R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
Lesson 8. Final Thoughts
Well, here we are…our last class together. I’m going to miss this, seeing all your bright-eyed faces watching me with such avid interest—Coraline, I know you’re new here, but I don’t allow texting during class. Turn it off, please. Thank you.
When I began this series, what got me excited about doing it was having a forum in which to express my feelings on the less-than-helpful advice I’ve received over the years (what was I saying just a few weeks ago on how it’s always easier to criticize than praise?), but now that we’ve come down to the end of it, I find I do have some tips of my own I’d like to share. Heck, if they don’t work for you, feel free to include them on your own future symposium of bad writing advice. Even if they’re only useful as examples of what NOT to do, that’s still useful, right?
WRITING TIP #1: REMEMBER TO HAVE FUN. Creating a book is a job and I don’t care where you work, there are parts of every job that just suck the life out of you. In this job, for me anyway, editing is tedious, Beta-reading is oftentimes painful, and publishing is just plain nerve-wracking, but writing is fun. I love to write. I especially love it when I fall into that world and it opens up around me and I feel like I’m just sitting there, barely aware of what my hands are doing, watching the story as it comes pouring out of me. Those are amazing moments and I think the scenes they produce stand out from the rest of the book, whereas the scenes I just push through, writing just to get them written, working and over-working them until I can barely stand to look at them…well, those are pretty obvious too.
It seems self-evident to say you have to want to do this job, but I’m going to say it anyway. You have to want to tell a story. You have to want to get to know your characters. You have to want what they want as much as they want it. The heroes, the villains, everyone. You have to feel all of their emotions, because if you don’t, the reader won’t. It’s just that simple. It’s also really hard to do if you’re not having fun.
So keep it fun. Don’t stop inspiring yourself just because you already know what the book is about. Watch movies that put you in the mood to write a certain scene. Make a soundtrack for your book and listen to it while you work; one of my Betas has a playlist for each of her characters. If you’re me, go to a museum because you’re a huge nerd and get up close and personal with the history of human creativity. One of my sisters begins every working day by posting a short gallery of images she collected off the interwebz to inspire her for writing that immediate scene. My father taking tapping into the divine spirit literally and hypes himself up by playing hymns on the organ. The only wrong way to do it is by making it a chore.
WRITING TIP #2: DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE BRANDING. At the first writers’ convention I attended, my sister bought a book on how to successfully self-publish your book. The author promised that by following his/her/its ten simple rules, any writer could increase sales and build a solid fanbase in just thirty days. That’s a helluva lofty promise for any book to make, especially one that essentially looked like one of those you see standing in the cashier’s line at the grocery store…you know, the ones advertising 50 Fun Picnic Foods or 25 Easy Crockpot Recipes. I would show you the actual book, but we threw it away and the reason we threw it away is because it was garbage.
Those ten simple rules the author was talking about were all about the marketing. The thirty-day schedule was also all about the marketing. It was like, Day One, make a Facebook account and join at least ten groups for writers. At least once a day, make a Facebook post about your book. Day Three, make a blog and post every day about your book. Day Six, make a Twitter account. Every hour, tweet about your book. Day Ten, make an Instagram account. At least twice a day, post pictures of things that inspire you when you write.
You know what AT NO POINT the book told you to do? Write a book. No, it was ALL about telling other people you were working on your book. Seriously, by the end of those thirty days, the aspiring writer had ten social media forums to update and was a member of around a hundred groups, forums or media movements. There was no time to write a book. You know what happens when you follow that kind of advice? You get this:
All this guy does is retweet tweets from people who tweet about working on their novel. And it’s funny, I guess. Not snide or mean-spirited or bullying at all. Just funny. Apparently, he’s put a bunch of these tweets together into a novel and is selling it. Hilarious. It’s being called an “epically brilliant work by a great American artist and author.” By buzzfeed, an entertainment site that definitely knows the difference between comedy and ridicule. And the funniest thing of all is that these people are doing exactly what they were told to do by pretty much everyone—market themselves, get awareness out, make their book a brand and push it.
