Writing: Creating the visual world of your story.

As some of you may know, Jenny and I are collaborating on a project, and we’ve been writing crazy volumes (for us) on the story itself, which followed fast on the heels of an insane amount of world-building emails that probably would amount to the volume of another entire book–and that world-building took place in about a six-week frame of time.

This entire process has been an absolute blast. Jenny’s been blogging about a lot of the discovery process we’ve gone through. We’re in discovery draft mode right now, and in one of the discussions on her first scene, the idea of how to build out the world visually came up.

We have a different approach to creating visuals, and different reasons why to do something  (or not do it), and I want to emphasize here that there is no one right way.

Jenny swears she’s not visual, and I wouldn’t have believed her, because she creates the most phenomenal collages for her books, and she’s done one for ours. Trust me, the photos do not do them justice. I had a serious choked-up/tears-in-my-eyes feeling when I saw ours in person, because it really felt like our world, and captured the nature and the couples beautifully. Her first drafts, though, don’t have many scene descriptors, and mine have way too many. At some point, we’ll likely balance somewhere toward the middle because she’ll add some, just so her characters aren’t floating in space, and I’ll pare down to the essentials.

I’ve always been hyper visual–I remember everything in a room I’ve walked through long after I’m out of it; I’ll remember faces (not names), and places, but what I seem to zero on the most is mood/setting/details. Part of that stems from having painted for many years (oils)… or maybe the oils were the result of the hyper-visual bombardment I felt, the need to anchor the world. I started doing photography (that’s a link to my photo gallery) in high school the first time the year-book staff let me use a camera, and I picked it back up recently (which I blogged about here).

But getting that world built on the page without drowning the reader in non-essential detail… that gets tricky. It’s tricky for any book, really, because you want the reader to see the world, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, but you don’t want to ever ever ever stop the story with a dissertation on the room they’re in.

There’s more to the solution of this conundrum than simple brevity. Anyone can put one or two adjectives, or one sentence of a description, but it doesn’t necessarily build the world.

So how to do that, without dragging it down?

Continue reading Writing: Creating the visual world of your story.

Innovation

Innovation.

One of the things that all the hoopla surrounding Amazon vs. Hachette is obfuscating is that the internet isn’t just changing publishing–it’s changing every type of commerce. I’m not all that interested in the controversy surrounding the negotiations, for all the same reasons that I wasn’t interested back when Barnes and Noble did the same thing to S&S… we cannot know what’s really going on, who’s doing what, who’s pulling PR stunts to sway the public vs. who’s the “victim” here. And honestly, if a corporation has to resort to “victim” status to win the war, they’ve already lost. Not necessarily because their customers will leave right away, and not necessarily because they’re going to lose money immediately… but because “victim” status means they have not innovated. They have not gotten out ahead of the curve. In the world of business competition, there are thousands of businesses who fail because their business models are stagnant. They fail to innovate, they fail to see that others are innovating and take advantage of that, and they fail to see that the customer base’s expectations are changing. You cannot stay in business in today’s technological world by doing everything the exact same way you did it forty years ago. Not if you really want to be here forty years from now.

I read a couple of interesting articles yesterday in Entrepreneur Magazine about innovation, and one specifically about three brands that are dying — Quizznos, Sbarro, and Radio Shack, and of the three, the two latter brands depended heavily on mall traffic — traffic that is down by more than half in a lot of malls. And it’s not just Amazon that’s the culprit. People buy online directly from the companies, now — they buy their Apple or Dell computers online. (No one screamed that we should boycott them and stick with Radio Shack.) Sbarro’s sales have fallen through the floor (they’re in bankruptcy) because pizza-by-the-slice has gone by the wayside; people can call in for delivery, or go online for delivery, or buy plenty of very good cook-at-home options. Or they’re eating healthier. The world changed around Sbarro–offering better quality, better ease-of-use–and Sbarro failed to change with it. Worse, they failed to anticipate change and did not innovate within their own model.

Yesterday, I picked up my mail and had tennis shoes from Zappos, a yoga mat from the mat maker, a t-shirt from a small Etsy vendor, a gift for someone that I ordered from a printer in Michigan, and some gadget that my husband wanted from a binocular store. All purchased directly.

