Reading, 'Riting, and Ramblingshttps://blog.tkmarnell.comT. K. Marnell's BlogTue, 30 May 2017 10:58:45 +0000Surprising Similarities between Sewing and Writing is crazy, and I'm not sure it will ever be sane again. Sweetie is zipping between Oregon and Indiana to settle his father's estate, I'm hyperventilating over manuscript requests from literary agents, and the two of us are having big talks about marriage and houses.

Only a few months ago, all of these things were far away concerns for our future "adult" selves to worry about. Our parents were supposed to live for two or three more decades. We didn't expect to buy a home until our mid-thirties, at least. And now that my vague sparkly dreams of publishing are slowly solidifying into a conceivable reality, I'm terrified.

I feel like the minute I turned twenty-nine, the fates checked the calendar and said, "Whoops! You're about ten years overdue for your coming-of-age trials. Here, do all of these now and become a grown-up."

And so this blog post has been sitting in my drafts since March 26, ten days before our nicely ordered world collapsed like a Jenga tower. Over the past month I could write "academic" posts about storytelling and literary criticism, but I couldn't bring myself to post about sewing pretty dresses while Sweetie was ordering death certificates. Now the worst of it is behind us, Sweetie is home (albeit temporarily), and it's a good day to talk about pretty dresses.

The Dresses

I finally did it—I sewed a qipao! After the satin disaster, I tried again with a mildly stretchy linen/rayon blend for the fashion fabric, with poly/cotton shirting for the lining. I tied the frog closures myself from some black nylon cord with the immeasurable aid of YouTube videos.

Cheongsam - Front

Cheongsam - Side

Cheongsam - Top

Then over Easter weekend I made myself a faux-wrap dress out of a colorful Liverpool double knit fabric. The fabric is non-reorderable, which makes me sad—someone needs to set up an affordable print-on-demand service for fabrics.

Wrap Dress - Front

Wrap Dress - Side

Wrap Dress - Back

Sewing and Writing

Sewing and writing seem like very different creative endeavors, but as I learned more about dressmaking I found many surprising similarities.

1. The actual sewing/writing is not the hard part.

When people who don't sew think about sewing, they think about, well, sewing. The physical labor of stitching cloth together. It's so-called "women's work," a mindless chore or frivolous hobby that supposedly requires little thought or skill.

But the physical labor of sewing is only the last and easiest step of the process. The real work is in all the things that must be done before a needle goes anywhere near the fabric. Measuring bodies, calculating pattern pieces, planning out garment construction. Studying the properties of different fabrics, thinking in three dimensions, considering how people move and bend. Tracing, cutting, pinning, basting, fitting (every step of the way!), and making adjustments.

Similarly, when people think about writing, they think about writing. They imagine writing a book is a simple matter of sitting down to type 80,000 words. Even writers believe it. We tell each other that the secret to writing great novels is "butt glue." Just glue your butt to your office chair, turn off your brain, and hammer out 1,000 words a day, and brilliant stories will magically craft themselves.

In reality, hammering out the words is the fun and easy part of writing. Just like in sewing, the hardest and most important part of writing is thinking. Developing characters, laying out plots, weaving in settings. Studying the tropes of genres, considering how people read, designing scenes to make readers feel wonderful and terrible things. Outlining, drafting, and revising, revising, revising.

Impatient people might be tempted to skip all that because it's too bothersome. They say outlining "sucks the joy out of writing," and revising "dilutes the artist's natural voice," and other such excuses that all boil down to, "I just want to skip to the fun part."

This is like an impatient new sewist cutting into her fabric with no pattern and no plan, because she doesn't want to fuss with measuring tape and "math makes her head hurt." Well, she might get the project done, but she can't expect it to be couture.

2. When you first start sewing/writing, you'll discover many things you didn't know you didn't know.

Did you know that sleeves were invented by Satan himself? I didn't until I attempted to draft one.

I'd never given a thought to sleeves until I wanted to add them to the first dress I designed. Vaguely, I must have thought they were merely tubes of fabric. They are not. They are these crazy things.

Basic Sleeve Pattern

Over my lifetime, I've worn countless sleeves. I pride myself on having a reasonably good eye for fashion, and I can tell a pretty sleeve from an ugly one. But until I drafted and sewed a sleeve myself, I had no idea how complicated they are.

Most people start writing because they're avid readers. They love books, and they're discerning critics. They can tell a good story from a bad one.

But there are many things about books that a person will discover only by writing them. Thinking like a creator is very different from thinking like a critic. Here's a famous quote by Ira Glass, host and producer of the long-running radio program This American Life.

"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not....It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions."
3. No project turns out perfectly on the first try.

That deceptively simple-looking cheongsam at the top of this post required three attempts. A full six yards of fabric went into the trash (or my shoe box of crafting scraps).

Here are the notes I kept during the process. The notes under each version detail what went wrong and how to fix it on the next try.

* Muslin *
Skirt hugs pelvis -- Shorten skirt waist darts by 2" all around
Skirt too bell shaped -- Make skirt waist darts straight, not concave; reduce curve of cut at hips; reduce hip ease by 1/2" on each side
Tapered skirt not flattering -- Cut A-line instead
Sleeves too tight -- Add 1" additional ease and bring out armholes 1/4" on each side

* Satin *
Bodice stands away from body -- Add shoulder dart 3" long, 1" wide to outer bodice piece
Collar too short -- Lengthen by 2", extend inner bodice piece by 1"
Sleeves still too tight -- Widen and shorten caps

* Linen *
Waist too snug for non-stretch fabric -- add 3/8" of ease on each side (fixed this time by letting out back darts by 1/2" each, front darts by 1/4" each)

I probably spend twice as much of my sewing time on alterations as I do on actual garment construction, because every attempt is an imperfect one. Even dressmakers with decades of experience need to sew up muslins and do multiple fittings to get a garment just right. Likewise, even authors with dozens of books to their names will still need to revise, revise, revise.

And by "revise," I don't mean they make some small tweaks and call it good. They have to be willing to trash those six yards of fabric they'd worked on for three weeks and try again.

Over the next few months, I'll be rewriting about a third of Whacked in the Stacks. I'm moving events around to improve the pacing of the plot, cutting whole chapters of dead weight, and introducing new characters to make conflicts more interesting. Revision isn't something that can be done by halves. As Mary Kole says in her blog post "Big Revision," the word means "to see again," to see the story in a new light and make drastic changes, not "to shovel text like a kid pushing peas around his plate."

Sun, 14 May 2017 13:33:42
Preaching in Fiction my last post I talked about a modernization of Pride and Prejudice that disappointed me. I said I didn't enjoy the novel because, though it had all of P&P's beloved characters and basic events, it lacked the story that makes the reading experience of the original so magical.

The modernization also rubbed me the wrong way for a second, even stronger reason: it's one of the preachiest books I've read in years.

When I say the book is "preachy," you might imagine something along the lines of C. S. Lewis and his unmissable religious symbolism, Rudyard Kipling and his not-so-subtle imperialism, or Harriet Beecher Stowe and her in-your-face paternalism. If you do, you're on the right track. This book had the heavy-handed moralizing of Uncle Tom's Cabin in a twenty-first-century flavor. Instead of "Christian charity! Christian charity!" the novel screamed "Social justice! Social justice!" until my ears were ringing.

Every story, in some way or another, is a morality tale. Stories are how people around the world express cultural values: what is heroic, what is villainous, how society should reward the heroes and punish the villains. We write books and make movies for entertainment, but also to build our collective understanding of an ideal universe.

It's perfectly natural for authors to use their stories to show the difference between right and wrong. However, there are stories with good moral lessons, and then there are sermons masquerading as stories.

Sign of Preaching #1: The "Point" Overshadows the Plot

The author of that P&P modernization ruined the story because she was trying to "make a point." Many points, actually.

  • Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley falls apart when Jane gets pregnant through IVF. The author wanted to make the point that it's a woman's individual choice to have children or not, and everyone should respect that.
  • Mr. Wickham plays no real role in the story because, instead of finding out he's a money-grubbing cad, Elizabeth finds out he's a racist. The author wanted to make the point that racism is bad.
  • Lydia randomly runs off with a trans man because the author wanted to make the point that everyone should be allowed to love whomever they want, and no one has the right to judge.
  • Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist with no business being in the book because the author wanted to make the point that strong women should be applauded, not reviled.

The problem with the novel isn't these "points" themselves. The points are all good points.

But instead of working her points into the story structure of P&P, which could be easily done, the author wrote a long egalitarian sermon. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble, and her readers a lot of time, by dispensing with the charade of writing a novel and simply printing big posters that say, "Racism is bad! Sexism is bad! So is slut-shaming and fat-shaming, by the way. Liberty and justice for all!"

Sign of Preaching #2: Characters "Tell" the Morals

Many times in the P&P modernization, Elizabeth Bennet pauses to reflect.

