Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze

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Writers are pretty silly. We indulge in a lot of magical thinking and we believe people when they tell us there’s a right way to write. This is why, from very early in my career, I believed I needed to write a book linearly. I learned this method from my first critique group, which was filled with published authors. They were pros, I reasoned, they know what’s up. So I plotted and I wrote my books in order.

When I began submitting to agents, the feedback was all sort of similar, “You say this is a single-title, but it reads like a category romance.” All of my critique partners wrote category romance and they were the ones who drilled into me that I need to plot their way.

Eventually, I left that group. My exit had been coming for a while, but the final nail in the coffin was when they urged me to walk away from the book I was working on–a little Urban Fantasy called Red-Headed Stepchild that would later land me a six-figure, multi-book contract and make it onto the USA Today Bestseller list. I harbor no ill will toward those critique partners because I learned a lot from them, including when to walk away from a situation that was not doing my writing any favors.

After I got my deal and had to write the second book in the series, I stumbled for a long time. I’d written three novels by that point, but I didn’t understand my writing process. Cue two total rewrites that resulted in one of the most stressful periods of my life. It was only once my editor called me and said, “What happens when you start writing a book?” that I gave any real thought to how my mind processed story. The first version of Mage in Black was a mess because, terrified and self-conscious of performing under pressure, I resorted to plotting and linear writing because it was what the published authors I’d known in that critique group had done. The result was a terrible, formulaic book that lacked all the heart that RHSC had going for it.

When I began to talk through my process with my editor she exclaimed, “Oh! I get it–you’re a scene writer. I’ve worked with someone else like that. Here’s what you need to do … ” See, until that moment, I only knew of two types of writers: plotters and pantsers.What I learned from my editor that day is that false dichotomy was screwing me up. I had no idea it was okay to be some sort of combination of the two, which, I’ve since found, most of us are.

It’s sort of like saying, “there are two types of people: those who like night and those who like day.” It completely ignores the wondrous nuances that exist in a 24-hour period–dawn, midday, noon, afternoon, L’heure Bleu, dusk, evening, night, midnight, etc. In other words, you might have a tendency toward writing by the seat of your pants, but your version of pantsing is probably different from every other pantser out there.

My editor called me a scene writer, but I’ve since amended it to being a “puzzler.” Yes, I write my books as discrete scenes and I write them out of order. Some might say, yeah, that’s classic pantser. But, my friends, those people would be wrong. Pantsers are notorious for diving right into a story without any preparation. In fact, I do a lot of pre-work on my books. It’s just that instead of charting out each beat of the story, I prework by focusing first on world building and character development. I fill my subconscious with as much information as I can about the world and characters so that while I’m writing I have a ton of material that informs my choices. The first hundred or so pages of my books (sometimes way more than that) are a frenzy of scene writing with no regard to structure. It’s almost like writing a bunch of short stories about the characters. This period is me working totally on inspiration. I let my subconscious play until it starts to run out of fresh ideas. Then, and only then, do I start to plot. I take that collection of scenes and place them on a storyboard. Then I started shuffling them around  (puzzling) until the story reveals itself to me. Once I have a pretty good idea of the structure, I fill it in with all the scenes I’m missing.

Look, I know this isn’t the easiest process or the most logical, but it’s how I best create stories. When I try to work against this process, my stories are terrible. That’s because when I don’t allow my imagination to drive the process, I default to formula to create structure. That’s no bueno, my friends.

I’m not sharing this because I think you should write stories the way I write them. Instead, I simply want to suggest to you that if you’re stuck, you might be struggling to understand your own process. Alternately, if you’re a plotter and find yourself hitting roadblocks, maybe try to shake things up a little. If you can’t write the next logical scene, jump ahead to another chapter or scene you know is coming. Sometimes we think we’re linear writers when we’re not. You can be a plotter and easily write your scenes out of order because you already have the plan in place. Or, if you write by the seat of your pants, maybe just do a quick sketch of what you think the scene you’re about to write is really about. That might speed things up a bit.

Bottom line: You have to go where the juice is, and to get there you have to understand your process (the squeeze).

You’ll know the juice when you see it. Your fingers will itch to start typing. When you talk about those scenes, your speech will speed up and people will remark on the way your eyes glow.

