Jaye Wells

Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Craft Thursday: The Journeyman Writer

This morning my son asked, “Mom, how do you write a book all the way to the end?”

Keep in mind, this child lives in my home and watches me through every step of writing a book. He hears me belly-aching to my husband when I’ve had a tough writing day. He sees me typing on the computer like a woman possessed. He watches me slave over drafts with the Red Pen O’ Doom. Yet, somehow, the process still seems mystical and mysterious to him.

He’s not alone. “I don’t know how you do it,” people say to me all the time. They always look vaguely suspicious, as if they suspect dark arts are involved. Or they say something like, “I’d like to write a book some day.”

I always want to respond with a smile and, “Today is a day.”

The answer to my son’s question is this: You type a bunch of words until the story’s done.

But the real question is: “How do you write a good book all the way to the end?”

Now that, my friend, is a different answer altogether.

For a long time, I believed that becoming a writer was a lot like when priests claimed they were called to devote their lives to God. To my thinking, one just knew they were meant to be a writer. Sure, there was probably some work involved, but the knowledge that it was your calling made everything easier. It meant you knew the rules and had an innate understanding of how to craft a story.

Then I woke up.

The year I turned 30, I decided to finally stop nattering on about how I wanted to write a book and finally do the damned thing. I signed up for a writing class at the local community college and showed up with sweaty palms and a spiral notebook. Finally, I thought, I’ll find out the secret.

The only secret the teacher revealed was that writing a book is hard work. And that, if it feels hard, you’re probably doing something right.

It turns out this knowledge was incredibly freeing because it allowed me to finally give myself permission to be a novice.

With that in mind, when I wrote my first book, my goal was to just finish something. I didn’t worry so much about whether it would be the Great American Novel or if it was a very good novel at all. I just wanted to prove I could tell a complete story from beginning to end.

When I wrote “The End” on that book, I bawled. It was a watershed moment in the history of Jaye. I’d proven to myself that I had the stamina to stick to one thing long enough to finish. I’d also done something lots of people say they want to do but will never do.

Once I’d crossed that hurdle, I added new ones. With my next book, my goal was to finish a story that didn’t suck as much as the previous one. I managed that by taking more classes, reading every blog I could find about writing, I actively pursued critique. In short, I started collecting new tools for my tool box. Learning how to write novels became my job.

Every book since then, I have tried to push myself a little more. I still take writing classes all the time. I have a critique partner. I read everything I can get my hands on about the craft. Because even though I am a multi-published novelist, I am now and will forever remain a student of the craft.

Every bestseller was a novice at some point, too. Sure, maybe they were born with certain wiring that gave them skills with words and an ability to tell stories. But those are just a foundation. Building stories is a craft and all crafts demand dedication and commitment to acquiring the tools and materials required to get the job done.

Tiger Woods has an unmistakably innate talent for golf, but he still had to practice and learn the rules. He wasn’t born knowing what a bogey was or how to chip a ball out of the sand pit.

Stephen King wasn’t born knowing how to spell or create suspense using sentence structure or how to plot a novel. Those tools were acquired through work and education. Although I suspect in King’s case there really are some elements of dark magic at play, the truth is he’s a journeyman writer. He’s honed his craft, but there is always more to learn. Always. He was born with talent, absolutely. However, he still has to work at it, and I suspect, he’s also always striving to improve. Because …

Without craft, talent is as useful as a car without an engine or tires. It won’t go anywhere.

Don’t think once you reach the level of journeyman, writing will suddenly get easier, though. Its like plate spinning. When you start out, you’re struggling to keep one little saucer spinning. But with each new plate you acquire, the more difficult it is to keep them all spinning. Patience and experience will improve your coordination, but it’s still a lot of work.

Now, I’m not saying every writer, if they work hard enough, will eventually become Stephen King– just like every golfer can’t be Tiger Woods. But anyone can dedicate themselves to learning the rules and tools of the craft. They just have to be willing to do the work.