Now that the malls are dying off, a lot of small towns are seeing the resurgence of mom and pop stores, because when people can get all of the generic stuff from online shopping, and they save money, they have more to spend locally. (At least, that is what I’m seeing here.) Those stores which are doing really well have a unique service angle to them, that lagniappe (something extra) that keeps their customers coming back. There’s my favorite children’s store in the Quarter (NOLA Kids) which always has unique toys / clothes for kids that I can’t find elsewhere. Her prices are slightly higher, but I think it’s worth it for the unique factor.

There are some fine indie bookstores that (at least, from the outside) seem to be holding their own — like Seattle Mystery Bookshop, and Murder by the Book in Houston, and here in NOLA, Garden District Book Shop. They have all carved out a voice for themselves, offer unique services, and really pay attention to their customers. They are innovating within their models, and they’re catering to their customer’s needs.

That’s the only really interesting thing about the Hachette vs. Amazon battle going on–will Hachette come out of this having figured out how to better innovate, how to improve their own model, to better serve their customers, the readers. (Their customers used to be the bookstores–especially the big chain stores. They had to satisfy one buyer from B&N, one from Borders, etc., and then buyers from the smaller chains. Now, they have to think more globally–the customers, the readers.)

I like Hachette. I particularly like Grand Central, one of their imprints–they put out a lot of good books. They have terrific editors there. I want to see them last. But “winning” against Amazon isn’t where the focus should be, in my humble opinion. It should be, “how can we do what Amazon is doing, but better, smarter, within our own model?” And again, we don’t know–maybe they are trying to innovate to better serve their customer without destroying their own producers. That’s their challenge, now, and I think the outcome will signal a sea change for the industry as a whole.

A few writer-type questions (and answers)

Recently, Tiffany Dailey sent me a few questions for a blog tour type of thing, and they seemed like fun, so I thought I’d answer them.

1) What am I working on?

Currently, I have two projects on the front burners, so to speak, and several projects that circulate on the back burners.

I know, that’s vague and unhelpful, but right now, the two front burner projects couldn’t be more different if they tried, and it may turn out that I don’t do one of them (if they just don’t gel like I expect, or contracted work gets in the way). The back-burner projects are spin-offs of my Bobbie Faye series, and another short-thriller series I’m working on. In my copious spare time.

As for those front burner subjects, I can only vaguely tell you that they’re both historical thrillers in their way, but one is of this world… and one is not.

 

 

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, really, if a writer has a voice and a point of view, their work should be different from everyone else’s work by default. I tend to write very cross-genre stories, mostly because that’s what appeals to me, but also, that’s just how the stories beg to be told. Or rather, maybe it’s that I can’t not write them that way, and the fault lies in my voice.

 

3) Why do I write what I do?

Again, we’re back to voice and choices, and who I am determines what I do. I’m interested in misfits, and how we do (and don’t) fit in, and how that shapes us, forces choices on us. I’m also interested in honor, and what we’ll sacrifice for it, how we handle those challenges to our morals, to our beliefs and principles, and what we’ll give to uphold those principles. Combine the two, and threaten them both, and I’m in story nirvana.

 

4) How does my writing process work?

Very messily. I tend to circle around a project idea, poking at it, doubting it, watching it flare with bits and pieces of inspiration, ’til it catches fire and I have to tend it, care for it, work at it to fan it into something useful, real, full of burning passion (to beat that metaphor to the ground).

Once I have settled on a story, and it’s living and breathing in me in such a way that I can’t not think about it, I tend to start hearing the voices of the characters, see the settings, see scenes snap open in front of me as if I were watching a film. These scenes aren’t always chronological, and don’t necessarily always make it into the book, but they often do.

I tend to have to get the opening to a satisfactory point before moving on. That doesn’t mean it’ll stay the way I’ve written it–it often changes in subsequent drafts as I’ve gotten to know the characters better and their world and dilemma, and the fury and passion they have for what’s at stake for them. But I get something on the page that feels like a beginning, like the right place to jump off, and then I tend to write chronologically.

Somewhere along the way of the brainstorming, though, I tend to storyboard the book, using what I’ve learned from when I was a screenwriter to get the structure to hang together. Storyboarding tends to keep me from losing track of pacing and helps me see the book as-a-whole, and that tends to help me deepen those character issues, building a world that resonates for even the minor characters. Sometimes this act of outlining in storyboard form is just quick sketches on a whiteboard, (sketch in the sense of brief one-sentence descriptions of major turning points), or it can get detailed, with scene cards (in Scrivener) and photos and links, all tucked into a file where I can find what I need.