  • She reflects that her mother's racism is subtle and insidious, as shown by how she takes the maid for granted and distrusts the real estate agent because he's black.
  • She reflects that while she dislikes her younger sisters for being so vulgar, she also admires them for being so open about their feelings and so unashamed to go after what they want.
  • She reflects that anorexia is a terrible disease, and that's why she tries her best to avoid talking about diet and exercise with other women.

And so on, and so forth.

Now, the original Elizabeth Bennet spends plenty of time reflecting, but the focus of her reflections is very different. She looks back on her own behavior to figure out her heart and mind, or she evaluates the actions of other people to figure out their characters and motivations. But she never pauses to profess, in a thinly disguised way, her opinions about current social mores.

Fearing that readers wouldn't get The Point from modern Elizabeth's extensive reflections, the author also made sure some of the characters voice her morals plainly. Mr. Darcy explains that Mr. Wickham's vicious prank against a black teacher was racist, in case that wasn't abundantly obvious. He also points out that Lydia's choice of husband is no one's business but her own, in case we readers in 2017 might suffer from doubts on that score.

Like complex emotions and character motivations, morals are higher-order concepts a writer should show, not tell. Modern novels are not ancient Greek plays. We don't need a chorus at the end to sing about how fate can't be changed and hubris leads to ruin.

The Moral of This Post

If you want to make the point that racism is bad, show readers how the racist words and actions of some characters hurt other characters. If you want to make the point that powerful women are admirable, introduce powerful female characters who play heroic roles in the plot.

When you preach morals to an audience, they roll their eyes and make sarcastic snoring noises. If you instead tell an audience a riveting story and let them figure out the morals for themselves, not only will the experience be more enjoyable for everyone, but the lessons will sink in deeper and stay with them longer.

Sat, 06 May 2017 12:29:13
What I Learned from Pride and Prejudice: Maximizing Potential for Happiness Rainie Day Mystery #2, in which the murder takes place at the Sea Breeze Jane Austen Society's Annual Regency Ball, has given me the happy excuse to revisit Austen's works. I've been spending my evenings reading the novels on Project Gutenberg and watching the movie adaptations on Amazon...all for the sake of "research," of course.

My opinion of this literary great, and particularly of her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, has vacillated over the years. I adored Austen as a teenager. Then I derided her in my early twenties, when I discovered her imperfections. Now I can enjoy her stories despite their flaws.

As I reflect on the novels and read what other people say about them, I've been thinking about what makes Pride and Prejudice (henceforth "P&P") so much more popular than the others. I've proposed theories on this blog before: P&P has the most likeable heroine, and the story focuses on romance while Austen's other novels are primarily coming of age stories.

But there's something magical about P&P that sucks a reader in more than the others. It's not the brilliance of the characters—the cast of Emma is much more interesting. It's not the wittiness of the writing—the satire in Northanger Abbey is much more amusing. And it's not the pacing or originality of the plot—Elizabeth Bennet is completely reactive, and the plot points of P&P are tame compared to the scandalous secrets, betrayals, and brushes with death in Sense and Sensibility.

No, that special something is not in either the idea or the execution of the novel. The magic of P&P is in its basic story structure.

1. Of all Jane Austen's novels, P&P has the happiest ending.

As I wrote in my March 2016 post, "Thoughts on Conflict and Tension," conflict creates narrative tension because it takes the characters farther away from happiness. This means the potential for happiness has to exist in the first place. "There's no tension when a character sits around moping about the pointlessness of life," I said. "There is tension when a character wants very much to live happily ever after with his college sweetheart, but she disappears without a trace, and he's desperate to find her."

There are two ways to add tension to a story. One is to make the characters' situation worse. Inflict greater and greater misfortunes upon the poor cast until their accumulated misery explodes in the climax and fizzles away in the resolution. This does make for an exciting read—however, overdoing it will inflict misery on the poor readers as well. I've read several dark novels in which every character was a jerk and every scene was a humiliation or a heartbreak for the hero. By the time the hero was facing mortal danger to save the world, I was thinking, "Who cares? This world isn't worth saving."

The other way to add tension is to attack from the other end. Make the promised resolution of the story happier.

Here's a boring movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up to recover his health.

Here's a better movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the respect of the community.

Here's a poignant movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up, mend broken friendships, and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the affections of his long-suffering wife and their adorable young son.

Each successive hypothetical movie above raises the stakes, not by making the situation more dire, but by making the rewards more desirable. The first movie would make an audience go, "So what?" The third would make them go, "Aww..." The greater the potential happiness, the more tragic the obstacles standing in the way, especially if those obstacles are the characters' own doing.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are an ideal couple. Austen shows us how perfect they are for each other through their sparkling conversations, which are disagreements on the surface but hold the promise of harmony in the future. Elizabeth attempts to tease Darcy, and he thwarts her with gallant responses. They get so absorbed in their playful duels of wit that other characters feel the need to cut in and yank them out. And though they claim to dislike each other, Darcy defends Elizabeth against the nasty Miss Bingley, and Elizabeth defends Darcy against her vulgar mother.

Readers can see almost immediately that these two are on the same wavelength. They're equally matched in brains, in humor, and in vanity and stubbornness. Once they conquer their misunderstandings, they'll be the best of friends. We keep turning the pages because we desperately want to see these two likeable characters resolve their problems and live happily ever after.

The incentive to turn the pages isn't as great in any other Austen novel because the happily-ever-afters aren't quite as happy. Every other romantic pairing is subdued or flawed in some way—the heroines are much younger and less mature than the heroes (as in Emma and Northanger Abbey), or the characters just aren't very interesting (as in Mansfield Park and Persuasion), or both (as in Sense and Sensibility). All of these novels have conflict aplenty, some even more than P&P, and yet readers who make it to the marriage proposals at the end will say, "That's nice," not "Yes! Finally!"

2. Every conflict in P&P directly threatens the happy ending.

I didn't realize how tightly plotted P&P really is until last weekend, when I read a modern retelling of this beloved novel that had the same basic characters, and the same basic events, but no story. In the author's eagerness to stuff the story into the 21st century by erasing all traces of sexism, she also erased all the interesting and relevant conflicts.

  • The initiation, temporary demise, and restoration of Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley occur completely independently of Mrs. Bennet's scheming, and nearly independently of Mr. Darcy's meddling.
  • The dastardly Wickham is an overgrown frat boy who strings Elizabeth along, but he never touched Darcy's sister Georgianna and never meets Elizabeth's sister Lydia. Elizabeth wises up and ends her relationship with Wickham before she gets involved with Darcy, and Wickham has no part in the story thereafter.
  • Lydia elopes with a trans man she's been dating since the beginning of the novel. But though the conservative Mrs. Bennet flies into hysterics, everyone else points out that Lydia really did nothing wrong. So there's no need for Darcy to win Elizabeth's heart by saving her family from social and financial ruin—she merely realizes she's in love with him after spending more time with him at holiday barbecues.
  • The powerful Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist who has no relation to Darcy, no objections to to Elizabeth, and really no purpose for being in the story at all.

So this "retelling" ended up being a collection of events that relate to each other only sequentially: scene A comes before scene B, but scene A doesn't cause scene B. Mere bickering and flimsy misunderstandings separate the lovers, and mere happenstance brings them back together.

Every time I read the original P&P or watch the faithful movie adaptations, I cringe when Mr. Darcy explains why he doubted Jane's affections for Bingley, because Mrs. Bingley's manipulative schemes are finally coming back to bite her. I tear up when Elizabeth receives Jane's letter about Lydia's elopement and realizes she'll never see Mr. Darcy again, because she could have prevented the disaster by telling her family about Wickham's history of seducing fifteen-year-old girls. I chortle when Lady Catherine de Bourgh huffs off to tell Mr. Darcy all about the impudence of Miss Bennet, because she's only bringing about the very union she's trying to prevent.

But when I read the modernization, I never once cringed, teared up, or chortled over the plot events. I didn't delight in the ups or despair in the downs of the main couple's relationship. None of the plot points were the consequence of the main couple's previous decisions, and very few of the conflicts affected their ultimate happiness.

Let us return to our alcoholic former athlete, who'll we'll presume is in the poignant version of the movie. Here's a series of conflicts that he might face in a boring plot.

  • The assistant coach of the high school soccer team doesn't respect him and undermines his authority in front of the kids.
  • The president of the PTA objects to him and starts a petition to get him fired.
  • The rival soccer team plays mean pranks on the kids and lowers their morale.

Are these conflicts? Yes, they are. Will anyone care? No, because these conflicts have very little to do with the protagonist's ultimate goal of living happily ever after with his wife and child.

Now here's a series of conflicts that would make for a much more interesting movie.

  • The athlete gets off on the wrong foot with the soccer team by arriving late to the first practice with a hangover and no training plan. He treats the kids with contempt. Half of the team doesn't come back, and the remaining players don't respect him.
  • One of the kids he insulted is the son of the PTA president, who starts a petition to get him fired.
  • After a disastrous PTA meeting, the athlete has a relapse and comes home drunk. His little son wants to play, and the athlete shouts at him. Terrified, the boy begins to cry. The long-suffering wife packs up and leaves with the child.

