Writing Strategies

Those who write can, those who can’t write about it.  That’s the plain and simple fact. If you can’t make money writing, you have to try making money writing about writing. Make up stuff about how to write and develop strategies to aid writers.

You think I’m off base? Ask one of these self-appointed writing strategists if they’d rather write a splendid novel or another tome on writing and if they were honest, I’d bet they’d opt for the novel.

Writing isn’t a product that can be analyzed, formulated and peddled. It’s a process. It’s running through a field of ideas, emotions, characters, accents, events and grabbing as many as you can, herding them inside then sitting down and trying to organize them into a story. If the story doesn’t come together, you ditch it and head out to the field again. What field? Your field, the one that’s in your head, your imagination. And trying to organize your imagination is worse than herding cats. It isn’t organized, it’s wonderfully random, that’s why it works so magically.

I used to work in advertising. And we had strategies up the wazoo. All energetically worked over, carefully researched and checked out with the consumer and then neatly typed out and attached to every meeting document. Kind of the Holy Grail or the Lord’s Prayer. Some young assistant brand manager would seriously intone the strategy at the beginning of every client creative meeting. But again and again, I saw that the advertising that really connected with the consumer was not the one that was on strategy, but the ad that took off in some unexpected new direction and sold the hell out of the product. Anyone stupid enough to point out that the amazing ad was off strategy was shushed out of the room. For the smart people knew that anyone can write a strategy but not everyone can write a great ad.

Like a sales pitch. I’m sure every car manufacturer has paid millions of dollars to strategize what an effective sales pitch should look like. But then the ace salesmen throws that pitch to the wind and makes Chevrolet sales history by putting his own special spin on it.

Plus any attempt to strategize implies standardizing, one size fits all. And that might work if you’re teaching a set, formal discipline but not when each imagination is so marvelously different.

Now if I’m sounding like I have some problem with writing strategists, you’re all wrong. They are free to do what they like or to do what will make money which always makes you like a profession more.

Strategies for writing are like strategies for cashing in on the stock market. Some might work by chance, just by luck, but what makes a great stock trader is gut instinct, knowing exactly when to buy and sell. Can’t be quantified except in the grossest terms. Just as in writing you can say, you should write about what you know. But then a great writer like Eudora Welty comes along and says the opposite, write about what you don’t know about what you know. So where are the rules? Grisham told me you have to have a main character that’s likeable. Okay, that’s his rule, but does that mean every other writer has to follow it? Certainly not.

The problem I have with writing strategists is not the strategists themselves, but the people who read them. Because writers who read writing about writing are succumbing to the dread disease of procrastination. The dread of facing the page. It’s real and tormenting to the Nth degree. If you let it.

Never have I had a blank sheet of paper have so much to communicate. “What makes you think you can write?” is one thing the sheet said to me. Another time, the sheet said, “You are wasting your time, Vanderwarker, when are you going to wake up and realize that?” Blank sheets can say anything you project onto them and writers, being notoriously insecure, have loads to transmit so the blank page is always crammed full of self-doubts, cautions and can’t do that’s.

So you have to stare past the page, ignore then danger signals you’ve posted on it and begin to push the tips of your fingers down on the keys.

For a writer, reading about writing strategies is a certain waste of time. As Barbara O’Neal recently said, ““Writers write. They write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page.”

Or the other quote from Welty that I love, “You’re not writing unless you surprise yourself.” Unless out the field of your imagination comes a thought, feeling, sentence or character that you didn’t expect of yourself. And no strategy will ever give you that.

Best Writing Prompt – ass in the chair!

The best one is simple, get out of your damn bed, put your ass in the chair, turn on your machine and start to type. No going on Facebook, checking your email, Twittering pals or watching the Today show. Can’t take a quick run, make another pot of coffee, call a buddy or cut your toenails. Don’t pick up the novel you started last night, open the paper or empty the dishwasher.

