don’t think about writing when you are feeding the ducks on the pond or when you are watching a movie or when you are in church listening to a sermon. Get your WIP out of your mind. Be present in the moment. When you look at the ducks, think about the ducks.
And when you come home your WIP will still be there, waiting for you, safe and sound, right where you left it. And you’ll jump back into it feeling fresh. Don’t be surprised if an old ice-cream man drives down a shady street in the next chapter you write. Or a cat lounges on a porch. Or some ducks paddle across a pond.
Reward yourself for milestones, and don’t cheat. Don’t fail to take the rewards and don’t take them early–either course negates the whole thing.
So when you finish your daily writing give yourself something you really want. A piece of chocolate, a cup of coffee, a bowl of grapes. Maybe if you’ve written every day for a week, you can treat yourself to a trip to the second-hand store (do any of you love looking for some old, ridiculously expensive thing being sold for a few bucks?) or allow yourself to look for ten minutes at an online auction and to bid on one thing.
Choose something you really love and something you don’t get very often. Celebrate your milestones. If you aren’t getting paid for your work on your WIP, then pay yourself.
3) Days Off
Yep, I think there is great wisdom in taking days off and in taking weeks off and in taking entire months off and even, yes, I think there is wisdom in taking entire years off.
The Bible says that God told the Israelites to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. Farmers know there is a scientific reason for this—the nutrients in the soil are depleted if it is farmed nonstop, particularly if the crops are not rotated.
Take some time off, dear writer. Get out of your creative rut and the joy of writing will return.
4) Good Sleep
We need good sleep. I’ve read that if you don’t have enough sleep you are as dangerous behind the wheel as a drunk driver. Lack of sleep dulls our senses and also kills off brain cells. Our work is harder when we’re tired. And we lose some joy.
In his book, The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey talks about his own experiments with working many hours and working few hours and with getting much sleep and little sleep. When you work 90 hours a week, there is no significant amount of work done in 53 of those hours, apparently. So get your sleep and work 37 hours a week. You’ll be happier and you’ll be plenty productive.
5) Admire Your Work
The Bible says that God looked at what he had done and he saw that it was very good.
We should also look at our creations and see that they are very good.
Just don’t camp there. You do need to edit. Though God is perfect and can create a perfect first draft, even he edited.
After each creative day, God looked at what he had made and he saw that it was good. But then he made man and he said, “It is not good, . . . ”
Doing a bit of fake news there. Tweaking the quote. Here it is, more accurately reported:
God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
And God added a character to the story.
So what about when we create?
There is wisdom in plowing through a first draft without reading what you wrote the day before—without slowing down, without editing, without being tempted to give up because what you wrote is so putrid. There is some wisdom in that, indeed.
But there is also a time to look over what you’ve already written—to admire it, to enjoy it, to appreciate it. To give it a little tweak here and twitch there. A pinch and a poke and pat. And then to see that you’ve created something that—behold!—is very good.
There you go. Five ways to keep the joy. Five ways to stay motivated and fresh. What about you? Do you do any of these things? Have you found them effective? Do you have other ways to stay motivated?
Well, that’s not really true. These attacks started several years ago. But in the last six months, things have gotten worse. My email has constantly been spoofed. My websites have been shut down. My PayPal account was even hacked: I watched in real time as thieves broke in and changed my password and proceeded to buy things via my PayPal debit card.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I changed hosting companies. The last place was charging a lot for tech support and they were not able to help me get a handle on the hacking, so I migrated my files to yet another server—my third move in 18 months.
And immediately the new guys shut my sites down. I had a terrible infection, it seems. And they didn’t want me passing it to others on the shared platform.
I don’t want to bore you with all the details, but I do want to summarize my three weeks of pain because there are lessons here for writers, I think. I’d like to say that now that I’m at the end of my website hacking trials I have looked back and found some neat little object lessons, but that would be a lie. Because I’m not at the end. I’m still mired in the middle of this muck. I’m still fighting this thing.
These things, I should say, because it’s not been one problem. Turns out I had a myriad of problems.
Here’s the deal: I have been dragging articles and databases and files around to different hosting companies for over twenty years. I bought my first domain name in 1995. And over the years my files got chipped here and banged around there. I picked up some nasty bits of code. I had plenty of corrupted files and outdated plugins and old themes with gaping holes in them. And here I am in 2017 facing brute force attacks from bots that are much stronger than my old, tattered files and plugins. I am, even now, being constantly crawled by all kinds of malicious bots. And I can’t stop them. But I might as well get some mileage out of this miserable situation. So—yeehaw!—I got a post idea out of this mess. Take that, you evil bots and malicious lines of code.