Now to earn his happily ever after, the athlete will have to sober up, bond with the kids by getting sweet revenge on the rival team, and show his wife he's changed by being responsible and winning the championship game.

These interesting events are not materially different from the boring versions, but (a) they're related causally and (b) at every step, you can feel the pain the protagonist is causing to himself and to others. When you watch him botch the soccer practice, you know he's going to regret it later. When you watch him shout at his little son, you know he's breaking his own heart as well as his wife's. These events aren't just random occurrences that leave you asking, "So what?"

Tue, 02 May 2017 20:03:06
With Great Authority Comes Great Responsibility I'm going to talk about a subject near and dear to every academic librarian's heart: authority.

Now when librarians talk about "authority," we don't mean the word in the common sense of "the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge." We use it in the context of evaluating sources, i.e., "Does the author of this book or article have the authority to write on the topic, or is he a random Joe Schmoe with no claims to expertise?"

What is "authority" in publishing?

The concept of authority is difficult for students to grasp because it's not "real." It seems to be completely arbitrary. College students know they're supposed to use academic journals instead Wikipedia, but why? Who says this stranger with a PhD must be more trustworthy than this other stranger with the screen name scienceguy1985? The information from both strangers is the same anyway!

Authority seems arbitrary...because it is somewhat arbitrary. The truth is, authority isn't actually a question of whether a person is qualified to write about a topic. It's a question of whether other people will believe this person is qualified to write about the topic.

"For example," I tell the classes, "If you say to your friends that you read on Wikipedia that sugary snacks worsen symptoms in kids with ADHD, they might say, 'Oh, that makes sense!' But if you write that in a paper, your readers will tear you apart. Readers, especially ones who disagree with you, are always on the lookout for weaknesses in your sources. They'll scoff, 'Well, that's just some quote from Wikipedia. Anyone could have made it up.' But if you can find that same quote in an article by researchers at Harvard Medical School, they'll say, 'Well, I guess that must be true. People at Harvard know what they're talking about.'"

In reality, the anonymous authors who contributed to the Wikipedia article might know more about ADHD than those researchers at Harvard. People at Harvard have published just as much nonsense over the centuries as people from anywhere else. But what's important, when picking sources for an academic argument, is that your audience will believe Harvard studies are always reliable.

"Authority" is the reason why people in the publishing world talk so much about platform. Having a platform is especially important for nonfiction writers. Even if an amateur historian/psychologist/etc. has the same knowledge as an Ivy League expert, if she can't put "Dr." in front of her name and wax at length on her accomplishments in the field, nobody will buy her books. It's not fair, but it's true.

In fiction, an author's platform is slightly different. Potential readers don't look for PhDs from fancy universities, but they do look for literary awards, celebrity endorsements, and other evidence of "quality." People are much more likely to take a chance on an author with a dozen critically acclaimed books and a "bestselling" label to her name than on a newbie with no apparent credentials.

The essence of authority is trust.

Authority is something we, as a society, give to people because we trust them. We trust researchers from Harvard to write medical articles with solid data and flawless reasoning. We trust people with "Dr." in front of their names to tell us the truth about history/psychology/etc. We trust people in police uniforms to enforce the law fairly.

So we're outraged when scientists publish lies, when police murder innocent citizens, or when high school teachers prey on impressionable young students. If an inner-city gangster lies, kills, or rapes...well, that's horrible, but we don't expect any better. But the scientist, the cop, the teacher? We trusted these people, and they broke our trust and stomped all over the brittle fragments.

Writers, even in fiction, have more authority than many realize. Simply by being authors we have authority. (Who'd-a-thunk?)

When a reader picks up a book, she basically hands her heart over to the author on a silver platter, saying, "Do with it what you will." She trusts the author to do great things with her heart, to make it race and stop and soar in an unforgettable experience.

And that's why, when a novel doesn't deliver that experience, readers are infuriated. They wouldn't get angry about a $15 lunch with a disappointing dessert, but they'll storm and rage about a $15 paperback with a disappointing ending. The author beguiled them into handing over their hearts, and then she just dropped them in the dust and walked away.

Never break a reader's trust.

After I wrote my previous post, "In Defense of Telling," my mother emailed me with a comment on my complaints about "bait and switch" openings. She was recently certified to teach cycling classes, and the award-winning personal trainer who led her certification course said, "Never trick your trainee. Build trust and follow through with your word."

In the past few months, I've read a couple of books that "tricked" me as a reader. The author set up expectations in the beginning, but then she didn't follow through with her word.

One of them was a YA fantasy, the sequel to a bestselling novel I thoroughly enjoyed. When I finished book #1, I thought I'd found a new favorite author to add to my ever-growing list. I was excited to learn it was the first of a trilogy, and I eagerly downloaded the audiobook of #2 from my local public library and listened while sewing.

The book is about a teenage girl who can control minds. If she desires, she can force anyone in the world to love her, to tell her all of their secrets, to do whatever she wants them to. Everyone fears and distrusts her, especially the prince of the kingdom. The heroine's father, who had the same ability, used it to lead the king down the path of ruin. The prince despises him for it and would never, ever trust her, a monster like him.

"Ooh!" I thought while ripping out tangled stitches. "This is gonna be amaaazing!" Just imagine it: the girl struggling with the temptation to use her ability, trying to remain a good and kind person even though victims of her evil father want to kill her and powerful royals want to use her for their own ends. The handsome prince, falling in love with her but resisting it every step of the way, because he can never tell if his feelings are real or if he's being brainwashed by that wicked siren. The conflict! The heartache! Bring it on!

And then...nothing.

The author did absolutely nothing with this amazing setup. That heartbreaking romance? After one minor act of kingdom-saving by the heroine very early on, the prince feels bad for saying mean things and decides to treat her better. They get to know each other during long walks in the moonlight. They become best friends and eventually lovers. End.

And that internal struggle to be a good person? Well, after some nice people in the palace convince the heroine she can use her powers for good, she thinks quietly for a while (and by "a while" I mean many, many chapters) and decides to accept her power and herself. She helps the royal family put down rebellions and soon everyone in the kingdom worships her. End.

The book was very mature, very realistic, and mind-numbingly boring. I listened to all twelve hours of the audiobook on principle, wondering all the while how the same author who wrote that wonderful book #1 could turn out a dud like this.

Writers say conflict drives plot. While that's true in essence, it's not the whole story. Conflict, by itself, doesn't drive anything. It's only a setup, a promise of exhilarating scenes to come. What really drives the plot is how characters react to conflicts: fighting, fretting, trying to fix problems only to create more of them.

So it's not enough to say, "The prince and the heroine hate each other but they're destined for each other. Isn't this exciting?" If the conflict doesn't put the characters in painful situations, doesn't force them into ugly confrontations with each other or themselves, the story will still be a dud.

Setting up a conflict, but then doing nothing with it, is breaking a promise to readers. So is hinting at a romance that never blossoms; or introducing a villain who doesn't do villainous things; or portraying the heroine as a kick-butt warrior on page one, only to have her spend the next 300 pages wallowing in self-doubt and pining for hot guys. Like the personal trainer said, you have to follow through with your word.

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 09:43:57
In Defense of Telling: Orienting Readers and Respecting Their Time recovered from my crisis of confidence, but I still have yet to begin Rainie Day #2 because of matters of life and death. Literally. In the past month, I attended two conferences and a funeral. (Not quite as catchy as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but believe me, it's been just as manic and emotionally fraught around here as that movie.)

I have many things to write about, but I'll save the heavy subjects for another day. Today I want to talk about that ubiquitous and well-meaning, yet ultimately reductive "rule" of writing, "Show, don't tell."

The morning after I came back from the funeral, I dragged myself to work and opened my email accounts to find some feedback on my manuscript for Whacked in the Stacks: "There's too much telling rather than showing in the opening pages."

This email was upsetting for many reasons, and only one of them was the sender's accidentally horrible timing.

  1. There is no such thing as "too much telling." A writer might bog down a story with irrelevant telling, or tell when showing would be more effective, but she can't tell "too much." There is no hard-set maximum of telling allotted per novel.
  2. I'm a meticulous writer. Every sentence I type, I choose after carefully weighing it against the many other sentences I might type instead. And then I revise, revise, revise. So it's infuriating when someone dismisses all of that careful thought with a blanket statement like, "there's too much telling."

I wrote those pages the way I did for a reason: they do what opening pages ought to do.

What Opening Pages Ought to Do

A good number of published novels start with fast-paced action right out of the gate. They begin with startling dialogue and dangerous confrontations. They drop readers head-first into adrenaline-pumping action.

Many times, in many places, I've read that the opening pages of a book need to "grab" readers and "suck them in." Writers often interpret this to mean they need to stuff page one with thrills and chills. They write prologues showing the last terrifying moments of a victim's life, or a grisly crime from the perspective of the unhinged serial killer. Or they write a short teaser of the life-threatening climax of the novel, and then they fly back in time to start the story properly at the beginning.

This approach can suck readers in, but it can also push them away. "Bait and switch" openings can come across as cheap and manipulative. Readers get invested in the characters on page one, only to see them bite the bullet on page three. Then they have to start over and get to know the real protagonists.