It’s ass in chair time. As uncomfortable as it is, let the whining come out, all the “But I don’t know what to write, I don’t even know if I’m any good,” crap that swirls around in every writer’s head, give it a good airing until like Febreze, it fades away. Type another letter, then another. Eventually words, sentences, maybe even complete thoughts will come out. That’s the magic moment when you come to realize you’ve been prompted. If you think there’s another way, you’re kidding yourself.

How an unpublished author went from dead in the water to a two-book deal

How Tony Vanderwarker pulled it off is an amazing story. First he wrote a book about the experience of writing a thriller under the guidance of master storyteller John Grisham. With passages from his novel alternating with Grisham’s comments and critiques, Writing With The Master is a master class in thriller writing as well a glimpse into the crazy roller coaster ride of the creative process.

Acquired by a New York publisher, Skyhorse, the editor quickly realized the opportunity for Tony’s novel, Sleeping Dogs, and bought the digital rights. Skyhorse Publishing has release both, the book about writing a thriller and the thriller itself.

“Breaking new ground is always fun and I think readers will appreciate getting an inside look at novel writing and then reading the result. It’s never been done before and my bet is that people will find it unique and entertaining.”

Nasty Traps Writers Can Fall Into

Writing is such a tricky business there are probably hundreds more out there waiting to ensnare us. But I’m going to give you a couple that have nailed me at one time or another. I’ll start with the ones that only inflict minor flesh wounds and progress to the traps that will really do you damage.

Repeating is something we all do instinctively. We use a word in a sentence and then use the word again. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. And why is it a trap? Because it flattens out your writing. If I rewrite the above sentence, see how much more flavor and character it has? Choose a word for a sentence and work it to death by using the same one again. Grisham nailed me on repeating at least fifty times in the first draft I submitted to him. Here’s an example:

In the second sentence, I used the word “satellites” three times. While it’s a well-constructed sentence and John makes a rare positive comment, the word starts to honk at the reader and become a distraction. Let’s rewrite it:

While the Americans had the latest satellites and the most cutting edge technology, hundreds of eyes in the sky, millions of powerful computers, giant radomes positioned all over the world tracking everything overhead and instantly relaying information, al Qaeda ’s efforts are homespun, almost rudimentary and neatly tucked in under the radar of their enemy. Hear the difference? Though John didn’t point it out, “Americans” is used twice so I changed that as well.It’s a tough discipline to catch onto but once you ingrain it into your neural processes, your writing will dramatically improve.

Wandering is inherent to storytelling and we all have fascinating offshoots of our stories we ’re tempted to unfold for our readers, But when you get off onto the rhubarb pie that Grandma’s uncle used to make back in Columbus when you had to cook over wood fires, yadda, yadda yadda—you’ve gone too far. Grandma’s only in one scene. The uncle’s pie in Columbus has got to go. Wandering is a detour that takes you off the main road of your story, annoying your readers and leading them to wonder, “Why in the hell is the author telling me all this?” You have to keep calling yourself, “Does this digression have anything to do with my central plot or is it a deviation that’s going to distract my reader until he or she finally sets my book aside in frustration?”

Roadblocking is a term used by Grisham ’s agent, David Gernert, and relayed to me by John. Literally throwing a roadblock in front of a reader’s train of thought, you bring the reader to a complete stop. Here’s an example: “Joss poured himself an ice-cold Coke from the bottle on the counter and sat down next to me. ‘Looking cute today,’ he said and I whipped my hand out and slapped him, almost knocking the beer out of his hand.”

Wha??? He was drinking a Coke but in the next sentence had a beer. The reader’s left puzzling and as a writer, you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose him or her.

Speeding is putting the pedal to the metal when you need to take it slow. Grinding out a novel or non-fiction can be wearying and dismaying so it ’s natural to smell the barn and rush for it. Invariably though, your writing is going to suffer. Not that you have to crawl, but trying to write an arbitrary eight or ten pages a day is not going to help you in the long run. You’ll make mistakes, take easy ways out, shortcut the really sparkling writing with ordinary stuff, you’ll end up putting yourself in a hole that’s hard to crawl out of.

