Jaye Wells

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.

On Stereotypes, Empathy, and My “Gypsy” Shame

About fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. This was back before I embarked on a serious study of the craft. I just thought writing a book would be fun. I loved romance and thought it would be a good place to start my first story. I also liked historical stories, so that also seemed good. The fact I didn’t have a time period or specific country in mind didn’t matter. I’d figure all that out. What else did I need? Well, I always sort of liked stories about magic. What if I threw a lady who did magic? Wait! I know, I thought, I’ll add a gypsy. In fact, I’ll call the book GYPSY WOMAN!

If I could go back in time and have a chat with my former self, I would. I’d pour us each a glass of wine. I’d pat her on the knee and say, “Listen to me, sweet summer child. You’re an idiot.”

Let’s ignore the fact I believed I could write a historical novel without a lick of research or any clue as to the time period or setting. The problem is that in my ignorance about the craft of writing, I defaulted to trope and stereotypes I’d read for years in novels as crutches. “I’ve seen this everywhere, so it must be right.”

What I didn’t know then, and do now, is that stereotypes are a lazy person’s way of categorizing the world.

See, the term “gypsy” is racist. It’s a derogatory term that originated with the erroneous idea that the Romani people came from Egypt. They are one of the most discriminated against groups in all of Europe. The problem with the word “gypsy” is it implies that the people we call that have chosen a lifestyle that often is associated with thievery and other unsavory characteristics, instead of the more accurate term “Roma” or “Romani” that identifies people as part of a racial minority.

“But, Jaye, I see the term ‘gypsy’ everywhere! There are whole TV shows about them.”
Yes, racism and stereotypes are rampant in our society. The fact a term commonly is used doesn’t make it okay. Nor does the fact that the Roma people are often depicted as magical thieves make it true. Nor does the fact that women are portrayed as needing to be rescued by men make all women helpless. Nor does the fact that black people often are portrayed as criminals make every black person a criminal. Yet the more we see these stereotypes repeated in media, the harder it is to dispel them.

When we talk about racism and lack of diversity in writing, it’s often presumed that the source is antagonism. Privileged white authors must be doing all of this on purpose because they want to remain the dominant voices. They’re racist, sexist, elitist, etc. While I do think this may be the case in too many instances, I have a different theory to share about the majority of examples of stereotyping we see in fiction.

Ready?

People are lazy.

Ignorance is usually a product of lack of opportunity or a very passive or isolationist mode of living. But sometimes it’s just that people lack the motivation to try to expand their consciousness. Yes, I understand privilege plays a major role in this, too. Privileged people lack the motivation to challenge their thinking because their very privilege allows them to be comfortably ignorant of the challenges or unfair biases toward less privileged groups.

But when it comes to writing, I think a lot of the stereotypes we see are the result of authors defaulting to short hand characteristics for characters because they: A) don’t want to think too hard about things and OMG the deadline’s looming and/or B) they lack the life experience to know they’re making ignorant decisions and/or C) they’ve never had their limited scope challenged.

Here’s the thing, as writers our job is to understand people. Good writing results from fostering empathy (the ability to understand or share the feelings of other people) for our characters. To accomplish that, we must first be empathetic. How do we acquire empathy? Travel is a wonderful empathy booster. But not everyone can travel the world.

So…

That’s where books come in.

Through stories, we’re exposed to people different from us. We see how they handle the world and understand the things that motivate them, scare them, satisfy them, etc. We see them overcoming challenges we may never face. We cheer them on. We cry for them.
So if one of the purposes of stories is to foster empathy, doesn’t it then stand to reason that one of the most important jobs of an author is write characters in a way that fosters empathy?

ouroboros-tattoo-meaningIn short, storytelling is an Ouroboros of empathy. It’s circular. The more we read stories that foster empathy, the more empathetic we’ll be as readers, writers, and humans.

The me that tried to write GYPSY WOMAN was not a terrible person. She was an ignorant one. She didn’t understand craft, she lacked insight into what made stories good, and she lacked the experience to understand that she was insulting a race of people. Luckily, that book was never finished so it could never, ever be published. I would be ashamed if it were, and I often tell the story of trying to write it to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a writer (and person) through hard work, exposure to new ideas, and gaining maturity.