Most importantly, dropping readers in the middle of Crazy Town with no context is disorienting. When I read the first pages of these fast-paced novels, I don't know who these people are, or what's going on, or what the heck these stories are supposed to be about.

The opening pages of a novel should answer three basic questions for a reader.

  1. Who is the hero, and will I like him?
  2. What is the setting, and will I enjoy it?
  3. Where is this story going, and will it be interesting?

Simply answering these questions satisfactorily will "grab" readers who will enjoy the story. You don't have to dangle the heroine off of a cliff on page one, you just have to give readers an accurate idea of the reading experience they're in for.

Telling Orients Readers

Below are the first 300 words, thereabouts, of the manuscript for Whacked in the Stacks. Arr, there be telling ahead!

I'm not a superstitious person, but the morning of Friday, March 13 nearly turned me into one.

First I ruined my best skirt. That was my fault. I should know better than to read emails on my phone and eat strawberries & cream oatmeal at the same time.

Then my cat, Mr. Rochester, coughed up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. That was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

After I changed my skirt, scrubbed my shoes, and jogged through the freezing rain to my car, the engine wouldn't start. That wasn't my fault. I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy disagreed. She grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I petted her dashboard and gave her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

At 8:47 I turned onto Duvall Street, the main thoroughfare for Downtown Sea Breeze. At 8:49 I passed the Rocket Burger, where a five-foot plastic astronaut named Buzz All-Beef saluted me with one hand and held up a giant double cheeseburger with the other. At 8:51 I reached Fields Park, a.k.a. "The Fields." The magnolia trees stood with buds at the ready, itching for the go-ahead from the sun to burst into bloom. As I imagined the lighter skies and pink flowers soon to come, my blood pressure lowered a bit. If nothing else went wrong, I'd arrive at the library a few minutes before nine.

Of course something else did go wrong. Very, very wrong.

Looking at the list of questions opening pages ought to answer, I hope it's obvious why I wrote mine this way.

First, I aimed to give the reader a general picture of my heroine in the short space of one page. She's humble and readily admits her faults, she's modern in her habits yet conservative in her dress, and she responds to problems with patience, not tantrums. Also, she's highly educated and bookish, as one must be to name a cat after a classic literary character.

Second, I aimed to root the reader in the setting of the stormy Oregon coast. The freezing rain, the quirky seaside resort town, the hint of spring in the air.

Third, I aimed to signal to readers that the upcoming pages hold conflict aplenty. My very first sentence announces that many things are about to go wrong. Not only is my heroine about to meet disaster head-on, but more disasters await her when she arrives to work late.

Now, here's how I might have written the opening pages if I believed showing to be universally better than telling.

The oatmeal fell from my spoon in slow motion, pink and shimmering in the fluorescent light of my kitchen. Plop! The warm glob of strawberries & cream landed right in the lap of my best navy pencil skirt. Dry-clean only, of course.

"Nooo," I moaned. "Not today!"

I put my phone down on the table and grabbed a napkin to wipe off the oatmeal. It was my fault, I knew. I should know better than to read emails and eat breakfast at the same time.

As I was scooping up the last oat flake, I heard a suspicious hacking noise behind me. My heart sank even lower.

I turned just in time to witness my cat, Mr. Rochester, cough up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. I swallowed my irritation. This was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

I sighed and rose from the table. I grabbed my Mary Janes and headed to my bedroom. I scrubbed my shoes in the bathroom sink and dug through my dresser for a clean skirt.

Ten minutes later, I jogged through the freezing rain to my car. I rubbed my hands together to warm them and slipped the key into the ignition.

The engine wouldn't start.

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. Why today, of all days? I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center just the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy clearly disagreed.

Taking deep, calming breaths, I tried again. Cindy grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I tried again, and again, petting Cindy's dashboard and giving her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

This isn't a bad opening, but it doesn't do what the real one does.

First, I cover much less in these 300 words than I did in the first 300 words of my manuscript, because "showing" takes up a lot of space. I don't even get to the setting. This could be any woman in any city in an English-speaking country. Readers won't know where they are, and they won't see anything that might entice them to stick around.

Second, this passage gives readers no reason to care about the heroine, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. So she had a bad morning and she's running late for work. So what? Why should anyone be interested in a glob of oatmeal falling from a spoon, or a cat hacking up a hairball? As I wrote in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," the purpose of showing is to get readers emotionally invested in a scene. Only the most melodramatic of fashionistas would be emotionally invested in an oatmeal-stained pencil skirt.

Third, and most important to my mind, the humorous voice of the heroine is now buried under all of the showing. She seems to take herself and her apparel much too seriously. Imagine if The Wonder Years had no witty voice-overs, and it was simply a drama about a cute kid growing up in the 70s. The tone of the show would be completely different, right? Similarly, the way Rainie tells the story says as much about her as what she does and how she feels.

It is possible to orient readers through showing, but telling conveys much more, much faster.

Telling Respects Readers' Time

When I read some of these fast-paced novels, I get irked by the authors. They seem to purposely withhold crucial information, forcing me to dig through their words for clues about the characters and the events taking place. Here's the first page of one random title on Amazon.

Every Southern belle knows it's not so much what you do, but rather what you're wearing while doing it. And when in doubt, always apply more lipstick.

Good thing Sandy had never been mistaken for a belle, because there was no shade of lipstick in the South that matched grand theft auto charges while wearing ducky galoshes.

"Either get on or get out of the way," Sandy said to the stubborn male standing between her and freedom.

Diablo had mammoth thighs, a trunk for a neck, and as Mr. Ferguson's contracted stud bull, horns that could tear through a steel wall. And right now those horns were pointed at Sandy.

But she wasn't about to let some misinformed male with caveman tendencies and bad breath stop her from doing what was right. Even when doing what was right sucked. Even when it accompanied a brutal summer storm, interrupted the only solid sleep she had gotten in weeks, and landed her smack dab in the middle of trouble.

Even then. Because Sandy could live with trouble. But regret was something she never wanted to feel again.

So who exactly is this woman, and what's going on? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the heroine lives in the South and her situation involves grand theft auto charges, ducky galoshes, a bull, a thunderstorm, and sleepless nights.

Not only does the page not tell me what's going on, beyond vague hints of "trouble" and "regret," but it plays with readers' heads. When someone writes the word "male," a reader images a human male. I formed a picture of the scene in my mind based on what the author told me was happening. Then she tore the picture up and made me rebuild it from scratch, mid-sentence, by revealing that the "stubborn male" is a completely different species. I was left disoriented and very annoyed.

This author must have been under the impression that if you confuse readers, they'll be intrigued and feel compelled to keep turning pages to figure out what she's trying to say. I know from personal experience that readers have the exact opposite reaction to muddy writing. If they can't tell where and when they are, and who exactly they're reading about, they get angry and put the book down.

In my early novels and short stories, I tried to be fancy. I tried to show everything in creative ways instead of telling people point blank what was happening. The comments in the margins from critique partners frequently looked like this.

  • "I was confused about who said this line."
  • "I can't really tell what just happened."
  • " much time has passed since the last chapter? Where are we?"

And then they would stop critiquing after chapter three and never contact me again, because I had committed the unpardonable offense of wasting their time.

Being fancy forces readers to put time and energy into interpreting scenes. This is a good thing for creating emotional investment, but a very bad thing for conveying simple concepts. There's no point in making readers work hard to determine...

  • Who is acting or speaking
  • What the actors are doing
  • When and where the scene takes place

In other words, you shouldn't show readers what's going on. You tell readers what's going on, and what's going on shows them more complex ideas.

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 07:13:23
Sewing Projects haven't written a word of fiction since I finished Whacked in the Stacks. I haven't even outlined Rainie Day Mystery #2 in detail.

To be frank, I've been battling a crisis of confidence in my writing. The query process is long and psychologically draining. As the form rejections pile up, I start to wonder if I was naïve to write a low-concept, character-driven cozy mystery. I wonder if I should have written something "sexy" instead. Rainie Day doesn't live in a lighthouse-turned-bookstore off the coast of Scotland. She doesn't explore ancient ruins for a living while doing aerial acrobatics for spare change. Evil wizards won't destroy the planet if Rainie fails to find the killer before he strikes again.

But then I remember all of the Betty Crocker baking mix novels out there. I'm sure the authors of those books didn't set out to write bland, formulaic paperbacks. They set out to write great books, but then they caved to real or imagined commercial pressures.

Every year, thousands of writers turn out sexy high-concept manuscripts that never see the light of a literary agent's bedside reading lamp. Even if I were to stick my heroine in a Cirque du Soleil costume and set her loose in the evil-wizard-infested ruins of an ancient city underneath a Scottish lighthouse-turned-bookstore, I might never sell the book anyway. I might as well write the books I want to write and let the chips fall where they may.

Finally I decided, yesterday, that I'm going to forge ahead with Rainie Day soon as I can pull myself away from my shiny new sewing machine.