Salivating is fun. It ’s dreaming of the gleaming red Boxster you’re going to rush down to the dealer and buy when your six-figure advance comes in. But it’s imagining the dessert before you get dressed for the date. Distracting and what’s more, since only something like 3% of books sell over 5,000 copies, it will build you up for a big crash when you look on the list and find your baby’s not even on the top 500. Keep the juices for the writing, not the pie in the sky rewards and you’ll be better off for it.

Surrendering, getting up from your keyboard, slamming your first draft down on the floor and stalking out of your writing room, muttering, “That’s it, goddamnit, I’m giving up, it’s too damn hard.” We’ve all been there. The slope seems too steep, the rocks keep rolling down at you and the wind’s whipping up. “That’s enough, I’ve had it.” But if it was so easy everyone would be doing it. You’ve just got to hold onto the fact that only you can make this work. All you need is a little outcropping where you can pull yourself up and get a little perspective. Then forge on, like Faulkner did, Hemingway, any writer worth his or her salt has been there, goes with the territory, as they say.

Over-reading. You get a rejection notice from an agent, or publisher or producer, it makes no difference. They are all the big N-O. So let it go, they didn ’t like it, it’s no big deal. The last thing you want to do is lay awake at night or stare out over your screen and wonder why they didn’t like it. I’ve done it too many times. Go down the road of, “Well, they represent X or Y and their stuff is really charged so maybe I need to electrify my prose?” Or maybe I should do this, or that? STOP. You are reading too much into the rejection. Just let it go for what it is.

Saying no. I really mean saying no too soon. “That’ll never work,” I’ve said it a million times to myself. It’s a total cop out, a denial of your own talent to come up with a workaround. And it’s the easy way out. You know what Nancy the Navigator in your car GPS does when you don’t follow her directions? She quickly recalculates and sends you on a new route to your destination. So instead of saying, “No”, start looking for a way around, a route over or under your problem. I had this idea about writing a book about the experience of penning a novel with John Grisham. Told myself no at first, did the whole “That’ll never work,” thing. But I took five runs at it and on the fifth I finally broke through. And Writing With The Master was published in February along with the novel I wrote with John Grisham, Sleeping Dogs.  Writing With The Master is my first and it never would have happened had I kept on saying no.

Get these traps out of the woods you write in and you’ll have a much nicer write. And if you find any new ones, let me know so I don’t step in them too.

Writing Tip #2: This-ing

This-ing is using a catchall word to make the going easy. “He didn’t like being treated like this.” What’s this? You know what you mean, but the reader doesn’t. That’s lazy writing, leaving the reader to do the work. “This caused Thomas to make a wrong turn.” Instead of, “What Thomas saw in the road ahead caused him to make a wrong turn.” Not much different in communication but a whole lot more involving in feeling. Five’ll get you ten you’ll never see the word in an article in the Economist or in any of Hemingway’s writing. So set your writer’s panic button to go off each time you write ”this” and you’ll find your work crisper and cleaner. I had an English teacher, Mr. Powell, mean cuss. Powell would whack a wooden yardstick down on his desk every time he heard the word in a student’s essay. I still do a little jump when I hear this being used.

A Foot in Both Worlds

That sinking feeling in waterskiing when your skis get separated by the wake and you find yourself suddenly splitting in half? Kind of like what an author feels when one foot’s in traditional publishing and the other’s in the wild and crazy world of ebooks. On one side, you give up a huge hunk of royalties for the security and prestige of an imprint, retail distribution and whatever promised publicity your publisher comes through with. With ebooks, you’ve getting a substantial cut of revenues but also the feeling that you’re tossing on an endless sea of competing titles.

