Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works.  And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words.  Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story.  Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.”  I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

1024px-Dissection_tools

What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten.  The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t.  He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong.  Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires.  For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing.  However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block.  A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again.  I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited.  And waited.  And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable.  Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline.  She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor.  She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible.  But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately.  Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy).  During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation.  Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner.  The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth.  However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak.  One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before.  Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2.  How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series?  And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest.  (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!)  Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest.  It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters.  The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3.  So what do writers do with Book 2?  Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominos for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two.  Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end.  That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending.  (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process.  Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out.  Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

What do you like to see in a sequel (as a reader or a writer)?

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A sad ending to our self-publishing tale

An unfortunate truth about experiments: they often end in failure.

Sure, I’ve heard the anecdote about Thomas Edison and how his thousands of attempts to perfect the light bulb.  And some might argue that failures teach us more than successes.  But when one’s heart is inexorably tied to the experiment, the disappointment of defeat runs deep.

On December 4, 2013, my wife and I published a children’s chapter book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers.  The titular character occurred to us when our daughter was yet an infant and the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon” was uttered in jest when it was time to put on her overnight onesie.

We jested about how donning magical pajamas transformed her into a superhero, and we thought the concept clever enough to entertain notions of writing a story about said heroine someday.  After our son was born, we jokingly referred to the two of them as the Goofers Twofers, an idea we tucked away as a possible name for the Pajamazon Amazon’s nemeses.

It was roughly six years before Stephanie and I put pen to paper.  It took us a handful of months to write the first draft and another year and a half to edit the book and prepare it for self-publication (more on that process here).  Our daughter, now 8, contributed the interior illustrations; a friend and coworker, the cover art.

On December 4, 2013, we finally published our book.

Less than two months later, we removed all traces of its existence from online retailers and deleted the Pajamazonamazon.com.

While ideas are free, words can be owned.  More accurately, words—and combinations thereof—can be trademarked.  And after receiving what boiled down to a cease-and-desist letter from the trademark owner of the word “Pajamazon,” we had a simple yet heart-wrenching decision to make: either fight for our family project (and pump potentially tens of thousands of dollars into the legal process) or fold.

Considering we sold only fifty copies and hadn’t even recouped our setup costs, reason dictated a prompt removal of our book and website from the public marketplace.

I can’t begin to explain the depths of my disenchantment.  What began as a fun family project and then evolved into a medium through which we could share our collective creativity with the wider world has become a source of frustration and pain.

For the record, I harbor no ill will toward the legal owner of the word “Pajamazon.”  That individual is protecting his own rights, and even if I don’t agree with every aspect of his objection—and even if I think our book poses little or no threat to his work—I can understand why he would want to protect his own endeavors.

Even though book titles cannot be copyrighted, the use of a trademark in the title or elsewhere in the book opens the door for legal objection.  While I did embark on some research into the topics of copyright and trademark prior to publication, my due diligence apparently fell short of the mark.  In all likelihood, I searched for other instances of the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon,” never imagining that the made-up word “Pajamazon” in and of itself could come back to haunt us.

(Some have asked whether our story could be salvaged if we substituted a different name for the superhero.  In theory, yes.  However, to change the alter ego of our protagonist alters the very nature of the story.  The name was the foundation of everything—from the outlandish book title to the abilities her magical pajamas bestow upon her.  If we were interested in pursuing commercial success at all costs, then we might entertain the notion of major edits.  But at this point, such a compromise would feel like adding insult to injury.)

Like Edison implied, experiments are learning experiences.  If I ever self-publisher again, not only would I spend more time searching for existing trademarks, but also I would likely spend some time and money trademarking ideas of my own.  There are other takeaways as well, perhaps fodder for future blog posts.

While I walk away from this ordeal with additional wisdom, I endeavor to leave any bitterness behind.  Whenever my mind tries to play the What If? game, I remind myself that nothing can change the fact that my wife and I wrote a book together, that other people have read and enjoyed it, and that we will always have a hard copy to treasure.

Even if The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers (very) limited run could be construed as a failure, the fact that we achieved what we set out to do is an indisputable success.

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This writer is making a new kind of resolution

I’ve never put much stock in New Year’s resolutions.

That’s not to say I haven’t ever made any, but like most of the population, my success rate is less than stellar.  As much as we all would like to believe that something magical happens when the calendar resets, our behavior—and personalities—seldom change with the flip of a switch.

I understand why we do it.  Anyway, it’s not as though we’re apt to make major life changes during the marathon of late-autumn and early-winter holidays…

When it comes to my writing, I prefer to work under deadlines.  Sometimes those goals coincide with the end of the calendar year, as was the case recently.  I dedicated much of 2013 to a couple of sci-fi short stories and the children’s chapter book I co-wrote with my wife.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time for The Soul Sleep Cycle in 2013.  And I was OK with that.