Anyone can sit down, open a Word file and start typing. Anyone can show up the next day and do it again, over and over until they have something resembling a complete story draft. Anyone can print out that book and try to make it better using the tools at their disposal. Anyone can decide they want to improve and go about  acquiring new tools by taking classes, reading writing books, or joining a critique group.

Mileage varies, of course. Some people will be naturally more adept at using some tools. Some will struggle with prose but catch on to the rhythm of the three act structure. Others will struggle with writing a cohesive narrative, but can write a sentence that will make angels weep. Some won’t be very good at any of it, but they’ll keep trying because they just love the challenge.

You want to know how to write a good book all the way to the end? You become a student of the craft. You experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. You constantly seek out ways to improve. But most of all, you write and you write and you write.

Most people will never become writers because they believe they have to be good at it before they’ve even tried. Perfectionism has killed more writing dreams than any editor or agent.

You want my advice? Give yourself permission to be a novice. But also understand that if you want to write a good book, it takes time, dedication and a tireless drive to always be improving.

But don’t begin by believing you have to know everything. You don’t and, frankly, you never will. No one has ever written the perfect novel. Instead, work with what you’ve got, or you’ll never start at all. And you certainly will never understand the thrill of getting all the way to the end.

 

 

 

Craft Thursday: Writer’s Block

The other day a new product came to my attention: The Writer’s Block.

The product description is as follows:

Feeling boxed in by your current writing assignment? Unpack some inspiration with this beautiful, hand-glazed, stoneware cube that features six thought-provoking cues; Poetry, Mother, Quietly, Hairy, House, Lust. With every roll you’ll hear the ever-so-light jingle of bells, stimulating your ears and eyes to find your muse through the cube’s understated imagery and melodiousness.

Couple things.

First, this product sells for $45. For a ceramic dice. For a ceramic dice that claims to cure your writer’s block.

Second, my favorite part of the description is “you’ll hear the ever-so-light jingle of bells, stimulating your ears and eyes to find your muse.” No, my friends, the sound you’re hearing isn’t a melodic muse summoner, it’s the sound of the makers of this product laughing as they deposit your $45 into the bank.

I’m just saying that $45 buys a lot of pens and paper. Or you can send me $10 and I’ll call your voice mail and scream, “WRITE, DAMN YOU, WRITE!”

Look, I’m not trying to pick on the makers of this product. Okay, yes, I am actually. But my point isn’t about this product specifically. It’s about writer’s block.

A lot of writers steadfastly maintain that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I don’t know whether this refusal to believe is a result of lack of experience with it themselves or a denial borne of self-preservation. Either way, I do believe it exists, but I also think we should call it by its real name: FEAR.

Did your gut just tighten?

Mine did. It tightened because I’ve been there. What’s worse? I’ve been there under deadline. Just remembering that period my chest feels like cold hands are pressing down on my ribs. For me, it wasn’t that I couldn’t put words down on paper. It was that I couldn’t put good ones there. Everything I wrote came out forced and phoney.

Know why? I was forcing it because I felt like a phoney.

Writing is a mental game. Yes, you’ve got to sit in the chair and pound on the keys, but you’ve also got to be in a good head space. If you’re approaching your desk every day thinking, “I’m a talentless pretender. No one will want to read this. I have to do this X way because that Real Writer on X blog told me I had to. If I don’t write something brilliant I’ll die alone and penniless clutching sheeves of unpublished purple prose.”

Try writing something brilliant now. Go on. DO IT NOW! BE BRILLIANT NOW!

Jeez.

All right, everyone simmer down. The sad truth is that no one and nothing stands in the way of our success more than we do. All these perfectionistic messages we feed ourselves, all this impatience we have with our budding talent, all the false expectations of instant fame and success–it all blends together into a cold, bitter slurry of shame that makes creativity impossible.

Yeah, that’s great and all but how to do I get over it, Jaye?

Shh, my pet. Shh. You know how to get over it. You know.