Knowing your process is basically understand where to find your juice. I rebel against structure and linearity, so my juice requires me to mix things up and not commit too soon to plan for the story. Your juice might require intricate plotting using Excel or a storyboard. Or your juice might be diving off the cliff and plowing through the story from page one to The End without stopping. All of these methods are valid as long as they get you to your juice.

Writing is work, but it should not feel like punishment. If you’re honoring your process, you will still have tough days, but you will move past them more quickly because you’ll understand how to get back to the juice faster.

Now, a caveat: It took me a long time to understand my process. It involved me blocking out all the well-intentioned advice and getting out of my own damned way. I took a lot of classes and tried a lot of methods. In addition, sometimes a story will throw a curve ball and you’ll have to try some new approach. The point is, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know your process. Also, if you know your process, don’t be slave to it to the detriment of your work. And for goodness sake, don’t turn into one of those insufferable artistes who use process as an excuse for being a jerk.

Getting to your juice is simply about knowing how your imagination processes ideas and how to best organize your work flow to optimize it. If you’re stuck, try something new. If you’re not sure what your process is, keep working. Eventually the patterns will reveal themselves. Just never forget that if writing feels like punishment you might be approaching it in a way that doesn’t optimize your flow.

Happy writing, friends.

DFW Con Schedule

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April 23-24, I’ll be at DFW Con in downtown Ft. Worth. I first attended this event two years ago and found it to be a rally great experience. I’m excited to be presenting again this year. The guest of honor this year is Christopher Golden, and there are a ton of great speakers lined up. If you’re in or near DFW, you should check it out!

More info about DFW Con can be found here.

My schedule:

Saturday, 4:00-4:50. Workshop – So Here’s My Problem. Room 202B.
Instructors will help writers with whatever writing challenge they bring to the table. Each of the FOUR writers will have 11 minutes to discuss their problem and receive feedback from the instructors.
Moderator: Melissa Lenhardt
Panelists: Jaye Wells, Paul Black, Steven Salpeter, Nadia Cornier, Tara McKelvey

Sunday, 8:00-8:50 am. Panel – Independent & Small Press Publishing. Room 202C.
A panel on independent and small press publishing.
Moderator: D.L. Young
Panelists: Laura Maisano, Pamela Skjolsvik, Jaye Wells, David Doub, Harry Hall, Lindsay Cummings

Sunday, 11:00-11:50 am. Delivering Your Pops and Payoffs. Room 202B.
Good stories don’t happen by accident. To master the art of delivering satisfying tales, writers must learn how to effectively make story promises in Act One as well as how to deliver satisfying payoffs by The End. This class will explore the types of promises you must make from the first line of your story, demonstrate a variety of tools you can use to make those promises, and offer strategies to avoid cheating your readers out of satisfying payoffs.

Early Craft Thursday: Escape Hatches

Today for an early Craft Thursday, I have a guest post up at the wonderful Writers in the Storm blog about writer burn out.

Here’s a preview:

See, what I figured out is that everyone needs a hobby. We each need something that doesn’t have ego or income tied to it. When my hobby became my job, I lost that safe space where I could create without fear.

We don’t talk enough about the causes of burn out in the writing community. Everyone is too afraid of admitting that they’re not super successful that they don’t know when to ask for help. Don’t let this be you. The writing life you save might be your own!

Read the post over at Writers in the Storm.

Craft Thursday: Old Dog, New Tricks

One of the most important things any writer can do is be open to learning new tricks. Continuing education of all types keeps your tool box stocked and your edges sharp. Because Craft Thursday is all about helping provide tools, I thought I’d share a new trick I recently discovered.

I just finished a book yesterday. Yes, it’s the book I waxed poetical about in my last Craft Thursday post–the one that helped me find my song again. The thing is, even though this book represents a lot of personal triumph for me and is probably the closest thing to a book of my heart as I’ve written, it still needed lots of technical craft to pull off. Enter: Revisions.

I did a rewrite of the draft last fall and have, since then, been working on edits. Once I’d dealt with beta readers’ feedback and my MFA mentor’s copious notes, it was time to do my final read-through.

For years, I have extolled the virtues of reading work out loud. I’d read several portions of this book to myself throughout the revision process, but I planned to read it all the way through for the final pass. I mentioned this on Facebook the other day, and it started an interesting conversation with author P. T. Michelle. She claimed that having the book read to her via text-to-speech was a crucial step in her own revision process.