But I knew I didn’t want another year to go by without working on the rewrite of Book 2, so in the back of my mind there was a Dec. 31, 2013, deadline for my other projects, including The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers.  And when friends started asking if the book would be available in time to order copies as Christmas presents for sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews, my wife and I made a priority of self-publishing the book as early in December as possible.

Mission accomplished.

Well, sort of.

As far as The Pajamazon Amazon goes, there is still a lot we could—and arguably should—do if we want to achieve any kind of commercial success with the book, including making it available as an e-book.  Marketing and PR are my day job; I know there’s no shortage of tactics at our disposal.

Likewise, submitting short stories for publication is an ongoing process: as soon as a rejection arrives, there’s always the next destination on the list.

Then there’s the rest of the writing-related activities that vie for my free time, such as updating this website, co-managing the Allied Authors of Wisconsin website, and helping friends with their writing and publishing endeavors…

My days of being able to focus on a single manuscript for long, uninterrupted periods are over, which leaves two possibilities for planning the year ahead:

1. Work harder!

Been there.  Done that.

In fact, I tried this approach in early 2012.  The overly aggressive writing schedule was unsustainable.  I doubt anyone can allocate every spare moment of his life working on (or even thinking about) writing.  Even the best jugglers need a break, or they risk dropping a ball.  Or a chainsaw.

I’ve done my best to narrow my focus since then.  Well, I stopped writing the newspaper column at least, and some of the other side projects have decreased their demand for regular attention.  Nonetheless, I continue to have a dearth of opportunities to tackle everything I’d like to do.

I’m at the mercy of physics.  Cramming more time for fiction into my week just isn’t a viable option in the real world.  Whenever I try to do that, it all starts to feel like a burden—like doing work for the sake of doing work.

2. Stop thinking of it as work!

I have fond memories of my days as a dabbler, back when the writing itself was the endgame, not publication.  While there are a few fundamental differences in a writer’s approach when he decides to write commercially instead of just for fun, it shouldn’t be at the expense of fun.  If one finds satisfaction only when reaching a milestone or achieving some measure of success (e.g., recognition, profit, etc.), then the activity is doomed to resemble a dull “day job.”

Or worse, it’s a part-time job that doesn’t pay.

While I still intend to partition off regularly scheduled periods of time for writing and writing-related activities, I simply can’t afford to be a slave driver when it comes to my fiction.  If I want to succeed, I’ll still need to be strategic, but not sadistic, when it comes to self-made deadlines.

(I suppose that’s where patience comes in handy.)

So instead of making a bold declaration like “I’m going to have Book 2 of The Soul Sleep Cycle completely rewritten and edited by the end of 2014,” I prefer to make a different kind of resolution…no, make that a mission statement.

My goals for 2014—and beyond—are to find genuine happiness in the craft of writing, focusing as much (if not more) on the journey as the destination; to define success in terms of quality, not quantity or pace, of projects; and to maintain healthy, realistic deadlines while treading the fine line between dedication and compulsion.

Finishing/fixing the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep will remain a top priority.  The myriad of other tasks will filter in as time allows.  I fully expect to write fewer blog posts in 2014.

Once the ball drops on 2015, I can’t promise I’ll be any farther along in terms of finding a publisher for my novels and short stories or in terms of Pajamazon Amazon sales, but if all goes according to plan, writing will still be fun.

And without that, there can be no happy ending.

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 3)

Painting of Saint Monica

While there isn’t a true patron saint of patience, St. Monica’s name gets bandied about. | Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Patience isn’t just a virtue; it’s vital.

In this third installment of a series exploring the anatomy of a well-adjusted writer, the focus falls on another overlooked—and arguably undervalued—trait: Along with thick skin and a strong spine, a writer needs the serenity of a saint.We live in a do-whatever-it-takes, fight-for-your-dream, grab-life-by-the-jugular kind of world.  Any writer who wants to achieve even a modicum of success has to work hard.  The obstacles are plentiful, but many of them can be overcome by a combination of creativity, intelligence and diligence.  When faced with adversity, the determined writer simply fights harder.

And that usually works.

Usually.

Here’s a tough lesson for those who have devoted countless hours and made sacrifices for their passion: Sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait.

While a writer can set her own pace when it comes to the craft of writing—from outlining and typing the first draft to editing and soliciting—a manuscript eventually must go out into the world.  When that happens, all illusion of control soars out the window.