Mostly, though, it’s just butt-in-chair, writing. I’ll get a good rough draft, and it may be ugly as sin, but it’d a draft, and from their, I can edit.

I love the editing process, because it’s where I take something lumpy and homely and start carving away, adding in what’s needed, and refining and refining and refining until the story starts to evoke what I had hoped for back when I poked at it and doubted it in the beginning. And I fret and worry and talk to friends, and send it out for reads with friends, and listen to their feedback when it resonates, and discard what doesn’t work for me (which is probably the most difficult thing to learn to do as a writer–when to listen, and what to listen to).

Eventually, I send it to my agent, get her feedback, polish some more, and then, with fingers crossed, hope like hell it’s done, because by then, I’m generally fairly ready to move on.

 

“Where do you get your ideas?”

A proprietor of a small shop in the Quarter asked me yesterday, “Where do you get your ideas?”
“Dickie’s Bait shop, in Plaquemine.”
I don’t think he believed me.
Or maybe I have one of these…
idea-coupon-for-web
I understand the urge for anyone to ask that question of writers–particularly if that writer has done something that’s fantastical–science fiction, fantasy, some types of action stories, magical realism… because those types of stories push the boundaries of the known. The writer of any of these types of fiction (especially if they’re successful), probably married two or more “what if?” thoughts together and then leapfrogged somehow from there onto something as-yet-unthought-of. It’s fascinating when we look from the outside in to works like this that we are amazed, and wonder how they got from point A (where we tend to live) all the way to that double-helix ZZ. It’s not an everyday occurrence, and it’s almost mystical.

Maybe it is mystical. Magic. It can feel that way sometimes, when you’re on the other side of that observation, the one doing the creating.

Ideas aren’t hard to come by, though. We all have them. What writers do, though, that may be different from everyone else is ask, “What if?” — using that idea and applying it to a character. We ask “what if?” about dozens of things; a habit so ingrained, we may not recognize formally that that’s the process we’re using at all, by the time we’re grown and actually committing things to paper. But “what if?” isn’t enough for a story to take place… and that’s the crucial thing that almost never gets touched on by those asking… the “why does this matter?” part of the equation.

“Why does it matter?” creates stakes. It creates the world in which something is at risk, and when something is at risk, we have the beginnings of a story.

The last fundamental part of the tripod that holds a story together is “who does this matter to?” You can have the most fantastic idea in the world–from grand to subtle–and you can grasp why it matters only in context of who it matters to… the characters of the story. Why it matters to them is what will hook the reader into the story, and pull them all the way along to the end.

It’s that simple, really. And that difficult.

I fear that what most people are really asking, underneath the surface, is “how did you know that idea would work, that that story would sell and make you money?” It’s that question that makes most writers weep, at least a little inside, in the privacy of their own doubts, because mostly, we don’t know. We can only hope that we’ve done the job we set out to do when that first “what if?” of the idea knocked on our brain and said pay attention.

Comfort Reading

by Toni McGee Causey

COMFORT READING

Somewhere, there is a woman, sitting in a room, three days past a rape. Her bruises are turning purple and in a few more days, they’re going to be that greenish hue of ghouls. She hasn’t looked in a mirror, yet, but the swelling is starting to abate, and she can open her jaw without the execrable pain. The screaming is almost entirely in her head, now. The stitches hurting her remind her she’s alive and she’s not really sure why people keep telling her that, as if that’s a good thing. She’s not sure she wants to be. There’s been just enough time to get past the initial shock, the stunned chaotic business of having lost any sense of strength in the face of the world. She has had just enough time to be processed, and there should be a stamp for her forehead: file # 56449A.

Oh, people have been caring. They have been very professionally caring. All of the people, scads of them. They have been very careful not to touch her or move too fast. Everyone is diligent about addressing her respectfully, using her name, always making sure she feels like an individual. She can see it, see in their eyes how she is now different. The opposite of the person on the other side of the desk, where there are things like strength and weapons and confidence.

