Working with Editors

So you’ve sold your book to a publisher. Maybe your agent went toe-to-toe with a greedy editor and convinced them to give you your damn money. Maybe you had to do the negotiations yourself–either way, you’ve experienced the horror of professional writing now. You’ve come face to face with the most existentially terrifying fact of the writer’s life:

Publishers want to make money off books. If they don’t think your book can make money, you’re dead to them.

Does it matter if your book is a brilliant masterpiece? Not if they can’t sell a thousand copies. Does it matter you put years of your life and your entire soul into it? They literally don’t care.

Maybe they want you to make massive changes to your book, changes you don’t agree with. Maybe their idea of how to market the book is repugnant to you–how dare they put out a press release saying your real life alien experience is a work of science fiction?

But somehow, you convinced them to publish something you wrote. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re marching into the lion’s den. But here’s the secret to being professional as a professional writer: starting today, you need to completely flip your attitude.

Your editor is your friend.

You’re on the same team.

That’s the only way this relationship is going to work. And I guarantee you, it’s what your editor wants.

You have good reason to trust them and to treat them like a coworker. They’ve already decided they like your book. They think you have potential.

How many people in your writing life feel that way? You can’t afford to push them away.

Similarly, they think your book can be a success. Maybe they’re not thinking “best-seller”. Maybe they’re thinking mid-list. But you know what? It’s their job to figure that out, along with a lot of other things. If they’re competent, they’ll know what the market is looking for, much better than you do. If they’re driven, they’ll want your book to reach its full potential, and for you to see the success your talent deserves.

They want to make money from your book. Absolutely. So do you, right? I’m not going to assume, here, that you wrote your book just to get rich. You’re not that dumb. But a little extra money in your pocket makes it that much easier to write your next book. And the editor knows that if your book makes money, the publisher will be interested in a sequel or a follow-up.

The editor is on your side. Regardless of how nasty the negotiations on your advance got. Do they want you to make major changes to the book? It may need those changes. Those changes may make it stronger. It’s always valuable to have a second pair of eyes look at a book, and see where it succeeds, and where it fails. Please, please do yourself a favor. Set aside your hurt feelings and your passionate defenses of your book. Listen to what the editor says with a clear mind and an open heart. They’re too busy to listen to your explanations, your defense mechanisms, your evasions. Criticism is not contempt, and you need to get ready to hear the harsh truth. You need to be ready to accept it at face value.

The editor is your friend.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re always right.

Editors are people, and therefore fallible. It’s possible you have a degree in marketing. Most likely your editor has a degree in English. If they want to market your book to the wrong demographic or with ad copy that is literally offensive to you, you can tell them that. You can discuss it with them, and if you have a strong argument, they’ll probably agree with you.

You are not legally required to make the changes to your book that they’ve requested, either. If there’s something they want to cut, but you think the book needs it, by all means fight for it. Although… maybe use a light hand, here. If the editor asks you to cut a third of your book, consider the fact that maybe you overwrote. It happens. But if they want to cut a character who you think is the secret heart of the story? Be ready to defend your decision. But stick to your guns.

It’s possible to completely wreck your own book deal by being too antagonistic toward your editor. It takes some work–most editors have pretty thick skin. But if you refuse to even listen to what they have to say, if you demand more money after you’ve already signed a contract, if you insult them in the press, well… say you worked in an office. I don’t know, selling insurance or something. Say you had a co-worker who did all those things to you. Say you just had a co-worker who spent all day telling you how awful the insurance industry is, or how everyone in your office is talentless and you can’t figure out how they got hired. How long would you keep that job? Would you get promoted?

I have heard stories of some authors who were moderately successful, but were such a pain to work with that they didn’t get a second book deal. It’s pretty rare, but it happens. Now, if you just wrote the next Harry Potter and you’re selling a million copies a year, well, feel free to be a diva. (Don’t, actually. Success doesn’t justify your being a jerk. It just means other people can’t call you on it). But if you see a long climb ahead, if you imagine a career spanning decades, with each book a slow burn toward royalties, well…

You’ll need all the friends you can get. The second the ink is dry on your contract, do yourself a favor and call your editor. Tell them how excited you are to be working with them. Say you really want to hear their ideas about how your book can be made stronger and a better fit for the market.

In the long run, you will be very glad you did.

Unconventional Devices: Direct Address

Any story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. There’s an unspoken agreement you make when you pick up a book–the author is going to tell you a story, maybe even try to make a point, and they know you’re listening and (hopefully) paying attention. That’s a lot to ask from a reader, and sometimes we need to trick you into compliance. Writers use any number of devices to keep this relationship tacit. We distance ourselves from the reader by sticking to a character’s viewpoint (these are the characters words, not mine, dear reader) or by dramatizing events rather than editorializing on them. This distancing, this careful construction of an invisible wall between the two parties, is central to the work of writing.

