There Are No Rules

Whenever a fellow writer tells you there are specific rules to follow, and that under no circumstances can you break them, or you will be banned forever from the writing world, and forced to join a religious cult to keep your alienated existence on life support, you can rest assured that they are full of shit. Writers break rules all the time. Itís as much a part of our existence as eating, sleeping, and breathing. You donít need quotation marks if youíre Cormac McCarthy; you donít even need to be a particularly good writer if you can pull Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight out of your bunghole and wholeheartedly connect with your intended audience; you donít need to adhere to Point of View (POV) if youíre J.K. Rowling; you donít need stellar character development if youíre John GrishamÖand I could go on, but you get the general idea.

What you do need, though, is an unprecedented passion for the craft, and a strong willingness to write every day, or if not daily, at least regularly. Wait, you donít need a regular writing routine either, if youíre Thomas Harris or Wally Lamb or George R.R. Martin. Crap! But you do need to read often and regularly and across multiple genres, since reading the voices of others helps you find and perfect your own voice. Itís also a great way to start the karma train moving in your direction, so it doesnít pass you by, and move on to the next stop or town. And itís not really stealing if you pull bits and pieces from yourself, those around you, and little snippets from everywhere you go. Eavesdropping on conversations is no longer frowned upon. In fact, itís highly encouraged, and when the questionable looks float your way, your response is simple: ďIím a writer.Ē And the person will nod in solemn solidarity, understanding with absolute certainty your struggle and strife to eke out a living in a world filled with books and attention spans that often resemble the insect community.

The Real Definition Of Try

Try is a rather arbitrary term. What Iíve often found, though, is people draw a line in the sand when they try a particular task for the first time. They say, ďIíll put this much effort into it, and if it doesnít work, then Iíve done all I can do.Ē But have you really? Or have you just made an excuse for not completing whatever it is you set out to do in the first place? Then, the next opportunity to try comes along, and the task is repeated all over again with the same result: failure. And after youíve failed a few times, you decide to give up altogether and not really take any risks at all. And thatís a great life, isnít it? You donít really have to fail at anything because youíve never really tried.

Iíll let you in on a little secret. I fail at writing every single day, most of the time itís multiple times a day, and in rarer cases I fail for months or even years at a time. Iíve scrapped words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and entire drafts all in the slim hope that I might somehow improve my writing. Iíve written multiple drafts before Iíve submitted my work anywhere; Iíve written reviews where the audience has peeled back layers of my skin; and Iíve written novels where I was attacked on both a personal and professional level for my work. Yet, Iím still standing and writing and accumulating rejection letters and prolonged bouts of silence for my latest manuscript endeavor at a record clip.

The only reason Iíve had even the slightest inkling of success: I didnít draw a line in the sand. Not even a little one. If I had, I would have either moved the line over a thousand times by now, or I would have given up about thirteen years ago. Without even realizing it, I probably would have placed an expiration date on my writing. Writing, though, is better served on a platter without a sell by date.

Having Faith

Itís amazing to me how much of my life requires faithóand Iím not even talking about the religious kindóbut faith to apply for jobs that I sometimes feel like I have no business applying for; faith to try new books and new opportunities and meet new people, knowing some will work out and some will not; faith to write books knowing that I will fail many more times than I succeed and that others, in many cases, wonít view my work with nearly as much enthusiasm as I do; faith to write reviews and send them out onto the Internet and into the blogosphere in the off chance that someone might find my reviews helpful, or even slightly meaningful, or possibly if Iím really lucky, enlightening; faith to continue to trudge ahead when I face one brick wall after another, where one bad day seems to roll into the next and before I know it Iíve faced a week of bad days; faith to trudge on when the odds are stacked against me, and when it feels like the entire world is looking in the other direction.

What Iíve learned is having that much faith is a truly rare gift, and that even if Iím filled with that much faith, or confidence, that I still have my doubts, those moments where it feels like it will all go to hell, but it wonít really matter because no one is paying attention anyway, and I can make whatever mistakes I need to make, and that ends up being another great gift: the opportunity to fail miserably without the whole world watching. Just when it seems like Iím at my lowest point, and thereís no way I can move up from the bottom of the glass, I realize that people really do care, that they are paying attention, and maybe I canít measure it, or quantify it, or even extrapolate it and place it on a graph, but itís there just the same. And while encouragement from others is a great and wonderful and beautiful thing, the best strength comes from within.