So here’s what my last three weeks have looked like from my side of the tech-support tickets:
Me to tech support: I sure appreciate you. You guys are great. Can you please help me? I’m having a terrible problem. I’m willing to pay more if I need to. Can you please fix this problem I’m having. Did I mention that I think you guys are terrific?
Tech support to me: Do A gobbledygook gobbledygook gobbledygook, B gobbledygook gobbledygook gobbledygook, and C gobbledygook gobbledygook gobbledygook.
Me to tech support: OK, thanks. I’ll get right on that.
Me on Google and YouTube: Searching, searching, searching. (Definition of gobbledygook. Where can I find my gobbledygook file? How do I do gobbledygook?)
Me on Facebook: Complaining, complaining, complaining.
Me to friends in email and on the phone: Whining, whining, whining.
Me to God: I hate this. I want to die. I’m too old for this. I don’t have time for this. Just kill me now and put me out of my misery!
Me finally finding the answer in some obscure document that Bing unearths: Hallelujah! I’ve fixed it.
Twenty hours later the whole cycle of agony starts again.
Me to tech support: Help. It’s not fixed. Can you all help me? I’ve done A, B, and C and it’s still messed up. You guys and gals have been just terrific. Thanks so much for all your help.
Tech support to me: Let us research this further.
Tech support to me several hours later: It looks like gobbledygook gobbledygook gobbledygook. You need to do A, B, and C more and more gobbledygook.
Me: Thanks, I’ll get right on that.
Around and around we go. Day after day after day.
This has gone for weeks.
But, oh, how many lessons are there for writers in this three-week period of desolation and despair? Just off the top of my head, I came up with these:
Old, outdated material may need to be updated
As you’ve gone along through the years, you have possibly picked up some bad habits
When you get input from editors and crit partners and they all tell you gobbledygook, gobbledygook, and you fix all the stuff, one problem at a time, you may end up with a patchworked mess
When you get varying advice from different editors they may all be right—you may have more than one problem
When you think you’re done editing and you find out you have more problems and you need more edits, you may ask God to kill you and put you out of your misery, but there may be a better way to deal with your troubles
I don’t have room in this post to flesh them all out, obviously, and it’s possible that you’ll never see this post or any others from me. It’s possible that my site will go down for the count. But on the off chance it will still be here tomorrow, I’ll unpack the first item on the list.
When you drag around old manuscripts for years, they may be infected with outdated thoughts.
Old manuscripts are going to cause you some trouble going forward. You may have to delete some stuff, even. It might be faster to write new stuff than to try to save the old stuff and bring it up to date. I’m not just talking about adding in cell phones and computers to your contemporary books. Technology is not the only thing that has changed in 20 years. Worldviews have changed.
Look at one issue—homosexuality—for an example of how much worldviews have changed:
In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. Hilary supported him in that. It took her a while to come to support same-sex marriage, but she came around. In 2013 she was in favor.
In 2008 Presiden Obama said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”
In 2010 he said, ” . . . attitudes evolve, including mine.”
And in 2012, he said, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
So my point is not about gay marriage. My point is that we live in a time when the world is changing at a record pace. We are in a vastly different space technologically, scientifically, medically, socially, and morally than we were in twenty years ago. Even if the book you wrote 20 years ago was a fantasy, how people feel toward issues you raised may be very different now than they were when you wrote the book.
Case in point: My own novel, a fantasy, was rejected by an editor who said she would never publish a book with such a misogynistic world. She didn’t mention the slavery in my novel, and I suspect that is because she saw that the whole book was about a female who fought back against the slavery. Clearly, in my book, slavery was not okay. But my heroine never fought back against the “misogyny” the editor thought she saw. I didn’t see any misogyny for her to fight against. I didn’t think the women were mistreated in my novel. But we authors often can’t see offense where readers do.
Look at what happened to Veronic Roth. I won’t go into detail—I haven’t read the book and I don’t really want to comment on it. I don’t even want to link to any articles about it because I don’t want trolls coming over here to see what I have to say about the charge of racism against her. But you can Google “Carve the Mark racism” if you want to read up on it. Anyway, I think the fallout from this is that more and more publishers are hiring sensitivity readers now. Maybe the authors and the editor will miss racism or misogyny. So the publishers will employ special readers to ferret out these offenses.
And one more case to look at: last year an editor told a friend of mine that she had to pull from a biography the fact that the woman’s husband was a minister. My friend said something like, “I can’t just make the husband a doctor. This is a biography. The woman was married to a minister. She was a member of the church, and the church played a big part in her life.”
To which the editor responded, “Let me put it this way: you can’t have big G God in a book we publish.”
Allah is welcome in books today, but big G God is offensive. He’s seen as a misogynist bigot, I guess. He won’t get past the sensitivity readers.
