Saturday, October 25, 2014

Confessions of an Honest Liar

If you write fiction, chances are you’re a fantastic liar. But that’s okay; it’s the job, and I won’t judge you for it, so long as you don’t judge me. Who knows? Maybe one day people will even pay you to lie to them, if you do it well enough, of course.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, touched on the subject of being a liar. He tells a true story about once being mistaken for Francis Ford Coppola in Boston circa the 1970’s (or maybe it was Connecticut), and instead of telling the misguided fan that he was not in fact the famous film director, he played along with it and had some fun lying to the guy, eventually signing a fake autograph for him. In the end, King’s reasoning was simple (and I am paraphrasing and recalling from memory, so I may be off a little or maybe even making it up, although I don’t think I am): He said he is a writer of fiction, which by default made him susceptible to telling the occasional white lie, if for no other reason than to just have a little fun. That is, after all, precisely what his fans have paid him millions of dollars to do for the last three and a half decades—lie to them. Old habits die hard, it would seem.

In my opinion, if you ever really expect to tell a good story, being a liar is less a side-effect of writing fiction and more a requirement. And not only do you need to be able to spin one hell of a yarn, you need to make your lies honest. Honesty is the most important thing. Of all the rules I’ve stumbled upon in books on writing and blog posts over the last few years, it is the one rule I will never (nor should any writer) break. If I do, you have my permission to break into my house in the middle of the night while I slumber away and subject me to whatever painful torture you see fit for such an egregious misdeed. I only ask you leave my fingers intact so that I may have the opportunity to redeem myself at some future date.

Honesty, in case I haven’t been clear enough, is important to me, as it should be for any writer. It is why my blog is titled The Honest Scrivener, and it is why Stephen King’s quote about truthfulness in writing is on my home page. The quote (which I will now allow you ten seconds to go back and read…Done? Okay, good) sums up the importance of the unspoken promise the writer makes to the reader to tell a story as truthfully as possible, expressing with honesty—which can sometimes be brutal and painful, and sometimes beautiful and enlightening—how humans act and talk.

It is in honesty that truly great writing lives. Readers can smell it and feel it. Hell, if it’s good enough, they can almost reach out and touch it when they encounter it. It is the thing that makes a person stop reading for that brief moment and crack the spine of the book open across their chest, simply so they can appreciate what they’ve just experienced. It is a little, secret moment of gratitude—a head nod to the author for not pulling any punches. If a character is an asshole, don’t call them a jerk . . . call them a goddamned asshole. That’s what they are, so why try to sugarcoat it? It’s disrespectful to the reader, shameful for the writer to do, and, in my very humble opinion, degrades the craft. Simply put: Dishonest lies are bad fiction. People appreciate honesty, in life and in art. Perhaps it’s because it creates an unspoken sense of connection, a feeling that we are not alone, especially when we read an idea or a thought we assumed was solely unique to us. When we find that someone else out there in this great big world shares our sentiment about something we have always only been able to feel but never fully understand, and then that thing is illuminated in a way you’ve never seen before, and it is defined in a way that allows you to see its true form, well, I don’t know about you, but I think that is a very magical thing. It is like a lost puzzle piece has been slid into place, and life—the world, even—seems to make a little more sense, even if only in a minute way. Honesty is the foundation that healthy, lasting relationships are built upon. And isn’t that what writing is—a relationship between author and reader?

We exist for far too brief a time on earth to be lied to poorly, so find someone whose deceit is born in truth and honesty and let them lie to you properly. And hey, maybe throw them a few bucks every now and again for their troubles. I’m sure they’d appreciate that. Deception is hard work.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Cover - Self-Publish vs. Traditional - Query Synopsis

So as many of my readers might know, I finished my first novel, Cicada Spring, back in April. When I was done with the first draft, I put it aside for a month to gain some perspective. After that excruciatingly long period of waiting, I read it, edited it, read it, edited it, read it, paid for an editor from Red Adept Publishing (a lovely small publisher that provides indie author services, and that I highly recommend), adjusted accordingly (no major problems, only wrinkles, I was told), then read it again. Trust me, reading the same book 4 or 5 times in a few months can be trying, but it was a necessary step to get the manuscript ready to send out. Now that baby sparkles like Jesus's teeth.

I have sent it out many times. It gets bites. I have had a few full requests, some partials, some good feedback. That’s great—already more than I ever expected. However, the more I research, the more I begin to realize that self-publishing might be how I want to sell this book (I have become addicted to Anne Allen's blog; it has some invaluable advice on so many subjects). It gives me complete control, and that is something very important to me. I have given myself a deadline: If I cannot find an agent or a publisher to represent or sell this book by Jan.1st, 2015, I will go headfirst, full-throttle into self-publishing. And just for fun, in case I do choose that route, I wanted to be ready, so I had a cover made up. And after seeing it, I honestly wish January would just get here, already.

