You know what to do

Bluebonnets.jpg

It’s spring, and in the Texas Hill Country, the bluebonnets are in bloom.

It’s a good day to remember to stop and smell the flowers.

Blast from the past: Fictophobia

Today I read a think-piece about whether writing fiction is “indulgent.” This question surfaces now and again. My answer is always: No. Writing fiction puts food on my family’s table. It will never be indulgent.

Sadly, some people also think reading fiction is indulgent. I’ve met them. I wrote about this a few years ago. Today seems like a good day to revisit that blog post. From January 21, 2007, here you go:

Fictophobia: Baby, don’t fear the reader.

Call me naive. It wasn’t until my first novel was published that I discovered some people are fictophobes. They disdain fiction. Granted, I knew that some folks hate romance novels, or loathe science fiction, just as I know that my husband would jam knitting needles into his ears before he’d listen to Snoop Dog. I understood this as a matter of taste and personality. And yes, I made up the word “fictophobia,” just now. The point is, I’ve been taken aback at the number of people who refuse point-blank to read novels.

I found this out when signing books at Methven’s, my local bookshop. A customer picked up China Lake, read the blurb on the jacket, and set it down. “Oh, it’s fiction. I can’t read that.”

I realized what she meant, but still said, “How awful. Is there anything they can do to help you?”

She screwed her face into a frown and wandered away. Eccentrics, I thought.

Turns out she was much less eccentric than I imagined. Since then I’ve had family and friends tell me they only read self-help books, or military history, or legal journals. Hold up a novel and they shy back like Nosferatu from a sunbeam. They don’t read fiction, no, never. The innuendo is in their tone: they’re accomplished people who can’t afford to waste their valuable time. If they read, it will be to improve themselves. They seek instruction, betterment, increased productivity.

They’re so far removed from the world of fiction that they know almost nothing about it. Excuse me, someone asked me recently, but who is Stephen King?

Wanna talk horror? That’s horror.

Blame my upbringing. I grew up around English professors. I thought all homes heaved with literature – that every room had books in it, including the garage. Hell, my dad’s old Datsun could have doubled for the library bookmobile.

But I’ve heard from enough fictophobes that I’ve come to think people misunderstand what fiction means. So I was delighted to run across this quotation today:

“[The novel] is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative … If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

– Karen Armstrong, “A Short History of Myth.”

I wouldn’t dare call myself an artist or a mythmaker. But as a storyteller, I say: thanks for that. I couldn’t have come close to explaining it so well.

Coming up: Pflugerville Book Festival

2016-04-16 Pf Book Festival Poster

April 16-17 I’ll be taking part in the Pflugerville Book Festival. It’s sponsored by KAZI FM 88.7 and will feature discussions on mystery and diversity, science fiction and fantasy, young adult fiction, and more. And it’s free!

If you’re near Austin or Pflugerville, come on down.

Pflugerville Book Festival
April 16-17, 2016
1:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Pflugerville Library
1008 W. Pfluger St.
Pflugerville, TX 78660
Contact: (512) 990-6375

Writing takes work. That should inspire you!

Writing a novel is a process. According to my college writing teacher, Ron Hansen, it’s “a ramshackle process.”

chinalake2That means it takes brainstorming, spitballing, dreaming up characters, dreaming up plots, throwing your characters into a tornado (emotional or actual), pounding out their story, revising that story, cutting some of those characters and plot strands, killing thousands of needless words, and rewriting until your fingers and brain ache.

It’s work, and I never want to hide that. Because it can be glorious work. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

But a friend recently asked whether hearing that the process can be tough, and that first drafts are usually bad, discourages people from getting serious about writing.

I damn well hope not.

I’m telling you this to let you know that if you’re struggling with any of these aspects of the writing process, you’re normal. And you’re doing it right. Putting in the work is the way great books get written.

If you’re a new or aspiring writer, this should inspire you.

Really.

If your first draft seems awful: That’s the way writing works.

If your rough draft’s dialogue sounds dull or stilted: Yeah, almost everybody’s does.

If the early version of your plot has a hole big enough to wreck a Mack truck: Welcome to the club.

If you have to stick your first novel in a file cabinet because it doesn’t hold together: Been there. Learned a hell of a lot. Started the next novel at a much higher level because of it.

I tell people that writing is work because it is. And because I wish that when I got up the nerve to write CHAPTER 1, somebody had told me I was going to stumble, and run into walls, and want to beat my head against the desk… and that this would be okay. That everybody did these things. And that wonderful books were born of this process.

I was desperate to write. I was never not going to write. From the time I was a kid, the desire to write was a fire in my bones. Hearing that learning to write well takes real time and effort would have eased my doubts and fears. It would have bolstered me for the journey.

So dig in. When you see your debut novel on bookshelves, the work will all be worth it.

 

Ask Me Anything: favorite books, characters, mythological creature?

I’ll finish up this round of Ask Me Anything with this question from Cathie. Although now that I’m posting it, I detect multiple queries…

Howdy Meg!

I always wonder about writers and reading, so I’m curious…
Do you enjoy reading as much as you do writing? (Obviously those two things are very related but also very separate). Care to share some favorite books or authors?

If you do also enjoy reading, what do you read the most – fiction, non-fiction? What fiction genres do you read most often?

Do you have a favorite character from your novels?

And what’s your favorite mythological creature? (Random, I know!)