Now, after having written more than a million words, I know that my biggest job is to write characters who are not short-hand stereotypes. Characters, even if they are of a certain group or archetype, should always surprise the reader. They should always have unique traits that remind the reader that a person may be categorized by many things, but we must never ignore their individuality or humanity.

I know I have made mistakes. Readers have pointed them out to me, and I have tried to learn from that and do better next time. But I never approach a story now without asking myself if I’m doing the best I can do provide my readers with characters with whom they can empathize.

So how do we tackle fostering empathy and expanding our understanding of people different from us in our writing?
1.    Read diversely. Seek out stories written by authors who are different from you. Read a variety of genders, races, ages, and life experiences. The more you are exposed to diverse ideas the more you will understand the world and the people in it.
2.    Travel. Go to other neighborhoods in your town and observe the different rhythms and habits. Be sure also to note what’s the same as where you live. In other countries, don’t stay in hotels that cater to Americans. Eat where the locals eat. Hang out in non-touristy areas. Listen, pay attention, have an open mind.
3.    Don’t be afraid to have your worldview challenged. It’s scary when things you believe are brought into question, but that’s called growth. Be a student of life and let it teach you new things. Seek out different ideas. Even if the ideas seem wrong, ask yourself why the other person might find value in them.
4.    Be patient. You will make mistakes. People will point out those mistakes, and your first instinct will be defensiveness. Try to sit with that without reacting. Once the feeling passes, ask yourself if there’s anything to learn from the experience. Writing is a constant process of challenge, learning, processing, and growing. If you’re patient with it, the best rewards will be intensely personal and life expanding.
5.    Ignore critics who try to shame you for not playing to stereotypes. Readers can be lazy, too. They will accuse you of writing “unrealistic” characters if those characters don’t conform to the reader’s overexposure of stereotypes. You may even experience pressure from the market to write certain types of characters because they’re hot. Decide where your line in the sand exists. Don’t let anyone push you across it just to earn a few extra bucks.
6.    On the other hand, if your critique group or conscientious reviewer or readers point of problems of derogatory stereotypes in your writing, listen to them. One of the reasons we seek out critique is to help us see things we are blind to in ourselves, including biases and prejudices.

This is a very complex topic with implications far beyond writing. But as I stated before, stories are important because they are often the first (and sometimes only) place where we are exposed to new ideas and people. As writers, we have a responsibility to be honest about people, to do the work of depicting characters that are human and individual, instead of stereotypes, and to always be learning and trying to expand our ability to understand people. Most of all, we must be honest with ourselves when we are not doing our job. Don’t let laziness get in the way of writing great stories.

Happy writing, friends.

Strong Female Characters? Let Me Show You How

I had a great conversation recently with Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about “strong female characters.” We had so much to talk about that she had to break  up the podcast into two episodes.

Here’s Part One:

Strong Female Characters: An Interview with Jaye Wells, Part 1

For any hearing impaired readers, or anyone who prefers to read instead of listen, the transcript should be up soon!

Craft Thursday: Conscious Rebellion

If you spend five minutes in the company of a new writer and you’ll hear the word “rule” at least once. This will especially be the case if you happen to be discussing a best selling author’s book. “They broke the head-hopping rule!” “I don’t know why this person sells so many books, they break the rule about not starting with weather all the time!”

 

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This nifty little graph explains the stages people go through when learning something new. When you start writing, you’re unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing because you’re a novice. You start studying–reading craft books, taking workshops, etc–and suddenly you start understanding the rules of the thing. This is the stage where a lot of new writers I run into are stuck, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

When you start learning the rules of writing, you think you’re figuring it out. Aha! As long as I don’t start with weather and don’t head hop and I never use anything but “said” in dialogue tags I’ll be a bestseller!

Sorry, kid. But the way you get from consciously incompetent to consciously competent is to understand the reasons for those rules so you can learn how to break them effectively. It’s not enough to simply have a To Not Do list.