I’ll be honest. At first, I was a bit skeptical. The mechanical quality of TTS was off -putting. Besides, I’d been doing my read-aloud trick for years and it worked just fine, thank you very much.

But then, just because I wanted to prove I was right, I tried it on a chapter. This was the first chapter of the novel–the one that had been read and reread dozens of times. It had been edited and run through Grammarly and vetted by betas. I’d read it out loud, myself, probably ten times. So you can imagine my surprise when the TTS voice found some things I’d missed throughout all those other passes.

I was sold.

It took me about five days to get through the entire book. I used the TTS on my Mac. Patrice said she used her Kindle but I wanted to have a little more flexibility so the computer worked better for me. Here’s what I did: With the printed manuscript in front of me, I’d highlight the chapter I was working on and set the TTS to go. As the voice read out loud, I read along on the printed version. If I caught an error, I’d mark it with a highlighter or pen. Making extensive edits wasn’t possible if I wanted to keep up with The Voice. At the end of each chapter, I’d go back through the draft and make the appropriate changes. Doing them that fast meant I didn’t forget why I marked a word or passage. It also meant that by the time I was done going through all the chapters, my edits were pretty much done.

I can not tell you how helpful this strategy was in accomplishing a lot of fine editing work. It’s tedious work, but so crucial. I will say that this is not for rough drafts. It’s for that moment when you’ve done all your rewrites and layering work and wordsmithing passes. It’s for that final pass, where you want to catch those typos, rhythmic stumbles, or continuity issues. The continuity thing was a huge surprise, actually. I caught a ton of them with this method–way more than I’ve ever caught reading the book myself. I also realized that both listening to the book and reading it allowed me to catch more missing words, which I tended to fill in when I only read it out loud.

Yes, the monotonous voice of the TTS guy took some getting used to (my Mac had an option of six voices–three female and three male), but I think the lack of inflection actually made it easier for me catch mistakes. I also appreciated the ability to adjust the reading speed. I think the Kindle has a better-sounding TTS, but, like I said, I preferred being able to spread out on my desk and mark up the printed file.

So what have we learned here? First, if you haven’t tried this method, I’d definitely recomend it. Second, I personally learned that even though I tend to be someone who is always trying to learn new things, I still can get stuck in my ways. Lesson learned.

What new tricks have surprised you lately?

 

Children of Ash is Here!

The long-awaited sequel to Meridian Six is finally here! The novella comes in at a whopping 40,000 words, which is almost a novel but not quite. With the story growing so much, I’m considering writing a full-length novel in this world if the demand exists for more of these stories.

A masterful fusion of post-apocalyptic fiction, dark fantasy, and subtle social commentary, this is, simply put, the best self-published vampire story I have read in my 20 years of reviewing. And it’s just the beginning of a series that has the potential to change the landscape of genre fiction. Mark my words: It’s that good. -Paul Goat Allen on Meridian Six 

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The exciting second installment of the Meridian Six series …

Freedom is a luxury paid for with blood.

Several months after their first victory over the vampires, Meridian Six and her band of rebels are called in to Book Mountain for a brand new mission. The leader of another rebel group needs help saving children who were captured by the Troika and sent to Krovgorod, the worst of the vampire labor camps. Getting inside the prison camp will be simple, but escaping it will be hell.

Red means life.

Buy Children of Ash now!

Kindle | Kobo | iBooks | Nook

Note: iBooks and Nook are coming. I’ll update this post with links once they are available.

If you have not yet read the first novella in this series, please check out Meridian Six.

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In a world at war, freedom is a luxury paid for with blood.

The daughter of a rebel leader, Meridian Six was used as a propaganda tool and blood slave to her vampire captors for years after her mother died. When she finally escapes, she runs toward a red light signal that leads the way to the underground world of human rebels. All she wants is freedom, but what she finds instead of a rebellion in search of a hero–and for some reason they think she fits the bill. The vampires used her famous name as a tool of oppression, but now the humans want to use it to inspire a revolution.

Buy Meridian Six now!

Amazon | B&N | Apple | Kobo | Audible

 

An MFA and the Mid-Career Author

“Why are you here?”

