(It’s been a real week, you guys. There’s nothing new for the weekend in me just now. Here’s a re-post from the wayback machine circa July ’15)
I have bad news for you: There is no formula. ‘Years’ ago (years is a much kinder and more general term than ‘decades’), when I first started feeling like it was okay to say I was a writer, and doing this thing semi-seriously, I found an ‘Illuminati confirmed’ style bit of spam in my inbox. Did I know about the secret formula that other authors didn’t want me to know about? “No!” I breathed onto my computer screen– probably because they didn’t want me to know! But I could, for just $59.99. I was a single mom with a baby, and the filling in my quesadillas was butter (on an expensive day). And so the Author Illuminati barred me, financially and spiritually, from their secrets. For now. Thus began a Google quest into an unholy land. Now and then when The Formula crossed my mind, I’d type it in the search bar and see what shook out. Mostly a bunch of contentious message board volleys asserting that there was a formula, and that’s why so much romance was repetitive trash. This hurt my Zebra Hologram-loving heart! Repetitive? Trash? I dripped fat romance-reader tears onto my keyboard. In hindsight, I can appreciate those poorly-spelled and grammatically confusing accusations. We readers do like a certain formula in our romance, because it’s necessary. I want friction, and conflict. I want the Insurmountable Thing, that threatens the holy grail of the romance novel: The Happily Ever After. This is what we want, and ideally this is what we get, and it’s easy to see how various factions find it formulaic. So I’m here to bear the bad news to you, my fellow writers: Humans are inherently made to see patterns. It helps our young learn faces and teaches us not to eat the red berries and makes us curious about where that pattern goes when it passes beyond the horizon. But a pattern is not a formula. I get ten emails a day from various agencies, and they all look the same. ‘Ten things you must do before you take your next shower, in order to get published!’; ‘The Five Mistakes Every Author is Making!’ (I got this email from two different agencies, and they each named Deadly Sins that the other had touted in a ‘Things You Must Do’ message. Compare notes, people!). Worse, I see people in my writer’s groups and in the workshops I attend, who carry these messages printed and bound in a Trapper-Keeper with a unicorn on the front. I’m not laughing at them here; my heart is breaking for them, because I was in that cult. Someone (a lot of someones,in fact) out there has keenly identified the weaknesses and neuroses we authors all suffer. We want people to see our work, and to love it, and we hope to be legitimized by publishing and distribution. Some of us are treating these emails, whipped up by a staff writer in Friday afternoon haste because the mailing list has to be fed, like they’re the Holy Bible of authoring. Advice is one thing, but no seven things or ten things or fifty things will grant your wish. Send these emails to your trash can. I feel your gasp, your trembling fingers hovering over the mouse in doubt, because you might anger the Publishing Illuminati and bar the doors forever to life as an author. But I have good news, once you’ve worked your way through the Five Stages (Have a tea and a biscuit, and a long think. So much scotch. Maybe in the bathtub. I’ve been here; it helps). There is a secret to becoming an author. First, be a writer. Write all the time, everything. Buy stock in 3M and Steno, and fill your house with post-its and notebooks and pens so delicious to write with that you never want to type again. Put one by your bed and one in a bathroom drawer and tuck one between the flour and the sugar in your kitchen so that when inspiration shows up hungry, you can FEED IT. Next, read. Read and read. Get free books from kindle and make the used book shop a destination. Those classics that you’ve been ‘getting around to’? Make peace with your high school English teacher for assaulting you with J Alfred Prufrock and pick one of them up. Age of Innocence or English Patient or Dangerous Liaisons; or hell, pick up a boxed set of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books because those are awesome, too. Just read. And when you read an author who speaks your language, who makes you want to give a kidney in order to be like them, go write. Don’t try to publish what you write at this point, for the love of all things, because it will be counterfeit and wordy and feel to your readers like you’re wearing grandpa’s suit. But that is both normal and desirable. Have patience; let your heart and your brain learn the style of that author you worship, and let your soul understand how to add dashes of your own voice. Let that great author teach you rules and how to break them in a way so thrilling that you feel like you’re flying. Then go and write the jewel you want to publish, because you’re ready. Now, and this is the hard part, and where the road turns into an obscure path and Boromir will try to take the ring, you have to bare your soul and let it be pulped, and do it with a smile. You have to show your work to people, and not just your grandma and the dude at the coffee shop who thinks you tip generously. No one should be mean to you, but don’t confuse ‘mean’ with ‘frank’. Nothing transfers from heart to fingers to page without some bumps and errors. That author you loved survived; and so will you. Land is changed by eons and rocks are changed by water, and they’re still land and rocks and still awesome to gaze upon even if they look different than they did a thousand years ago. That’s evolution, progression as an author. It hurts when someone finds a flaw in your masterwork, but it’s OKAY, because you’re not perfect. You don’t have to be; here’s a hug, because I like your imperfection. Go pick up a copy of Elements of Style and skim it and then use it as a coaster and you’ll be just fine. So there you have it. No secret formula, no Temple of Doom 10 steps or traps or trials. The pattern is very straightforward: Read and Write. Hurt, Write, Read, Write, Hurt Less. When you leave my blog, close your browser. Stay out of those Illuminati emails (they probably get you added to some government list, anyway). Close your browser, and open a blank document, or go open a book. And which ever one you choose, you have my permission to look smug, because you’re doing it right.