Stand up right now. Go on. No one’s looking.Except me. (waves from the window)

Now do something ridiculous. Shut up. I don’t want to hear it your excuses. Do something crazy. Jump up and down. Do the hokey pokey. Break out into the Running Man.

I don’t care what it is. The point of this exercise is for you to remember two things. 1. Stop taking yourself so freaking seriously. 2. Writing is fun!

Ostensibly, that’s why you started writing to begin with, right? You thought it was a gas to write crazy little stories about interesting characters. Back then, you didn’t worry about sales or your fucking brand. You didn’t care about getting famous. You just wanted to do something that made you happy.

But somewhere along the way that happy fun time turned into frowny-faced frustration time. Maybe the rejections got to you. Maybe you got a few too many one-star reviews on Goodreads. Or maybe you’re just tired of feeling like no one’s ever going to recognize your genius.

Dudes, if you don’t even want to be around you, why would your imaginary friends? Interesting characters don’t want to spend time with Mr. Grumpy Pen, much less tell him their stories. And, you know what? Readers won’t enjoy reading anything you write, either. Hell, chances are good even your real friends are avoiding you. Why? Because you’re no fun any more.

I’m an author. Writing is how I earn my living, and,like any business, it can be frustrating and stressful. But I refuse to spend my life devoting myself to a career that makes me feel shitty. So I refuse to let the bad reviews, the vagaries of fate or the god damned lack of respect people have for female writers or urban fantasy writers or writers in Texas, or any other stupid belittling criticism or headache of the publishing business get in the way of enjoying the hell out of this ride.

So now, when I sit down to write, I try to remember that my first goal is to amuse, amaze or intrigue myself. It’s not possible to feel amused, intrigued or amazed by my writing every day, but my goal is to feel that way MOST of the time. And if that’s not possible, I just try to remember that I’m not trying to cure cancer or figure out the debt crisis. Yes, I take my work seriously, but in the end, my job is to entertain people. And frowny Jaye is not entertaining.

So, my pets, now you have the secrets to avoiding writer’s block. Get out of your own damned way and try to have more fun.* Yes, it really is that simple.

Or, you know, you could spend $45 for a jingling ceramic dice.

 

*If you’ve forgotten how to have fun, then your biggest problem probably isn’t writer’s block. Figure that out before you try to write the great American novel, okay? Therapy is awesome.

Craft Thursday: Crack the Eggs

One of the questions authors are always asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”

While I believe most people who ask this question are genuinely interested in and maybe a little baffled by the writer brain, it misses the whole point of what being a writer of fiction is all about.

Just like an inventor isn’t an inventor unless they take an idea and turn it into a product, a writer isn’t a writer unless they do the work to transform an idea into a story. Getting ideas, in other words, isn’t work. It’s a fact of the average writer’s life. Our brains are wired to constantly scan our surroundings for story inspiration.In every moment of our days, we are both participants in our lives as well as observers.

Instead of thinking of writers are blood hounds constantly on the trail of that one perfect idea, it’s more realistic to imagine us as vacuums. Every waking moment–and usually also when we’re asleep because dreams are fertile with ideas–we’re sucking up everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We become dusty vacuum bags of experience. Every snippet of conversation we overhear, every oddity we notice as we drive, every news story, blog post, commercial, TV show, billboard–all of these things go into our idea bag, where they wait for our subconscious to push them through the filter and offer them up as needed for stories.

I think one thing that unites all writers is that we’re endlessly curious about the world and the people in it. So we watch. We collect. We analyze. Nothing we witness isn’t fodder for stories. So you’ve got this idea bag filled with millions of story nuggets. Does that mean you’re a writer?

No, my friend. You have to use those ideas to create something new.

This is where things get tricky. Let’s using cooking to illustrate my point.