1. You need to understand that writing by the rules leads to formulaic writing. (Hint: This is bad.)

2. You need to understand that the masters are the masters because they learned the ins and outs of the rules and then broke them with conscious intention. There are no happy accidents when it comes to rule breaking. Unconscious incompetent writers break rules because they don’t know them and it shows. Masters break the rules because they know them and it shows.

2. You have to read books with an eye toward learning instead of simple entertainment. Read with a pen in your hand and make notes as you go. Did the author head hop? Why? Was it effective? Why or why not? How did the author handle a tricky POV shift? How do they structure their scenes? Basically, you need to see how professionals make the sausage so you can get to grinding your own meat. (This is the best metaphor [meataphor?] I’ve ever written)

3. You need to write your ass off. Then you need to have a good critique partner tear that shit up. The trick here is finding someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. Someone who understands that a new writer needs different feedback from a pro. Someone who understands that being a comma Nazi ain’t the same as giving helpful feedback. Lots of national writers’ groups have local chapters that offer critique groups. There are lots of great places online, too (if you have favorites, recomend them in comments, please).

4. You need to challenge yourself to truly understand the concepts you’re learning. It’s one thing to read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to gather tricks for your toolbox. It’s something else to read it and think it’s some sort of storytelling bible. How tired do you think agents and editors are of seeing formulaic crap from new writers who think shallow plot formulas are the key to bestsellerdom?

Look, I liked Saved the Cat. I read it when I was a younger writer. I made the mistake of thinking I could use it as a shortcut to understanding story structure in a real and nuanced way. In short, I thought I could fudge my way toward knowing how to plot. Wrong. Very wrong. Now, I use techniques from that book in specific instances (“Pope in the Pool” is a favorite), but I’d only recomend it as a craft book to read after lecturing the new writer about how it’s not a panacea for your plot issues. Same goes with The Hero’s Journey. If you’re using a list of steps you printed off the internet without having read Hero with a Thousand Faces or Michael’s Hauge’s excellent writing on the hero’s journey, you’re not really learning it. For that matter, you need to read Jung and Edinger to understand the psychology behind why the Hero’s Journey is effective. This is not to say you shouldn’t read Save the Cat or try out the Hero’s Journey steps, but understand that these short cuts don’t equate to craft mastery.

5. You need to understand that most writers go through the stage where they worship rules like a golden calf. Did you know I can always tell when my reviews are written by insecure new writers? They’re always the ones who point out that I broke rules. “She used ‘I’ too much in her first person story!” SMH. Of COURSE I broke the rules. I’m a mutha effin’ professional.

But, listen, it’s part of the process of becoming a pro. When you’re a novice, you’re insecure. Of course you are. As you gain experience and get some chops, you’ll rely less on knowing the rules. You’ll learn to admire people who break the rules well. But for now, when you sneer at a pro writer for breaking a rule, understand that you’re betraying some insecurity. When you say, “How is this idiot a bestseller? They used a prologue!” What you’re saying is, “I need to feel better about my own lack of experience by tearing down those who have more experience.” It’s fine. We’ve all done it. Just understand that the rest of us know the score. And, when you’re done sneering, don’t forget to learn from those idiots who have the success you crave.

6. You need to know that a lot of writing rules are crap. Sometimes they’re influenced by genre trends and sometimes they’re perpetuated by blowhards who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag.

Also? Accept that you will always have more to learn. Yes, even when you reach the pinnacle of unconscious competence. Literature is a fluid art. It’s constantly evolving and writers who think they know everything often get left behind. Plus, there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Isn’t that a relief? Isn’t it nice to know that you are not and never will be a perfect writer? Consider this your permission to experiment and play with the craft. No, you’ll never be perfect, but you can always get better.

Questions?

 

Where I Write

My publisher, Orbit, asked me to take part in a fun thing called Where I Write on Periscope. It was fun to invite viewers into the place where I write all of my books. The original broadcast was live, but now it’s up on the Where I Write web site. You can watch it here.

