Rewriting, Part 3: The House of Cards

There may be several reasons why I’m not a full-time professional novelist, but the main reason is probably because I like a story to actually make sense. When characters do things, I want to understand why they do them, and I want to believe that the things they’re doing are things they would actually do if they were real people and the events in the story were real events.

I know there are best-selling writers who skate blithely past plot questions that would stop me cold. (I tend to set those novels aside without finishing them.) I’m pretty sure it’s also the case that I have a limited and perhaps skewed view of why people do things. My repertoire of available character motivations may not be adequate.

For whatever reason, tonight I found myself trying to understand why my three lead characters (all of them teenage girls) would invade the temple of a particularly nasty religion and blow up the altar. I’ve already written the scenes where they do this, but in rewriting I’ve discovered that their stated reasons for doing it were — well, convenient for the author, who wanted to crank up the excitement, but approximately as flimsy as a house of cards.

The problem has a couple of interlocking facets, and since this is my blog, I’m going to outline them for you whether or not you care.

Alixia has a personal reason to detest this religion. Her father (who is not one of the faithful) set up an arranged marriage for her with one of the high-ranking priests, and she belatedly discovered just how appallingly the worshipers treat their women. She has now escaped from the marriage (maybe, if she’s lucky), but she has two little sisters. She would really like to torpedo the whole religion so as to save her sisters from their father’s evil schemes and also help a lot of other women escape from their oppression.

Okay, that makes sense. I can understand that. But how does she know that destroying the altar will sabotage the nasty religion? It might not have any effect at all. The god who is worshiped at that altar — and in this novel the gods are quite real — might not appreciate what she’s up to. The god might turn her to a cinder or a puddle of slime before she gets within a hundred feet of the altar. Or she might succeed in blowing up the altar but doing so might have no effect on the religion. Neither of those possibilities can be decisively ruled out, other than by a lot of frantic hand-waving on the part of the author.

Not only that, but her friend Kyura has quite a different agenda, in the service of a different god (who is probably good and kind, although possibly inept or not paying much attention). Kyura is the main character in the story; her agenda is the story. Alixia’s problem is a subplot. So why would my main character take a chance on completely failing in her own quest in order to help Alixia do something that, however praiseworthy, is (a) a side issue, (b) quite likely to get them both killed, and (c) not certain to have, even if they succeed, the desired effect?

If I were trying to support a family by cranking out novels, I’m sure I’d come up with some half-baked explanation, which many readers might swallow even though (to mix the metaphor) it had gaps wide enough to drive a truck through. But I have the dubious luxury of writing, in no small part, to please myself. Yes, I want readers to enjoy the story. But the deal-breaker is, first I have to enjoy the story myself. I have to believe in it.

Right now I don’t.

Death & Transfiguration

In the novel you’re writing, is there violence? Do people die? Do any of the good people die? Every writer has a comfort zone with respect to these questions — and every genre has a loose set of rules, or at least expectations.

Last night I watched a Disney movie, Alice Through the Looking-Glass. It was okay, especially the nice digital effects, but it couldn’t quite decide whether it was Indiana Jones or Leave It to Beaver. Lots of heartwarming stuff at the end — most of the bad guys are reconciled, and turn out to be good at heart. One would expect that from Disney, I’m sure. But it reminded me of a Saturday morning cartoon (not that I ever watch cartoons, but I’ve read about this): There was not a speck of violence, not even a fist fight — and nobody died or was even injured.

Right now a developmental editor is working on my four-volume fantasy series, which I hope to have published within a few months. I’m going to be curious what she says on this topic, because in my story people die, some of them gruesomely. There’s no gratuitous violence, I hope; it’s all a result of the plot. I was striving for realism, not for market positioning.

None of the primary good guys dies, of course. One of them is shot, one of them has her leg ripped open by a demon’s talon, a few things like that. But several secondary good guys die. I felt it would be a cheap Hollywood thing if none of them was ever really at risk. The stakes, I felt, had to be real. And in the end, the main villain is killed by the two characters you would least think would be capable of pulling it off. I’m not going to say who or how they do it, because you might read the book someday. Let’s just say one of my guideposts as a writer, in addition to realism, is to keep things fresh. In a story that spans four books, finding ways to keep it fresh is an interesting challenge.

