The Curse of Perfection

November marks NanoWrite, which is is when many writers try to write 50K in 30 days.  Nano, perhaps curiously, reminds me of the cooking competitions on Food Network.  They just finished up the Halloween Baking Championship and are about to start the Holiday Baking Championship.  There’s all the cake competitions too.

Particularly with the cake competitions, we sometimes get a cake decorator who proudly boasts up front that their standard is perfection.

Then they make contact with the timed challenge of the competition.

There’s no time to be perfect.

But some of them try to hang onto the perfection, and the time crunch pulls them apart.  They start making careless mistakes that put them behind.  Because they’re still focusing on perfection, they fall further and further behind, refusing to abandon part of piece that’s too complicated or try something else.

Others quickly toss out the perfection, but veer in another just as bad direction.  They go sloppy.  Their focus becomes laser focused on finishing, without regard to quality.

Suddenly they hear “One hour left” and it’s a mad rush to try to pull everything together.  Only it’s really too late to play catch up, and the piece either ends up a mess or on the floor.

Which sounds a lot like Nano.  The purpose is to drive out the perfectionist, because if you stop to perfect each sentence, you’ll never get 50K by the end of the month.   Yet, it’s hard for writers to let go of needing to be perfect and they end up not even getting close to their goals.  Or they write sloppy.   Imagine writing a story and leaving out all the punctuation.  Now imagine having to fix that during a revision.


Perfect is a curse, because it is anything but perfect.


Just in Time For Halloween: The Lottery

A thoroughly creepy story from The New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  I read this when I was in school.  It’s one of the few stories that still has the same impact on me even as an adult.  It’s a masterwork of carefully chosen details that grow on you slowly, saying something is not quite right about this lottery.

Fiction Writers, as Seen on TV

Sometimes I wonder what Hollywood writers actually think of fiction writers.  We’re all writers, and yet, there’s some appalling characterizations of writers floating around TV.

A Badly Written Best Seller

The most common is the writer writing a book that populates the story with thinly veiled characters based on the people he knows.  The book is horribly written and somehow he strikes gold when he plops it in the mail and it becomes a best seller.  Pretty much, it’s a winning the lottery fantasy.

In NCIS, McGee makes it about his team, gives slight name changes to the characters, it turns into a best seller, and he gets to ride in a limousine to a party.  Girls hang off his arms.

The truth?  A local writer in Washington DC area  wrote a book with thinly veiled characters based on county board members.  It did get attention…and really not the attention he probably wanted.

A Writer Who Never Writes

The next most common is the person who is a writer and never quite seems to actually do any writing.  Granted, it’s pretty hard depicting a writer’s job on TV.  He or she sits in front of a computer and puts black marks on the screen.

Looks kind of well, dull.

So we end up with Castle and Jessica Fletcher, wandering all over fighting real life crimes.  Both are best selling writers, but when exactly do they write?

Writer as an Misfit

Hollywood also seems to think that fiction writers are hacks.  They type one word on a sheet of paper in a manual typewriter, then tear it out, crumple it up and toss it into a full trash can.  Writer then types the SAME WORD on the next piece of paper and repeats the process.

The writer will type all this on an old Royal manual typewriter (which in real life he probably can’t get any ribbons for).  McGee is the perfect example of this.  He’s a computer nerd, talks processor power, and yet writes on antique technology?  Even Jessica Fletcher wrote on an old manual typewriter.  Computers were around during the run of the series, but the technology was pretty new–the electric typewriter wasn’t  I suppose there was something to showing the keys hitting the page, but still….

I guess typing on a computer and putting black marks on screen doesn’t look very exciting…

Edited to add: I just saw an advertisement for a Melissa McCarty movie.  She’s a writer in the movie.  The trailer clearly shows she has a manual typewriter.



Rendering Book Reviews Meaningless

When I was in college, we had this really great library of film.  Included was a set of reference books of movie reviews so I could read reviews of movies I’d seen. It always amazed me how different the viewpoints could be.  The reviewer wouldn’t like a film that I’d immensely enjoyed.

Social media’s made reviews a flashpoint.  Netflix recently dropped their existing system in favor of a simple up or down.  Amazon is still struggling with this issue and has been trying to figure out how keep fake reviews.  But one of the biggest headaches is the five star system.  The selection of the stars is based on personal taste, and all the readers have different definitions!

Anyway, I’m in a social media business group.  The owner, like most business people, did a book on the system they’re selling.  All pretty routine.  I bought the book, I read it.

Then the owner pops up into the group with a post about her first one star review.  So it’s become this big event, and to her credit, she was trying to use it as a teaching point to not let negativity get you down.

(Uh, that’s why you don’t read the review.)

The problem: She called the reviewer a “hater.”