Thanks, James at He did a great job.

And just in case you want a reference point, I have included the synopsis I have been sending to agents.

After fifteen-year-old Kara Price is raped by the beloved mayor of Heartsridge, Massachusetts, and no one takes action, the people of this small New England town discover a truth that may have been better left buried.

Cicada Spring is a 103,000-word suspense-thriller about a teenage girl’s fight for redemption, after her life is shattered by a prominent small-town politician. Fargo meets A Time to Kill when nefarious and heartfelt storylines collide and interconnect, culminating in an unforeseen conclusion about revenge, courage, unconditional love, and life after loss.

Cicada Spring is the story of a wicked crime told from the various viewpoints of the morally-haunted characters surrounding it. There’s the mayor, Harry Bennett, who can do no wrong in the eyes of the town. No one believes he could commit the crime of which he is accused. He’s their golden boy, after all. But a violent history lurks in his past. There's Sheriff Gaines, the law at the center of it all, who is bound by the rules and plagued by a guilty conscience. He wants to do the right thing, but first he needs to decide what that is. There’s David Price, the quiet, level-headed man and father, who only wants justice for his daughter—no matter what it costs. There's a serial killer in the midst of an identity crisis, who has just discovered his next victim at a small diner in Heartsridge—and whose arrival couldn’t have come at a worse time: the start of the annual Spring Festival. Then, at the center of it all, there's Kara, who just wants to move on with her life and forget everything that happened to her. But how can she do that when everyone in town thinks she is a liar who is only out for attention? Braided together, this cast of characters, all acting on behalf of their own interests, begs the question: How far would you go to protect your own?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rejection: Take Your Licks and Move On

You need a thick skin if you're going to be a writer. There's no way around it. If you plan on finding any sort of success with writing—with anything you're truly passionate about, really—be prepared to be rejected dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But it's okay. Have no fear, dear readers. Think of rejection as a rite of passage that confirms two things: you are a part of the human race; and you are participating. That second acknowledgment is an important one. Participation is key: You have to be willing to play if you want to win. I know that sounds terribly cliché (because it is), but it's true.

Don't get ahead of yourself, though. I know what you're thinking. Hands on your hips, chest pushed out, full of all the youthful exuberance of a new writer, you want to scream to the writing gods: I'm not afraid of you! Bring it on, muchacho! I'll play your damn game! 

Whoa. All right. I like your enthusiasm but slow down, partner, participation comes at a cost, you innocent sweet foolish child. Do not forget that if you are prepared to walk onto the same field that the professionals play on, then you are an eligible player and fair game for full contact hits. Sorry, them's the terms. And sometimes those hits will hurt, and probably make you want to quit and limp off the field, helmet in hand and tail between your legs. You won't, though, right? Promise me you won't. Try to remember that in writing, much like in life, it's all about stepping outside your comfort zone. That's where all important growth occurs, after all.

Now, if you're willing to accept the consequences that come with playing with the big dogs, go ahead and call yourself a writer. Go ahead. Really. No one will judge you. You've always wanted to, anyway, so do it. You’re starting where most of the pros did, navigating the same obstacles, and experiencing the same heartbreak they all did when they were cutting their teeth. So why not measure yourself accordingly? You've earned it merely by agreeing to participate. Even if you have never made a dime with your writing, if you are in the game, go ahead and call yourself a writer. Deal? Okay, good.

The willingness to throw yourself into the ring, outmatched, outweighed, and still wet behind the ears, to put up your dukes and give it your best when the odds are stacked against you, is a crucial first step in every writer's—every human's—journey. And I know you'll go out there hungry, full of piss and vinegar, ready take on the world, but chances are the first few bouts will not go to you, the underdog—the writing industry is a tough, skilled opponent that has seen all your tricks before (it's also an industry filled with fierce competition)—but hey, at least you're fighting, right? And if you're willing to fight, to get back up when you get knocked down, you stand a chance. That's all you can ask for—a chance. You just need to learn how to take a hit and continue forward unshaken, until an opportunity presents itself and you get to land a few punches of your own. Tired of the sports metaphors? Me too. I'll rein it in.

Being rejected stings any way you look at it, but the wounds are superficial and non-life-threatening, I promise. They are like small paper cuts inflicted upon the ego: They will make you wince, but in the end there's hardly any blood, and they heal fast. There are probably close to one hundred rejections—each one a layer of the callous every writer eventually forms over the years—saved in my email folder, and I'm still here and still writing. Nothing will ever change that. You know why? Because I am a writer. That's what I was built to do. Any professional will be quick, if not proud, to reveal that somewhere in their writing space is a collection of rejection letters. They are like battle scars that tell the story of a hard journey, and in some future time you will have your own collection of battle scars to look at and a tale of a hard, but worthwhile, journey to revel in.