That’s nothing to do with violence, of course. Violence is not fresh. Violence is, if anything, terribly hackneyed and shopworn. If you feel you need to toss in doses of violence to keep the story entertaining, I’d say you need to rethink the story itself. Or give up writing and take up gardening.

How much violence to use? It’s a balancing act. As Bob Dylan sang, many years ago, “One hand is tied to the tightrope walker. The other is in his pants.”

All the Soap That Fits

At some point fifty or sixty years ago, the murder mystery was invaded and colonized by the Soap Opera virus. I’ll leave literary historians to work out when that happened. All I know for sure is that the books by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are solidly about the crimes being investigated by the detectives. The detectives barely have any personal lives. But today, the crime that is the ostensible mainspring of the action has trouble pushing its way past the writer’s dedicated chronicling of the detective’s personal life.

As Nero Wolfe liked to say, “Pfui.”

In the last Sue Grafton mystery I tried to read, detective Kinsey Milhone (that is to say, Grafton, writing in the first person) devoted page after page to a loving description of, I kid you not, the canapes at a buffet. That was perhaps an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated incident.

This week I tried a new author, Tana French. Her novel Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and it’s a police procedural whodunit. Aside from one rather glaring unexplained plot problem, the crime part of the story unfolds fairly well. But along the way the reader is expected to wade through page after page about the detective’s kid sister, who is possibly schizophrenic or something — the diagnosis is never clear. There’s also a slab of flashback about how their mother committed suicide. I didn’t even skim-read that part, I just hopped right past it.

Right now I’m about halfway into Jonathan Kellerman’s True Detectives. Kellerman is occasionally good and usually readable. Skimming past the bedroom scenes with amateur sleuth Alex Delaware and his girlfriend is not difficult. But True Detectives is something else again. The main detectives are Moses Reed, a cop on the homicide squad, and Aaron Fox, a black (well, sort of light-skinned black) private eye. They’re half-brothers, and they don’t get along at all. While working on the same case, they aren’t even grown-up enough to share information. We get page after page of family background, including a grade-school playground scene when Moses beat up another boy for making racist insults about Aaron.

And as if that weren’t enough, the book opens with an entire chapter in which Aaron’s father, a cop, is gunned down while Moses’s father, his partner, stands by helplessly.

My theory is that mystery writers peddle this kind of crap because murder is not actually very interesting. Most of the good murder plots were used up by Hammett and Chandler sixty or eighty years ago, leaving only the dregs.

So far, True Detectives is not only larded with thick slices of soap, it’s extraordinarily short on mystery plot. I’m halfway through the book, and all that has been happening so far is that Moses and Aaron are tailing various interesting people around Hollywood and interviewing peripheral characters who probably know nothing of any value. There has been no action at all. Also, no dead bodies.

Two women went missing a couple of years before. Gradually some connections between them are becoming visible, but the connections are, frankly, not very interesting. There’s a Hollywood producer who probably beats his wife, the producer’s creepy son, a movie star who’s a drug addict, a sleazy guy who’s probably a pimp or a drug dealer, one of the missing women’s boyfriends, who seems to be the movie star’s hired gofer — and if you can’t figure out by this point in the book that there was a Hollywood party where bad things happened, you’re not paying attention. Yet after 150 pages, neither detective has even spoken to any of these people! The substance of the mystery, using the word “substance” loosely, finds the detectives tailing these creeps around Hollywood and Malibu and wherever. Also bits of domestic bliss in which Moses hangs out with his girlfriend or Aaron decides what suit to wear today. (Not kidding about that. Aaron is the ultimate clothes horse.)

There is, as yet, not the slightest evidence implicating any of the creeps in either of the disappearances of the young women. And as I said, no bodies. The missing women could saunter into the police station on the very next page (though of course they won’t), and the story would be over. No bodies, but there’s sure a lot of soap.

Rewriting History

Getting the details right in a historical novel is always a struggle. There will always be loose threads that can’t be tucked in. But when you know a detail perfectly well and choose to ignore it, what are readers to think?