Writing and especially self-publishing a book is a job like any other, and like any other job, you have to think about your target consumer. However, having ten thousand followers does not automatically equal ten thousand sales on publication day. You don’t get fans by asking for them, and you sure don’t get them by ringing their metaphorical doorbell thirty times a day to remind them you exist. Bottom line, there is no ten-step, thirty-day secret to success. Write a book. By all means, market it where appropriate and when you have something to say, but write the book first and focus your energy on telling the best story you can. I can’t promise you a million readers will ultimately find you, because Life is not owned and operated by the Disney corporation (yet), but if you tell a good story, the fans who do find you will do your marketing for you. One heartfelt recommendation is worth a million “I’m working on my book” tweets.
WRITING TIP #3: BETA-TEST YOUR BOOKS. Let’s face it. The creator of any work is hardly the best judge of that work. My mother’s best friend thought she was an amazing cook and insisted on serving us horrible food anytime we were over at her house. My brother thought identity theft was the perfect crime and still thinks so, in spite of fifteen years to think about it in a small, dark, quiet room. The last time I was visiting cousins, some random vaguely-related-to-me kid drew a picture of me that everyone seemed to think was SO amazing!
Most of us humans have this thing called an ego that tells us how great we are, and it seems to me that us writers have a slightly bigger, louder and more obnoxious ego than most humans. You kind of have to, I think, to create something out of your own head and not only decide other people are going to think it’s interesting enough to look at, but actually pay money for the privilege. Yeah, that takes some ego, all right, but the thing about ego is, its 100% committed to making you think your book is brilliant and anyone who isn’t as impressed by your talent as the ego thinks he or she ought to be is either wrong, ignorant, or jealous, and that attitude is not doing you any favors. If you want an honest opinion of your work, you need to remove your ego from the equation, and the easiest way to do that is to let other people read it.
People will Beta-test their books in different ways, and whatever works for you is the way you should do it. The way I do it is to print out a copy of my book and go meet up with my Beta-readers and take turns reading it out loud, with frequent stops to point out errors or ask questions like, “Did you mean to use this word?” or “Didn’t they already have this conversation two chapters ago?” or “Jesus Christ, R. Lee, really?!”
Having the book in a different format, ie, from the computer screen to a printed page, helps me see a lot of problems my eye was just skimming over, and having other eyes on it helps me catch even more. However, more than just technical errors, having a Beta-read helps you catch potential flaws within the story itself, and let me tell you, you ignore criticism at your peril. Your ego may tell you you’ve written the world’s greatest anti-hero, a dangerous and sarcastic bad boy with an acerbic wit and devil-may-care attitude, but if eight of your ten Betas tell you he’s an immature asshole, believe me, you want to know BEFORE you publish, because your readers will think the same thing, only they’ll also be leaving one-star reviews.
People will tell you never to let your friends or family members be your Betas, and at one time, I would have agreed. I can’t really do that anymore, since two of my sisters and now my father are also joining my Betas on reading days, and I consider all of my Betas friends. What you shouldn’t do is have Betas who are more concerned about your feelings than your writing. All my Betas are writers and they all understand that the book matters more than the ego. They are not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work and they can be brutal about it if they have to be. And that’s good, because sooner or later, they’ll have to be.
WRITING TIP #4: ALWAYS MAKE THE NEXT ONE BETTER.
My mother once told me a story which I will now attempt to relate to you. I don’t know where she got it from, although I have a vague notion it did not originate with her, so if the story rings your bells and you can tell me where it’s from, please do so, so I can give proper credit.
Ahem. The Writer and the Well.
There was once a man who wished to be a writer, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Fortunately, he knew of a hermit who lived atop a mountain, where he guarded a magic well whose water supposedly held wish-granting properties. Now, it wasn’t an easy climb by any stretch of the imagination, what with the steep, icy slopes and the falling rocks and, I don’t know, mountain badgers, so there were very few people who actually made the attempt or at least, few who lived to tell about it, but the man really, really, really wanted to be a writer, so one day, he packed a lunch and some badger repellant and headed up the mountain.
It was a long climb, full of danger and reward and adventures that belong in another story, but at the end of it, the man reached the summit and there was the hermit. The man said, “I want to be a writer, but I don’t know what to write about.”
The hermit dipped a silver ladle into the well and as soon as the man drank, his head was so full of story ideas, he could barely hold it up. With great excitement, he scrambled down the mountain and returned home, but no matter how vivid the scenes played out in his head, none of the words he could think of could capture the essence of the story he wanted to tell. So after several fruitless days and sleepless nights spent staring at a blank piece of paper, he set off again for the mountain.