And right now, she is finally alone, though the moat around her has turned into an ocean, and the screaming, it just keeps on coming. For a few minutes, not having to deal with anyone else is good. A relief. But then there is the silence, and in the silence, it all happens again. She cannot close her eyes, because it’s all happening. Again. She cannot talk to someone, because the screaming will break free. Or the tears. Either may kill her.

She needs. Needs. To be somewhere else, other than here. Other than this thing she’s become. Needs to be able to step outside of her skin for a little while. Maybe a long long time.

She’s going to go to her bookcase and pick up something. Maybe it’s something where the woman kicks someone’s ass. Maybe it’s one where the good guy wins. Or the DA is brilliant. Or the girl comes of age and has confidence. Whatever it is, she gets to step outside of the bruises and the cuts and the broken bones for a little while. She gets to live a different ending. A different beginning. Have a safe place to be. And somehow, maybe, have a little hope that this thing, too, will pass.

Write a story for her.

~*~

Somewhere, there is a man, sitting in a hospital room. His wife has cancer, and he’s been there, every day, before and after work. Except now, he can be there full-time, since he’s lost his job. He’s spent days seeking help, trying to find a way to keep her there, to make sure she has the care she needs, when all of his benefits are gone. He’s filled out more paperwork in this one week than he’s done in a lifetime, and only barely understands half of what they’ve told him, if that.

He’ll try to get a second mortgage for the house. Sell off the second car, trade his in for something cheaper. The savings–such as it is, there’s not much with two kids–is gone. The retirement will go next, and that might last a month, at this rate. They don’t qualify yet for any sort of Medicare or help. His sister is at his house, boxing up stuff to sell. Doing it while the kids are at school, so they don’t see.

The screaming is almost entirely in his head, now. The anger, the rage, the helplessness. His wife’s asleep, and sleep is so rare with the pain she’s in, he can’t risk turning on the TV. She’s been in too much pain for him to leave the room, though.

He’s lost. He sees it in the eyes of the nurses, sees it in the eyes of the administrator. The woman running the accounts payable office. He’s become this other thing, this person he doesn’t know, and right now, for a little while, he needs. Needs. To be somewhere else but here. Someone else but him.

He’ll slump down in the God-awful chair they have in the room, punching a pillow that one of the orderlies found for him, and he’ll crack open that favorite paperback he grabbed on his way out the house this morning. For a little while, he gets to be a hero. He gets to fight crime or solve problems, save the world or save the girl. For a little while, he gets to have hope.

Write a story for him.

~*~
*I wrote this piece long before my brother was diagnosed, long before I was a woman in a hospital, watching him die, and the screaming in my head just wouldn’t stop. I needed. Needed. A place to go, a chance to escape, a world where the good guy won, the bad guy was destroyed, and people didn’t die of cancer. I still have days like that, and I probably always will, where I will only be able to remember holding his hand while desperately trying to tell him everything in the tiny minutes we had left, when that becomes so overwhelming, the screaming in my head will not stop.

Write a story for me.

Figuring Out What They’re Not Telling You

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes, it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing what is making them–those people who buy–say “no, not for me.” In the course of a discussion on Backspace (a while back), someone asked, “How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?” I had gone through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a “fix-all” sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help, I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they were not saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked. Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at those things and say, “What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this list?” This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the “gestalt” — the overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an advantage because it was easier to see it as a “whole” when trying to break it down. )

With that in mind…

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

“I couldn’t put it down.”

That whole “couldn’t stop reading” aspect is critical, especially if you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world) or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, “I don’t know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why.” In the book world, this translates into “I can’t get the marketing team behind it.”

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts (the romantic comedies), but they were “soft.” What the hell is soft? It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing?

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused. We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t think “soft” was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying “I couldn’t put it down.”

I’d get stuff like, “I love reading your scripts, I will always give your agent a read overnight for your stuff,” and “Your characters and your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s funny!” Which is great! But no one was saying, “Ohmygod, I had to pee and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you.”

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money.

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to guess what “soft” meant at the time (since this was a fairly common excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was the opposite of edgy. Well, not everything can be edgy, so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’

How did that apply to me?

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check
clear goals………………………. check
obstacles………………………… check

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.

True.

But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.
The problem with writing so “indirectly” is that for the first part of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested, but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily, or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations, but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper, more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work, but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s critical to the character.

