NaNoWriMo Saved Me

Vomiting up a novel in a month sounds like a terrible idea. But Iíd have to say it might have singlehandedly saved me. Iíd been struggling with writing, dancing around the subject, and editing my heart out, but it hadnít led me anywhere. Instead of guiding me and giving me a purpose, Iíd been stuck in neutral, spinning my tires, and peeling off the rubber at a rather rapid pace. Iíd edited a couple of manuscripts before setting them aside, incomplete. It had been a battle, a constant struggle, and writing felt more like a chore than a pleasure.

To promote my debut novel, Iíd been on blog tours, book signings, conducted giveaways, sought out top reviewers, had a book trailer produced on my behalf, built up a Facebook following, placed ads with AdWords, attended mystery conferences, and had a website built. But it all seemed for naught. For nearly a year, I went through one of the unhappiest periods of my life, not even knowing if I would have my second manuscript published, or my third, let alone have a career in writing. Editing fueled my disdain and frustration, and the battle waged on.

But rather than throw in the towel, walk away, and move on with my life, I decided to peel back the layers and rediscover why I truly loved writing. Rather than let the ashes suffocate me and bury me six feet under, I made a conscious effort to rise above all the heartache and pain and to break through the surface. And I found that purpose through NaNoWriMo.

Having what amounted to a complete and utter failure gave me the power to truly let go and not worry about what happened, and I rediscovered that no one had power over me unless I gave it to them. Instead of writing for an audience filled with expectations, I realized I didnít need to worry about readers (since those were few and far between), and I didnít have to worry about failure at all, because Iíd already reached a failure of epic proportions. Anonymity gave me power.

And so I wrote and wrote, pounding away on the keyboard, as the pages filled out before my eyes. Emotion poured out of me, along with hopes and dreams. Instead of keeping all those pent-up emotions on the inside, I let them guide the pages in front of me, and the experience proved rather cathartic. Forcing myself to write 50,000 words in a month when I already had a serious amount of stress on my plate was probably one of the best decisions Iíd ever made. Because now I had purpose and meaning in my writing life, both of which had been missing for some time. And getting up at 4:40 in the morning probably sounds insane, but days that begin with writing are better than days that do not. So now that itís November, I couldnít be happier, because once again Iíll test my creative limits and heave up another novel. Those 4:40 mornings sound nearly blissful, and the challenge of 50,000 words will guide me once again.

Losing An Editor

As you can probably imagine, the entire publishing process was a series of firsts for me: tossing all the candy bars and my manuscript aside and believing Casey probably never would find a home, before finding a potential diamond in the massive sifting process otherwise known as querying; having a professional believe in my work almost as much as I do; conducting that first phone conversation which I still remember pieces of, even though it was over four years ago; collaborating on the editing, marketing, cover design, and layout, before the box arrived with my first stack of bright red paperbacks just in time for my first Left Coast Crime Conference; and ultimately having a published novel. Not my greatest and best work, mind you, but Iíve always been a sponge and believed in the art of continuous improvement.

But losing an editor, and in many ways a friend, the one who believed in me and my work when no one else did, the one who decided to take a chance on me when no one else would, and who helped me reinvent myself for my second novel, with additional advice and support and back-and-forth editing sessionsÖwell, that red pill is a bit harder to swallow. Betty Wright and Rainbow Books Inc. had been going strong for 34 years long, until she passed away recently, with plenty of non-fiction books and the occasional cozy mystery.

But you donít write cozy mysteries, Downs. Exactly. And now I can never ask Ms. Wright why she decided to take a chance on me. But from what I remember about our first phone conversation, she fell in love with my protagonist, telling me I had more talent than Mickey Spillane (the juryís still out on that one) and saw some spark in my writing amidst the sea of manuscripts that happened to come across her desk. If that were the end of the story, it might make for an amusing antidote. But this is a publishing house run by women, and I have (if you take a gander at my reviews) a rather unlikeable male protagonist with plenty of ego and chauvinism to boot. And my manuscript didnít just go through Ms. Wright, it went through her daughter, and possibly two others at the publishing house (I was never clear on the exact figure) before it reached her desk. Six months after I sent Rainbow Books Inc. my full manuscriptóI still remember thinking that they couldnít even be bothered to use my own SASE for my rejection letteróI received the envelope, with a one-page letter tucked inside, that every writer hopes against hope to receive, the letter that says you are worthy and good and we want to publish your shit.