Pushing Through The Ruckus

If you can walk around like a peacock strutting with your feathers out, flashing your naughty bits for all the world to see, and look at yourself in the mirror seven times a day, youíre probably doing just fine. And you donít have to be George Clooney to make looking in the mirror a rather stupendous and momentous occasion. What you have to do, though, is reach some sublime level with your writing talents. You have to embrace your strengths, recognize your weaknesses, realize you have flaws on display, and somehow be okay with this entire process and experience. You have to recognize that you may never make a lot of money, and that no one but you and a few trusted friends may ever read what you have to say, appreciate it, or possibly even enjoy it, and that you may have a string of rejection letters from agents and editors that stretches to the moon and back. Yet, you still have to get up each morning with a smile on your face, a gleam in your eye that could turn about six dozen heads, and pound away at the keyboard like thereís no tomorrow or yesterday, only right now.

Youíre probably thinking that itís fucking impossible. And maybe it is. Putting yourself on display and cutting open blood vessels takes courage and guts and a transcendent belief in some higher purpose. A higher calling where you reach outside yourself and find some slice of adrenaline that takes you over the next hill and pushes the next set of barriers and roadblocks your way. Even if you like to think positive (and I certainly hope you do), obstacles will cross your path, testing your allegiance to the craft, and trying to steer you off course into the rosebushes. Temptation will lurk everywhere; happiness may seem like some elusive concept better reserved for luxury boxes; and you may have some trouble deciphering the two concepts. But you have to find a way to push through the ruckus and muck, otherwise youíll quit before youíve even started the game.

Gaining Confidence With Your Writing

Writing strips away the self-confidence of even the most confident individuals. Itíll plague you with self-doubt, cause you to question your very existence, leave you bumbling and stumbling your way through manuscript after manuscript unsure if your writing will go anywhere other than a Dumpster or landfill, and when praise comes your way, youíll eat it faster than a Happy Meal after youíve starved yourself for two days. Unless praise proves to be in short supply, constantly being handed out to the other guys and gals, and your debut novel tanks faster than a submarine with a missile stuffed in its jaws. In that case, youíd better figure out some other way to find the road to happiness, or else youíll be whistling at your own writing funeral, and the carcass will be a stack of half-completed manuscripts, or a broken laptop tossed through a third story window.

But when you rise from the very bottom of the ocean, finally reaching the surface, and gasping for breath as you tread water, you realize how strong you really are. If you can suffer through the worst of the obstacles, and somehow keep on moving forward, constantly pedaling as cement block after cement block is tossed in your path, youíll come out a better, stronger, and fitter person on the other side. Your confidence rockets to some higher plateau, a level you never thought was possible, let alone attainable, and you end up in a place where youíve seen it all before. And youíll keep writing and plugging along, churning out page after type filled page, the words sometimes flowing so freely you feel like the luckiest bastard around, and other times so difficult that you feel like youíre reinventing the writing process, but either way, it satisfies some urge deep within you, some need that only words and stories can satisfy.

Whether you sell a million copies, or pawn them off to friends and family members at holiday functions, or just stuff completed manuscripts in a drawer, before moving on to the next project, youíre doing what you love, and no one can take that away from you. And once youíve discovered that, youíve discovered the greatest gift of all, and everything else pales in comparison.

When You Have To Write

Confidence is an elusive concept, isnít it? We find it; the bar moves; and then we struggle to keep up in the ensuing aftermath and mayhem. With writing, this bar proves even more transitory, shifting about as often as a New Mexican wind, and leaving a sea of sand in its wake. Thereís no shortage of readers willing to dissect your writing and tell you what you aimed to do with your particular piece, while youíre left with a finger up in the air and no one looking in your direction. But rather than achieve a level of anger or aggression and setting out on some level of terroristic destruction, youíre much better served with a few deep breaths, a piece of chocolate, and a reevaluation of why youíre even writing in the first place.