Brother CS6000I Sewing Machine

While doing battle with my confidence, I found an outlet for my creative energy in sewing my spring wardrobe. Tired of hunting through the stores for hours for attractive clothing that fits me, only to return home empty handed, I dusted off the Kenmore sewing machine I bought in college and started stitching away. Then a crucial part of the machine broke, and the local repair shop said they would charge $125 to service it. Sears doesn't carry Kenmore sewing machines anymore, and the part that broke was discontinued years ago.

So I wheedled Sweetie into paying a teensy weensy bit more to get this super-cool computerized wonder instead. It has an automatic needle threader! And it adjusts stitch widths and lengths on its own! And the stitches it makes are so pretty and even...I was appalled when comparing them to the valiant efforts of my poor old Kenmore.

Below are my creations so far, modeled by Missy Mannequin.

Missy is my birthday present from Sweetie: an adjustable dressform configured to my basic measurements. She's not a perfect replica of me, but she's pretty close. Our biggest differences are in the neck (mine is a bit smaller), the arms (mine are much smaller), and the slope of the shoulders (mine isn't as steep).

My hips also don't flare out in a bell shape like Missy's, but that's not her fault. She was designed to have a more balanced waist-to-hip ratio than I do. I'm Chinese on the top and German/Irish on the bottom. When configuring Missy, we had to keep the top and waist at the near-minimum, then crank out the hips to the near-maximum. So some things hang a little oddly on Missy, but they look fine on me.

First I made a purple dress out of Sew Classic Knit Ponte from Jo-Ann Fabrics. I hadn't sewn with knits before, so I chose this thick polyester fabric with a two-way stretch because it would be easy to sew. I made my own pattern, because that's how I roll. (And because I've used patterns in the past, and they always required major adjustments. I might as well draw the pattern from my measurements to begin with!)

Purple Ponte Dress - Front
Purple Ponte Dress - Side

Emboldened by my success, I then tackled a long blue dress made from the lightweight Jet Set Knit from Jo-Ann's. I like the flowy feel of this fabric, but it is very thin. Even with a lining, every bump and wrinkle shows through. I have to be very careful about what I wear underneath, lest I end up looking like Missy here.

Blue Jet Set Knit Dress - Front
Blue Jet Set Dress - Side

This is my sewing buddy, the panda. He chews on his plastic bamboo while watching me repeatedly unpick seams and try again. I bought him at Uwajimaya when I went to Portland for a workshop last week, along with a month's worth of frozen udon and miso. There isn't a single Asian market in the entirety of Central Oregon, so I have to stock up when I can.

My Sewing Buddy, The Panda

Finally, here's an A-line skirt made from a fabric by Art Gallery, "Yinghua" from the Pandalicious collection. The pattern is the same one I used for the curtains in the background, though those are made from a cotton in the "rainwater" color and the skirt is a jersey knit in "cherrylight."

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side

I took a few photos of myself wearing the skirt. I'm glad my garments always look better on me than they do on Missy, instead of the other way around!

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front, in Mirror
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side, in Mirror

Under the skirt I'm wearing a pair of white leggings made from a Robert Kaufman Laguna cotton jersey. It's made of 95% cotton and 5% lycra spandex, which makes it very soft, very stretchy, and very prone to snagging. I disliked the fabric at first because it kept getting sucked down into my machine. Then I tried sewing through a strip of tissue paper on top, and now I'm snag-free.

I can't wait to sew more leggings, pajamas, and exercise pants for myself. The ones in stores are all too long or too short, too big at the waist, and too small in the thighs or calves. Since I'm short, one pair of pants requires a little less than one yard of fabric. The cotton jerseys cost only $5-$10 per making them myself will be cheaper, too.

Not pictured is a failed project: my first attempt at making a qipao, a.k.a. a cheongsam. Qipaos are close-fitting dresses typically made from stiff satin brocade, with mandarin collars and frog closures. This is what it was supposed to look like, but with plainer fabric so I could wear it to work.

Qipao Contest by David Yu

Photo: "Qipao Contest" by David Yu (from Flickr)

The stiffness of the fabric and the body-hugging nature of the style make qipaos very difficult to sew. I tried anyway, using a cheap satin from Jo-Ann's. The result was close, but "close" doesn't cut it for qipaos.

I'm going to try again with a stretch satin. It might be "cheating," but that's fine with me. The stretchy fabric will be more forgiving to minor imperfections in fit, and it will be more comfortable to wear.

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 20:10:36
Faux Diversity in Fiction increasing frequency, I'm seeing a certain word in Tweets and blog posts about publishing: diversity. Agents and editors clamor for books in all genres featuring diverse characters. They want books that represent a wider range of human experience than "mainstream middle-class protagonist faces first-world problems."

This is a fine goal, but it's harder to realize than you might think. Most writers and publishing professionals are mainstream middle-class intellectuals, including yours truly. When we attempt to portray fringe voices in fiction, our own experiences and cultural conditioning undermine our efforts. In the end, we don't create diverse characters. We create mainstream middle-class characters wearing skin of a different color.

What Is Faux Diversity?

When a writer puts a solidly mainstream character in a diverse costume, I call it faux diversity. A certain fantasy we'll call Silence is an example on multiple fronts.

The premise: The heroine, Fang, lives in a completely isolated Chinese village without sound. The population lost the ability to hear generations ago. Soon the villagers start to lose their sight, too. Then one night, Fang wakes up to a sound. Using her newfound "magic" ability, she courageously leaves the village to explore the outside world and save her people.

The reality: The heroine, Fang, is a feisty Western girl with an Asian name. One Goodreads reviewer says, "If I dressed up in traditional Chinese clothing for Halloween and started calling myself Ling, I would actually be more Chinese than this book." (Ouch...but accurate.) And though sound is but an old legend to everyone in the village, Fang thinks like a person who lost her hearing late in life. She constantly bemoans that nobody can hear, which is like someone who grew up with bedtime stories of magical ancestors constantly bemoaning that no one can fly.

The author probably had golden intentions when she set out to write Silence. Her editor probably had golden intentions when she okayed the manuscript. But because neither of them were familiar with either Han culture or deaf culture, they thought giving the heroine black hair and putting the dialogue in italics would cover all the bases.

The Problem with Faux Diversity

In the case of Silence, the author's missteps were mostly harmless. She disappointed and alienated a lot of potential fans, including me, but at least she didn't portray Chinese or deaf culture in a negative light. No readers will close that book with new prejudices or erroneous assumptions they didn't have before.

However, in other cases, well-meaning authors have done more harm than good by writing about groups they didn't understand.

Another book we'll call Shadow Bride is a historical Japanese retelling of Cinderella. All right, cool. The fairy godmother character, Hikaru, is a beautiful concubine ("Shadow Bride") who turns out to be trans. Also cool...until Hikaru tells her backstory.

"I was one of many, many children. Some strange accident of fate gifted me with this face and this slender frame, and my parents knew that a child who looked like I did would be valuable. Of course, I would have been more valuable as a they raised me to talk, move, and even think as a girl would. I barely realized that I was any different from my sisters. When I was eight, they sold me to a kabuki theater....

"One of my patrons was a minor lord who thought it would be a very fine joke to arrange for me to dance at the Shadow Ball....I was convinced I would die. A man pretending to be a woman in the Moon Prince's chamber....I asked [the prince] if he ever wished I had been born a real woman. He said that my heart was a real woman's heart, and that was all he was concerned with."

Aw, how heartwarming. And how utterly infuriating!

According to this sweet little story, Hikaru has a "real woman's heart" because her parents brainwashed her into thinking like a woman. Therefore, if her parents had given her swords instead of silk fans, and told her to take a wife instead of a husband, she would have grown up to have a "real man's heart" instead, right?

The natural and insidious conclusion: all trans women in the real world must be acting that way because their dads let them play with Barbies.

I'm alarmed that no other readers are bothered by this. At least nobody complains about it on any site indexed by Google. Readers also say nothing about this frightening exchange at the end of the novel, after the heroine runs away from the palace with her love interest, Ochieng, an African nobleman.

"Ochieng," I said abruptly, "what would you have done if you had come here but I did not change my mind and agree to go with you?"

"Gagged you, thrown you over my shoulder, and taken you anyway," he said promptly. "I have some ropes braided around my waist. Actually, I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it is not necessary."

And this threat of sexual violence is...funny? Flirty? Ochieng is super hot and adorable, according to reviewers—especially when he physically grabs and shakes the heroine in anger, kisses her without her permission, and otherwise acts like a big sexy African brute.

How to Avoid Faux Diversity

Just like you can't stick heroine in combat boots and call her strong, you can't simply stick a label that says "Asian" or "African" or "LGBT" on a character and call it diversity.

1. Research the culture.

Last year or the year before, somebody submitted a query for a middle-grade novel to a critique blog. The premise: the principal of a junior high asks a young Asian girl to organize the Chinese New Year festival. But the girl isn't Chinese...she's Korean! Incensed, the girl decides to sabotage the festival to teach the school a lesson. Hilarity ensues.