How do you like them odds? Yeah, you might just have an easier time winning the lottery.

Betty, you will be missed, my friend.

Get Yourself A Good Editor

If you think you can do all the editing yourself, youíre probably mistaken. Sure, it seems like an easy cost to skip over on your way to the pearly gates filled with riches and strippers and all-night parties. While you probably are your own worst enemy when it comes to your writing, you may not necessarily be your editorís best friend. When you get too close to your work, you see the forest, instead of the trees, and all of your little darlings and witticisms become your new compadres. But if you love your writing, youíre not nearly as removed from it as you need to be to edit it. So you need to toss it in a drawer for a couple of months, and then yank it out by the shirttails and take a chainsaw and chisel to the carcass. Although this may sound easy, it isnít.

And once youíve done all you can do, you need to pass it off to someone elseópreferably a professionalóto catch all the mistakes you missed. And believe me, there will be mistakes and miswording and wrong tenses and dangling modifiers and misplaced prepositions. You and your editor will go over your work multiple times before it goes to press, and even then, youíll probably have missed a mistake or two, at which point said error will have to be corrected with the next printing. Then, youíll look at your writing years later, and youíll say, ďWell, I could have made that sentence better or improved that paragraph or made a change or tweak there.Ē

If youíre a perfectionist, you have to somehow accept that your writing will never be perfect, and neither will your editor, but you have to make the relationship work for both of you. As for your writing, you have to make it the best it can possibly be at a particular moment in time, and at some point, you have to give it up for adoption. Either the world will love it, or hate it, embrace it, or shrug its wide shoulders. When that happens, itís no longer in your control. And letting go can be the hardest thing to do.

Writing Is A Faith-Based Craft

Writing requires hours upon hours of your time with absolutely no guarantees that readers will enjoy your story as much as you have enjoyed writing it. It requires hope and belief in an imperfect system, where the odds are stacked against you, those in authority have no idea what will be the next bestseller until after itís already hit the shelves, and if youíre doing it properly, youíll be completely drained at the end of the day. Itíll wake you up in the middle of the night; itíll confirm youíve started hearing voices, and requires constant attention to grammar and punctuation and dialogue tags and dangling modifiers and plunging participles; it starts with a blinking cursor flashing at you in a mocking manner, and ends with you sitting in a corner rocking yourself to sleep and sucking on your thumb; it bleeds you dry emotionally, and physically it probably knocks a couple years off your life; itís like getting your teeth cleaned with a chainsaw and soldering ironÖand yet thereís no high like a writing euphoria, where similes and metaphors and plotlines pop off the printed page; characters develop a second and third dimension; and youíve managed to somehow convince yourself for just the briefest moment in time that youíre one brilliant sonofabitch.

Itís probably singlehandedly the hardest mission Iíve ever undertaken, and yet I couldnít stop writing even if I wanted to. Itís worse than the most addictive drug on the black market, surging through my veins like some creative tidal wave, and popping onto the page longer and louder than a Times Square fireworks display. Yet, only faith and drive hold me accountable each and every day. Nobody dangles a stopwatch over my head; no supervisor thrusts a deadline in front of my face; and no predetermined word count lingers on my computer monitor.

What drives me is the will to succeed and improve, and the therapeutic and cathartic nature of the task itself. It has its own self-sustaining life-force and enough energy to power the sun. And itís as much a part of me as my head, arms, or heart, and when I donít write I feel incomplete and unfulfilled and moody and exhausted for unexplained reasons.