So the new list:

interesting characters…….check
clear goals…………………… check
motivation……………………..check
obstacles…………………….. check

Then I looked at the “obstacles” and analyzed my writing, and I realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing.

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed, there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the story.)

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting that “I couldn’t put it down” reaction consistently, I knew I had stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat. But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the “I couldn’t put it down” sort of responses from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive “sold” line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything.

[I originally published this piece over on Murderati when I blogged there.]

Write What You Know

by Toni McGee Causey

Write what you know.

That’s the big stick sometimes used on writers, especially new writers. The implication, of course, is that you’d better not start writing until you know stuff. I went for years thinking that one of these days, I was going to get to a point where I knew for sure that I knew stuff and horns were going to sound or maybe music would play or some crisp-suited pseudo-TV-host would pop up and let me know that I’d just won the ability to go forward and write. Then I came to the realization, of course, that other people were writing about murders (and one hopes not from first-hand experience) and writing about blowing up the world (again, hoping that’s not a part of their resumé) or assassinating the president (now there’s one to guarantee Google hits), and that’s when I understood that I didn’t have to know anything, and since I was an expert at that, it was quite freeing. Not having a clue? I’m so there.

Which is when I really examined that old piece of advice, the one that felt like it was keeping me from breaking through, and I realized, I already know what’s important. It’s one of those pieces of advice which can sound very limiting, until you turn it around a bit.

I know the sound of the crack of a watermelon rind as it splits open, juice dribbling down onto the table, and the sweet cold crunch of the first bite on a hot summer day.

I know the electrical shock of betrayal in the midst of utter silence as I see a boyfriend’s other woman.

I know the stunning incredulity of how one three-year-old can fill an entire bathroom with suds, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with just a little shampoo and a whirlpool attachment for a tub.

I know the chaos and terror of running red lights to get to a hospital in time.

I know the shushing, oppressive silence of standing in the back of a funeral home.

The thing I’ve been asked at writer’s workshops I’ve given lately is, “How can I write about anything exciting? I have a normal life, but I’ve been told not to write something so autobiographical for a first novel, that that’s the kiss of death. So what do I do?”

And my answer is simple: you know yourself. You know people. And you know how to research whatever it is you need to know.

I know the scent of an old, worn leather glove and the sting of a line drive ball hit across the pitcher’s mound.

I know the first strawberry of the season, picked from my paw paw’s farm, eaten right there as I sat in the dirt between rows.

I know the clink of fine white china as it’s set down on a glossy mahogany table.

I know the safety of my dad’s hug, the tears in my mom’s eyes, the laughter of my brother.

I know my husband’s smile, the sly one he doesn’t show to others.

“But how,” someone asked at the same workshop, “will I know I have a story? How will I know where to begin?”

Begin where the conflict starts. That’s where your story begins, and trust the reader to know that. This, I think was the hardest thing for me to internalize, was that I could trust that the reader knew that in the world of these characters, stuff had happened to them before this point. That there was backstory, that there were reasons for them being the way they were, and I had to break myself of wanting to put all of that in so that the reader understood them so that they would know this moment, this conflict was a big deal.

The conflict does need to be a big deal — to that character. But readers don’t have to know everything about the characters in the beginning to know that. They’re going to trust that you’re starting at the point where something in the character’s life has come to an abrupt, dramatic moment. Or maybe it’s a quiet, dramatic moment, but the point is, there is a moment. There is conflict. It may be internal, it may be external or some combination, but the story we care about as a reader is that struggle. They may not even overcome it, but if you connect us to their lives, to the little details that make them unique, we’re going to care if they try to win that conflict.

I know the feel of rain on my face, sluicing down my clothes, saturating through to the bone.

I know the joy in my sons’ eyes on Christmas morning.

I know the chaos of running out of time, everyone depending on me to get there, with the thing, whatever the thing was.

I know the rush of relief when I made it.

I know failing, the sitting-on-the-floor, stunned, too stunned to breathe, to form tears, to speak.

I know the rush of success, wanting to dance with the world.

What you know, already, is wanting something. You already know successes, and you know failures. I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused. That’s where your story starts: the character is going to lose something. And they care, deeply, that they not lose it.

So, write what you know.