This month the book group at the local Unitarian Church is reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, so I took it out for a spin. It’s set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early years of the 19th century, and it’s specifically about the evils of slavery. Personally, I prefer not to read a novel in which all of the important characters are either evil or in misery, and in which we know from the very start that there can’t possibly be a happy ending. I’d rather read a book that entertains while it inspires. But that’s just me. Others doubtless feel this novel is important and worth reading.

What disturbs me about it, from a critical perspective, is that Kidd seems quite deliberately to have avoided using the word “nigger.” I haven’t read the whole book, and I don’t plan to, but after 30 pages I did jump ahead to check later chapters. Nope. I couldn’t find the word anywhere.

This is plain cowardice. There’s no way around it. Kidd should be ashamed of herself. If you’re going to write a historical novel, you have an obligation to get it right whenever it’s practical to do so. Not only that, but the word (which was in very common use at the time) has everything to do with the theme of Kidd’s book.

Some racial epithets, such as “darkies,” I think we can safely live without. Kidd’s story is grim enough without those terms. But an author shouldn’t be too eager to (cough-cough) whitewash history.

Possibly the publishers (Viking Penguin) demanded that she get rid of the n-word. Writers sometimes face a difficult choice: Do you please the publisher by being dishonest and damaging your work, or do you destroy your career by standing up for what you know is right?

I hope it was the publisher’s dictate. And I hope she fought them tooth and nail.

Coitus Interruptus

There are so many ways to go wrong when writing a novel! One of the nastier ways to fail, I think, is to make an implicit promise to the reader and then not fulfill the promise. When the promise arises out of the emotional core of the story, the failure is all the more galling.

I’ve just finished reading Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s meticulously researched, beautifully written, and very suspenseful. And on the very last page, Harris fails. He pulls out without finishing what he started.

I’m pissed off.

The hero of the story is a young engineer named Attilius, who has rather unexpectedly found himself assigned to duty as the master of the aqueduct that supplies water to the towns around the Bay of Naples — Misenum, Puteoli, Naples itself, and of course Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow of water from the aqueduct has suddenly slowed to a trickle, and it smells of sulfur. So he sets off around the flank of Vesuvius to find the problem and fix it.

You and I know what’s going to happen in less than 24 hours, but none of the characters in the story know. That’s a big part of the suspense.

And of course he meets a young woman and is attracted to her, and when the mountain blows up she’s trapped in Pompeii and he has to brave the falling pumice and clouds of incandescent gas to rescue her. You knew that was going to happen. It’s not a surprise, but Harris handles it deftly.

Along the way, we meet a couple of people and are present at a couple of incidents that are historically accurate. Pliny the Elder, who at the time was the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, ventured out with a ship to try to rescue people, and died on the beach at Stabiae. That’s in the novel. Not historically documented but flawlessly accurate with respect to Roman culture is a subplot in which the young woman’s father, a rich former slave who is pretty much the boss of Pompeii, tries to bribe Attilius, fails, and decides to have him killed instead. The assassin stalks him to the peak of Vesuvius, right into the crater, and Attilius escapes only a couple of hours before Vesuvius blows its top.

Brilliant stuff, right? But here’s where it all goes south. Attilius has arrived at Stabiae with Pliny, and decides he’d rather die trying to rescue Corelia from Pompeii than live without her. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. He barely knows her, but he told her to go back to Pompeii and obey her father without knowing the whole town was about to be buried under 20 feet of pumice. So he sort of has a moral obligation.

Rocks and ash are falling from the air. He makes it to Pompeii. He finds the girl. Survivors of the first phase of the eruption are wandering around in a daze. The girl’s father and his slaves start chasing the couple, plainly intending to kill Attilius. Attilius sees an incandescent cloud of gas rolling down the slope of Vesuvius toward the town. He and the girl run and climb into the roofed-over reservoir into which the aqueduct flows. We have seen this structure earlier in the story, so we know what’s going on. Attilius has in fact narrowly escaped being drowned in an underground portion of the aqueduct in an earlier scene, after he and his workmen went down into it through a manhole to make repairs.