So, how does one deal with the temporary hurt of being rejected? I offer the mindset I have always used to cope with any unavoidable, difficult reality that one must face repeatedly: It never gets easier, you only get used to it. And I firmly believe this. You will never open an email or a letter from an editor and read the dreaded words "not a good fit" or "not what I'm looking for at the moment" and be filled with anything other than a bitter twinge of disappointment. The important part is that you allow yourself a moment to grieve. Feel the emotion, don't fight it. Let it flow through you. Then, after a few beers and few moments of self-loathing, put it behind you and move on. Set your sights on the next one. And there will be many more "next ones.”

For a great article about the manuscript submission process and dealing with rejection, click here

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Glimpse Inside

If I’m going to write a blog about writing—and more importantly my experiences with the craft—I think it’s fair to first let you, dear readers, into my head a little. Perhaps offering a glimpse into what the writing process is like for me will be illuminating for the both of us. If nothing else, I get to talk about myself for a few paragraphs, and I’m okay with that.

 After a little bit of digging, I managed to find a short piece I wrote a few years back about what writing was like for me when I was first starting out (I don’t know why I thought I was qualified to offer any insights into writing, nor do I know why I felt anyone cared, but I did it, so that’s what happened). And I think it’s safe to say that while my writing has improved over the years, my thoughts on the subject have not changed a great deal: I am still full of the insecure fears that plagued me when I first started. The only real difference is that now, armed with a couple of tricks and the self-reassurance that first drafts usually are garbage,  I find myself a tad more equipped to handle myself against the blank white page. Take a look below but be gentle—you’re in my head, after all. At the very least, wipe your damn feet.

 * * * * *

For me, the time spent at the keyboard in front of the blank page is horror—a world full of fear. Fear of having nothing interesting to say. Fear of giving up. Fear of not being good enough. Sometimes it feels so utterly impossible a thing to create what was never there before. I have no recollection of ever being able to do it with any sort of confidence, and, even worse, if by some chance I had been able to do it, I have no hope of ever being able to do it again. But still I try. I have to. To not would be suicide. So I start, fingers poised over the keys, waiting on some brilliant flash of genius to flow through me and make what I'm trying to do seem like a gift from God, rather than a craft that requires hard work, sweat, and a willingness to fail and fall flat on your face more times than any sane person would ever care to endure.

The divine flash never comes—it never has and never will. If I’ve learned anything since I began writing, it is this: Writers are not mediums. They do not channel inspiration; they find it and excavate it. They are creators and determined hard workers. The successful ones are willing to show up every day and put in the hours. That’s it. So I will start, as I always do, the only way I know how: one key at a time, which turns into one word, which becomes a sentence. A few of those and we’re in business. Hey, this ain’t so bad, after all. But I forget we’re just getting started.

I'm in a room now, an impossibly dark and deep room. This place is my writing space, and the time away from it has been like staring into the sun for days: It’s dulled my vision, made me blind, and made this dim space I've spent so much time in appear darker and more foreign than it truly is. But there is a feeling, a knowing that this space has light—or at least the promise of it. So I do the only thing I can: I start moving around the room, clumsy and slow at first. We must crawl before we can walk, I tell myself. So I crawl, desperately but steadily. Finally, after banging my shin on a few things, stubbing a toe or two, the risk pays off, and I find a wall—something familiar to lean on. It isn't much, but it's enough to give me hope. It's a feeling I've felt before and grown to love. I continue to fumble in the darkness, looking for a light switch on the wall, a doorknob, a hinge, more familiarity. And right when I think it will never come, it does. I find a corner, and it's comforting. I stand in it for a moment and get my bearings, allow the small victory to soothe my worry. I'm beginning to map the area in my mind now, learning where to go and, more importantly, where not to go. My vision is slowly coming back, and the darkness fades to light with every strike of the keys. I'm not actually moving about the room anymore. In fact I never was. I'm moving about the page, always have been. I’m trying to feel my way around it, trying to find something I can anchor to, something to make the task which lies ahead of me seem a little less intimidating. From time to time, the fear that this will never happen is overwhelming, but I push past it. I have to. If I can't, I might as well chop off my fingers and douse my keyboard in kerosene. Let it burn.

After some time, I find what I'm looking for, and it is the best kind of discovery: the door on the page. The door to the story. I don't know where it will lead, but I know it will lead somewhere—it always does. Even when it seems like it won't, by God it does. I walk through it, and I'm no longer sitting at the keys; I'm in the story and letting it show me what it is. My only job now is to be there as it happens, so I can record it as accurately as it deserves. I am merely a witness. This is the place I want to be. I love it here. I can only hope that when I leave again—even if it's only for the briefest of moments—I can remember how to get back.