For the past couple years, I found myself telling others at work to “find the joy.”
That is, do what makes you happy. Come to work because you know that whatever the task or assignment that day, that week, find the part of it that speaks to you and use that as motivation. Fight through the other stuff because of this one bit of inspiration and happiness. And do the job well because today, this is what you were called to do.
It’s idyllic, this notion of doing what you love. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. Yet there’s almost always a kernel of satisfaction, happiness and joy in doing a job, no matter the organization.
Professional writers don’t always get to write about what they want. Sometimes they put their daytime uniform and pay the bills as technical writers, public relations writers, marketing and advertising writers while getting their happy work – creative writing – done before breakfast or after dinner.
Somewhere, find the joy. Put another way, find a way to enjoy the journey.
I started thinking about agents this week. Not for the usual reason – how do I get one. I already know the answer to that one, and it’s only partly in my control anyway.
No, I walked a mile in their shoes. It was enlightening. It was disheartening. It was a jolt of reality.
My job on the days in question was to identify college students as potential employees for digital marketing company. For four hours one day and five hours another day, both days at a university job fairs, I collected resumes and held first-date conversations.
Students lined up in double-file lines, one for each of us recruiters.
What are you looking for?
When are you available? (Or, when do you graduate?)
Tell me about what you’ve been doing the past several years?
What do you really want for yourself right after school and long-term?
The guy who cuts my hair made a confession. He was at his shop one day recently and mentally scrolling through customers he hadn’t seen recently and realized one of them was a female client he particularly liked.
“I called her because I had to hear her voice,” he said. “You’d never know it talking to her in public, but has the best F-bombs.”
“Oh? How so?” I asked.
“It’s not that they’re creative,” he said. “It’s just the way she says that word. I can’t put my finger on it. But God I love hearing her say that word.”
“Just so I understand: You called her not about coming in but just to hear her say it?”
“Just to hear her say it,” he said. “And I told her how much I like it. She knows. I told her once I was surprised at how often she said it. She said, ‘Honey, I fucking say that word all the time. It’s my favorite word.’ And it’s my favorite word, too. ”
Mine, too. And, I told him, all of its derivations.
“Usually,” he said, “it’s followed by ‘you.’ “
Your Characters and 4-Letter Words
He was joking, but he wasn’t lying. I’ve heard him.
The drive back to work from my midday haircut was filled with thoughts of a unisex salon filled with women of all ages dropping F-bombs alongside all the gray hair they were having touched up. How oddly comforting that would be, I thought.
And then I thought of my own mom and the one time I heard her load up the F-word. She was in the throes of divorcing my father – or maybe already had, and was coping with bitter, ugly aftermath – and the word shot out, punctuating her tears, frustration and helplessness.
That, too, was good to hear. She’s just like the rest of us.
Still, these days the old Lutheran guilt tends to kick in when I go through a scene sketched by four-letter words. I’ve asked myself what dear old mom will think when she reads this.
She said, ‘Honey, I fucking say that word all the time. It’s my favorite word.’ And it’s my favorite word, too.
This is the wrong approach. If you’re thinking about mom when you’re writing and rewriting and honing your story to a fine point, you’re thinking about the wrong things. Be true to the story, true to your characters and please the reader. If your character is a cusser, let him or her cuss. Please yourself as you please the reader. It’s the only way.
Cussing and swearing is a topic that comes up from time to time at author conferences and during Q&As between authors and readers. It’s hardly the primary subject, but people — some who are offended, others who are just curious — ask. Here’s a riff by Lee Child about littering a manuscript with F-bombs. As he says, he sprinkles in some “industrial” cursing. He just ensures that it’s not everywhere.
Full disclosure: I grew up playing sports and hanging out with people who cussed – a lot. Most of my professional life was spent around athletes, ex-athletes turned administrators and highly competitive business people. These people not only used profanity — some of them quite creatively — they often overused it. So did I. So do I.
For this new career, I write about crime. And bad things and bad people and cops and detectives. These people, not all of them speak so nicely all the time. In case you haven’t noticed, this is the way of the world.
If your cop/detective/criminal didn’t go to finishing school, and most don’t, chances are they’re going to throwing around some four-letter words and f-bombs in all their derivative glory. That’s not to say these characters are all going to come out sounding like they were a prodigy, say, of Chuck Wendig, one of the world’s excellent cussers. But they’re not going to sound like someone in The English Patient, either.