Another person popped up and said that if she did research into who had given that one star review, she bet they would be a negative person who hates everything.

Double thud.

When the word hater was used, even in jest, I was very glad I hadn’t done a review.   I’d have probably given it three stars.

I don’t like the way hater is bandied about today.  People seem to use it when you don’t give an opinion they want to hear, which renders any opinion pretty meaningless.  I enjoyed reading those movie reviews in colleges because they were opinionated, and sometimes I had to see a film to find out if I agreed or disagreed.  I’ve bought books for the same reason.

Flash Fiction Challenge #2

I revisited fantasy for my second story.  The theme came from a magazine call for “The resistance.”   While I doubt if my version of “the resistance” is the same as what they’re thinking, I wanted to try the story anyway.

So I was driving around after lunch, trying to figure out what to write.  Turned down this street and followed it.  Where I had to turn back, I looked back up at the street sign:


And the opening to the story popped into my head.

Challenge Stories:

  • Story #1: Mystery, set in Hollywood 1940s, called Lost Starlet.
  • Story #2: Fantasy, set after a war, called Robinwood

Flash Fiction Challenge #1

Sometimes it’s easy to do something to mess yourself up when it comes to the writing.  I really want to write full time, and get out my day job.  That means writing longer fiction like novels because it sells better.

And once I set the goal of writing longer fiction, I stalled out because I tied the money to it.  I’ve been shocked at how little I’ve been accomplishing, even though I’m writing every day.

So I’m taking on a Flash Fiction Challenge to get me going again.

Flash Fiction is a story that is 1,000 words or less.  I previously sworn off them because they’re harder to find homes for.  There is a sweet spot for length.  1K–there are pro markets.  Anything shorter, it’s very hard to find anything that pays at all.  Likewise, many indie platforms will not take anything shorter like that.

But 1K is nice because it is doable in a day.

The rules (in case anyone wants to join in):

  1. Story has to be 1,000 words.  Not under, not over.  That’s with the five senses, the setting, characterization.
  2. One story a day.  This is just until September 16, and then I’ll reassess what I want to do next.
  3. It goes out to a market first.  In this case, I’m looking for the market first, particularly themed calls.

Challenge Stories:

  • Story #1: Mystery, set in Hollywood 1940s, called Lost Starlet.


Fear of Ideas

I’m on a productivity message board, and one of the topics that frequently comes up is “How do you store your ideas?”  Everyone pops up with Evernote or OneNote.  Someone says they put them on a task list like Omni Focus.


I don’t save them.

It’s always quite shocking to the others.  They all say the same thing: They don’t get many ideas, so they have to save ALL of them.  Because they are all important.

I understand that.  I was there on my first novel.  I had this great idea for a mystery, start writing it…and then I got stuck.

I couldn’t figure out why I was stuck, so I figured that the problem was in the beginning and I began to rewrite the story.  Got stuck in the same place.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice kept saying that I should toss the story and start a different one.

But I didn’t have any other ideas.

Or, actually, I didn’t know how to come up with more ideas on demand.

When cowriter and I were close to breaking up, we were talking about a next project and got into a big disagreement about ideas.  I was coming up with some, and he kept shooting them down, saying “That won’t sell.”  Since we hadn’t written anything, how would he know?

But that’s the nature of the elusive idea to those who struggle to come up with them.  Everything–their entire success–rests on that idea.  The idea is what will make the book get published (not the story, the craft skills…right).

In the early days of the internet, there was a guy who was trying to either copyright or trademark several of his ideas for novels.  He thought it was inspired to do this, like no one else had every thought of doing this for an idea before.  The ideas were quoted…and well, they weren’t that good.  They were the low-hanging fruit ideas.  You know, the one where you write it, and as you finish the book, you pick up a book at the bookstore and it’s the same story!

But coming up with them is a skill that we’re really not taught.  Once you go out of the flights of fantasy as childhood, that ability seems to disappear, possibly because it’s not something that can be measured or graded.  But it is a skill that can be learned.

Dean Wesley Smith and Joanna Penn both have posts up today on ideas.

The Myths of Write What You Know

Illustration of Marilyn Monroe in the famous subway wind scene
My mother loved watching Marilyn Monroe


I grew up in Los Angeles, and just devoured any books on Hollywood.  It was fascinating to read the behind the scenes of how John Chambers put the makeup on the actors for The Planet of the Apes.  I read Daily Variety every day at the college library, and the local gossip columns published in the newspapers.  The internet’s largely made some of it go away, but we had columns where people could write in and ask, “What happened to X?” and find out.

So I gravitated into what I’m working on now, a mystery set in Hollywood in 1947.  If you didn’t catch that, it was right after World War II, so I got veterans in there, too.  I’m mostly research fashion of the times, types of cars, popular colors.  I’ve had to do geography as well, since I only saw the mountains.  I didn’t know what they were called.  😦

And I still remember my high school short story about a serial killer who picked his victims by random choice.  Needless to say, that didn’t win any prizes.