Yet sometimes we break that wall. The writer directly addresses the reader–either to clarify a point or simply to foreground the work of narration. It can be used for emphasis–the classic example being: “Reader, I married him.” It’s a hammer in the writer’s tool box, and not a very subtle one. Writers differ on their opinion as to its utility. Fashions in writing change, and in recent decades direct address has become a little sinful, a little louche. Writers like Vonnegut and Tom Robbins used it to great effect back in the 60s and 70s–it was practically Vonnegut’s trademark–but as with many things from those decades, it’s now seen as quaint and overly precious.

Funnily enough, it’s made a resurgence in television, with the main characters of House of Cards and Mr. Robot actually treating the viewer as a confidante. It’s clear that the showrunners/writers/director of the show are speaking directly to us here, through the words of their characters. The device has appeared in many movies made since the turn of the century as well–and let us never forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

So if our screenwriting colleagues occasionally dabble in direct adress, will we see a resurgence of it in fiction? It’s in the nature of fashions to change.

Should you, as a writer, use direct address? As is true with employing any device, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Direct address can create that old chestnut “immediacy”, of course. It yanks the reader right onto the page and forces them to acknowledge their half of the literary contract. It allows an author to deliver plot and setting information in a compact, economical form as well, and can highlight your themes. Hell, it puts a neon sign around your theme with a big arrow that might as well say “moral of the story here, get it while the take is hot.”

Which may be the best argument against using it. Do you really want your theme stated so baldly on the page? Many themes and, yes, morals are best viewed through a thin veil of story. Direct address always runs the risk of coming across as overly chummy, didactic, even downright preachy (a true cardinal sin of writing).

You may be better off distancing yourself from your narrative, if only a little. Consider the effect you want to achieve. Are you going for polemic, are you a firebrand who needs to thump a pulpit? Or do you want a dreamier feel to your story? For anyone writing fantasy (of any flavor) direct address can be dangerous. It can shatter the illusion of a secondary world, make it look false and brittle. And for horror stories it’s downright lethal. Horror is all about seductive immersion, about luring the reader into a quiet corner and then springing nightmares on them. Direct address can kill mood and tone faster than anything.

It’s always been the opinion of this writer that writing is about choices made thoughtfully and with care. I won’t tell you not to use direct address, reader. I just hope you’ll use it with care.

Questions People Ask Writers

What are you working on?

Is it finished? When can we see it?

Do you have a day job?

Are you published?

But seriously, what do you do for money?

Are you also looking for a real job?

Is your book any good?

How long did it take you to write it?

Are you published? No?

What do you do for health insurance?

Does your spouse/partner/parent support you?

Are you published? Yes?

What have you published? Anything we would’ve heard of?

Is it a best seller yet?

Are you famous?

Are you rich?

Can I have some money?

My cousin wrote a cookbook, can you help him publish it?

Why won’t you help my cousin? He’s very nice.

If I tell you my life story, will you write the screenplay?

Can we split the money?

Why don’t you write screenplays? Isn’t the money better?

What do you write?

No, I mean, what kind of novel?

No, I’m asking what genre?

No, like, there are only three genres, right?

You write science fiction? So you’re a nerd?

You write fantasy? So are you a flake?

You write horror? Are you a closet psychopath?

Just kidding. But seriously, you have a sick mind, right?

Would I like your book?

Can I have a free copy?

Oh, you’re a writer?

Anything I would have heard of?

Who are your influences?

No, I mean, what writers did you copy?

No, seriously, whose work did you model it after?

Where do you get your ideas?

You’re a writer? Really?

Oh, you’re successful! So when does the movie come out?

You’re a writer? Would I know your name?

Can you spell it? No, I’m not going to write it down. I’ll remember.

They tell me you’re a writer?

Are you any good?

What’s your day job?

Writing When You Just Can’t

Note: I was sick as a dog this week, so this one is going to be pretty quick. It’s also more practical than my usual entry. Please note as well that there will be no update next week, due to the imminent holiday. Thanks.

There are days when you just can’t write a word.

Days where you sit down in a comfy spot, a nice beverage by your elbow, when the whole world is quiet and expectant and you look at that cursor blinking on your screen and your soul just screams and shoots off into another dimension because you realize you will not be writing one word today.

