Don’t Tell Me What to Do!

Unsolicited advice!  It’s everybody’s favorite!

“You know, dear, you should get married.  Find a nice man at church.   You’re not getting any younger, you know.” I know.  Shut the hell up.

“Move to Alaska!  It’s so quiet and there are lots of guys!” Yes, conveniently leave out the arctic cold, the giant hungry bears and the isolation.

“Know what you should do?  You should get one of those self-publishers. You can pay them to make you a book!” And it will sit neatly in boxes in my garage for the rest of my life.

“Have a baby!” Yeah, when the first one happens we’ll see.

“Sell your crap on Craigslist!” Actually, this one is pretty good.  I sold my kitchen table for $75.   Now I’m going through the house on a mission.  Everything is fair game!

Okay, so one out of five isn’t bad.  I’ve heard many versions of these over the years.  They always push my buttons, no matter who they’re from.

Why do we bristle so much when people give us advice?  Because unless we ask for feedback, we hear it as criticism.  If I ask for an honest opinion, it’s not very good form to get pissy with the person who gives it to me.   But if I’m just minding my own bidness, I can get all the pissy I want with you, because I did not ask for your feedback.

We’re an opinionated bunch lately.  I blame the Internet.  (Or, for SSTers, Nate.)  It’s given us a forum to express all kinds of ideas, random thoughts, ranty stuff, and advice.  The advice part is tricky.  When someone you care about is having difficulty, it’s tempting to offer the diamond-studded wisdom you know will lift her up.

What if she doesn’t want to hear it?  Then maybe you should keep it to yourself until she asks.

There are two kinds of advice that really bug me.

The givers try to help, but you’ve already tried everything they’re telling you.

They never believe you when you tell them that.  “Just do it this way.  No?  Then try my Aunty Margaret’s version.”  It never stops.  They’re sure if they keep making suggestions, one of them will be the magic bean.

How to Counter:

Sometimes just whining about something will make you feel better.  Your true friends will let you do this.  Unless you whine all the time, in which case they are justified in giving you a swat.

If you want to vent, tell them.  Say something like “I’m gonna blow, and I need you to just listen.”  Ladies, this works on men too, who like to offer solutions and don’t get why you don’t want to hear it.  There are times when solutions ain’t what you need.  You have to let them know that.

For those who won’t stop, simply smile and thank them.  You don’t have to listen or do what they say.

The givers have no idea what the bloody hell they are talking about.

This is the one writers have to contend with the most, as will anyone in a profession or activity where the inner workings aren’t known to most people.  As you learn the nuts and bolts, invariably roadblocks to progress will pop up.  The problem could be a lack of knowledge that you need to acquire, or a conundrum you need to take time to work through.  Well-meaning people will give you advice to try and ease your way.  Realize that unless they are actually experienced in the subject, they will not understand and their specific advice should not be taken.

How to Counter:

Understand:  I’m not dismissing advice givers who are coming from a similar place, like say someone who has juggled work/family and a new career/school/start-up business, who may know exactly what you are going through even though it’s not the same thing.  If those people want to help you cope, by all means let them.   Their advice will not only be helpful but valuable.  They should not be dismissed.

You can blow it off when other people tell you what you should write, or that you must pay someone to publish your book when you don’t want to, or any number of things non-writers will tell you about the business.  If you’re trying to learn from legitimate sources, you can’t afford to take bad advice that might wreck your career chances.  That’s like telling someone to run for President on the “Vote for me and I’ll dance naked on the White House lawn” ticket.

Instead, take the advice in the spirit in which it’s given—that of generosity.  Those who truly care for you will want the best for you and that alone is worth sitting through the most ridiculous suggestion on earth.

Squeeze that Story: Is It Fresh?

I read somewhere there are only eight facial types, which explains why you always see people who look like people you know.  Could the same be said for stories?  Is there really only a limited number of tales a writer can tell?