Okay, so I have a non-fiction book , Writing With The Master, which came out in February 2014 from a traditional publisher with all the standard practices; galleys sent out to reviewers, promotion with the big retailers, a launch party and hopefully wildfires breaking out and attracting attention to my book. Writing With The Master is the story of creating a thriller under the tutelage of John Grisham. Though the novel I wrote with him, Sleeping Dogs, ran into a glut of similar stuff in the marketplace and didn’t find a publisher, a couple years later I decide to write a book about penning a book with John.

So I’m paralleling the traditional model by epublishing the novel Sleeping Dogs, hoping that readers of Writing With The Master will be interested in reading the novel and will create a lift effect for Sleeping Dogs.

Though a couple publishers expressed interest in Sleeping Dogs, I decided I’d try the ebook route. Here’s where the skis start to come apart. How many people who buy Writing With The Master are going to be interested in downloading Sleeping Dogs? And at what price? Do I set the price at $.99 for two weeks and see what happens, then raise it gradually if it starts to sell? One thing for sure, I’m going to be all alone out there on the plank making that decision.

Then I’m going to raise the stakes, on the “Also By” page of Writing With The Master, in addition to Sleeping Dogs, I’m going to note two forthcoming novels by Tony Vanderwarker. Will readers of Writing With The Master and Sleeping Dogs (if any turn up) be interested in other novels by Tony Vanderwarker?

So here’s where I’m really out on thin ice. Though I don’t have a lot invested aside from formatting and cover art in either Ads For God or Say Something Funny, is it worth tossing in a few bucks in promotion? If so how much? And where? And what’s it look like?

One thing for sure, the two comic novels are well-done, Ads For God is Mad Men taken over the top and Say Something Funny is a hilarious takeoff on reality television. But will I have established enough of a readership with Writing With The Master and Sleeping Dogs to create interest in Tony Vanderwarker’s other titles?

It’s waterskiiing, walking on thin ice and rolling the dice in Vegas all at the same time. Though it sure beats sitting in your garret watching a publisher backburner your new book because of disappointing sales, there’s no question authors who join in this game are putting themselves on the front lines.

But for a writer who’s spent days, weeks and months waiting for answers from publishers, agents and promoters, it’s a nice feeling to at least have your hands on the wheel.

How To Wreck Writing

In the ad biz, inane comments and edits were expected. My best was when a top-level client asked me to change “Be Like Mike” to “Be Like Michael”.

Taken aback when I refused, he asked me why. And I told him, “Because ‘Be Like Michael’ doesn’t rhyme.

His response was a huffy and dismissive, “You creative people are all the same.”

And he was right, we are all the same, all fiercely proud of our words and pictures because we spent hours and many brain cells coming up with them, tossing many to the side because they didn’t feel right. So what we’ve ended up with is a product, picture, sonata, novel or piece of writing that’s as close to perfect as we can come. And when some non-artist takes a poke at our work, maybe we’ll listen politely but then shake our heads. As e.e. cummings wrote, “There is some s*** I will not eat.”

When I became a writer, I expected much less carping and whatever incoming criticism I expected to be contributive–thoughtful comments that would help move the work forward. And for the most part, my experience has been on the positive side.

For instance, my agent had his team of fellow agents review my book, Writing With The Master– the story of writing a novel under the guidance of John Grisham. The book alternates portions of my novel with John’s criticisms and they said that reading the sections of my novel felt like having to do homework until they got to John’s reactions which they loved. So the suggestion was to dramatically cut back the novel excerpts. After some consternation and missteps, I figured out how to do it without severely shrinking the book and changing its character. The result? A much improved draft which was later picked up by a publisher and was published in February 2014. A good case of all’s well that ends well.

So fast forward and my publicist, Sharon, is having me write articles she can pitch to blogs that writers frequent. She suggested I do a piece entitled “Tripping Over Yourself Until You Get It Right.” From listening to me talk about my experience with John, she thought all the wrong turns I took and John’s redirections would make an interesting article for a blog she had in mind. I wrote it, she came back with some suggestions making it more compatible with the style and substance of the blog, I agreed and off it went.