The problem: the lunar new year, Seollal, is actually one of the biggest holidays in Korean culture. A real Korean girl in this situation might be miffed that the principal assumed she'd make a good organizer just because of her ethnicity, but she wouldn't fly off the handle because she's "not Chinese." Most likely, she'd be proud to share her heritage with her classmates.

If the author of this manuscript had done some cursory research about Korean traditions and holidays, she wouldn't have made such an embarrassing mistake. Since she was clearly not Korean herself, she should have at least watched a couple of Korean TV shows. Just like most of our sitcoms have Christmas episodes, most Korean family dramas have at least one Seollal episode in which everyone makes dumplings and dresses up in traditional clothing, and the young people bow to their elders to earn their red packets.

2. Question cultural assumptions.

I admit that it's better for a writer to assume diverse characters are "just like me" than it is to assume they're totally different because they have a different skin color, religion, or gender identity. I'd rather people erroneously portray Chinese characters like individualistic Americans than like buck-toothed caricatures in old movies who start every sentence with "Confucius say..."

But still better would be for these writers to question their assumptions. People tend to think their values are the only values in existence.

For example, we in the West grow up watching countless movies and TV shows that teach us standing up for ourselves is "strong" while smiling for the sake of harmony is "weak," so we assume Chinese characters would think the same way. We're annoyed by real Chinese characters who lower their eyes to abusive elders.

Or we're dependent on our hearing to communicate and the thought of losing that ability scares us, so we assume a deaf character would be angry about her condition and long for sound. We're shocked and appalled when people in the deaf community don't want their children to undergo surgery to "fix" their hearing.

Or we all agree that marriage should be based on true love, so we think arranged marriages are horrifically backwards and misogynistic. When we write books or movies about young Hindi or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish women, we tend to go on and on about how put-upon they are.

3. Rethink what "diversity" means.

Do the agents and editors asking for "more diversity in fiction" mean, "I want to see more arbitrary Latinos because that's where the money is?" No. (Well, maybe for some unscrupulous trend-chasers, yes. But you don't want to work with those people, so ignore them.)

What "more diversity in fiction" really means is, "I want to see new and interesting perspectives." Adding diversity to publishing means writing about a variety of characters who see the world in different ways, who have different values and beliefs and face different unique conflicts.

If everyone sees the world the same way but wears different hats, that's not diversity.

Sun, 05 Feb 2017 19:37:24
How to Stay Sane in an Insane Industry Saturday I sent out a half dozen queries to literary agents. Bright and early on Monday morning, I woke up to a rejection in my inbox.

I knew this was going to happen, and I know enough about the publishing world not to take rejection of a query as a judgement of my work. But even with many years of rejection notched into my writer's belt, it's still difficult to stay upbeat and confident when reading emails like, "After reading your letter I'm afraid I just wasn't hooked enough to want to ask for more."

A cold, hard fact of the publishing industry is that "hooks" drive sales, and quality of writing matters much less than we writers would like to believe. While a writer's number one concern is whether readers will enjoy a story, a publisher's number one concern is whether readers will buy the story.

When the acquisitions staff of a publishing house evaluate a manuscript, they don't ask themselves, "Is this a good story that will make readers happy?" They ask, "Does this premise sound sexy in a single sentence? Can we convince Target to put this book on the shelves in a five-minute sales call? Will people see this title at the checkout counter in Kroger and grab it impulsively?" In other words, "What's the hook?"

So what, exactly, does it mean when an agent says she "just wasn't hooked enough"? It could mean many different things.

  1. The premise doesn't sound like a sexy high-concept bestseller in a single sentence.
  2. The book doesn't fit into any of the specific slots publishers are looking to fill right now (e.g., "Realistic contemporary YA featuring diverse characters.")
  3. The agent is already representing a client with a similar project.
  4. The genre or subject matter was "hot" with publishers last year, but it's gone cold now.
  5. Nothing at all. This is an auto-generated form letter the agency sends to everyone with the click of the Decline button.

What "wasn't hooked enough" seems to imply, but does not necessarily mean, is that the query isn't well-written or the book isn't interesting.

More cold, hard facts about the publishing industry: advances for debut and midlist authors are shrinking to nothing. Even bestselling authors are getting "eBook only" releases. A novel can be a thrilling page-turner, a poignant masterpiece, a memorable story that readers will want to relive over and over for many years...but still no publisher will buy it, because it doesn't fit into a free "slot" and the author isn't named Danielle Steele or James Patterson.

One literary agent wrote that, statistically, a new writer has a higher chance of getting struck by lightning than she does of getting published. If she does get published, she'll be lucky to get a $5,000 advance. Then she probably won't earn out that measly $5,000, publishers will label her a bad investment, and she'll never sell another book again.

Knowing all this, how do we stay positive? How do we keep writing, keep hoping, keep sending those query letters to their doom, instead of burning our lucky writing pencils in abject despair?

A lot of people do succumb to despair. They give up and stop writing or, even worse, turn into vengeful banshees who haunt the Internet, shrieking about gatekeepers. How can we avoid becoming those people?

1. Adjust your expectations.

When it comes to the arts, people have a bizarre expectation that the economy will work differently than it does for every other industry. They think quality and creativity will trump all else, when that's not the case for any other product in existence.

Does Old Navy stock thin, scratchy shirts made by kids in Indian sweatshops because those are the most comfortable and flattering shirts available? Does Lowes sell nine-foot-tall blow-up penguins because those are the classiest Christmas decorations they could find? Does Fred Meyer throw Hershey's Milk Chocolate Hearts in your face the second you walk through their doors because those are the most delicious candies ever made?

Businesses will sell what makes them the most profit, period. Publishers know they'll profit from any book with Danielle Steele's name printed on the cover, regardless of the words printed inside. They know it's very difficult to get people to buy a book with an unknown name on it. When consumers have a choice between cardboard-like, chemical-tasting Chips Ahoy they grew up eating, vs. gourmet cookies by some new brand they've never heard of, which do you think the majority will pick? Only adventurous cookie connoisseurs will take a chance on the new brand.

We writers want to believe that if we write good stories, we will be swiftly rewarded. Publishers will fight over our manuscripts. The New York Times will rave over us. Hollywood A-listers will Tweet about how desperately they want to star in the movie adaptations of our books.

This is a fun fantasy to imagine while drifting off to a peaceful sleep at night, but it's silly to be disappointed when it doesn't come true. When I go to work each morning, I don't expect the college president to suddenly rush at me and say I'm the best librarian she's ever seen, and she's promoting me to director right away. I expect to keep going to work every weekday for many years, slowly building my resume and earning the respect of my colleagues, until one day I'm lucky enough land the directorship of a tiny library in Nowhere, Oregon. Why would my writing career be any different?

2. Stop assigning blame.

The current situation in publishing is nobody's fault. It just is. Both writers and publishing professionals are just trying to survive in an insane world.

The shrieking banshees want to believe everything is somebody's fault. They grumble that literary agents are brainless twits who couldn't recognize a masterpiece if it bit them in the derrière. They opine that editors are greedy vultures who care more about soulless numbers than beautiful words. "Just take the gatekeepers out of the equation," they say, "and Great Stories will reign once more."

I wonder if there's an unpublished manuscript called Zen for Writers somewhere in the world, because we all need to read it and chill out. I imagine this manuscript would have calming lines like, "To rage against the publishing industry is to rage against the sea. One cannot control the market trends, as one cannot control the tide."

Blaming people for your publishing misfortunes might make you feel better temporarily, but the bitterness gnaws away at you. Soon you're spending all of your writing time crafting barbs about twenty-something interns in New York, instead of crafting new stories. If you want to remain sane, happy, and productive, you're going to have to forgive the universe for not playing fair.

3. Make contingency plans.

So you can't sell your books, it's not your fault, it's not anybody's fault, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Now what?

This is why no one should depend on writing to make money. Just like the visual arts, theatre, and music, writing is a career for a lucky handful and a mildly lucrative hobby for everyone else. I believe every aspiring writer should build a career in something other than writing, for many reasons. Here are the reasons pertinent to this post.

  • Even if/when you don't win the publishing lottery, you can still pay the bills without worrying.
  • Every weekday morning you must close your laptop, make yourself presentable, and leave your house. You will be forced to accomplish things for the next eight hours, instead of stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing your Gmail to check for more rejections.
  • You'll build a network of colleagues with whom you can share your publishing woes in the breakroom. These colleagues will cheer you on and tell you how awesome you are for writing a whole book, and they can't imagine how you found the time.

When you finish a manuscript and send out a batch of queries, of course you'll hope to finally win the lottery this time. But you should formulate a contingency plan for what to do if you don't.

  1. You can self-publish.
  2. You can submit directly to small presses.
  3. You can drop the project and move on to new ideas.

I personally suggest number three. If the project didn't work out, it didn't work out. Maybe the next one will. I'm not of the camp that endlessly revises and resubmits the same stories, hoping small tweaks will suddenly make the project more appealing to agents.

If no agents or editors are interested in Whacked in the Stacks, I'll probably skip the sequel. I'll send CreateSpace paperbacks of WITS to family and friends to enjoy, but I won't try to self-publish it for money. Too much headache, too little return. That time would be better spent diving in to the Xing Dynasty trilogy instead.