A cloud of incandescent gas will roast your lungs in a flash — but if you’re in a tunnel that’s mostly full of water, you might have some chance of survival.

Are you with me so far? It’s a genuine happy ending, straight out of Hollywood. Everybody else dies, but against the greatest possible odds, in one of the most awful disasters in history, boy saves girl. Or … well, let’s find out. As we reach the very last page, we get this:

People who had fled from their homes on the eastern slopes of the mountain began to make a cautious return before nightfall, and many were the stories and rumors that circulated in the days that followed … [omitting some stories and rumors here] … Most persistent of all was the legend of a man and a woman who had emerged out of the earth itself at dusk on the day the eruption ended. They had tunneled underground like moles, it was said, for several miles, all the way from Pompeii, and had come up where the ground was clear, drenched in the life-giving waters of a subterranean river, which had given them its sacred protection. They were reported to have been seen walking together in the direction of the coast….

And that’s it. After that oblique description, the curtain falls. We don’t get to see them struggle along the underground aqueduct for miles in the dark. We don’t get to see their joy when they find a manhole cover that’s not weighed down with half a ton of pumice. We don’t get to see them smile at one another as he helps her up out of the aqueduct. We don’t get to see them holding hands as they stroll downhill toward the bay.

This is the sound of Robert Harris failing. He just had to be fucking coy about it. Satisfying the reader by actually showing the happy ending — maybe he skipped that lecture in the graduate-level course on creative writing. Or maybe some halfwit college professor convinced him that showing a happy ending would be cheap, that ambiguity is somehow a nobler goal toward which the author of great literature ought to strive. Or maybe his typewriter ribbon was running out of ink. Who knows?

If you want a gruesome lesson in how to destroy a terrific novel in a single page, buy this book and read it.

Missed Connections

Having concluded, however reluctantly, that I’m Not A Total Genius ™, I’m looking into hiring a freelance editor to do a developmental pass on my four-volume fantasy epic. One wants an editor with relevant experience. One expects to pay good money for the service.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a nice search engine with which you can find members who specialize in developmental editing of fiction. The output is in random order, so members whose names begin with ‘A’ are not given preferential exposure.

Today I’m weeding through the list. I’ve queried a couple of editors, but that’s not what I wanted to mention. Along the way I took a look at an editor named Kelley Frodel, who provides a couple of excerpts to show off her editing chops. If you scroll down past the copy-edit example, you’ll find a “heavy line edit with substantive feedback.” This is the opening passage of a self-published fantasy novel.

Here’s why I won’t be querying Kelley Frodel: She missed the big picture.

In this action opening, the protagonist, Nickolas, is flying (with wings) across the midnight sky. Okay, that’s a lovely opening dramatic hook — no problem. But that’s just the first sentence in the first paragraph. During the remainder of the paragraph, rather than giving us a clear picture of what it’s like to fly across the midnight sky, the author introduces no less than six items of information, all of them apparently related to the end scene of the previous volume of the saga. Six items of information — six, count ’em, six — while the hero is flying across the sky, and only two mentions of wings, one mention of moonlight, and one mention of cold air. No mention of clouds or stars, no mention of the land below, no mention of straining muscles. (I’m assuming the wings are attached to his arms, though that’s not mentioned either.) The trend continues in the next couple of paragraphs.

Here’s Frodel’s comment in the margin: “In order to reorient the reader into [sic] the story, adding some extra details about people and places, reacquainting them [sic] in the reader’s mind, could help them to remember the first book better and make the transition into the second book smoother. So sprinkling brief descriptions like this throughout the opening chapter will help remind the reader what just happened in the last book.”

To which my response is, “No, no, no, no, no! Do not do this!”

Amateur writers are often instructed that the dreaded “info-dump” is a Bad Thing. In order to avoid writing a paragraph or two of exposition in order to give the reader the big picture, they will labor to shoehorn the important bits into the middle of an action sequence. This, however, is a mistake. What it does is, it destroys the immediacy and concrete impact of the action, while simultaneously forcing the reader to keep track of two things at once — the present action and also a variety of other stuff. And of necessity, the other stuff is not organized in a coherent way; it’s just jammed in.