Let’s say you’re hungry but you haven’t been to the store for a while. You open your fridge and find you have three eggs. Hmm, you think. What could I do with these? You rifle through every egg recipe you’ve got in your head. You could just scramble or boil them, but that’s boring. You look in your fridge again. This time you come up with a chunk of cheese. That’s better, but still a little plain. Hmm, you remember you had half a bell pepper and some onion left over from that salad you made two days ago, and a little detective work in the drawers nets a couple slices of ham from the deli.

You set all these items on the counter and realize you’ve got everything you need for a Western omelet. Now, we’re cooking.

But wait. You don’t really have a Western omelet yet, do you? You just have the ingredients. You still have to make them work together. You still have to crack the eggs and beat them. You have to shred the cheese, slice the peppers, onion and ham. You have to cook them all and add the ingredients in just the right way if you want an omelet instead of an egg scramble. You have to master the wrist motion to perfectly fold your omelet. You have to sauté your bell peppers and onions. You have to know when you add the ham and cheese. And when you’re done with all that, you finally have breakfast.

Do you see? Having ingredients (ideas) on hand is not the same as having an omelet (story). It takes creativity and work to turn those ingredients into a meal.

Anyone else hungry?

When you ask me where I get my ideas, I’m not being flippant when my answer is, “Everywhere.” My brain is hardwired to collect ideas. The magic happens when my brain gets a hold of all these disparate elements and proceeds to mix them together to create a story.

But it’s more complex than that. Of course it is.

Your brain would take the same collection of ideas I have and come up with a completely different tale. Why? Because you have different experiences than I do. Experiences we have act as a filter for ideas. If you see a bottle of wine, your brain might filter it to become a romance about a sommelier and a waitress. My brain will take that same bottle and turn it into a vineyard run by vampires as a front for an illegal blood farm (as I did in RED-HEADED STEPCHILD). You might see a roller derby match and decide you want to write a story about a young girl who finds herself and a new family by joining a roller derby team (the movie WHIP IT). I see a roller derby bout and turn it into a subplot about a roller derby team made up of vampires, mages, faeries and werewolves that are coached by a Mischief demon (SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL).

Ideas are everywhere. Everywhere.

But not every idea goes anywhere.

Writers discard more story ideas in a year than they can count. Some seem so perfect but end up being duds. Some duds end up becoming brilliant. The only way to find out which way an idea will go is to work with it. To write.

I could give you a brilliant, million-dollar idea, but unless you get your ass off the couch and open your laptop, that idea plus $2 won’t even buy you an omelet.

You want to know how I get my ideas? I want to ask you how you manage not to get them? But then, you don’t really want to know about ideas at all. You want to know how I tell stories. And the answer to that is quite simple.

I crack a few eggs.

Craft Thursday: I Want To Tell You A Story

If you spend any amount of time online–and trust me, I do–it’s easy to believe that books are on the endangered species list. There seem to be several camps. The Firebrands who give rousing sermons about the ebook revolution. The Luddites who shout “Paper books or death!” The Mediators who want to find a sweet spot where print books and ebooks can peacefully coexist. And then, there are the readers, who just want the next story, please.

It’s a topic of much debate and for a lot of authors like me its a confusing and exciting time. But I’m not here to pretend I know what the future holds for story-telling mediums. I just want to talk about the little issue that keeps getting ignored in all this.

The World’s Real Oldest Profession

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”

–Virginia Woolf

Here’s the truth: Stories existed long before Guttenberg’s printing press or you fired up your first Commodore 64. And for as long as stories have existed, imaginative humans have figured out how to get paid for telling them. That’s not going to change. The medium might look different, the marketing strategies might change, but our species’ craving for a good story will never be sated.

I try to remind myself of this when I start angsting about my future as an author. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the hype, the hyperbole of the book revolution. People are passionate about the topic because they are passionate about books. That’s a good thing. But is the book industry as a whole focusing too much on delivery methods and not enough on the content inside those bytes or pages? Maybe.