Yes, I'm dubbing my fantasy wuxia project the Xing Dynasty trilogy. Xing ("star") is a silly play on Qing ("clear") and Ming ("bright," with the radicals for "sun" and "moon"). Also, I can abbreviate it to XD.

Thinking about what you'll do if your book fails might be depressing, but then if the worst happens you won't be left adrift. When you receive that rejection from your very last hope, you won't feel like your whole world is falling apart. You'll be hurt, you'll be angry at the universe, you'll eat a ton of raspberry cheesecake gelato...but then you'll sigh and say, "Well, on to Plan B."

Thu, 02 Feb 2017 09:08:14
Thoughts on Serialization week I finished book one of the Rainie Day Mysteries, Whacked in the Stacks. This week I revised it based on feedback from a beta reader, a.k.a. Sweetie. Next week, I start on book two.

I've never written a sequel before, but I've read hundreds. I can count on one hand the number of standalone mysteries I've read—all of the others were installations in series. As I prepare to dive in to book two, tentatively titled Crushed by the Classics, I've been thinking about what works for me as a series reader, and what rubs me the wrong way.

What Rubs Me the Wrong Way: Recycling

Recycled Introductions

I don't need to re-read the heroine's life story in chapter one of every novel. I don't need to re-read the life stories of all her friends and relatives, either.

Imagine if every episode of Castle began with Richard Castle rambling for ten minutes about who he is, what he does, where he grew up and where he lives now. Every time his mother Martha sashays into the kitchen, a voice-over explains that she's a glamorous Broadway actress who lives with Castle because her ex-husband absconded with her life savings. Every time his daughter Alexis pops in to say, "Hi, Dad," another voice-over informs us that she's eighteen and a student at Columbia University, and her mother Meredith is off her rocker but Alexis is a sweet kid who's wise beyond her years.

Though novels aren't TV shows, info-dumps like these are just as boring on the page as they are on the screen. There are certain mystery series that I adore...from about chapter three on. First I have to get past the recaps in chapters one and two. The authors might be afraid that new readers won't know what's going on without brief bios to introduce every character, but readers aren't stupid. They can figure out who characters are and how they relate to one another from their dialogue and behavior.

Recycled Jokes

I'm reading Laura Levine's Jaine Austen mysteries right now. Levine wrote scripts for classic Hollywood sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley and Three's Company, so all of her books are amusing...but her wit is a lot less impressive after reading four books than it was after reading one.

Levine recycles the same comedic material in every novel. Jaine lives in the slums of Beverly Hills. Jaine is a struggling writer whose most noteworthy project to date is a motto for Toiletmasters Plumbing. While all of the size-two fashionistas in SoCal eat a lettuce leaf and call it lunch, Jaine wears elastic-waist pants and her best friends are named Ben and Jerry. Jaine's love life is a disaster, and her most persistent admirer is a lecherous octogenarian from the Shalom Center. Jaine's cat Prozac is a terror who pees on Jaine's pillow when she doesn't get her daily serving of Fancy Fish Guts.

I have now read each of these jokes at least a half dozen times across four books. The count for variations on "fish guts" and "In a rush to flush?" has probably topped a full dozen. Levine is whip-smart, but I wish she'd do something new with that intelligence.

Recycled Conflicts

Mystery authors often leave one or two loose threads untied at the ends of their novels, in order to entice fans to read the next one. The most common class of loose thread is the romantic subplot.

I don't mind "open endings" in early installments of a series, but I get tired and annoyed when the same loose thread drags on book after book. The heroine and her love interest recycle the same conflicts in every novel: he says he loves her but he won't commit, she knows he's bad husband material but she can't resist his charms, she saw him with another woman and she's not sure where they stand anymore. Over and over. There's only so much "will they or won't they?" a reader can take.

I also get tired when a heroine knocks heads with the same archenemies over the same petty issues. I put a series down immediately at the first whiff of a Never-Ending Love Triangle. (Just pick one already!) And it's exasperating to see a heroine make the same dumb mistakes and land in the same tubs of hot water in every novel. (Why does Jaine never learn to close the door when she's dressing for a big event, so Prozac won't sneak in and destroy her new clothes?)

What Works for Me: Fresh Ideas

Maybe writers who recycle the same material for every book think they're giving their fans what they want. They think readers liked the characters in the first book and want them to return exactly as they were, with no growth whatsoever. They think readers liked the "will they or won't they?" tension, and the series will go the way of Moonlighting if the heroine and her love interest actually work out their problems.

But fans of a series don't keep coming back because they want the exact same story retold in future books. They want new books with new stories that make them feel the same way the first one did. Recycled jokes and conflicts will not make them feel the same way a second time around.

A sequel needs fresh ideas to be as interesting as its predecessor. The tricky part is incorporating these new ideas into the story world you've already created, so fans will feel like they're returning to a favorite place and meeting old friends, while at the same time getting a fun new reading experience.

Introduce New Settings

Cozy mystery writers often blog that their readers want to return to the same settings in every book, because these places feel like home. This is partially true, but these "same settings" are much bigger arenas than you might think.

For example, in Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, the setting fans like me look forward to visiting is "Glamorous Interwar Europe." That can include the heroine's childhood fortress in Scotland, the family townhouse in London, a spooky castle in Transylvania, or sunny mansions along the French Rivieria. I would have bored of the series long ago if every novel took place in the same handful of buildings in London.

On a smaller scale, Miranda James sets each of her Cat in the Stacks murders in different locales within Athena, Mississippi. One book might center around the local college, where the hero works, another at the public library, and another at the home of an eccentric book collector. He spends a lot of time at cozy old haunts, sure, but we also get to go to costume galas at Antebellum mansions.

Make Characters Grow

In the Jaine Austen mysteries, Jaine's friends and relatives never change. For example, in every book her neighbor Lance and her best friend Kandi find new loves of their lives. By every epilogue, they find out these loves are cheating finks. All relationships between the characters conveniently reset, and Lance and Kandi are ready to chase new loves of their lives in the next book. Neither of them ever mature, settle down, move up the corporate ladder, have kids, or change subtly over time like real people.

In the Cat in the Stacks books, many of the characters do change over time. The hero's son comes back to town an angry, disillusioned young lawyer, but then he picks himself up and studies for the Mississippi bar, gets married, and becomes a father himself. The hero's recurring nemesis/ally, the deputy sheriff, starts out hostile and ambitious, but then she assumes more responsibility at her job and mellows out. Boarders move in and out of the hero's house, find partners and get on with their lives.

The great thing about change is that it introduces new conflicts. Characters don't just spin their wheels, rehashing the same old issues. When the hero's son meets his future wife, he has to deal with personal traumas that make him push away attractive women. When they get serious, he has to deal with his meddling future father-in-law, who also happens to be his boss. Then his meddling future FIL wants him to take over the law practice, but he's not ready yet. And so on.

Use New Story Structures

This one is the most obvious, and the hardest to pull off. Readers of sequels want new stories, not the same old story with cosmetic differences.

The basic story structure of a cozy mystery is this:

  • Sleuth finds dead body.
  • Sleuth snoops for clues.
  • Sleuth solves murder.

Within that simple structure are infinite possibilities for variation. Yet as writers, we tend to fall back on a few comfortable tropes, instead of exploring those possibilities.

I'm not sure I'll continue with the Jaine Austen series, because Levine seems to have gotten stuck in a Murder She Wrote rut. The heroine simply goes around interviewing a string of suspects until she figures out the culprit. Then she exposes said culprit in a thrilling confrontation. Roll credits.

When mystery lovers pick up a novel, they look forward to twists, turns, and surprise curveballs. Real curveballs, not ones they've seen a dozen times before. The victim's husband was having an affair with the hot housewife next door? I'm shocked. The victim was blackmailing a coworker for embezzling from the company? Gosh, never seen that one before. The culprit is actually her sweet, long-suffering assistant who seemed like she couldn't hurt a fly? Well, blow me over with a feather.

Shocking subject material doesn't necessarily make for a shocking twist. A twist is shocking when the author manipulates readers into seeing the story world a certain way, and then the revelation of the truth turns that world on its head. The last author to successfully shock me was Dorothy L. Sayers, in Murder Must Advertise. She tricked me into believing a certain event was just a humorous anecdote, when it was actually the key to figuring out the entire nefarious plot. The nefarious plot itself wasn't all that shocking, but the fact that I had been completely bamboozled was a delicious surprise.

Sun, 29 Jan 2017 10:23:25
What I Learned from Twilight: Writing with Sincerity the three-day weekend, I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight for the first time.

Yes, I know I'm twelve years late to the party. But I never read the book when it was popular for a few reasons.

  1. It was popular, and I was at that stage of late adolescence in which one is obligated to sneer at everything popular.
  2. The movies came out when I was in college. I watched the first one and found it boring, so I wasn't eager to try the book that inspired it.
  3. Over the years I've read countless articles about how the Twilight trilogy promotes traditional gender roles, portrays sex as something dangerous and shameful, and romanticizes stalking and abusive relationships. Who would want to read something like that?