News flash: The publishing industry is slow.

Whether you’re waiting to hear from a prospective agent or an editor (or, more likely, the assistant to the assistant to the editor whose charged with shoveling through the slush pile), you’re going to have some time on your hands.

Find your happy place.  Get all Zen.  Give yourself a break.

Or don’t.

I suspect the majority of us writers juggle multiple projects.  If there isn’t something waiting on the back burner, you could always start tinkering with a new story.  Write something fun, crazy, outside of your comfort zone, or just plain bad.  Cleanse your palate.

Whatever you do, keep occupied…because a watched plot never boils.

Lest you accuse me of singling out traditional publishing, I found plenty of opportunities to indulge in impatience throughout the self-publishing process.  Those proof copies of The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers couldn’t come fast enough, and the day we gave CreateSpace the thumbs up to sell our book on Amazon.com, I must have refreshed my search page a hundred times waiting for it to appear.

And now that it’s there, I can list off a dozen follow-up tasks I want to tackle.  (It’s realistic to create and implement a marketing plan in twenty-four hours, right?)

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I have a history of allowing forward momentum to sometimes steamroll common sense.  Take this impossibly aggressive writing schedule, for instance.  I suppose we writers have to cut ourselves some slack too.

Perhaps a measure of impatience is inevitable.  Real life can get in the way.  At the end of the day, no one cares about your book as much as you do.  If you don’t serve as champion of your story, who will?

So, yes, fight for your dream when it’s appropriate.  But when it’s not, take a deep breath (or two), fold your hands, and demonstrate faith in your work through patience.

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Self-publishing: a seldom-told story

Partial cover image of "The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers"

We knew we wouldn’t be able to create a cover worthy of the story just on our own, so we found a graphic designer to give the book the pizazz it needed visually. (Enjoy this teaser image for now!)

Here’s the good news: self-publishing puts authors in control of nearly every aspect of the publishing process.

That’s also the bad news.

Once upon a time, a successful writer could get away with being a brilliant storyteller and leave proofing, editing, cover design, interior layouts/paginating, and distribution to folks whose full-time jobs were to manage such things.

Today’s writers who walk the path of traditional publishing continue to benefit from the collective expertise of professionals.  At the same time, the self-publishing route has become more accessible and profitable than ever before.

Which means more and more folks—such as my wife and I—are taking the do-it-yourself approach.

The pros and cons of DIY publishing, self-publishing, independent publishing (or whatever you wish to call it) could monopolize an entire series of blog posts.  Suffice it to say that amateur publishers have more freedom when it comes to the presentation of their novels than their contract-signing counterparts do.

Yet that freedom comes with a price.  For instance, a traditionally published author might not have much of a voice when it comes to the composition of her cover.  In fact, I’ve heard of situations where writers downright despise the depiction that ultimately graces the front of their books.

Not so with self-publishers—that is, of course, if you are a graphic designer, know one who will do you a favor, can afford to hire someone with the talent to translate what’s in your head to the printed page, or are satisfied with a template you (and God knows how many other writers) found online.

Fortunately, my wife and I know more than a few graphic designers, and we’re both extremely satisfied with how the cover for our upcoming children’s book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers, turned out.

Then again perhaps “DIY” is a misleading term when it comes to self-publishing.  I’d wager very few independently published authors could ever do it all alone.  Even those who can’t afford or otherwise spurn professional help in the form of artwork, editing, and proofing (a perilous decision, in my opinion) aren’t likely be the ones buying paper, setting up the press, or building their own retail website to sell their work.

Why would you bother when services like CreateSpace can handle the printing for you, and Amazon.com is more than capable of handling monetary transactions and distributing copies?

Despite such shortcuts, however, plenty of work remains for the self-published author.

I’ve read articles that purport the contrary, but believe me when I tell you that self-publishing is a significant investment of time.  Most of the checklists I’ve stumbled across online are far from comprehensive, and even if they were, looks can be deceiving.  A single line item can swallow up an entire afternoon…day…week…

On more than one occasion while trying to make sense of journey, I’ve felt like a certain British lass who wandered haplessly down a rabbit hole.

For example, we asked our cover artist to leave a space for the barcode, which we knew we would be purchasing in the near future, along with an ISBN.  No big deal.  It would be easy enough for her to add it to the back cover later.

But before we could create the graphic of the barcode, we needed to determine the price of the book, which we couldn’t do until we learned how much it would cost to print the book, which we couldn’t calculate until we were reasonably certain how many pages it would have, which ended up being only one aspect of price because we learned that printing our interior in full color was cost-prohibitive, which meant we needed to figure out if our color illustrations would look good in grayscale, which we couldn’t do until we consulted the graphic designer who was working on the cover.