Originality is a problem for writers.  A short list of familiar stories might look like this:

  • Boy meets girl (or vice versa); boy loses girl; boy gets girl.
  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Someone goes on a quest.
  • A young person comes of age and rights a great wrong (or several).
  • A hero fights either a monster or a powerful adversary.
  • A life-altering choice and its consequences.

Any and all of these can be combined into a story.  I see agent blogs and interviews where the literary agent says he or she is looking for something “fresh.”  How can the writer avoid the clichés inherent in not only fiction, but especially genre fiction?

Different genres have elements readers expect to see.  For example, romance must end on a positive note for the couple involved.  Readers of this genre expect a happy ending and a pox on the writer who doesn’t give it to them.  Thrillers need not end happily, but the villain is expected to be vanquished, at least temporarily.  The Joker may always be back, but Batman has to thwart him for a while.

Freshness results from combining these elements in a new way.  You can’t blindly follow the latest trend.  It will be over before you get there.  Some writers despair they will never invent something new.  Maybe not, but there’s a reason people read the same stuff over and over.  They like it.  Give them something to get excited about.

Change up the narrative voice.

How interesting would it be to read the same story from Joker’s point of view?  Or Alfred’s?  Writer Valerie Martin did this brilliantly in a rework of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Mary Reilly is Stevenson’s story told by Dr. Jekyll’s servant.  I know a plot element is good when I am insanely jealous that I didn’t think of it first.

Take a little-known element and bring it to the forefront.

Medieval stories often follow royalty and warrior characters, life in a castle, etc.  Karen Cushman wrote two excellent books for young readers set in the Middle Ages, Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice, which won a Newbery award.

Birdy is the daughter of a knight.  Her family isn’t rich, although they are better off than Birdy’s best friend Perkin the goat boy.  Alyce’s orgins in Apprentice are a bit more crude; when we first meet her she is in a dung heap.

Cushman’s research vanishes into her depictions of life in the Middle Ages, from the rushes on the floor of the manor house to the villager’s festival activities and the midwife’s primitive obstetric practices.  Her details make the books more interesting.  If you search for seldom-used aspects of a period or way of life, you might even find a plotline lurking among them.  Piquing your reader’s curiosity will ensure they can’t put the book down.  In Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, not only were the story and the main character engaging, but the book detailed a profession traditionally shrouded in mystery.

Write fully-developed characters, and put them in situations that challenge them.

No person is one way all the time.  Your character could be the good guy, but he might be capable of some very dastardly deeds in his pursuit of justice.  Think Dexter.  Tons of shows and books have been done about forensic experts.  Dexter is a fresh twist.  He’s also a serial killer who kills other serial killers.  To lead a double life like this, a person would have to compartmentalize.  What happens when the walls break down?

Villains who want to kill and destroy without any provocation or reason pop up a lot in comics, genre fiction and movies.  Like a force of nature, they overwhelm and confuse the hero, who must figure out what is driving them.  If nothing is, then it just becomes a blocking exercise.  Kill the villain so he can’t blow up the dam.

Everyone has motives.  People do things because they want something in return.  What does your villain want?  What’s he trying to prove, or aquire?  Why?  If it’s power, what does he plan to do with it?  If the reason is somewhat clichéd, like revenge, at least show his way of thinking.  A real person trying to get revenge thinks he is justified in doing so.  Show why your villain feels this way.  It’s not just because he’s bad.

Besides an astonishingly great performance by the late Heath Ledger, one reason the Joker in The Dark Knight was so good is that he had a subtext.   He was evil but how anyone could miss the wall of pain pushing off the screen astonishes me.  I actually walked out of the theater feeling sorry for the guy.  There wasn’t even any concrete explanation for his scars.  His stories implied he either told part of the truth or the real reason was so awful even he couldn’t stand to repeat it.  How intriguing is that?

Turn a cliché on its head.