“Write what you know” is one of those first “rules” that writers are taught when they think about writing a novel.  And everyone scratches their head and tries to figure out what it means.

But it’s also a piece of advice that I think has been way oversimplified. I’ve wondered if it originally came from a pro writer and somehow got dumbed down over time.

I gravitated to the serial killer story because it was the idea (and this will date me, but the year that story popped up was when the Hillside Strangler in the news).   You get this idea, you write the idea as is and the idea is the story.  BIG myth.

Also a relative who shall be nameless suggested the random choice with pure INTP logic.

Okay, yeah.

Many people–not just writers–view ideas as rare and precious.  So you get one, you write it.  Even if it is way, way, way out your experience.

Like the writer who knew nothing at all about medicine and had to do research into how surgery was done for a book.  She was scandalized at the thought of a best selling writer saying he didn’t do a lot of research.  But maybe, maybe, she should have picked a different direction for the story that didn’t involve researching surgery.

One she was more familiar with.

That’s where write what you know comes into play.

It’s not about making your character head of HR because you’re head of HR.  It’s about finding an expertise that you already have because you’re interested in the topic.

Tamara Pierce said that she grew up reading about the knights in England.  Her books are about knights and people who live in the times of knights.

Michael Connelly was a crime reporter (and has a non-fiction book on those days).  He writes about a police detective who solves crimes in L.A.

Elizabeth Moon was a Marine (ooh-rah).  She writes about characters who in some form of military, whether in fantasy or science fiction.

Makes the research a lot easier, too.  It’s one of the reasons I’m doing a Hollywood mystery.  But no serial killers are involved.


Writing is Hard, and Not. Depends

This week, there’s been a lot of discussion about writers essentially trying to take short cuts.  Sort of like the person who is always jumping from one thing to another, hoping to get rich quick.

Except it’s choosing the right genres, getting books out so fast they hire ghost writers to keep up with, making the right contact.  I just unfriended a writer on Facebook because all her posts turned into “I write all types of genres in fiction and scripts. Please give me the name of an agent who represents everything!”

We get fooled by the media who says “overnight success” for a new writer and leaves out the part that he or she wrote books for ten years.

Or reading Writer’s Digest and articles like “10 Things That Keep You From Being Published.”  The writer then proceeds to list trivial things that fall more in copy editing.  Makes it sound like you follow the checklist and the agent or editor will move your story to the top of the pile and buy it.

It doesn’t happen like that so the writer either blames publishing for not recognizing them or try to find a way to stick the foot in the door.

Like two other writers I knew.  Neither were particularly interested in improving their craft–you know, that part that makes readers want to buy the book.  With one, I co-wrote with him, and there was huge disconnect to the fact that if a reader is going to plunk down $$ and the cost of their time, the book has be pretty good.

No, it was about networking to find the right agent and getting the book in front of him.  It was–and I’m not making this up–figuring out the publishers’ secret to what made a best selling book.  I remember going to a writer’s conference with him.  We chatted with an agent for fifteen minutes.  She liked us.  She enjoyed talking to us.  And she still rejected the book.

And rightly so.  I look back on my writing then, which is now fifteen years ago (yikes!), and there was still a LOT more to learn.

The other writer didn’t want to learn at all.  Hated his day job.  Wanted to write full time to get out of his job.  Wanted people to tell him his stories were good.  Thought all he needed to do was produce as much as possible and marketing would magically get people to buy the books.

Somewhere in there, the reader got left out.  Or maybe seen as the person who goes to the huckster who comes into town and convinces everyone to buy his snake oil.

One of the problems is that there’s a huge learning curve, like that wall in American Ninja Warriors.  It’s hard to get up it, especially in the beginning.  You send out stories, get form rejections.  No idea why the stories are being rejected.  Everyone starts thinking it was this typo on page 10 or the editor wouldn’t recognize anything good.

It can take a long time to get over the top of that Ninja Wall (and if you’ve even seen the show, most people never got past it).  Learning is always a choice.  Checking off boxes is also a choice.

But both with different results.



Writing Phrase I Hate

There’s a phrase I keep seeing over and over again, and it’s one I really hate because of the implied put down.

Worse, I don’t think writers realize it is a put down.

The phrase is…

“Aspiring author.”

It means longs for, desires to be, aims for.

Yet, if you write, you’re already a writer.  So this is somehow managing to say that even if you write you’re not really a writer.  I just saw it on an article about a writer who wrote two books and was called aspiring.

Just walking away and trying not to cringe.  As Bob Meyer said to me, there are so many people ready to put you down.  There’s no need to do it to yourself.