Yes, I’ll have some more tea, Mr. Hatter…

Before someone accuses me of unfairly representing and/or tarnishing the reputation of self-publishing, perhaps a disclaimer is needed.  Our situation might not be typical for the following reasons:

  • This is our first attempt at self-publishing, so there’s a learning curve.  I’m confident that if we were to go through this exercise again, it would go faster and smoother.
  • Because there are two authors, there are two opinions when it comes to details big and small.  Not every decision is a drawn-out negotiation, but before either of us pulls the trigger on any task, we at least have the courtesy to consult the other.
  • I’m a (recovering) perfectionist, who sometimes gets bogged down in research.  (More evidence of that here.)  I prefer to consider all of my options before committing to a course of action.

I’m also incredibly detail-oriented, so if the page numbers on the contents page don’t align perfectly along the right margin, I have a problem with that.  The point is to make our book look as polished as any traditionally published title.

Speaking of page numbers, I must have spent an hour last Sunday battling Microsoft Word, which boasts an incredibly convoluted process for setting up Page 1 on any page other than the first or second with a document.

Even after setting up a section break to separate the story itself from the book’s front matter, I needed a YouTube video to show me the location of a tiny, random button that appeared at certain times on a certain tab and which needed to be unclicked so that the footer styles wouldn’t carry over from the intro to Chapter 1.

And then I had to figure out why only odd page numbers were showing up.  On second thought, forget the tea.  Alice needs something stronger…

The entire time, I kept thinking, “There are people out there whose job is to transform a manuscript into a print-worthy layout.  Someone—or several someones—could do in a matter of minutes the steps we’ve been attempting to do (on and off) for the past handful of weeks.”

But that’s the tradeoff.  We could have decided to hire a service to handle such things.  We also could have attempted to sell The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers to a traditional publisher of children’s chapter books.  Instead, we’re doing as much as possible ourselves.

It’s been a learning process as well as an adventure outside my comfort zone.  But that’s Wonderland, for you: unfamiliar, sometimes infuriating, and often…well…wonderful.

Editor’s note: The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers is no longer available for purchase. Here’s why.

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Something scary for Halloween: my poetry

I’m not a poet…and don’t I know it.

If that didn’t elicit a groan, then maybe a line or two from “Rain,” a poem I wrote in college, will:

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry also is scary — albeit in a good way. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The city’s underbelly is growling

All around, the rumbling of the buses echoes the thunder in the sky

I hear the mobile beasts around me

As I wait to be eaten and excreted someplace new

Is your brain bleeding yet?

Despite having written between one and two million words to date, only a handful of them were spent in pursuit of poetry.  And whenever I did venture from the comfort zone of fiction, it was typically because a teacher assigned it.

That’s how “Triumvirate”—a three-part poem exploring body, mind, and soul as self-governing entities—came to be. “Triumvirate” is one of my better ones, I think, despite its rhyming, sing-songy nature. Here’s an excerpt from the Mind section (stanza?):

Liaison and foe of Body and Soul,

As real as face-numbing wind;

Tainted by reason, encouraged by spirit

Baffled by blessing and sin.

Not stellar, sure, but it didn’t have you contemplating suicide, I hope.

The aforementioned “Rain,” on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture something very mundane in a melodramatic manner. I don’t think it was a serious attempt at poetry.  At least I hope not.

Confession: I don’t understand poetry.  I never have.  As a child, I didn’t gravitate toward Shel Silverstein’s collections at the library.  I just never understood what the fuss was about.  And that attitude didn’t change as I got older and studied them as part of junior high, high school, and college curricula.

Oh sure, some poems could be clever or funny or haunting, but they always struck me as somehow…unsubstantial.  A treat for the tongue, perhaps, but not the hardy nourishment one gets from digging into, say, a novel.

I suppose I’ve always craved story…

Oh, I know poems can tell a story.  But so many of them don’t seem to.  Or maybe I’m simply too obtuse to grasp the hidden narrative lurking elusively between the lines.  More likely, I’ve been approaching them all wrong, coming to poetry with the same expectations as I do prose.

Maybe poems aren’t meant to be mysteries that can be unraveled by reason.  Maybe ambiguity of meaning can be an asset, not a flaw.  Maybe getting the reader to simply feel something is a worthy goal in of itself.

Of course, poetry is a very broad term, and I’d be lying if I said that the genre doesn’t appeal to me unilaterally.  Epic poems, for instance, combine the creative use of language usually associated with poetry with a plain-faced plot.  In fact, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem that explores the climax of the Arthurian legend, motivated me to write an alliterative poem called “Solitude”—the name of which was inspired by another old poem, “The Wanderer.”