If youíre writing to make loads of money, or for the chicks or hunks, or to prove to the world what a witty son-of-a-bitch you really are, then you may need to reevaluate your purpose, and possibly put your finger back down. But if youíre writing because you absolutely have to write, that you feel incomplete and unfulfilled if you donít put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, then does it really matter if the world doesnít see you as some witty genius? Maybe youíre an unrecognized talent that just hasnít found the right train (there really is an element of luck to publishing success), or maybe youíre only a genius in your own mind.

Isnít that why all of us write? To gain some sense of self-satisfaction, or self-expression, or giving ourselves a voice where it wouldnít otherwise be heard, or maybe our brains are hardwired to do our thinking with our hands instead of our mouths. So we put ourselves out there on display, naked as the day we were born. And we donít have to worry about whether or not people are actually paying attention. Sometimes they will be, sometimes they wonít be, but either way weíre writing because we have to do it, not because we want to do it.

Words We Write For Ourselves

ďWhy is it that the words that we write for ourselves are always so much better than the words we write for others?Ē Ė William Forrester

Iíve often pondered this question, since I wrote in school because it was required (and hated nearly every minute of it), and written for myself for approximately thirteen years (and loved nearly every minute of it). Maybe itís because I leave a piece of myself behind like a blood sample on nearly every page; maybe itís because I find it much easier to express myself through writing than talking, and that my brain seems more conducive to typing than it does to actually carrying on a conversation; maybe itís because the delete key solves many a problem that I face in the universe; maybe itís because I had more stories contained within me than I ever thought possible; or maybe itís because I sometimes feel as though I save up or store words for the right moments, and many of those moments make their way to the page.

Whatever the reason, though, writing for myself excites me, because I donít have to worry about rules, or the audience for my completed manuscript, or if my grade will be an accurate representation of my talent, or lack thereof. First and foremost, I need to make myself happy, writing the kind of story I would like to read, and let the rest of it work itself out through fisticuffs, or the passage of time. When someone connects with one of my stories, or another piece of writing I may have done, I feel like theyíve somehow connected with me. And while it used to bother me more if someone didnít get or understand what I had done, now it tends to bother me a little less. Putting myself out there, laying it all on the line every time I sit down to dine (or in this analogy write) and continuing to do soÖwell, thereís something heroic about that. And heroes get remembered.

A Beautiful First Date

Having an editor turn to you in a crowded room and start up a conversation through no provocation on your part equates to seeing a beautiful woman across the bar and having her wink at you, or giving you a look that opens the door to further dialogue. Had I been struck by lightning at the time, it wouldnít have surprised me, even though I was indoors. And having a manuscript that said publisher might be interested in proved to be a bit fortuitous on my part. With renewed purpose, I attacked my female amateur sleuth vigorously and passionately, the muse appeared, life had meaning, the stars aligned, and the odds appeared to have turned in my favor.

Now we have the happy ending and cue the closing credits, right? Well, not exactly. Despite 13 or so years of writing, my life has never worked out that perfectly. But PageSpring Publishing did read my manuscript, at least the first 30 pages, and I received a rather large earful of feedback, the best part of which was that Ms. Seum believed my writing had merit. And I discovered firsthand through someone in the know that I hadnít written what I thought I had. You see, I thought a cozy murder mystery was within my grasp and danced across the printed page, but instead, the voice was more hard-boiled than light and airy and breezy.

But had I failed? I donít believe I had. That voice was as much a part of me as my hands and toes, and I breathed life into this rather quirky individual who had a rather complicated and unique outlook on life. Yeah, it meant I had plenty of road ahead of me, and that it might be filled with orange cones and detours, but that conversation was still the best thing that could have happened to me at that particular point in my life.

In the end, it was only a beautiful first date, but that date injected meaning and purpose into my writing life. So now I have a new plan, and new opportunities ahead of me. I further realized my hard-boiled roots are deeper than the ocean. And thatís perfectly okay with me.

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.

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.