But as a writer, I need to understand readers. And it's an undeniable fact that Twilight whipped a significant number of readers into a frenzy of fandom for many years. So I checked out the eBook from my local library and went in with an open mind, determined to read it without being influenced by any preconceptions or prejudices.

And you know what? The book really does promote traditional gender roles, portray sex as a dangerous sin, and romanticize worrisome behavior. But the book also has its charms, and I understand why teenagers in the 2000s were so drawn to this story.

Twilight is clearly Stephanie Meyer's first novel. The chapters ramble and often go nowhere (e.g., Bella lies in the grass to think about Edward...and that's it). Redundant dialogue tags clutter every page (e.g., Bella makes many sarcastic remarks followed by "I said sarcastically"). No real conflicts pop up until the book is nearly over.

Then there are the bad relationship lessons. If Bella were my daughter, I would sit her down and say, "Sweetheart, a boy who sneaks into your house to spy on you in the dark is not romantic. A boy who physically drags you around while you're shouting at him to let go is not cool. A boy who secretly follows you when you go out of town with girlfriends, who gets angry when other boys talk to you, and who eavesdrops on your classmates to find out every word you say, is not in love with you. He's pathologically obsessed with you."

However, I don't think any of that would have bothered me if I were fifteen years younger. I would have adored Bella Swan, because she's the very definition of adolescent wish fulfillment.

  • She's a martyr from page one, sacrificing her life in sunny Phoenix to move to depressing Forks, WA because she wants her mom to be happy with her new husband. She hates stupid Forks and its stupid clouds, but she hides her pain behind a cool facade. (Edward: "You put on a good show, but I'd be willing to bet that you're suffering more than you let anyone see.")
  • She's so mature for her age, a vampire who's lived for more than a hundred years comments that she seems much older than seventeen. She had to grow up fast because her bumbling parents couldn't feed or dress themselves without her. (Bella: "My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year....Well, someone has to be the adult.")
  • She's so gorgeous, every boy she meets instantly falls in love with her. Bella's admirers include three popular classmates who follow her around like "golden retrievers," one super cute werewolf, and one glittery vampire who finds her petulant temper so adorable, he's willing to endanger his entire family by using his powers to rescue her from certain death. Repeatedly.

And yet, Bella's voice has charmed millions of readers since 2005. I believe there are two qualities to this character that lure people into the story of Twilight.

The first is relateability. All seventeen-year-olds think they're different from the other seventeen-year-olds, and they're suffering more than anyone could ever understand, and they're way smarter than the clueless adults around them. Bella is what teenagers believe they are, so they can put themselves in her place and feel what she feels.

The second quality is sincerity. Not once did I feel like Bella's character was disingenuous. Self-centered and immature, yes. Fake, no. Meyer didn't create Bella Swan thinking, "This is what teenage girls like in a heroine, so I'm going to give them what they want and sell gazillions of books." She wrote this story because she loved it. I might not personally find the hero's domineering behavior romantic, but it's clear Meyer's own heart was thumping as she wrote those scenes.

It makes no sense that an invincible 105-year-old vampire would move to small-town Washington and enroll in high school, when he could live happily in the wilderness of Eurasia hunting bears. It makes even less sense that he would fall head over heels for a sulky teenager who smells, to him, like the world's most delicious cheeseburger. (Can you imagine falling in love with a wise-cracking cheeseburger?) The romance in Twilight is unbelievable and cliché in the extreme.

Yet legions of Meyer fans don't care, because the improbable Bella Swan and the impossible Edward Cullen bare their souls on the page without apology or embarrassment.

Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Millennium trilogy...every mega-hit series in the book world, regardless of genre, shares this one common quality, sincerity. A writer can come up with the tightest plot, the wittiest dialogue, and the keenest observations of the human condition, but if she doesn't write with sincerity, her readers won't connect with the story.

What Sincerity Is and Isn't

Sincerity does not mean "brutal honesty." It does not mean pouring out your raw feelings in a feverish confessional, heedless of your audience. It means respecting your readers and making an honest effort to touch their hearts.

In the seventh grade, my drama teacher listened to me read a scene from a play and told me, "Stop acting." He said to be a good actress, I had to stop acting the way I thought actors were supposed to act and be myself.

It wasn't until my twenties that I understood what that drama teacher really meant. The "myself" he wanted to see wasn't my raw self, but an artificial self that would come across as artless to an audience. He didn't want me to stop acting; he wanted me to act like I wasn't acting.

Like actors have to work hard to look like they're not acting, writers need to work hard to make their stories seem effortless. An effective writing voice is not a "natural" voice. It's a lucid voice that appears to be natural. To put it baldly, we need to manipulate people into thinking they're not being manipulated.

Readers don't mind being manipulated. In fact, they enjoy it. They want authors to create stories that will make them feel wonderful and terrible things. They don't want to waste their time and money on books that bore them. They just don't like it when it's obvious they're being manipulated, when they can see the author behind the curtain pulling the strings.

When I read insincere books, I can see the authors pulling the strings. I can sense them attempting to manipulate me into giving them royalties and glowing reviews. The scenes seem too glossy, like they were assembled by machine. The characters give me the same impression I get from politicians whose smiling lips spout whatever they think the voters want to hear.

Sincere books, on the other hand, make me feel like the authors and I are kindred spirits. The scenes seem to be written for me personally, lovingly crafted for emotional punch. The protagonists seem like real people. I'm right there in the story with them, feeling the same excitement and terror and sorrow they do.

How to Write with Sincerity

Conquer your fear of "sap."

There's a certain lie I hear surprisingly often, nearly word-for-word, from the mouths of unrelated strangers: "I couldn't care less what other people think of me."

Many people are terrified that "caring" will be seen as "weakness." This is an understandable fear, because kids are awful. To hide their own insecurities, children and immature adults try to humiliate others for having feelings. Kids who get upset when they're teased are "crybabies." Boys who openly express affection are "gross." In middle school, my friends pestered me to tell them the name of the boy I liked. When I worked up the courage to trust them with this precious secret, they laughed in my face. "That guy? He's a total loser!"

When people are afraid of derision, they create personas that are too cool for emotions and stuff. They roll their eyes at "sappy" love stories and scoff at "cheesy" happy endings. This kind of bravado is mildly exasperating in real life, and it's downright fatal in creative writing.

A sad number of novels, especially ones by and for men, feature characters who act like they're emulating Sam Spade. Macho posturing infuses every sentence. The heroes respond to danger by making snarky quips, and to tragedy by shrugging. They feel nothing, sympathize with no one, and describe members of the opposite sex in the language of frat boys trying to impress their bros in the locker room. (Why, pray tell, must every private eye catalog the breast size and leg length of every female he meets? Do men actually see women this way? Sweetie claims not.)

This problem is less common in fiction by and for women, but we're certainly not immune. In my own writing and in real life, I tend to hide embarrassing emotions under humor. Romance is especially squicky to me. (My middle school traumas might or might not have something to do with it.) I physically blushed at some of the outrageously suave lines Edward Cullen delivers in Twilight. Just the thought of writing anything like that myself makes me squirm in my office chair.

But to write with sincerity, I need to be willing to make myself vulnerable. I know I can't bluster my way through a novel, shying away from any sentiments the snarky porcupines might call "sappy." The sappiness of Twilight is exactly what makes fans of the books and movies swoon. If Stephanie Meyer had worried about whether people would think Bella and Edward are "squicky," she wouldn't be a wealthy woman today.

Think outside the formula.

I've read some cozy mysteries so formulaic, the authors seem to have used a Betty Crocker baking mix for instant novels.

  1. Pour mix into a large bowl.
  2. Add one love interest, one crafting theme, and one dash of small-town setting. Stir until large lumps dissolve.
  3. Pour batter into a prepared 75,000-word pan. Bake until an editorial toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  4. Cool completely. Top with a picture of a cat.

Then there are other cozy mysteries like that gourmet cake my boss brought in for a coworker's birthday: a decadent gateau with a creamy white chocolate filling and a dark chocolate ganache. Just like I still remember the taste of that cake and want to try others from that bakery, I vividly remember the experience of reading those novels and want to find other titles by those authors. Nobody remembers the taste of a Betty Crocker cake with canned frosting.

Twilight isn't gourmet, but at least it didn't come out of a box. It's like a birthday cake your aunt baked for you from scratch. Your aunt isn't a professional pâtissier, so the layers are uneven, the texture is a little dry, and the cream cheese frosting came out gooey. But the homemade cake still tastes ten times better than a Duncan Hines, because she baked it with love.

Most authors who write formulaic books probably aren't being lazy or greedy for sales. Maybe they think the formulas are better than anything they could come up with. Maybe they're afraid if they tweak the usual recipe, their fans will get upset.

But writing like that doesn't come across as sincere, because there's nothing of the author's heart in them. Readers might close the covers thinking, "That was a well-written book. I acknowledge this author's skills." But they won't think, "Nooo it's already over! I didn't want it to end! I want more books and I want them now!"

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 09:13:22