It was another difficult climb, even longer, steepier, icier and badgerier, but the man was determined and ultimately staggered up and dropped at the hermit’s feet. “I want to be a writer,” he gasped, “but I don’t have the words.”
The hermit dipped a gold ladle into the well and bent to let the poor drink, and as soon as he had, the words were there. Down, down, down he raced, tumbling more than climbing, anxious to get writing. And write he did! Page after page flew from his pen and scattered around the room in his haste just to get all those stopped-up stories out of his head and onto paper. As each one was finished, he quickly bound them together and put them out into the world to be read, eager to get on to the next book.
This went on for several years and the man wrote many books. One day, on a trip to buy more ink and paper, he happened to overhear two people discussing his books and, because all writers are enormously egomaniacal and insecure, he listened in. To his utter horror, the readers expressed deep disappointment, not necessarily with the stories, which were, as they said, “interesting,” and not exactly with the writing, which, as they said, “showed talent,” but because the books themselves were riddled with spelling mistakes, continuity slips, dangling sub-plots, and formatting errors. In short, his stories were great and his writing okay, but his books were not worth the headache of trying to read them.
‘What’s wrong with those people?’ the man wondered to himself later that night, sobbing in the bottom of his shower with a tub of ice cream and all his clothes on, as one does. ‘Why do they have to analyze everything? Why can’t they just appreciate a beautiful story? I worked hard on those books! Doesn’t that matter to them at all? Ungrateful readers! What do they want from me?’
A few more years passed, with the man defiantly writing “his way,” determined not to let the opinions of a few “overly-critical malcontents who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag” alter his opinion of himself or his talent. However, the more books he offered up for sale at the local shop, the more unavoidably obvious it became that they weren’t selling very well. Discouraged, he pored over his old manuscripts, eating way too much ice cream and taking way too many showers with his clothes on, unable to understand why a few typos and Point-of-View shifts should have such a disastrous effect upon an amazing book.
So at last in despair, he set off for the mountain. He climbed through storms and avalanches and howling packs of badgers, crawling onto the summit with bloodied fingers and icicles clacking in the beard he hadn’t had when he’d begun his journey. “They don’t like me,” he moaned. “They don’t understand me. They don’t appreciate me.”
“Look, pal,” said the hermit. Hermits are not renowned for sympathy. “I’m the magical guardian of a wishing well, not your personal agony aunt. Just tell me what you want. Do you want them to like you? Do you want them to understand you? Do you want them to appreciate you? What?”
The man thought, shivering in the mountain wind.
“No,” he said. “I want…to be a better writer.”
Hearing this, the hermit put aside her ladles and dipped her hands into the well. She bent and let the man drink from her cupped hands, and when he had done so, he turned and climbed back down the mountain and returned to his home and picked up his latest manuscript and edited it. It took a long time. When it wasn’t tedious, it was painful. It sucked all the joy the story had ever brought him out of his heart and replaced with the brutality that made it possible to cut scenes he’d worked on for days or characters he truly cared for. It made him think for the first time of what was necessary instead of just what was fun. It made him sad. It made him tired. It made him humble. It made him learn. It made him grow. It made him better.
The fact that my mother told me stories like this probably goes a long way toward explaining why I became a writer.
Anyway, as a footnote to this story, my mother would always end by telling me that a book is never finished, only abandoned. The truth of this is apparent whenever I reread my previous books, but I would never try to ‘fix’ them. They stand as mile-markers along my own personal road of progress and I’m happy with the distance I’ve achieved. However, with every new book I start working on, the thought is always there in the back of my mind to go further and I think that’s okay. As a human, I believe we should always be learning, open to new ideas and new experiences. We should never think that we’re ‘done’ with Life, never completely comfortable with our place in it. We should always be trying to improve ourselves and the world around us. So it is with writing, even with writing the sorts of books I write; you should always be excited to begin, willing to get hurt and resolved to see it through, and you should always want the next one to be better.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the end. I’d like to thank you all for joining me on this simple eight-week symposium and I hope you all learned something, even if what you learned is just that I’m not a very good teacher. If there’s one final tip I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: You don’t learn writing by reading articles about it.
*sigh* Or texting about it, Coraline.
…Coraline? Why are you taking off your glasses? And your huge rubbery nose? What the—? You’re not Coraline! You’re Caroline! You were Caroline the whole time!