Also, thank you for giving me many hours of entertainment! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by you, which is almost all your novels so far!

Thanks, Meg!

Let me take this one question at a time.

Do you enjoy reading as much as you do writing?

Damn skippy.

Care to share some favorite books or authors?

This question can get me into trouble because (1) If I start listing favorite books and authors, I will inevitably leave some out, and then I’ll feel wracked with Catholic guilt, and (2) If I start listing favorite books and authors, I’ll never stop.

That said: Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Don DeLillo, Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Jane Austen, Patricia Highsmith, Carl Hiaasen, Jon Krakauer…

See what I mean?

What do you read the most – fiction, non-fiction?

Fiction.

What fiction genres do you read most often?

Thrillers. And science fiction.

Do you have a favorite character from your novels?

Evan Delaney. There, I said it.

No, wait! Jo Beckett. 100%. Also: Gabe Quintana.

Actually, I’m not being honest. It’s Jesse Blackburn.

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT. I’ll tell you the real truth. Mr. Peebles.

(Zoe Keller.)

And what’s your favorite mythological creature?

The raptor from Jurassic Park. The big one. “Clever girl.”

My thanks to everybody for the excellent questions.

Ask Me Anything: How much character development is enough?

Christa asks:

How do you know when you have adequately developed a character in your story? With a more complex character, the urge to insert more clues and examples as to their inner nature and motivations presents itself often, but how do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal with that character?

Characters are adequately developed when they seem human to me. When they stop being cardboard cutouts I’ve created in service to the plot, and turn into three dimensional people I can envision moving through the real world.

As an author, I need to know my characters’ backgrounds, attitudes, their strengths and weaknesses, biases and loves. I should know how they treat people when nobody is looking. Whether they’d suck up to a celebrity or stiff a waitress on a tip. But I don’t have to tell readers everything. My guideline for characters is the same as it is for research: Know more than you show.

And in a novel, providing examples of characters’ inner nature isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to reveal the characters’ nature through the choices they make. I put the characters in action, in conflict with each other and the world. I let them tussle and wail, and see if they’ll cower or rise to the occasion. I throw them into situations where they have to act when the chips are down. That’s when I know if they’re adequately developed. When they fight for their friends or turn tail and run or sacrifice themselves in an act of love.

But here’s the truth. The only way to know if I’ve adequately developed a character is to give the book to readers. Their reactions tell me if I’ve done my job. When readers say they love a character, or hate him, or hate me for what I’ve done to him, or — best of all — want that character to come back in a new book: that’s when I’ve accomplished my goal.

Ask Me Anything: Editing a Novel

Today I’m answering a couple of questions about editing novels.

Greg Lewolt asks:

“Editing, what condition is your manuscript in when you finally send it off to get edited? How much freedom do they have to make changes?, and what is the Capital of Washing D.C?, I can’t find the answer anywhere…”

When I deliver a manuscript to my publisher, it’s complete. It has “Chapter 1” and “The End” and everything in between. But it’s rough. By design, I pound out the first draft just to get the story down on paper.

My editor knows that what’s coming will be ugly. I submit a first draft so that she can see the gargoyle while it’s young. That way, she can offer editorial suggestions sooner rather than later.

As for the publisher’s freedom to make changes: they have plenty. But they’ve never, ever forced a change on me. That’s largely because, by the time I submit the first draft, my agent and editor have gone through months of brainstorming and development with me, listening to my ideas for the book, for the basic plot, for the characters. They offer suggestions and let me know if my ideas aren’t going to fly. By the time I actually write the novel, they’ve seen outlines and treatments and are confident that the book is going to work as a whole.

When I deliver a manuscript, my editor at Penguin Random House reads it and sends me an editorial letter. Every author gets one of these. It consists of many pages of comments and proposed edits. We authors generally spend a day or two standing over these letters with a blowtorch before deciding that yes, the editor knows what she’s talking about, and the changes she suggests will strengthen the novel. But, as the editor always tells me: the letter is the beginning of a conversation about the book. It’s not a decree.

After I rewrite, my editor will read the revised manuscript and offer additional notes. Once I revise again (and maybe again), she sends the book to a copyeditor. The copyeditor reads for continuity, grammar, spelling, usage, plot holes, and factual errors. When those edits come back, I have the freedom to accept or reject any changes.

I sit in my office all year, alone, typing. But publishing a book is a collaborative process. And all my novels are better for it.

DJ Paterson asks:

“I’ve got a two-parter for you, Meg O’Death:

a) If you compared that first dirty draft to the polished gem of a published novel, what percentage will have survived the rounds of editing (and I’m talking about physical words, sentences, paragraphs, and not story)?

b) In your writing process, how long does it take you to wrangle a first draft into shape compared to getting that original draft down on paper?

Actually, maybe this is only one question, asked in two different ways.”

I’d guess that half the words in the rough draft end up in the same position in the published novel. That’s because I deliberately write shitty first drafts, and because I’ve learned not to be precious about each and every word.

It takes me three or four months to write the first draft of a novel. (2,000 words a day, 5-7 days a week.) It takes around two months to do the first major rewrite. Honestly, I enjoy rewriting. Because, after I edit, the book is so much better. Every single time.

Your mileage may vary.

Washing D.C.? To do that, you’d need a firehose with enough water pressure to clean out the entire Capitol.