It’s the second day of my first residency at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. It’s January in Pennsylvania. I had to buy a coat for the trip because in Texas we only wear jackets. I’m freezing, but I’m excited. I’m in graduate school, finally. But it’s the second day, and despite my efforts to be just one of the students, word has spread like wildfire through the student population. “We have a published author in the new class.”

Suddenly the shy smiles I’d been receiving morph into furtive glances and whispers as I walk past. A few bold students corner me and ask that question: “Why are you here?”

Trust me, it’s a question I asked myself several times as I decided to apply to the program and after I was accepted as I filled out student loan paperwork and even as I bought my brand new coat. But, when a stranger corners you and demands to know why you’re there, you start to doubt yourself. Was I crazy for going back and getting my MFA ten years into a successful career? The answer is probably yes, but as it turned out, the MFA program saved my career.

During that first residency, I was a week away from the debut of my brand new Prospero’s War series. DIRTY MAGIC was poised to do Big Things. My first series was pretty successful and had landed me on a bestseller list. My new concept was tight (The Wire with Wizards) , and people were excited, and I knew I’d written a good book. So, when I entered the program, I was an already-successful author who was going to strengthen my craft and learn how to teach writing to earn a little extra scratch. That was basically the pat answer I gave to everyone who asked that week.

Fast forward. Dirty Magic comes out. Reviews are great. Sales are … well, they’re fine. Some of my readers are mystified by the grittier procedural tone of the books. Others wonder why it wasn’t funny like my previous series. I found some new readers, though, and they liked it. My colleagues said I’d done something new and awesome. But it was clear very quickly this series wasn’t gaining the traction we’d hoped for–a reality that was only amplified when the second book came out and sales dropped dramatically. There’s a laundry list of reasons this happened. I won’t share them because they’ll make me sound bitter. It happens. It’s part of the deal, right? Sometimes fortune favors you. Sometimes you write your ass off and you’re left without much to show for it.

The first semester of my graduate school experience, I wrote DEADLY SPELLS, the third book in the series, as well as two novellas I owed my publisher. Writing an entire novel and two novellas in four months is not easy. Add to that the pressures of promoting the new series, juggling my other grad school work, and my growing unease over several things happening in The Industry that were effecting my career trajectory, and you have yourself a recipe for a major case of burn out. When my editor came back and said they wanted a new book deal I told her I was going to take a break and focus on school. I appreciated their faith in me to continue to write good books, but I did not share that faith anymore. It all felt too capricious. I’d been killing myself for seven years to write novels and promote myself and build a career, but I realized that my imagined success was built on a foundation of quicksand. I was ten times the writer I was when I got my first contract. I was working harder than I’d ever worked. But my income had decreased to the point where I wasn’t sure I could afford to be a writer any more.

But I was already in grad school. Going into my second semester, I decided to write a story idea that I’d had for a few years that was in a genre I’d never written. If I was going to be in school, I was going to make the most of the chance to workshop new types of stories. I was finally, after years of being under contract, going to allow myself to play and experiment. Looking back, I know now that if I hadn’t been in my MFA program, I probably would have stopped writing altogether (not for good, probably, but for a good, long while). Having those monthly deadlines kept me writing. Writing something as an experiment took the pressure off. I told myself that the only thing this new book had to do was earn me my MFA. I didn’t have to publish it when it was done. Man, I can’t convey the freedom that gave me–it gave myself permission to fall in love with writing again.

A year-and-a-half later, I am almost done with that book. I know it is the best book I have ever written. I have no idea if it will ever find a place in the market, but I don’t care. Sometimes you write things just because you need to write them. High, Lonesome Sound is a book about a girl who’s lost her song. I realize now that girl was me. I’d lost my song and writing this book helped me find it again.

Yesterday, I read Chuck Wendig’s post about the challenges a writer faces mid-career. My mid-career crisis landed me in grad school. I believe that part of me knew my crash was coming even before Dirty Magic came out. The signs had been there for a while even if I hadn’t admitted them to myself.

As I mentioned in my post “Habits of Happy Writers” a while back, I saw this great documentary called “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” which was about backup singers. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter,” commented on her lack of success as a solo artist:

I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”

The thing is, for the first several years of my writing career, this was my belief, too. I loved telling stories so of course I’d be successful. In my defense, I had a pretty auspicious start. My first contract was one of those dream deals–six figures, multiple books, pre-empted. From the beginning, I believed that my passion had simply paid off. Truth was, I was lucky. That isn’t lack of confidence speaking. I know I am a good writer, but lots of better writers than me never get that kind of deal. Truth is, loving stories is its own end. It’s enough. What does success mean, anyway, when we control so little?