So, you see? Things have changed in the past twenty years.
Maybe some of your feelings have changed. Some of you who now celebrate homosexual marriage, once believed that marriage was between one man and one woman. Or maybe you haven’t changed your feelings. Some of you may still believe that homosexual marriage is wrong. Either way, how we wrote and spoke about this issue twenty years ago is not how we write and speak about it today. It can’t be. We live in a different world.
Okay, there’s point number one, coming to you straight from the foxhole as I battle my hacking woes:
Old stuff that looks just fine to you may be full of bad coding. Others who are more sensitive will see microaggressions where you never knew they existed. You may have to employ tech support or you may have to just write new stuff. But in the end, what you said twenty years ago is not speaking to your audience today. Somehow you are going to have to bring yourself and your deeply held beliefs forward and speak about them in the local dialect—oh, wait. I’m mixing my metaphors. That “local dialect” deal is a lesson taken from my missionary parents.
OK, I’m done jawing. How about you? How many of you have changed your minds on some important issue in the last twenty years? And how many of you thought, twenty years ago, that we’d need new gender-neutral pronouns? Was that on anyone’s radar? I had no idea that people would one day think there were more than two genders.
When writing isn’t fun, what do you do? Do you keep on going? Or do you spend the night watching Netflix? The answer to that question will hinge on whether writing is your job or your hobby, I guess.
I love my job
Most days, I love my job. When I stop and think about what I’m allowed to do, I love my job. I get to work in children’s publishing, hang with writers, and travel around. I get to read good manuscripts. I can work in sweats sitting in my comfy chair—no Atlanta rush-hour traffic for me. But I can also leave home and work anywhere in the country any time I feel like it because my office is my laptop.
I love my job.
Except when I hate it.
What happens when writing isn’t fun?
Being an agent is like writing in many ways. Someone once said that many writers don’t really want to write. They want to “have written.” And I can relate to that. I don’t really want to edit and sell manuscripts. I want to “have sold.” I keep going, though, because I enjoy my job so much.
I’ve written before about not losing your joy in writing. Joy really needs to be your motivation. Because when you aren’t being paid, when you’re creating the product, when you’re slogging along alone in the dark, tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, there is no money and there is no fame. It’s got to be joy or nothing.
But, no matter how much I love my job, there comes the day (at least once a month) when I wake up tired to the bone and I check my email looking for a contract offer I’m expecting and instead of seeing that good news I am engulfed by the flames shooting out from five fires that need my immediate attention. And suddenly I’ve lost my joy.
Contracts can work to motivate
If you’re contracted, you authors will write whether you are feeling the joy or not. Money is a powerful motivation to get the job done. If I am on deadline for a freelance editing project, I get it done. If I have a contract I need to negotiate, I hop right on that. This is work I’m paid to do, and it’s work I’m obligated to do. So I do it whether I enjoy it or not. This works the same way for writers. If you have a magazine article or a book due by a certain date, you get it done, regardless of how much joy you’re feeling.
I often hear from contracted writers that there is no more joy in the writing. It used to be fun, but now it’s a job. Well, at least they have the money that will motivate them to write when the joy is lacking.
But if you have no contract? There are still joyless days. It’s not easy to get jazzed about your WIP every day. How can you keep up the enthusiasm when you have been trying to get an agent or a publisher for ten years and you’re getting nowhere?
Unleash your creative genius
I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of writers—those who write every day regardless of whether the work is sold or not, and those who write when they are under contract and diddle around when they aren’t.
The ones who write every day are often more creative, I think. They seem to take more chances and throw more words away. And when you give yourself permission to throw words away you are able to have more fun with the words.
Artists will often doodle on napkins, and sketch on brown paper grocery sacks. They are not necessarily keeping all their doodles. They’re just loosening up. Some writers work the same way. They do writing exercises like singers warm up with scales. They spend five minutes thinking up new ways to describe the items on their desk, or writing down words that sound nice to their ears.
Give yourself a break today (from your WIP, not from your writing!)
If you’re feeilng joyless this week, maybe you should try some fun writing. Why not take a day off from the drudgery of your WIP and write something different, something daring—no one else needs to ever see it. Write purple prose, experiment with a character who has a Russian accent, try your hand at poetry.
Go to the beach and write about the sun and the sand and the surf. And do it without using the letter “s” perhaps. Write a poem about a crab or a seashell or about the person who had the driftwood campfire and left an empty chili can behind.
Or put your WIP away and take out a new notebook and plan out a speech that you’ll give to a women’s group or a classroom full of kids when your book comes out.
Or start a new blog.
Maybe if you do something different this will help you remember why you love to write.
What about you? What do you do to get the joy back on the days when writing isn’t fun?