No Cussing at Wal-Mart?
A couple years ago, an unmemorable speaker at a writing conference told a group of wannabe authors that Wal-Mart would not carry your book if you used words that the company deemed too profane. In other words, you could get your book to the Wal-Mart masses if you used “hell” or “damn” but that something like “goddamn” would get you excluded, as would just about any other curse word in all its forms. Well, hell.
Why do I bring this up now? Because I finally have a manuscript worth peddling. Should I strip out the profanity for the sake of one day having some decision-maker at Wal-Mart or (pick your bookseller) declare the book not worthy of its shelves because of some blue words?
As the speaker said, “You may look down on Wal-Mart for having that policy, but the bottom line is, are you OK with your book not being able to be seen by millions of potential readers and buyers just because you wanted to use some curse words?”
Turns out, I find no evidence that Wal-Mart actually has this policy related to books. (Nobody from the company returned my email about this question.)
Regardless, thinking about Wal-Mart during the creative process seems like misspent energy, unless Wal-Mart distribution is the lynchpin in a book-selling plan.
The John Sandford Swearing Table
Every so often, I dig up one of the favorite blog posts ever about writing novels. This post by the webmaster son of John Sandford addresses an issue that rears up every so often: How profane should crime-fiction characters be, given the inherent risk of driving away readers? How much profanity is too much profanity for publishers and bookstores? And should a writer sacrifice a personal voice — the one that wants to tell a story in exactly the way they dreamed it — for a business decision?
It turns out Sandford’s readers complained that the primary character in his “Prey” series, state cop Lucas Davenport, was accused of swearing more as Sandford grew the popular Davenport-driven series. How does one fend off such a notion? Why, with facts.
So Sandford’s son, who runs his website, went to each manuscript and ran word calculators on them. (In case you didn’t know, there is software that analyzes manuscripts for word usage. This can be a valuable tool, because nobody wants to re-use the same word too often in the same book.)
In the end, any persona angst about this might amount to a whole lot of nothing. I might decide to self-publish, and of all the things to consider about that, one of them isn’t about cussing. I won’t be banning any of my profanity, much like the TV beer ad below that, sadly, never made it to television.
You’ve heard this question, right? It’s the curious, thoughtful, awful question you get from well-meaning friends and family members when they want to let you know they take an interest in your writing career. Everyone gets excited about knowing a writer with a new book, right?
I love them all. They’re my support system. A bedrock. They mean well. And it’s all so nice . . . right up until they pop that question.
Underlying the question are others. Are you almost finished? How long have you worked on it? When does it come out? And others. You feel as if you have to justify the time you’re spending on something that no one (or very few people) can see. It can get old, fast.
There are only a few answers to the original question. The book is in progress. The book is with an editor/agent. The book is available through Amazon (or your website). The book will be out this winter/spring/summer/fall.
Always a WIP (Work in Progress)
When your book sits in the first stage – in progress – is where the frustration lies. How do you tell your spouse that you’re more than halfway through your manuscript and now you’re wrestling with your protagonist? How do you tell your brother-in-law that you think you have to cut two characters out of your last draft? Why do you want to share the fact that your last draft needs an overhaul? Will anyone really understand it when you tell them you have too many characters (or POVs) in your last draft and you have to tighten them?
There’s nothing wrong with any of these scenarios. If you learn anything about working on a book, at least seriously, you know that writing is rewriting. You know that, absent detailed early outlining and mapping out, you’re going to make mistakes in plotting. You also know you’ll overwrite or produce early drafts that need refinement. That’s the process. Writing is rewriting. And you have to love rewriting or else you’ll never finish.
John Sandford once spoke at ThrillerFest about people he knows who are fine writers. They can, he said, do everything related to writing a novel except finish the book. They might get a first draft written, but they never get to the point where they are ready to submit the draft to an agent, editor or publisher – for various reasons.
I keep this anecdote in mind. And this one:
At a Poynter Institute writing conference years ago, Stephen Hunter delivered a solo address about his books, about writing them and about his career. Eerily prescient to what Sandford said years later, Hunter told a story about when he first started writing more than movie reviews. (He was a Pulitzer-Prize winning movie reviewer for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.) He said he had a group of friends, all of whom aspired to write novels. And they all embarked on the journey.
Hunter was the only one who published a novel. Why? “I was the only one who finished,” he said.