The lessons I’ve learned over the last couple of years are the kind that new writers might not understand. Some of you even now might be sneering about how you wish you had my problems. I used to be there, too. I thought what I wanted was big book deals and best seller lists and awards. But I’ve had those, and I’m here to tell you that they won’t make you happy. That lesson, sadly, is never learned the easy way. But trust me when I say that you’re better off protecting your love of writing than chasing popularity or money. I love making money and the minor fame I’ve achieved can be really fun. But seeking those things can no longer be the engines that drive me. Fame and money are fickle masters.

“Why are you here?”

My cohorts in the program did me a favor. They were asking the question that needed answering. Not “why are you in grad school?” but “why are you here, period?” It’s helped remember why I started writing in the first place. It’s allow me to forget about marketing myself and my books for a while so I could focus on craft. It’s proven to me that I am a good teacher and that teaching needs to be a part of my career moving forward because it keeps me excited about the craft. It’s humbled me and reinvigorated my reverence for writing.

I have five months left in the program. Part of me is ready to be done, but another part of me is dreading the end. Seton Hill has been a safe place for me–an incubator and a safe community of like-minded writers. Soon enough, I’ll send my little thesis novel to my agent, and I’ll face the anxiety of waiting to see if the world cares about my story. I am okay with that because I know that what really matters is I care about my story. What the rest of the world thinks isn’t as important as the fact I found my song again, and I intend to sing it for a good long time.

-JW

 

P.S. Inevitably someone will comment on this post that an MFA is a waste of time. Or someone will claim that I’m saying that every writer needs an MFA. In fact, I don’t believe most people need an MFA. Remember, I’d published a LOT of novels before I went back to get my degree. I was largely self-taught with the help of a few kindly mentors along the way. It’s also worth noting that I entered an MFA program that taught popular fiction, which is my specific field. I felt like I finally knew enough to teach someone something about writing and knew SHU would help me learn how to teach popular fiction to new writers. As it happened, it also helped cement the gaps in my knowledge through study of genre, critique workshops and theory discussions. I don’t think anyone should enter an MFA program just because they think it will get them published. You get out of the program what you put in. It’s not a matter of simply showing up, doing the minimum required and suddenly you’ve got a publishing deal. For some, the community and accountability of a program like this can be incredibly inspiring and helpful. But whether you get an MFA, or you just write your ass off, there are no guarantees in publishing–or life. If getting a degree will help you do the work you need to do to become a writer, then go for it. If you think it’s a BS waste of time, don’t bother. There are thousands of roads to take. I’d just advise you to take the ones that scare you the most because they’ll teach you the most about yourself.

2015 In Review

It is my habit to begin every year by looking back over the previous year and reflecting on the things I learned. Often, I am shocked at how much happened and how much I managed to accomplish. In many ways, 2105 was a great year. I traveled a LOT and met so many cool people, and I learned quite a bit about myself and what I want from my writing career. It was also a year of transformation and transition.  I spent a lot of time feeling like I was spinning my wheels professionally, but I’m starting to feel myself gain some traction again. Hopefully that will be the trend of 2016–forward motion toward things that make me happy and fulfilled and  leaving behind the things that don’t matter. Regardless, I am thankful for the lessons I’ve learned, the people I’ve met and the ones I’ve come to know better, and for the chance to continue on this crazy journey.

Places Visited:

Pittsburgh (twice)

Houston (twice)

Grand Cayman (twice)

Charlottesville, VA

Salado, TX

New Orleans

Scotland

Raleigh, NC

Hilton Head, SC

Phoenix, AZ

Falmouth, Jamiaca

Cozumel, Mexico

 

Publishing Stats:

Stories published: 2 (Deadly Spells and The Uncanny Collection)

Stories completed: 4 (2 short stories, 1 novella, 1 novel draft)

Speaking Engagements (keynotes, cons, panels): 6

Other: Dirty Magic and Cursed Moon optioned for TV

 

Personal Stats/Fun 2015 Facts:

-Turned 40

-Renovated my house

-Became the mom of a teenager

-Took SCUBA diving lessons

-Completed two terms of grad school

-Worked with the Pixel Project campaign to end violence against women

 

But what about my plans for 2016? Well, I know I’ll be traveling and teaching and writing. I’ve got two projects lined up for release in the next month or so. The Urban Allies anthology will come out this July.  There’s a novel that I want to write that will require a lot of research and a trip to an exotic land. There’s another novel that is trying really hard to lure me into yet another genre. There are short stories for Kate Prospero and Sabina Kane to be written. I also will graduate from grad school in June. Once that happens, I intend to celebrate and give myself a much-needed break from trying to conquer the world. Will this finally be the year I learn to relax? Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Treat

It’s a Krampus miracle, y’all! Just in time for the holidays, I’ve marked down The Uncanny Collection to just $.99 in all ebooks formats.

You should buy this short story collection if you are a fan of:

-Carnivals where wishes are granted in terrible ways
-New Orleans’ creepiest musicians
-Demons in nun dormitories

And, really, who isn’t?

Buy The Uncanny Collection now!

Kindle | iBooks | Kobo | Nook

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THE WEREWIFE: One week after she is bitten by the dog-faced boy at a traveling carnival, a mild-mannered housewife gets a sudden, unrelenting craving for raw meat. She doesn’t remember eating the cat or running naked through the park under the full moon, but her husband’s getting strange calls from concerned neighbors. When he takes her back to the carnival a year later, looking for a cure, it’ll either get better…or a whole lot worse.

THE BLUEST HOUR: A journalist travels to New Orleans to track down the mysterious “Soul Singers”–psychopomps who guide spirits into the afterlife. In this city known for music and its connection to death, a man can learn things he’s not ready to know.

THE DEADLINE: An ambitious journalist opens an investigation into the decade’s old murder of a priest and a nun at a local Catholic college. She swears she’ll do anything to earn her big break, but the price could be her very soul.

Buy THE UNCANNY COLLECTION now!

Kindle | iBooks | Kobo | Nook

The Uncanny Collection: Tales of Mayhem and Magic

Hello friends!

It’s almost Halloween, which is my favorite holiday. To celebrate I’ve decided to release a special short story collection.

 

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Here, every day is Halloween, and the tricks and treats are endless. This collection of three supernatural tales is sure to give you lots of chills and thrills.

THE WEREWIFE: One week after she is bitten by the dog-faced boy at a traveling carnival, a mild-mannered housewife gets a sudden, unrelenting craving for raw meat. She doesn’t remember eating the cat or running naked through the park under the full moon, but her husband’s getting strange calls from concerned neighbors. When he takes her back to the carnival a year later, looking for a cure, it’ll either get better…or a whole lot worse.

THE BLUEST HOUR: A journalist travels to New Orleans to track down the mysterious “Soul Singers”–psychopomps who guide spirits into the afterlife. In this city known for music and its connection to death, a man can learn things he’s not ready to know.

THE DEADLINE: An ambitious journalist opens an investigation into the decade’s old murder of a priest and a nun at a local Catholic college. She swears she’ll do anything to earn her big break, but the price could be her very soul.

Buy THE UNCANNY COLLECTION now!

Kindle | iBooks | Kobo | Nook

But that’s not all!

The Hot Scott - 600x960If you’re not such a fan of spooky stuff, I have a treat for you. Did you know I write paranormal romance under the name Kate Eden? This series is a lighter option for my readers who like more humor in their Jaye Wells stories.

The first book in the Murdoch Vampire series, THE HOT SCOT, is on sale for only $.99 on both Kindle and iBooks!

 

Hope you enjoy all these tricks and treats. Stay spooky, y’all!

Craft Thursday: The Lived-in Story

house_1313667821_crop_550x415This week, we began a big house project to update all the paint, carpet, etc. We live in North Texas, where the foundations are as shaky as a drunk during a sobriety test. This means our walls are riddled with hairline fractures and buckled walls that look like scabs. So it’s time to update.

I’m pretty excited about this work. One of the reasons we’re doing it is because it’s cheaper than moving. When one-half of the income earning team is a writer, it’s not a great idea to buy more house than you can afford. So we’re staying in the house we can afford and making it nicer.

But yesterday, when the dry wall guy came and got to work on the cracks, sadness hit me out of nowhere.