I was surprised when she sent it back saying the blog’s director had issues. When a writer hears someone has issues is like a doctor saying, “I see some things I don’t like.” It’s bad news time. The sound of a wrench being tossed into the works.

So here’s what the exalted blog director did. Changed the title:

Tripping Over Yourself Until You Get It Right becomes John Grisham, My Neighbor and Mentor.

It sounds sucky and syrupy, like My Friend Flicka when the actual experience was agonizingly painful. Wrong in tone and boringly mundane.

Next, the blogmaster makes a trivial but totally unnecessary alteration:

I pitched him three stories and he bought the third was changed to I pitched him three stories and he liked the third. A pitch is a sales job, you’re trying to sell something to somebody. And if they go for it, they’ve bought it. Liking it goes with the territory, buying it is the whole enchilada. If topblog was editing this piece, he’d probably change enchilada to burrito, because he has numbers to prove they are more popular.

But it gets better. For the wrapup, to encourage writers to keep on despite the disappointments and pitfalls, I write one of my all-time best set of sentences:

The only thing a writer can be sure of is that if you sit down at the keyboard every day for a good amount of time, something will happen. Good or bad you can’t control but if you keep pushing the words out and not sweating the outcome, the inevitable will occur.

Pretty damn good, right? You can write good stuff or bad stuff, you never quite know which until you finish and put it in the drawer for a week or two and forge on fearlessly and sooner or later, what was bound to happen will occur– the inevitable will occur. Beautiful, huh? It’s part of the reason we all write, because it’s such a dual experience, exciting and exhausting, delightful and debilitating. But yet we keep on because we know there’s gold at the end of the rainbow.

So what does blogmaster do? You won’t believe it.

Cuts out good or bad you can’t control but if you keep pushing the words out and not sweating the outcome, the inevitable will occur. Cuts out great stuff about the process, just pfft, takes a meat cleaver to my words like they are gristle on a porkchop.

Then the ultimate ignominy, Topblog goes after my prize sentence. I used to say that brand managers would take an idea, find the rough edges and sand them down smooth so the idea was perfectly round and absolutely ordinary. He takes the practice to a whole new level:

The only thing a writer can be sure of is that if you sit down at the keyboard every day for a good amount of time, something will happen. But that something might take a different form and skill set, than you thought when you started out.

Changes the last sentence so it becomes a big wet fart of an ending. Sabotages the tone, the essence making it something a brand manager would write. Skill set? What the F does business school lingo have to do with creative writing?

And what’s more, I’m giving blogmaster this writing free, doesn’t cost him a penny so what’s he going and crapping all over my words for?

I think you get the point. Unless you have something constructive to say, leave a writer’s words well enough alone.

Writing Tip #1: Avoid The Repeating Trap

Writing Tip: Avoid The Repeating Trap

Writing is such a tricky business there are probably a hundred more out there waiting to ensnare us. But in five articles, I’m going to give you some traps that have nailed me at one time or another. I’ll start with the ones that only inflict minor flesh wounds and progress to the traps that will really do you damage.

Writing Tip #1

Here’s the first in the series:
Repeating is something we all do instinctively. We use a word in a sentence and then use the word again. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. And why is it a trap? Because it flattens out your writing. If I rewrite the above sentence, see how much more flavor and character it has? Choose a word for a sentence and work it to death by using the same one again. Grisham nailed me on repeating at least fifty times in the first draft I submitted to him. Here’s an example:

writing-tip-repeating

In the second sentence, I used the word “satellites” three times. While it’s a well-constructed sentence and John makes a rare positive comment, the word starts to honk at the reader and become a distraction. Let’s rewrite it:

While the Americans had the latest satellites and the most cutting edge technology, hundreds of eyes in the sky, millions of powerful computers, giant radomes positioned all over the world tracking everything overhead and instantly relaying information, al Qaeda’s efforts are homespun, almost rudimentary and neatly tucked in under the radar of their enemy. Hear the difference? Though John didn’t point it out, “Americans” is used twice so I changed that as well.It’s a tough discipline to catch onto but once you ingrain it into your neural processes, your writing will dramatically improve.