Bram Stoker took the walking corpse of Eastern European vampire legend and made him into a nobleman, Count Dracula.  He’s still a a monster, but now one that might go undetected.  Anne Rice did him one better by starting the vampire-as-romantic-figure trend with Interview with the Vampire.  Now vampires are lovers, not bloodsuckers.

For an even newer angle, check out the adolescent vampire in Let the Right One In.  Being heme-dependent is secondary to the plot; the story is really about the friendship between two misfit children.  In genre fiction especially, the best stuff is about people, not stereotypes.

Imbue your fiction with freshness.  Read celebrated new books in your category and try to see why they are so different.  Then make sure your writing is the best it can be.  If you have any recommendations for stories that set genre clichés on edge, please share them in the comments.

What’s That Ringing Sound? Ranty Phone Etiquette 101

Today I’d like to share another post about business etiquette.  As a working girl on the low end of the totem pole in most of my jobs, I have seen a lot of crap from the lofty pedestals above administrative support that makes my jaw drop.  The primary offenses have to do with phone calls.

Customer calls are high priority, no matter what you do.  Whether you’re a sales rep, a technical person or a freelance writer, these are the people who pay your bills.  They deserve your attention and courtesy.  In a previous post, I briefly addressed the matter of rude and entitled customers and I reiterate that you don’t have to take outrageous behavior from them.  You should, however, not give them any reason to legitimately complain.  It’s bad for business.

Common telephone offenses include:

  • Ignoring calls. You may be in a meeting or on another line.  You might be bogged down in a sea of paperwork and have to turn off the ringer.  You can change your message to briefly announce something like “I will be unable to answer calls for X period of time; please leave a message and I will return your call as soon as I’m available.” Then actually call people back.  That leads me to the next boo-boo.
  • Not returning calls. Dear heart, you could miss a job opportunity.  You cannot, in this economy, afford to blow off your messages.  If someone is calling about status, please talk to him anyway even if you have nothing to report.  I know some people are annoyingly persistent.  In these cases it’s okay to tell them “I will be working on your project and give you an update on Friday.”  No one likes sitting in limbo with no information.
  • Not treating everyone the same. This is a slippery one, but I’ve seen callers get poor treatment because they have an accent, at the very least jokes after they hang up.  That’s disrespectful.  The business world is global now.  I’ve heard people make remarks that they can’t understand someone’s accent.  Some are difficult if you’re not used to it.  It’s perfectly polite to ask someone to slow down or repeat something.  If you’re uncomfortable saying “I’m sorry, I’m not used to your accent,” you can blame it on the connection.   Don’t make fun, or assume that they are less intelligent than you are because they don’t talk the way you do.  Your contempt will bleed into your dealings with them.
  • Making the secretary or operator deal with your crap. Don’t make the phone lady explain to your caller why you don’t want to talk to him.  She probably has other lines ringing and has no idea what’s going on anyway.  And don’t make her fib to callers.  Tell your own lies.

On the other side of the pony, there are customer mistakes.  You might be guilty of some yourself.  So might I.

  • Bugging your account rep / agent / writer with incessant calls. I hate when people do this.  No wonder your party ignores you!  That’s no excuse, but still, it’s tempting.  If someone isn’t there, calling back fifteen times in an hour is not going to make her magically appear at her desk.  Leave a voice mail.  She can’t call back if you don’t leave a message, because she will have no idea you called.  Please take the issue up with her during your next conversation.

People who habitually don’t return calls might not deserve your business anyway.  Vote with your wallet.

  • Yelling. Do not, repeat, do NOT yell at the operator.  It’s not his fault you can’t get hold of your person or you have a problem.  Besides, he really doesn’t care; his only job is to transfer your call.  Being pissy or dismissive with him will not help you.   He can just put you on hold and tell the person you’re trying to reach that you’re being a dillhole, and that person can then decide not to take your call.  Too bad, Fred, Bob’s not in today!

Don’t tell him your life story either.  He has other calls waiting and probably six people breathing down his neck.