Here’s a screen shot. If you watch the video you can find out what this is and why it’s super important to me as a writer.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 3.36.36 PM

 

Craft Thursday: Jaye’s Writing Hacks

It’s been a while since I wrote a new Craft Thursday post, and I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the tools that help me write.

“Life is not a support system for art–it’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

I have that King quote hanging on my monitor as a reminder that it’s not the trappings of being a writer that make me better, it’s the writing itself. I mention it here because when I was a new writer, I believed that if I had to cool office, the right fancy pen, and the best laptop, I would be a “real writer.” Eventually, I learned that those trappings of success only made me feel like an imposter, so I stopped trying to look like a real author and just focused on being myself, who wrote because it made me happy, and I needed it to feel balanced in my life.

My point is, don’t think you have to run out and get all the things I’m about to list to be successful. Mostly, these are just tools that have made my life easier, not things that I require. In fact, many are necessary now only because I’m busy. I didn’t use a lot of this stuff when I first started out. It was just me on an old laptop at my dining room table. Bottom line, all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument of some sort, a vehicle for those words (screen, paper, receipt, napkin), and the discipline to apply ink to page. Still, toys are fun, so I hope you find some stuff here that makes your life easier.

So here we go:

IMG_08761. Computer: I used to have an HP that weighed roughly the same as a baby elephant. Then I got a Macbook–a little less heavy but still fairly unwieldy. Both were great for writing. However, I travel a lot for work now, so I needed something portable. I’ve had my Air for four years and just had the battery replaced in the hopes it’ll last a few more. When I’m at home, I hook the Air up to a larger screen on my desk, so I have two screens going. I also use a wireless Mac keyboard, which, when I leave the Air at home and take my iPad instead, I bring along for writing on planes.

2. Headphones: I spend a lot of time writing in cafes and airplanes, so I make sure always to have a pair of headphones on me. I always keep a spare pair of those white Apple headphones (I promise this entire list won’t be Apple products) on me because they’re light and portable. However, my preference is this pair of Bose headphones. I don’t have the  noise-canceling ones, but even the basic ones do a good job of blocking noise and creating a sort of cave of music around my head so I can focus. When I’m drafting a novel I listen to playlists I create for that specific book, but sometimes I just listen to whatever strikes my mood that day. However, when I’m revising I either listen to no music or one of those new agey tracks of water running and temple chimes. They help me focus on the more delicate work of making the word not suck. They’re expensive, so I asked for them for Christmas one year. They’re also big, so I sometimes leave them at home in favor of the cheapies.

3. Word Processing Software: I draft using Scrivener. Because I write my discovery drafts out of order, it helps me keep everything organized and allows me to move easily scenes around. The notecard feature also lets me transfer the scene goals from my storyboard into the program so I easily can reference what scenes I need to write next. It also has lots of great bells and whistles for tracking progress and knowing what you’ve done and what’s left to do. However, I don’t find Scrivener that great for revisions, so I usually compile the draft into Word for that stage. Scrivener is about $45, but there’s a free trial.

 

IMG_08774. Pens! Even though I prefer typing when I write, I have a pen thing. I suspect most writers do. I’m a weird duck because I like a bold blue line, and sometimes it’s hard to find inexpensive pens that I like. Last year, I decided I wanted to start using fountain pens because they make me feel fancy. However, I’m also pretty cheap, and I lose a lot of pens, so I didn’t want to spend a mint. I put out the call and my colleague and friend, Chloe Neill, suggested the Lamy. I now own two. The black pen is a Lamy Safari, and the purple pen is an AL-Star.  They write like a dream. The only thing I don’t love is that fountain pens don’t travel well. You can take out the cartridge and put a fresh one in at your destination, but you can’t use them on planes. The Lamy models are about $22-$40 plus the cost of cartridges. I’ve had these for about six months and have had to replace the cartridges on each a couple of times. I use them A LOT, but I also use Paper Mates, Bics, or whatever’s handy all the time. But the fountain pens are my favorite for longer forms of writing.