John Grisham – Tony Introduces His Friend & Mentor

Hi, I’m Tony Vanderwarker, happy to be with you at the Castle Hill Writers’ Retreat. I’m a recovering ad man from Chicago—twoallbeefpattiesspecialsauce, Big Mac Attack and Be Like Mike are some of the things I’ve worked on. I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you a story about John Grisham and his craft as this is stuff you’d never get out of him. He’s much too modest and unassuming.

Twenty years ago, I cashed out of the ad biz and moved down to Charlottesville to write novels. John Grisham also moved down about the same time also to write novels. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. We got to be friends chasing our sons’ football team around Virginia. We’d talk about his writing all the time, seldom about mine and there was a reason for that. He’d knock out a bestseller a year like clockwork and I was lucky if I got one done in two years. His fame and bank balance ballooned and the only progress I saw was that my stack of rejection slips got higher.

I had seven unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive when John offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of novel writing. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. John was going to give me the keys to the kingdom, the holy grail, the formula that would send me into the bigtime. I was one lucky guy, right? At least I thought I was. First thing I was going to do was learn to write an outline. Okay, I said, how hard can that be. I’ve written scads of outlines.

You’ve probably heard of the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, maybe the Sewanee Writers’ Conference? Well writing with Grisham is like going to the Guantanamo Bay Writers Conference. Brutal. I slaved away on my first outline for two weeks. Got it back with John’s comments. “Throw it out,” he said, “it takes too much ink to get the plot moving. Start a new one.”

I did another, and another, and another and another. By the end of a year, I’d written seven—a year writing seven outlines and I hadn’t even penned one word of the novel yet.

John finally said, “Good, you’re good to go on.” I was ready to leap out of my chair until I heard him say, “Now do a chapter outline. You need a chapter outline to guide you through the novel, if you do a sub plot, you need to modify your chapter outline. It helps keep you honest and on track.”

A chapter outline? What? And around that time it began to dawn on me that John didn’t have any secret novel writing formula. It was simply sheer hard work. Endless massaging the plot to make sure it would keep his readers interest and would hold up. The secret to keeping people turning page after page after page was assiduous plot crafting with imaginative writing, of course, bringing it to life.

Long story short. I wrote my first draft and he savaged it. Only read half and sent it back marked up like a herd of chickens with ink on their feet had clucked around on it. There wasn’t a page without comments. And they were cutting.

I eventually finished the novel and submitted it. Zero, nada, nothing. Oh agents liked it, but they didn’t love it. And a hundred other reasons. So I figured if I couldn’t write a publishable novel with Grisham looking over my shoulder, it was time to hang up the laptop.

I became Chair of a regional environmental organization and didn’t put a word down on paper for three years. But you know, this writing thing can get in your blood. And I had this idea of writing a book about writing the novel with John.
Sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry or grass grow, doesn’t it?

Well, I took a couple three shots at it and it was watching paint dry. But I kept at it, putting some of the lessons I’d learned from John to work. And about the fifth try, it started to come together. I wrote twenty pages that held up nicely.

But I had a problem. I needed to use John’s critiques and margin notes. So I had to ask for his permission. I pitched the book to him and made the ask. “Sure,” he said, “No problems at all.” He didn’t need to do that.

Fast forward. After twenty years of writing novels, Tony’s finally getting books published. A non-fiction book. Writing With The Master was published in February 2014 along with the novel I wrote with John, Sleeping Dogs. And I’m epublishing two of my other novels so I’ll have four books coming out next year. Desert to deluge. Go figure.

Judy Dench’s character in The Best Most Exotic Marigold Hotel, aptly sums up my writing experience, saying, “Life doesn’t always go as planned but often it’s what happens instead that’s the good stuff.”