  • If you have a complaint, be polite, persistent and practical.

Polite:  Don’t yell or curse.

Persistent:  Continue to ask nicely for someone who can help you.

Practical:  Let that person know what the problem is and how it can be resolved.

  • Leave a clear, short message in voicemail. Don’t mumble.  State your name, your company, your phone number and then the reason you’re calling.  Give a time when you can be reached if necessary.  Repeat the number at the end.  Save the long, convoluted sob story for when you reach your party.  It probably won’t fit in the mailbox anyway and then you’ll get cut off and have to call back.

It’s not hard to practice good phone.  If you have any stories of egregious phone behavior, please share them in the comments.

Dealing with Disappointment: Writerly and Otherwise

It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, and writers have to deal with it constantly.  It’s disappointment.

When you get a rejection, you deal with it.  When you call someone for information and they don’t come through for you, there it is again.  When things in your personal life are not going well on top of that, it can get overwhelming.

How do you cope?

  • Identify the cause of the disappointment. I don’t mean assign blame.  I mean think about why it’s there.  Did you expect something you didn’t get?  Were you supposed to do something and you forgot/blew it off, with consequences?  What happened to trigger that feeling?  Pinpoint it.

  • Recognize that it’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to say “I’m disappointed that___” and fill in the blank.  Once you acknowledge the feeling, then the cause can be addressed. 

  • Control what you can control. That is, your thoughts.  Don’t let them veer toward negativity.  So things didn’t go the way you hoped.  Find the positive in a situation.  Concentrating on the negative will cause you to miss possible ways around the problem. 
  • Communicate clearly. Disappointment comes from our needs being unmet.  If you’ve left those needs unarticulated, how will anyone know what they are?  A significant other cannot read your mind.  If you need something, you must ask for it.   Remember, you can’t make that person do what you want.   You can only state your wishes.
  • If there’s nothing you can do, let it go. This is the hardest thing about disappointment.  The only way I know to cope with this is to push through the feeling.  If you bottle it up, it only gets worse.  A rejection is a perfect example.  Feel bad, feel sorry for yourself and then move on to the next query or revision.

Seek support when you are disappointed.  Keeping things inside tends to magnify them.  Bounce it off a friend and he or she may give you a fresh perspective on how to handle a letdown.  Write or journal how you feel.  In the course of putting your feelings down on paper, you might come up with a way to turn the situation to your advantage.

How do you cope with disappointment?  Please share in the comments.

Shut Your Mouth! What Writers Should NOT Say

I was checking out a terrific agent blog I just discovered—Pub Rants, by Agent Kristen—and found an older post on what makes her cringe.  That is, bad-mouthing an agent or agency to whom you’ve submitted.

I can’t imagine how it would help a writer to do this.  Manuscripts do get rejected.  All the time.  Agents don’t always write you back.  It’s not because they’re evil or hate you or harbor a conspiracy against publishing your psychic-dog-meets-abused-child tome.

It’s because they’re busy.

Some agents receive upwards of 200 queries per day.  Can you imagine having to go through that many emails / query letters / packets before five o’clock?

This economy is in a funk.  Every industry is laying people off right and left, and that includes publishing.  If they’re anything like most places I’ve seen, they’re trying to make do with less personnel at a time when queries have increased tremendously.  In tough times, some people think they can just write a book and make some money.

WRONG.  Those people have no idea what kind of competition they face.  Competition whose manuscripts are polished to a high sheen, whose queries are brilliantly crafted and targeted.  Even a terrific book with a terrific presentation might still be passed on for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing.

Give ’em a break.  Don’t bust their chops.  Publishing is small and word gets around.  It’s like royalty; everybody knows everybody and there’s apparently a hot grapevine. Besides, who would want to work with someone who calls them a rude, illiterate bastard because they rejected a book for a reason that might make perfect sense to any other human being?