Worse, there are the days when you can write lots and lots of words, but the more you write the more you realize that it isn’t working, that nothing’s coming together and your sentences aren’t even coherent. As if your brain and the English language have conspired to thwart you.

There are days when you’re too tired to give it your all, and days when you’re sick and your brain isn’t functioning and days when every telemarketer in the world finds your number on their master list. It happens. Truth be told, it happens way too often.

It’s very easy on such days to just climb back under the covers for a “nap”, or run out to the store because you know you need more turmeric, or just give up and stare in the bathroom mirror until you can see your stubble growing. It’s understandable, it’s relatable to face these challenges and just… give up.

Or.

Or you can make a decision. You can say these words out loud: “Nothing I write today matters.” Then… keep writing. You can promise yourself to delete it all when you’re done (but don’t actually do that). You can announce to your cat, should you have a cat, that today you’re going on a side quest. A look of mischievous glee should come into your eye at this moment, for maximum effect. It’s optional, but I recommend rubbing your hands together vigorously while quietly cackling. Then–get to it.

Put aside your big project. Ignore the looming deadline, forget all your commitments. Today is already a wasted day! Start writing something new. Write something random. Or take a stab at that thing you’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how. You’ve given yourself permission to fail. It doesn’t matter–nothing matters! Do you see how liberating this is?

Write poetry in an invented language. Invent a language. Write your main character’s shopping list (and no, they don’t need turmeric. What do they actually want?). Write word problems for children living in a mirror dimension where 2+2 can never equal 4. Write a character sketch for your favorite Star Wars character, in loving detail. In incredibly filthy, nasty, sexy detail. Write your deepest darkest secret in the plainest words possible, with no excuses and no regrets. Write your fondest desire and then write ten thousand words about why you deserve it.

Write that story you could never write because your mom might see it. Write that story your dad always wanted to read, but you didn’t get a chance to finish before he died. Write a letter to somebody you really miss, somebody who doesn’t want to hear it (don’t actually send it to them). Write what you’re afraid of. Write what makes you saddest.

It doesn’t matter.

You’re going to delete it all.

It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to make sense. This is the literary equivalent of finger painting.

When you’re done, when you need to stop (you probably won’t want to), then stop. Don’t look at what you’ve done. Don’t spend hours reading it over and over and wondering what you were thinking (the temptation to do this may be strong; resist). Then get ready to delete everything.

Instead, save it to a document with a completely nondescript name. Like “MyJournal.docx” or “taxworksheet1997.txt”. Tuck it into a deep, deep part of your hard drive where nobody is going to go snooping. Forget it’s there.

Tomorrow you get back to work, no ifs ands or buts. Tomorrow the real world’s strictures will be strictly enforced. Don’t tell anybody you played hooky. Keep your face serious and don’t make a lot of unnecessary eye contact, lest someone ask you how your day was. Pretend this never happened.

Then… every once in a while, a very infrequent once in a while, open that file back up and just sort of skim the contents. Wince. Snort in derision. Look around furtively to make sure nobody’s reading over your shoulder.

You may notice that out of every hundred pages of just raw primal screaming, there’s a good sentence here or there. An idea that, you know, doesn’t work at all, but which could be reworked into something maybe sort of helpful. You might find that writing all that nasty, nasty stuff has helped loosen you up a little, made you think more about what excites a reader. Who knows? Maybe you find nothing at all of use anywhere in “instructionsforcatsitter.version9.6.doc” except a reminder. A reminder that when the writing actually works, when you’re on your game, you’re actually pretty good.

There are days when you can’t write. Where it feels impossible to go on with what you’ve been doing.

Let these days be little gifts.

Finding the Heart of a Story

It’s hard enough just putting a story together. Keeping track of all the details, making sure it all makes sense. There is an endless series of decisions that have to be made before the story comes together, before it feels like it’s done. But there’s one question a lot of writers forget to ask along the way.

Why are you writing this?

Why must this particular story be told?

Just a relation of events, a list of “this happened, then the next thing happened, then one more thing happened” is never enough to justify the work that goes into a project. You need to find the heart of the story. The thing that gives it life. The reason it exists in the first place.

A story without a heart is boring. It may be readable, but it won’t be memorable. You need to find the heart, and everything in your story has to serve the heart. It’s a tall order, but it’s absolutely crucial to good writing.

The heart doesn’t have to be that complicated. A really interesting setting can be enough. A character dynamic you haven’t seen used before. Even just some witty dialogue. It should be something fresh, though, something altogether new or at least a fascinating new take on an old idea. It should be the kind of thing you loved about stories when you first started reading them. The first purpose of a story is to entertain the reader, and if the story’s heart is big and strong enough, you can be guaranteed to be successful at that level.