We’re all so desperate to protect our incomes that we’ve lost site of the reason we’re all waving flags and issuing battle cries: STORY. If you’re an author and you’re more famous for your guerilla marketing tactics than for the quality of your writing, that’s a problem. If you’re spending more time trying to trick readers into buying your books and less time actually writing them, that’s a problem. If you’re so distracted by the doomsayers that you can’t write a word, that’s a big fucking problem.

Obviously, I’m not saying writers shouldn’t worry about money. If anyone should it’s us. After all, if most people know what we make an hour, they’d pity us. The truth is anyone who gets into the story slinging business to make money is delusional. Almost every writer I know has either a day job or a very patient spouse with a steady income and benefits.

So if writing for money isn’t why we do this, what is?

We write because we love stories. We write because stories help us answer two questions: Who am I? and Who are we (the human race)?

Luckily for us, those two questions can never be fully answered. The quest to understand is never ending. We write because life is messy and hard and sometimes we just want to escape. We write because we crave connection. We write because if we don’t we become faded versions of ourselves.

And you know what? Those are the exact same reasons people read. Therefore, if the quest to understand is never ending, so too is the need for stories. Your stories. My stories.

I write because I love stories. Before I wrote, I told stories around tables with my friends and family. After that, I wrote before I made any money doing it. I will continue to do it even if I can’t make another dime. I love entertaining people. The fact I get to do that for a living is a blessing I try not to take for granted. Eventually, the checks might stop coming, and if that happens I will still share my stories. Because it’s what I do. I can’t not do it.

One day, my beloved print books might be dusty exhibits for museums. One day, stories might be beamed directly to your brain via lasers. One day, storytellers might gather again in town squares to weave a yarn for tips. I don’t know how they’ll be shared. I don’t know how writers will make money. I don’t know if I’ll be living in a van down by the river or in a villa in Tuscany. All I know is …

I want to tell you a story.

 

 

Craft Thursday: Messages From the Liminal

Last night I had one of those dreams where you wake up and think “What was that?” Look, I know, everyone thinks their dreams are really interesting. Meanwhile their audience’s eyes are glazing over and their chins dipping in that sort of polite bobble-headed nod. But this is my blog, so …

I was in a writing seminar. My editor and some sort of instructor were at the front of the room. The question posed was something like, “What is it about writing? What’s the important thing? Why do you do it?”

I’m called to give an answer. Stand. Grandly announce, “It’s all about the words.” I see people shift. Feel uncomfortable myself because I know this is not a real answer. It’s just one of those writerly answers that we use to sound very important and deep.

I hold up my hand. “Actually, it’s not just the words.” I placed my hands on my midsection–just over my diaphragm. “Writing opens the third eye that resides here, in my gut. That eyes sees the world more honestly and clearly than my real eyes.”

And that, my friends, is the real answer.

Craft Thursday: The Fecund Writer

Happy Friday, campers! Sorry I’ve been a little quiet lately. I’ve been in deep drafting mode for Sabina Kane #5, Blue-Blooded Vamp. So far, so good. Yesterday, the plot started meshing together nicely. I’m very pleased.

But enough about work. This weekend is Mother’s Day and I fully intend to milk the benefits. Spawn has promised breakfast in bed and then we’re headed to the Ft. Worth Botanical Gardens. They have a Japanese garden that I’ve loved every since I was young and my dad would take me there to feed the koi. I’m very excited.
herbgarden
What else? Oh! Speaking of gardening, I’ve been taking advantage of the gorgeous weather lately by doing some planting of my own. This is a shot of my patio herb garden. I’ve wanted one for ages and finally got off my duff to make it a reality. Granted, it’s a modest first effort, but given my notorious black thumb it’s a bit of an experiment. For those interested, the plants you see there include: Italian basil, red basil, tri-colored sage, rosemary and cilantro. Plus a purple wave petunia for color and to attract butterflies. Those plus my fledgling jasmine vine (not pictured) should make my backyard smell like a little slice of heaven. Especially on nights when we fire up the chiminea with pinion wood. On a side note, did you know pinion wood is great for keeping mosquitos at bay? Very important around these parts the closer we get to summer.