I know it’s tempting to rant on the Internet.  It’s also easy.  Anyone can start a blog for any reason or get on a forum and cut loose.  I’m really the pot calling the kettle black, because in the past, I’ve complained about things that bothered me without necessarily censoring myself, aloud and otherwise.

It’s okay to write about how bummed you are when you get rejected.  But keep the focus on you.  No one cares what you think of Agent X, except your comments might be passed on to that person.

Since I’ve been submitting both to agents and journals, all I’ve had is rejections (so far).  I really appreciate getting something back, even if it’s a form letter.  If I don’t get anything after their recommended response time (check the guidelines—it’s usually there), I mark that one off and MOVE THE HELL ON.

It’s still early in my career.  I have time.  I have things to learn, too.  And more books to write, so when that dream agent asks me “So what else are you working on?” I can say “This, and this, and oh wait until you see this.”

Do your homework, people.  Find out what makes a successful query, find out how publishing works, and for heaven’s sake, polish your writing.  Work hard on it.  You can’t blame anyone for the vagaries of fate.  But if your work isn’t its very best you have no one to blame but yourself.

Memories of Independence Day

Happy Fourth of July to all American friends!

When I was a kid, this was my favorite holiday, next to Halloween.  Because we lived outside of town, we could shoot off as many fireworks as we liked.  For days before the holiday, my siblings and I scraped bits of our allowances together and visited fireworks stands, thoughtfully shopping so as to make our meager money stretch as far as we could.

A large variety of crackers ensured we’d be active throughout the day.  In the morning there were snakes.  We carefully lit the black tablet and watched black, ashy coils unfurl in a welter of poisonous-looking greenish smoke.  We also bought snakes that glowed a fiery red for use after dark.

You could use a punk to light the fireworks, which the vendors gave free with a purchase, or matches.  I preferred the matches.  Punks often went out.  They looked like incense sticks only with no scent.  I would use them until I got disgusted with them and then switch to matches.

Snappers, tiny sacks of powder that exploded when flung hard onto the concrete patio, left a mess of tissue and not much excitement.  Better were champagne poppers.  You held the plastic bottle with the end pointed away from you or anyone else and pulled the string, releasing a loud bang and a cascade of tiny colored streamers.  I liked these because I could take the streamers and decorate my Barbie house with them.  We made so many things for our dolls it was only natural.

Smoke bombs were a great favorite.  They hissed and spit, their colors wafting over the lawn.   It was fun to put two or three different ones together and watch the colors combine in the breeze.  Sometimes one would fizzle and sit inert on the gravel driveway; after careful observation, it was concluded that it was a dud.  We consigned the poor bomb to the depths of a metal washtub full of water.  All dud crackers, the spent remains of sparklers and burnt-out matches and punks went into this washtub, no exceptions.

I don’t remember our parents being out there much with us but the rules were absolute.  Always have the tub of water handy.  Never EVER hold a cracker in your hand; light it on the ground and get away.  Don’t point anything at anyone, especially bottle rockets.  If we violated these rules, the fun was over until next year.

Nowadays, kids aren’t allowed to touch anything.  We probably courted death every year, but none of us ever got hurt save a burn or two from a hot sparkler, which we quickly learned not to touch.  The bottle rockets were usually shot from a soda bottle angled against a pile of gravel.  Occasionally we held the stick when Mom wasn’t looking, but I didn’t like that because it was too scary and sometimes left a pink splinter when it zoomed out of my hand.

Thunder Bombs or Black Cats made a deafening noise.  I always loved to light a string of them and let them all go off at once, so I got a packet just for that.  We liked better to light them one at a time.

We did demolition: little piles of gravel in a cone shape with a cracker in the top like a stick of dynamite.  Crouch over it, excitement fluttering in the chest, and touch the flaming match to the fuse.  It sparks, hissing and crackling.  Scramble up and away, always with the terrible fear that one might slip and fall and remain in dangerous proximity to the impending explosion or running, miss it.  When far enough away, the breath held while the little fuse burns itself out.  Finally, the crack and boom of the tiny blast, gravel scattering everywhere, up and out.  A dance of laughter and elation, and back to the driveway to start again.