But if I canít please myself and stare in the mirror with a smile on my face and a surge of adrenaline coursing through my veins, Iím fairly certain the reader wonít be pleased. Instead of cheering by my side, heíll mock me, frown, and then proceed to laugh in my face, spittle flying from his lips, his finger thrust out toward my chest. And in all honesty heíd have every right to do so.

But I canít make it about him, at least not initially, otherwise Iíll stall out in the middle of the interstate before getting pummeled by an F-150 cruising along at 70 mph. No, instead, I have to write because I believe in the craft and the characters and the story, as I breathe life into it with a restrained and shaky breath. But I must have faith, even though I canít touch or see or sometimes even understand what has taken me from this point to the next and the one after that, trudging through the rain and the snow until I reach some creatively comforting state, and in the process make myself just a little bit happier than I was before.

No Easy Solutions Here

If you want a clear-cut roadmap to success, you wonít find one. For every road to success there is a different path, a different challenge, a different obstacle that will block your way. Itís not on purpose. Instead, itís because each of us is different, and each of us faces different experiences and opportunities. If the road to success were paved in red carpet, everyone would be a millionaire, and we could all suck our lollipops and eat our tangerines in perfect harmony.

Books are no different. In fact, with the publication of your first novel, the road for an author just got a lot harder, not easier, and filled with enough potholes to bring down a Hummer. Again, itís not because life is supposed to be difficult and hard and challenging, but unfortunately, thatís often what happens. This is the time the real writers often get separated from the pretenders, as the reading public has fickle, ever-changing tastes. If the Big 6 publishers canít figure it out, then thereís even less hope for you.

So does that mean youíre just supposed to stand in a corner and wait for the spotlight to come to you? Absolutely not. But it does mean that after you publish your debut novel that you shouldnít expect success and fame and fortune to soon follow. Sure, it does happen for some, but thereíre a whole lot more midlist and bottom-of-the-list authors than there are highly successful, highly compensated, career defining ones. And it does mean you have to keep at it and keep plugging away, as you keep churning out those labors of love. You canít get discouraged if your book doesnít fly off the shelves and into peopleís hearts. And you canít start attacking and berating reviewers if they donít love your book as much as you do. Going on the offensive only leads to a missile fight that you will inevitably lose, even if your missiles are bigger than the other guyís.

As for the marketing, you canít just leave it all up to the publisher either. You have to step in the game, get your hands dirty, your feet wet, and your teeth cleaned to have a dog in this fight. But that doesnít mean you should take to the social networking stratosphere and Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, and LibraryThing till youíre blue in the face, and your eyes are crossed from staring at your computer screen too long,†while youíre up all hours of the night. So how should you choose what to do? Pick what you like. I know this can be a foreign concept for some people, because it sounds way too easy. Marketing is number crunching and analysis and hard work and understanding people, and it can be done effectively from the comfort of your own home. Just as it can be done effectively, if thatís your shtick, out in the real world at conferences and speaking engagements. Or maybe itís a combination of the two. But in the end, itís what works best for you.

Where Have All The Detectives Gone

Why does chick lit seem to get all of the attention? I donít know about you, but Iím tired of Nora Roberts, Jennifer Weiner, and even Nicholas Sparks capturing the vast majority of the reading publicís as well as the news mediaís attention. When I sit down to read a book, I want action scenes and plenty of them. I want a strong male lead that is bound and determined not to take crap from anyone, including the freak with a machete in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. I want explosions, bar fights, gun fights, car chases, and rooftop scuffles. The more the merrier. And I donít want to get in touch with my feelings, unless Iím being dragged by the collar into the heart of the action, and I come out on the other side with more bruises than I can count on both hands.

So whatís gone wrong? There was a timeóand not all that long agoówhen Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler ruled the page and gathered a large handful of memorable quotes, as well as a passionate audience that extended around the globe. A time when Ian Fleming was a literary genius, and James Bond developed a massive following that extended beyond the page to the widescreen. You may argueóand you would certainly be correctóthat James Bond is still alive and well today, with the great Jeffrey Deaver writing the latest James Bond masterpiece, and Daniel Craig showing his prowess on the big screen. But James Bond has had two periods of dormancy on the big screen, most recently related to the financial struggles of United Artists. While James Bond is still popular, and will continue to remain so, he has lost a bit of his charisma and casual charm.