But say you want to go deeper. More meaningful. Locating the heart of the story is vital to making something great. This is where themes really come into play. A theme that shapes an entire story, that completely informs it, is a great heart. Theme can be tricky, though. Some writers like to just start composing, in the hope of finding an emergent theme. That’s a dicey game, of course. What if the theme never shows itself? You can write an entire novel and realize it has nothing to say. Other writers like to start with a theme, and then build a story around it. It’s a great strategy but it carries its own risks–if you make your theme too obvious, you may come off as preachy, or even guilty of special pleading.

Risks are inherent in all writing, though. The heart of the story, the why of the story, is always a leap of faith. You hope you present your meaning in a way that is comprehensible and–more importantly–resonant. You have to close your eyes and just pray that your story strikes home. It will not always be successful. There will always be people who don’t get you–or choose not to. Yet this is exactly why we write, isn’t it? The hope that someone, at least one reader, will feel the heart of your story beating, and be charmed by it, or alarmed, or simply compelled to hold it close. Finding the heart of your story is a desperate attempt to connect. And sometimes, it really works.

Second Person and Present Tense: Why and Why Not

I risk coming off like a grumpy old man in this post, which is something I’ll just have to live with. It’s my assertion, though, that second person viewpoint and the present tense are overused in modern writing, and that outside of certain usages they should be shunned.

Let’s start with second person, that is, when a writer addresses the protagonist of their story as “you” as if they were telling this character their own story. This is something you almost never used to see. I remember an English teacher I had in high school telling me there was no such thing as second person–that it had never actually been done (he was wrong, of course, but it was so rare back then I didn’t know how to contradict him). You see it more and more these days and while I think there is a place for it, it’s almost never used correctly.

If the narrator is describing recent events to someone with amnesia, perhaps, or describing events that have been foretold but have not yet occurred, then second person might be justified. The main and most important use of second person is in interactive stories–choose-your-own-adventures, interactive fiction games, and the like. I used it myself in my experiment to write a novel on Twitter, which allowed readers to pick each plot development by poll.

Otherwise, second person always comes off as affected, as pretentious, and it distances the reader from the writer in a highly artificial way. Which is not to say that’s always bad! Distancing is a valuable technique, for some stories. If you’re going to use it, though, you should have a very good reason–and the fact that it’s trendy, or cool, is not a good reason.

(Just as a tangent here I’ll say I’m not crazy about first person, either–I like limited omniscience in my narrators, and the freedom that provides to expand a story beyond a narrow range of perceptions. But there are plenty of excellent reasons to use first person and it never really bothers me when I pick up a book with a strong protagonist’s voice).

Writing narrative fiction in the present tense isn’t quite as jarring, but I feel it’s getting overused as well and it comes with its own raft of problems. Present tense suggests immediately to the reader that the story hasn’t been finalized, that the events described are still evolving, which means they can’t be predicted–that the reader who is coming along for this ride cannot be guaranteed a coherent or even complete story. It’s a subtle psychological effect and one that needs to be considered carefully.

The writer who employs the past tense when telling a story is making a compact with the reader. It says that the events that are about to unfold, having already happened, can be examined thoughtfully and with a certain authority. Present tense throws that away. Again, there could be good story reasons to do so. Yet drawing on past tense puts your story in a comfortable and established mold that readers have come to accept as the standard for storytelling. It helps speed along immersion and makes the reader feel like they’re in safe hands. You need a good reason to eschew that comfort level, and more often than not I find present tense narratives lacking in justification.

The main explanation for why people use second person or present tense, I am told, is immediacy. The idea is that a story being told directly to the reader–and only the reader–or one told as it is literally happening is better at pulling the reader in, in making them feel like they’re being dragged along on a breathless adventure. I can see the logic in this argument, but I find it rarely works that way. Typically when a writer starts out in present tense, my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes. When they start in the second person I frown and wonder why they made such an odd choice. But even this dubiety doesn’t last. Typically I pay attention to a story’s tense and viewpoint for the first couple of pages–then learn to ignore it, to put it aside and focus on the plot and characters instead. Whatever immediacy the writer has laid claim to disappears as I sink into the work. Writing is always about choices, and when the writer chooses one of these pretentious techniques it only ever puts me off… for a little while. It’s usually not worth it.

It’s possible I’m missing something here, and I’d be happy to hear from other writers who find second person and present tense useful in their writing. But for myself, I’m going to use them sparingly, and only when I can point to an excellent, organic reason for them to be there.

Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.