In my humble opinion, the best poetry contains something of a story, and the best fiction borrows from the eloquence and expressiveness of poetry.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Artistic turns of phrase, the rhythm and flow of sentences, attention to sensory details—the finer trappings of poetry certainly can (and perhaps should) be transposed to prose.

At some point I might pick up that book of E.E. Cummings’ poems off our family bookshelf, but I doubt I’ll spend any serious time composing poetry of my own.

So rather than subject you to any more tortured verses authored by my own hand, I’ll end this post by sharing this delightful (if disturbing) poem penned many years ago by someone in my family who’s had more practice with the genre: Kate Williams, my mother. It’s one of my favorites:

Be Kind to Your Brainless Friends,
They Might Have Ants in Their Heads

One night when I was sleeping, but not in my bed,
millions of little black ants got into my head.
They crept in through my ears, my nose, and my eyes
while I lie sleeping under the summer sky.

They chomped, they chewed, they nibbled, they crunched,
they ate my brain like it was their lunch.
Now my brain is gone and I have instead,
little black ants living inside my head.

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 2)

Missed Part 1?  Here’s a quick recap:

  • Yes, a successful writer must come up with creative ideas and adeptly wield words—a master of the craft of writing—but other essential attributes sometimes get ignored.
  • For example, writers of all skill levels ought to grow thick skin.
  • No matter how well-written your manuscript or book is, some people won’t like it.  Some might even hate it and voice their opinions publicly.  Deal with it.
  • Constructive criticism is a gift.  Make use of what you can and ignore the rest.
  • Resist the urge to lapse into despair if you get a negative reaction or a lambasting review.
  • And defy the urge to defend your work.  Don’t tell your readers they are wrong.
beached jellyfish

Jellyfish can be graceful creatures, but outside of their comfort zones, the lack of spine proves to be a major disadvantage—not so unlike writers. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, the picture I painted of the well-adjusted writer might resemble some spineless creature, smiling timidly as his work is ripped apart.

But even if writers tend to absorb ideas from the world around them like a sponge, that doesn’t mean they should lack backbones like said sea creatures.  In fact, if there were classified ads for novelists, I’m pretty sure the following phrase would be prominently featured:

Invertebrates need not apply

I stand by my advice that serious writers should keep their mouths shut and ears open when it comes to feedback (positive or negative).  So much about art is subjective.  Anyway, arguing your point isn’t likely going to make the masses suddenly adore your book.

In all likelihood, vehemently defending your work will only make you look like a jerk.

Ultimately, your story will have to speak for itself.  However, keeping a healthy distance between creator and creation doesn’t equate to spinelessness; on the contrary, it suggests there is a strong backbone supporting the aforementioned thick skin.

Because, at the end of the day, a writer does have to defend her decisions, if only to herself.  When rejection rears its ugly head, when years of hard work doesn’t seem to be paying off, when it feels like the rest of the world is rallied against you—that’s when a backbone is needed most.

Even if a solid support system is in place, there will be times when a writer must be his own cheerleader.  He will have to muster the energy and enthusiasm to press on even if his last blog post attracted only a handful of readers or yet another agent passed on representing the manuscript he sacrificed so much to produce.

Without a backbone, the tag-team combo of inevitable obstacles and increasing doubt will reduce a writer to a puddle of goo.

A backbone also combats the reclusive tendencies that plague many writers.  Let’s be honest: the act of writing is potentially isolating at best and incredibly private at worst.  Some of us choose this artistic expression—as opposed to, say, acting—because we can do it whenever we feel like it…on our own terms…behind closed doors…in the safety of our own homes…

But unless you’re content with being a mere dabbler (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you’re going to have to put yourself out there.  Sure, you could go the Emily Dickinson route and isolate yourself, but I’d argue that an author’s fiction benefits from many and varied life experiences.

Anyway, if you want the world to embrace your work—while you’re still alive—you have to take active steps to be a part of that world.

Even if you’re not a card-carrying risk taker, writers must embrace some measure of extroversion if they are going to get the word out about their book.  I don’t care if you’ve been picked up by a major publishing house or are single-handedly peddling your self-published novel: Your biggest promoter will always be you.

Maybe that means joining a few online forums filled with readers of your genre or networking at national conferences.  Even if you’d rather spend all of your free time fashioning fantastic fiction—or if you’ve always hated blogs—today’s writers know that self-marketing comes with the territory.

With some extra layers of skin and a strong spine, you’ll be well-equipped to step boldly into the wild frontier that is modern publishing.

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