Anyway, I’m excited about my new little hobby. I come from a long line of gardeners. My grandparents had a huge garden in their backyard as I was growing up. I spent many hours helping tend that thing. There’s nothing tastier than veggies straight from the ground. Also, my father had a nice greenhouse in his back yard for years. He’d grow these beautiful purple cabbages that looked more like ornaments than veggies. One wonders, then ,why it’s taken me so long to get the growing bug. Maybe I’ve just grown more patient. Or I’ve realized that I need a hobby that gets me out of the house more. Probably that.

If you think about it, tending gardens and writing have a lot in common. Like gardeners, writers sew the plot seeds and then struggle to balance the correct amounts of  water (hard work) with sunlight (inspiration). Sometimes it takes a while for that seedling to bloom into its full potential as a story, but you’re always rewarded for your patience. That’s the theory anyway. There’s also the risk of overwatering (forcing the story) or aphids (doubts) destroying the potential before the fragile blooms have a chance to unfurl. But there’s always another season (deadline). More seeds (ideas) to sew. If you’re lucky and you’re persistent, you’ll eventually reap the rewards.

I hope everyone has a great weekend. And to all the mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Craft Thursday: Ideas Are Oxygen

If you’re a writer for any length of time, especially once you’re published, you will inevitably be ask the dreaded question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ll pause now for the authors in the audience to shudder.

It’s not that this question in and of itself is a bad one, its just … well, it’s the wrong question. The truth is writers–and I’d guess most creative people who produce regularly–usually don’t have to look for ideas. Ideas are in our DNA. We don’t know how NOT to be inspired.

Perhaps Kevin J. Anderson put it best yesterday on twitter: “”People often ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I always wonder, ‘How do the rest of you stop them from coming?'”

So why is it the wrong question? Well, it presumes that ideas are enough. They are not. Ideas, as I’ve mentioned are always there for me, the trick is what to do with them. The most brilliant story seed in the world is worthless without doing the work to help that seed reach its potential as a delicate rose or a toothy Venus flytrap or a towering redwood.

The right question, the one you really want answered, is “How do you do that?” And the answer–not the one you want but the one that’s true is–I don’t have a clue.

I like to think of myself as a logical, practical person, but I am also a neurotic, superstitious mess sometimes. Especially about the creative process. So when someone asks me to impose logic on something that is inherently illogical, I freeze up and joke. Or I sidestep it entirely and change the subject because, frankly, I don’t know how to tell you what I do.

I just do it. I do it because I love to tell stories. I do it because I love to play with words. I do it because it’s part of my DNA. I don’t know how not to find inspiration every day. I don’t know how not be endlessly curious about people. And I don’t know how to ignore the voice in my head that says, “This, this is worth exploring. And when you’re done playing with it, you have to share it with other people.”

Earlier, I was looking for a quote to use in something I was writing and ran across one of my favorite Joseph Campbell quotes:

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”

Stories are my sacred place. Writing them is meditation. Sharing them is worship. And just like any great and sacred mystery, it only really works if you don’t look too hard for the man behind the curtain.

When I was a newer writer, I’d sit a trying to analyze it all. I thought real writers understood these things and more than anything I wanted to be a real writer. I’d beg and cajole my subconscious to offer up a perfect idea. But the id is fickle, the collective subconscious is a mysterious beast, and muses don’t take kindly to ultimatums.

These days, I find that the less I analyze this whole crazy creative process, the more creative I am. The less I try to tame things and make them nice and neat and easy to grasp, the more wild and exciting the work will be. The more I let my imagination play and the more I have fun with it, the more rich and satisfying my stories become. So, no, I won’t try to encapsulate a very complex and layered process of creation into a palatable sound bite.

Creating is part how I’m wired, part everything that I’ve ever experienced, seen and done, and part mystery that I’ve given up trying to understand. And that’s the best answer I can give you about how and why I write.

What’s your oxygen? (Besides, you know, actual oxygen) Where is your sacred place?