At some point, he said, you have to realize that you have to get up and get to work on it every day – every day.
I have to forgive myself for not finishing yet. But I will finish.
Stages of Manuscript Progress
So, how could the book be coming? Let us count the ways – for me, anyway.
Mixed POV. Omniscient POV. As I learned much too late, you have to be consistent and tell your story the from the best point of view possible. You also have to remember, when you’re writing, whose head you are in and what they know (and what they don’t.)
Too much detail. The technical term for this is toothbrushing, as in, “We don’t need to see a character brushing his teeth. We can just assume it happened.” Another more practical way of thinking about this is the room entering principle. We can just assume that all characters walked into and out of the room (unless you write about vampires). We don’t need to see it happen. The reader doesn’t need to follow a character’s every step to want to follow them through the story.
Too many characters. This happened for sure. I ended up cutting two strong characters in my manuscript and a handful of minor characters. Word is, readers can’t keep up with a giant roster of characters. They want only a few they want to care about – love or despise – and the rest help drive the story.
Too many extraneous scenes. If the scene doesn’t push conflict, character or plot, it doesn’t belong. Good advice, I think: Human beings like to think in pictures, so when you think about your scenes, think about them as scenes in a movie. If the scene doesn’t fit, pitch it.
Continuity issues. In my case, the actual writing process from start to end of first draft was five years. It was hard at the end to remember all the details of the beginning. I decided to fix these in the second draft. But the fixing took more than one draft – and more than a couple beta readers to help.
Character names. I had too many characters with similar sounding names. Yes, this matters.
Data dumps. Also called info dumps. This is paragraph after paragraph of character back story. This is information to put in your master sheet about the book before you start writing. The challenge is to reveal as much of this back story as you can, spoonful by spoonful, throughout the book.
Wordiness. This is everyone and everywhere. It always is.
Things that don’t work. This could be scenes, jokes, dialogue, plot.
Word overuse. We all have favorite words, and we like to use the words we like too much. In my case, I discovered that I had too many characters “looking away.”
Slow start. It too much, much too long for it to sink in that my first five chapters didn’t work. And when I accepted that, it took too long to fix it properly. This is called procrastination.
Proper editing. I can only speak for myself here. There’s only so much I can do to my own manuscript. I’m prone to typos, and I’m prone to reading over them. (Age, it’s a bitch.) Bottom line, I need another set of eyes, and at the end of the process, I need a pro. I’ve hired one.
Final Answer: Great!
So how’s the book coming? My answer: Did you ever have a long English paper that was due in class? And as you get ready to hand it in, you know in your heart it needs to be rewritten, even though you’re already rewritten it once? That’s where it is.
It’s great. I’m happy with it, but I’m still working. “But if you know any agents . . .”
For my own good, I ignored my biases and held my nose. Then I went to work polishing and creating loglines.
And then I entered two separate contests over the past couple weeks.
As I’ve discussed before, I’m not a fan of writing contests, but I recently came to accept these as a necessary reality in the world of publishing when you’re an unknown author trying to create a name and market for yourself.
Parts of “Dead Odds” now sit with the judges and editors and agents of contests held by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and by the Authoress of Miss Snark’s First Victim.
Both are progressive contests, which means you have to get through stages to win. Winning is different for each.
The Freddie and The Baker’s Dozen
In the case of the Freddie, the name of the new award for unpublished mystery works, the number of 20-page entries are unlimited. The initial goal is to make it into the top five. From there, the judges (agents) will go to work and name winners — who gets a Freddie award.
As for the Baker’s Dozen, the contest run by Miss Snark’s First Victim, you enter a logline plus the first 250 words of your polished manuscript. Soon, out of 100 entrants (the number is capped), 25 adult fiction submissions will move to the next stage — an auction among agents. During the auction, agents compete on which submissions they want to see more of. And then they can request more pages or a full manuscript.
Winning the Baker’s Dozen means having an agent signing you. Anything gained short of that helps with confidence and a morale boost. Ultimately, though, it ends with some level of rejection.
But this is the game. This is the world of traditional publishing.
The Official Website. The first novel.
Now comes the adventure.
Connect With The Author:
David Ryan is a former award-winning journalist turned mystery and thriller writer. After more than 25 years as a sports writer, editor, digital editor and people manager, Ryan opted out of daily journalism for a second career that includes crafting stories about crime fiction.