Embrace Strong Masculine Leads

We shouldnít shy away from strong, masculine leads; on the contrary, we need to embrace these characters with open arms. Men have discarded reading like a pair of day old socks, with over 80% of readers being female. But all hope is not completely lost. We have what Stephen King has called MANfiction, a genre still alive today. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Robert Crais are three MANfiction authors, who are building large followings in their own right. And you have new authors, like yours truly, breaking onto the scene year after year. But we need more. MANfiction is escapist fiction for men the way chick lit is escapist fiction for women. It brings us to the very heart of what manliness is about, and it reminds us that no matter where we live, or what profession we are in, thereís someone out there who can kick some serious butt, and heís going to use his mouth and his fists to point himself in the right direction. Itís a wakeup call on the essence of manhood, and if you like to read, I canít think of a better form of entertainment. Men can learn a lot about being men, especially if the good guys normally win. MANfiction transcends the page to the very heart of unadulterated living.

How To Create MANfiction

If youíre a man, and you want to spin such a tale, what do you need to do? In this case, itís all about the main character, and you want him to be as bold as the next Presidential candidate. His feelings should be shown with a .44 Magnum or brass knuckles. In fiction, leave relationships to women, unless weíre talking about short-lived endeavors. Letís face it men, they are better at it than we are. We still need to try, because thereís something to be said for effort, but once in a while, itís nice to focus on what weíre good at, take pride in it, and relish it for all that itís worth: conflict spoken through a boxing match or a grenade launcher. If youíre writing a romance novel, or paranormal suspense, because itís popular right now, then you might want to take a step back and reevaluate your situation, along with possibly your manliness. Popularity ebbs and flows like the ocean in the middle of hurricane season. You canít trust it, and you certainly canít judge where it will be tomorrow. But you can count on men, massive amounts of them to read MANfiction, as men continue to read men, not because itís popular, but because itís ingrained in our core, to the heart of our existence. Even some women enjoy action, strong male leads, and the occasional dip into the MANfiction pool. All you have to do is mention the name Jack Reacher, and youíre liable to get a few rosy cheeks and a few women short of breath.

Leave Feelings Out Of It

So what about your feelings? Talking about feelings isnít something men normally do, and itís not something that should be present in MANfiction. Instead of talking with their mouths, men talk with their fists. And itís the exact same scenario in MANfiction. Delivering quick wit, however, is highly encouraged, and oftentimes necessary to get your point across. But a little bit of dialogue and introspection goes a long way. No need to prolong the inevitable, when the next action sequence is right around the corner, and the man on the other side has barbells for arms and a refrigerator for a chest.

Less is often more, and itís very much the case with MANfiction. If you can use flowery words, vivid descriptions, and create imagery that will make the clouds part and the seas divideódonít. Itís a waste of space, a waste of words, and readers are likely to skip over it to the next big fight scene. Of course, you donít want to completely skip over descriptionóthatís not what Iím advocating foróbut you donít want to bask in all of its glory and have it be the heart of your novel either. When, like description, there are plenty of other novels you can read. If you want a good, old-fashioned, ride-of-your-life, hanging to the cliff by your fingernails sort of ride, then grab your paperback, hardback, Kindle, or Nook, raise it highólike you would your bottle of Budóand salute MANfiction for all that it was, all that it is, and all that it can be. Youíll be glad you did.

Embracing MANfiction

It doesnít matter if youíre a reader of MANfiction, a writer who has an idea for the next masculine lead, or someone who has never picked up a hard-boiled tale, itís time to embrace these novels for the escapist fiction that they are, before chick lit takes over the world. MANfiction provides the yin to chick litís yang, and the world needs both to balance out the universe.