IMG_08785. Storyboard. I’m more of a puzzler than a plotter, but I do map out the scenes of my story on a storyboard. Since I’m a visual person, I find having the plot laid out on a storyboard very helpful. This is my current storyboard. I’m getting ready to redo it because I’m starting rewrites on this book. But as you can see I divide the acts into four horizontal rows (Act 2 gets two rows because it’s twice as long as the other acts). I like the board’s wings because it lets me put additional notes or place extraneous scenes when I’m not sure where they’ll end up. Some of my colleagues use different storyboard methods. For example, Vicki Pettersson thinks I’m a crazy person because her storyboards are oriented vertically. Others color coordinate their boards based on POV character or subplot, but I’m just not that organized. At most I’ll have one color for scenes that are done and another for ones I still need to write.

6. Scapple. This software is made by the same people who did Scrivener. It’s a mind-mapping tool, which appeals to my right-brained self. Because each of my Prospero’s War books is based on a different alchemical process, I do a mind map of all the correspondences for each process to help me come up with story ideas. Here’s the Deadly Spells Scapple (mild spoilers ahoy)

7. Meditation. Okay, this is the most woo-woo thing on the list. I started meditating a couple of years ago to help manage stress. I should probably do a whole separate Craft Thursday post on the benefits of meditation for writers. We spend so much time in their heads always thinking, thinking, thinking, that it’s nice to shut the heck up and be in the moment. Also? Meditation helps with focus. I got started meditating by using the Headspace App. It’s free to begin with and provides 10, 10 minute guided sessions to help you learn how to meditate. Andy has a soothing voice, and he has a British accent, so it all feels very important. Once you get through the ten days, you can buy a subscription for the fifteen and twenty-minute meditations. I did this and liked them, but they’re not required. The best thing about meditation is it can be totally self-guided. There are lots of great free apps, podcasts, albums and stuff online. There are also a million different variations that you can try until you see what works best for you. I like Sarah McLean’s stuff. I did a meditation retreat with her a few years ago, and it was fantastic. I don’t meditate every day, but I try to do it often. Sometimes I’ll just put on 10-minute nature soundtrack and focus on my breathing for a bit before I write. It never fails to help me get in the zone fast.

8. Pinterest. A couple of years ago, I started making Pinterest boards for all of my books. In the olden days, like 2009, I used to make poster collages like a kindergartener, except mine had pictures of vampires and stuff. Now I can use Pinterest, which is much easier and doesn’t leave you with Rubber Cement in your hair. There are a lot of side benefits to doing this. First, when your books come out, you can share your boards with readers to show them what your characters and world look like. Second, when you work with a publisher, you can send the board to your designer. Third, when your book gets optioned for TV, you can send the boards to the show runners so they can pitch your books to network execs. Fourth, you can keep interesting links you want to research later for future books all in one place. I’m sure there are others. If you’re visual at all, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not, it’s probably worth checking out. Here’s the Pinterest board for DIRTY MAGIC.

9. Printer. Writers and trees are natural nemeses. People are all, do everything electronic to save the trees! That’s nice and all. I mean, I like trees. I really do. But I also know that the best way for me to edit a book is to print the whole thing out and have at it with a red pen. This means I need a good printer. I’ve found a few features to be pretty helpful so I’ll mention them now. 1. Ability to print two-sided. This actually saves paper, so suck it, environmentalists. 2. A high page-per-minute print rate. 3. Wireless capabilities (so I can print things from my couch). I currently use a Brother HL5470DW. They cost less than $200 at the office supply store. I’ve had it a year, which means that it’s probably almost obsolete. I also have one of those scanner/copier/color printer abominations, but I hate it because it sucks through color ink like a vampire on a bender. I hate it for printing, but it’s great for quick photocopies or scanning stuff quickly to send to my agent or whatever.

This post went a lot longer than expected, but I hope you’ve found some stuff that might be useful. Again, I don’t NEED any of this. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit down with a cheap disposable pen and a pad of paper under a tree (a nice one that doesn’t hold grudges about you killing all its relatives) and write. But these things make my life easier. Happy writing!