As the day wore on, lunchtime came.  We retreated to the cool house to eat.  There was always a lull in the afternoon.  Sometimes we had guests who usually arrived close to evening.  In the summer it usually didn’t get dark until nine o’clock.  My parents’ friends would bring their kids and we would run around outside, stuffing ourselves with hot dogs, potato salad and other goodies.  Homemade ice cream followed.  Someone would have to turn the crank, and another sit on the top of the freezer because the ice cream container liked to migrate up as the crank turned.    A folded pad of newspaper served to shield shorts-clad bottoms from the ice packed around the container.

My mother often made a juice and ginger ale punch.  It tasted orangey and fizzy and delicious.  One time someone brought beer, and my dad let me taste a tiny sip.  It was terribly bitter and the grownups laughed at the face I made.  I’m still not a fan of beer, although I like a good dark ale now and then.

I would break out the parachutes, cardboard tubes with a plastic bottom that shot a wadded-up missile into the air.  It unfurled as it fell into a tiny pink or yellow parachute with a little ball of sawdust as a weight.  Though they made sparks, I shot them during the day so I could find the parachute after they were spent and play with it later, prolonging the holiday.

When evening fell, fireflies made their own fireworks around the yard. They flashed greenish-white in the deep shadows over the rose beds close to the house.  Out came the sparklers, long metal sticks coated with combustible solids.  They looked like long gray punks.  A match flame held to the tip and they burst into a shower of light.  The sparks hurt like hell if they fell on skin, so we were careful to keep them at arms’ length as we waved them around in the dusk.

Flowers spun on the ground with a buzzing hum and changed from pink to yellow to green.  They were so energetic!  We lit Catherine wheels.  We hung mysterious flat packets on the branch of a tree that whirled madly and dropped a paper lantern that could be kept (unless it caught on fire).  Cone fountains sparkled orange and white on the driveway.

Dark came and time for the Roman candles.  This was the only firework I held in my hand.  I would light the fuse and point it up into the sky, angled slightly.  I could feel the thumping burst in my palm as the ball moved up through the tube.  It arced up into the sky but I scarcely saw it, absorbed as I was in the sense of power pulsing in the flimsy tube.  If I had kids now, there’s no way I would let them do that.  Thinking about what might have happened if the candle blew up makes me shudder.  It never did, though.

The night wore on and finally it was time for the big guns, the large rockets.  Again the soda bottle came out, this time jammed into a shallow hole in the ground some distance from the house.  My father and I usually lit these.  The guests would sit on lawn chairs with their littlest kids drowsing on their laps, oohing and ahhing over the chrysanthemum bursts and chasers and waterfalls.  After the last one had gone, they cheerfully packed up their chairs and leftovers and drove away in a flurry of thanks and good nights.   Time for bed for us.

The next day we always had to pick up our trash, bottle rocket sticks, torn paper, stray parachutes and dud firecrackers.  We played Fourth of July for days afterwards with rocks and the stems of weeds standing in for actual fireworks.  For some reason it usually rained the day after the Fourth.  My mother told us the fireworks shook up the clouds.  We liked that.  We controlled the weather!

The significance of the holiday was lost on us.  We never really thought about the fact that we were celebrating our freedom from British rule, that without a posse of brave and ragtag soldiers we still would have been oppressed and controlled by another country.  Our history is far removed from most of us and we feel entitled to the freedoms that were paid for with blood and pain, frostbite and starvation.  A fitting legacy to this would not be fireworks, but a continued search for peace among all men, regardless of race or creed.  We don’t need any more wars.

Start in your community.  Promote tolerance and understanding.  Get to know your neighbor, your enemy.  Stand in his shoes and see what he sees.  You might be surprised to find you’re not so different after all.