See, he wasn’t just fixing the foundation shift fractures and scabs, he was also erasing all of the little imperfections caused by a decade of my family’s life. For example, when my son was five or six he loved to hang off things. It’s what little boys do. Unfortunately, that included the towel rack in his bathroom. For the last eight years, every time I walked into his bathroom, I saw the two little holes where the brackets used to be. Every time, I’d think back to when he was five and so rambunctious I wasn’t sure either of us would survive it. Now, he’s thirteen and he’s taller than me. He’s calmer now, too, and hardly ever hangs off things. Those two little holes were the only evidence I had that he used to be that little daredevil. And now they’re gone, smoothed over. Erased.

Those two holes were proof that a real family lives in this house. It’s a family that’s been too busy being happy to waste time fixing every hole that appeared while we bumped and danced our way through the chambers of this heart disguised as a home.

It’s all made me realize that while I’ve longed for a more perfect house, there are trade-offs. When you smooth things over too much, you lose something. Hospital corners and perfectly taped wall seams please the eye, but they don’t do much for the heart.

Naturally,  this reminds me a lot of writing. I’ve been in my MFA program for a year and a half now, and two weeks ago I completed the draft of my thesis novel. I’ve given myself a couple of weeks off to let the story marinate, but soon I’ll return to it to begin the long, harrowing process of revision. There’s a lot riding on this book. Not only is it how I will earn my MFA, but it’s also, hopefully, the next book I will have published. It’s risky because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s, to use a trite phrase, a book from the heart.

What I’m saying is disaster could be imminent (in writing it always feels that way), and so every time I think of this book–this book of my heart–I think about its imperfections.: the lazy prose, the leaps in logic, the clunky metaphors–the usual first draft stuff. But there are other imperfections. This is the first time I’ve written a multiple POV third person novel. It’s the first time I’ve written this genre, which I’m calling “Appalachian Gothic.” Purists might be able to nitpick my approaches to the techniques and tropes. They’ll say I’ve broken The Rules.

But here’s the thing I’m realizing: All those “mistakes” might just be proof that someone real has lived inside that story. We talk so much about polishing our drafts and editing, which are very important, but we must be vigilant that in our efforts to polish the products of our hearts and minds that we do not erase all signs of experimentation and messy truths, or the love. Art is not about hospital corners and smooth walls. It’s about taking risks and throwing yourself against the walls and exposing your stained carpets and scabby dry wall to the world.

It’s not something we talk much about in the popular fiction world. We talk about The Business and What’s Hot in the Market. But I maintain that the best genre fiction is the kind that takes the limitations of convention and uses them to create something new and exciting. Art doesn’t come from abundance and endless options. It comes from scarcity and limitations. It’s about using what you’ve got in a creative new way–whether you’re talking about creating a new piece of music from a limited range of notes or painting using a limited color palette or creating a new kind of story using the conventions of a specific genre.

My point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, and when you revise, don’t polish it so much that it loses its personality. That personality might just be your voice. Do you want to sound like everyone else? Do you want all of your story walls to look perfect and smooth and be the same neutral color as all of your colleague’s story walls?

Maybe you do. Maybe that’s the safest route, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Plenty of writers earn very respectable livings by producing neutral stories that deliver pleasing symmetry and smooth walls to readers who want that sort of reliable reading experience. Lord knows, a “house” with holes in the walls and mystifying paint colors are a tougher sell.

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last two years is that success isn’t guaranteed on either path. Markets shift on a dime, readers’ tastes are fickle, and writing is too fucking hard to do it without making sure it satisfies something inside of you. Personally, I’d rather fall on my face with a book that’s got part of my soul in it than become a millionaire writing beige stories. I have friends who have the total opposite approach. It works for them, and I’m happy for any writer who finds a way to be happy in this career. Every writer has to make that choice for themselves, and there’s no right answer that fits everyone. Whatever path you choose, just do it with intention, is all I’m saying. Also, understand that both paths are hard.

But even if you choose the neutral path, don’t be afraid to add a pop of color here and there: a decorative throw pillow in the form of a character who goes against stereotypes, an accent wall in the form of a plot twist, or a beloved ding in the walls that you don’t take out because it’s what made you fall in love with that world to begin with. Show your readers that a real person lived in that story and that while you lived there you had a hell of a time.