Here’s the Deal

I don’t really care which side of the digital/traditional line you’re on in terms of what types of books you like to read, and i don’t care which side of the indie/traditional line you’re on in terms of where you think the future of publishing lies, and i don’t think paper books are going away anytime soon, and i don’t think it would be a good idea for Amazon to rule the world but i don’t lose any sleep over that because i don’t think they’re ever likely to.

But speaking exclusively as a writer and editor for a moment, i’m getting tired of two things. 1) Having to listen to many writers talk about how traditional publishing is the best and only means of access to proper editing and cover design; and 2) The much more annoying flip side of the same coin, having to listen to many writers talk about how they reject indie writer/publishing because they don’t want to deal with the additional things an indie publisher has to deal with. I just want to write, they say. Let other people deal with the rest of the shit.

(When i say “many writers”, i’m talking about people talking about the publishing industry. If you’re someone i know who happens to be a writer who happens to be reading this, i’m not talking about you, because for the most part, the writers i know are more forward-thinking than the “many writers” i am talking about.)

So here’s the deal.

Saying “I reject indie writer/publishing because it involves things other than just writing” is like saying “I reject the baseline idea of being a writer because writers work on computers, and if my computer breaks down, I don’t know how to fix it.”

If you’re a writer, your computer is a means to that end. If your computer breaks, you don’t give up writing. You pay someone to fix it.

If you’re a writer, having your work edited is a means to that end. Having a cover for your book is a means to that end. And finding someone to edit your work and design your cover is the same fucking process as getting your laptop fixed when you drop that third latte of the morning straight into the keyboard.

You pick up the phone. You compose an email. You say, “This is what I need you to do for me.”

Here’s the deal.

When the outline is done, you hire a story editor to analyze the mechanics of story, helping you take the outline apart and see things in it that you can’t see because you’re too close to it.

When the draft is done, you hire a line editor to analyze the mechanics of the writing, helping you clean things up that you glossed over because you know the story in your head so well that you sometimes disengage with the story that’s on the page.

When the page proofs are done, you hire a proofreader to check for the last little glitches that always show up on paper to someone else’s eyes, but which will always unfailingly hide from you on the screen.

While the line editing and the proofreading are being done, you hire a cover designer to create the icongraphy that will capture the story and create the vanguard imagery of your promotional effort.

Every part of the publishing process consists of specialized, professional work that not everyone can do. But your access to that specialized, professional work is the easiest thing in the world.

Writing a great book? That’s the hard part. If you’ve already done that, you own the fucking world. So why are you balking at the easy stuff that comes afterward?


On Knowing Whether a Film is Working

“Sometimes. Most of the time. It’s easy to get lost when you’re shooting a film. That’s why it’s so important to have a great script and just stick to that script. Once you start changing stuff, you’re fucked. My experience has been that when the script’s good, and they stick to the script, you’ll be okay. 12 Monkeys was shot exactly how it was written. In Pulp Fiction, the places where you laughed when you read the script were the same places you laughed when you saw the movie. But I’ve had those other experiences where they just chuck the script out the window, and those movies are always trouble.”

— Bruce Willis


Would I Lie?

I haven’t taught a fiction workshop in a while, but one of my favorite exercises when i did teach was the following. On the first day of most workshops, there’s the inevitable “Go around the table and introduce yourselves” exercise, which i liked to mix up by saying:

Go around the table and introduce yourselves by speaking for approximately one minute, during which time you’ll share two anecdotes from your own life that are true, and one anecdote from your life that’s completely made up. The false anecdote must be believable, and you need to give no hints or clues as to which anecdotes are true and which is false. Then when you’re done, everybody else around the table is going to try to guess which anecdote was the lie.

The point of this exercise is twofold. First, if you’re leading a workshop, you should be aware of the fact that everyone taking the workshop absolutely freaking hates having to go around the table and introduce themselves, so anything you can do to jazz that up will be appreciated.

Second, and more importantly: Fiction writers are people who turn lies into truth for a living. And as such, we need to be good at it. Writers need to embrace the complex boundary between truth, lies, and believability. We need to understand better than anyone else the warped-mirror relationship between the truth and the best-told lies.

Now, if you’re the sort of writer who does any reading about writing (which is to say, if you’re a writer), you know that nothing said above is particularly original. Virtually every fictionalist who’s ever written about the process has made this point, including my own favorite variations from Charles de Lint (“I’ve always believed the lies we use to make our fictions reveal the truth with far more honesty than any history or herstory or life story.”), Italo Calvino (“Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie.”), and Stephen King (“Kids, the fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.”).

But what does all that actually mean? It sounds like sage advice, but in the same manner as a lot of writing koans, it doesn’t actually grant any insight in how to apply the rule to your own work. Hence, the value in the exercise in lying at the top of the page. Because for most of the people attempting the exercise, the one lie is almost immediately spotted by those listening — but in way that can put truth, lie, and believability into sharper focus.

As most of us discover as children, lying is easy. As most of us learn a minute or two later (if we’re lying to our parents, at any rate), lying believably is hard. But being forced to lay down a spontaneous lie alongside true details from our own lives points out an important fact about lying. For the most part, it’s not the specific details of what happened that make a lie believable. Most people doing the exercise have no trouble coming up with details, because they’re writers. Lying well isn’t about the accuracy of events. It’s about the sensation and resonance that events produce — the qualities of a story that anchor it in the living world, and the echo of those qualities that create a sense of empathetic induction in the listener.

When told a bad lie, most people will react with “I don’t believe that could happen.” An average lie provokes a reaction of “I guess that could have happened.” But in response to the best lies, a listener has no choice but to say “I need to believe that did happen.” And this sense of empathic connection is the key to crafting the true lies that make up the best fiction.

All writers know what empathy means in the narrative sense — the ability of an audience to get inside the skin of a character. An empathic connection between character and audience is the single most important factor in creating believable fiction. The idea that if we’re engaged in reading or watching a character’s story, it’s not important to be able to say “Yeah, the same thing happened to me and that’s exactly what I did.” But the reader should always be able to say “If that had happened to me, that’s exactly what I would have done.”

Our experiences and memories are grafted onto a framework of sensation and resonance. Details are what we remember. Sensation is what we relive. We can repeat back to ourselves the details of some tumultuous event in our own lives easily enough. We recall the events, we know what was said, what was done. But those events and words always stay at a safe distance. We remember in a detached fashion — at least until we hear the song that accompanied those past events, at which point, we’re back in that past whether we want to be or not. We feel a specific chill in the morning air that shifts us back to some other morning when everything changed in our lives. We catch a scent worn by a person lost to us now, and suddenly we’re living through that loss all over again.

When we write, we tend to spend a lot of time on details. Especially for those of us who sail the narrative waters of fantasy and speculative fiction, the details of our fictional worlds can take on huge importance as we worry about making those details believable. But as with any lie, the details of fiction aren’t where believability is made or lost. If we look at the books that mean the most to us individually as writers — not necessarily the classics of our chosen genres, but the stories that we carry with us — it’s not the events, not the words that stick with us. It’s the sensations. The dark scent and gritty feel of a specific place, the soft or callused touch of the characters who inhabit that place, the unique music that the lives of those characters create.

The truth that lurks in the heart of every fictional lie isn’t about the details of the world as the characters see it. It’s not about the details of the plot as the characters engage in it. The truth of fiction resides in the sensations that the world and its events create in the characters. It’s about how sensation and emotion resonate in your readers, pushing them past “That could have happened” and into “I need to believe.”