I have seen this problem over and over again, in one form or another, in self-published novels. And here we have a self-styled (and presumably paid) professional editor advising her client to do more of it.

God bless the info-dump. What the world of fiction needs are MORE info-dumps. Put all of the relevant information into a single paragraph or a sequence of paragraphs. Articulate the points of connection among the items of information — don’t just blast them at us higgledy-piggledy. And above all, get the information out of the action scene! Put it after the action scene (if the action scene is your novel opener) or before the action scene. But do not mix meat and milk on the same dish, damn it.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

As foreshadowed in yesterday’s blog entry, I have now identified a couple of small presses that seem legit, and sent them both queries for my YA fantasy series. I’m not going to say which ones I chose, because I’m about to be less than flattering.

One of the bits of advice I read this week was, when evaluating a small press, buy and read a couple of their books. This will tell you if their editors are competent, for one thing. It may also give you a hint about the sorts of things they like to publish.

So I did. The Kindle app is super for chores like this: Click, click, put a couple of bucks on my credit card, and I can start reading.

In the first novel I opened up, the copy-editing is mostly good. The story — well, let’s say I would have wanted to tinker fairly extensively with the concept to beef it up before I even started writing a rough draft. Writers of speculative fiction sometimes fall into the trap of making their made-up worlds too simple. Legions of creatures that are entirely evil and devoted to causing suffering, that type of thing.

Oops — that describes Tolkien’s orcs, doesn’t it? Well, you get the idea.

At the level of sentences and paragraphs, this small press author’s writing just wasn’t taut. Ideas jumped around like beans in a skillet. Excess words could have been deleted to smooth the flow. And in the opening incident, there was a piece of blocking — the theater director’s term for where the characters go on the stage — that made not a lick of sense. It was not remotely plausible. The author inserted a character into a scene in order to be able to include a certain conversation, when the character could not plausibly have been there.

Oh, dear. Let’s set this novel aside for now and look at the other one.

In the other one, I screeched to a halt before I even got to Chapter 1. The drop-cap at the beginning of the epigraph is screwed up. Let’s scroll down. Yes, the drop-caps that start all of the chapters are screwed up. And this is not a newly uploaded file: The copyright date on the book is a couple of years ago. Somehow this publisher, who seems to be one of the standouts, has for two years failed to upload a corrected file. I can think of several reasons for this, none of them entirely innocent. Maybe the entire publishing company uses Macs, and they never thought to check the file on a Windows Kindle app. Any other explanation would, I think, be worse than that.

Before I slink quietly away into the night, I’ll bet you want to know about the title of this blog entry. It’s a quote from Dante. It’s the inscription he describes as carved over the gates of Hell. In English, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Amazon and the Death of the LP

The book cover problem is driving me crazy. The rest of the self-publishing process I can do myself, but I’m not a competent visual artist, nor am I up to speed with the latest version of Photoshop. I wouldn’t mind learning Photoshop, but doing so wouldn’t make me a competent cover designer. And even if I were a competent designer, that wouldn’t solve the problem — not really.

Right now I have a fellow working on a set of covers for my four-volume series. He’s giving me a great deal because he’s just now trying to break into the cover design business. I like what he’s doing, but I’m starting to have second thoughts, and it’s taking a long time. We’re still floundering around discussing what objects to put on the cover of Book 3. A friend of mine, a professional designer, looked at the roughs and said, “They’re better than most self-designed covers, but they don’t look professional.” I’m afraid he’s right.

I found a great design team, Deranged Doctor Design, and exchanged a few emails with them. Their covers are high-impact and fully professional. But when I had articulated my desire for a non-traditional, non-generic cover, they punted. They suggested that I go hire an illustrator instead.

I’ve concluded that the elephant in the room is Amazon.

Amazon ebooks are the primary sales outlet for self-publishing novelists, so of course your book cover must look good on Amazon. If it doesn’t, you won’t attract readers. The thumbnail images of book covers on Amazon are one inch wide by 1-1/2 inches tall. That is the amount of space within which you must entice the prospective reader to take a closer look at your book.

This is why today’s book covers, specifically in the fantasy and science fiction area but I’m sure in other genres too, are designed the way they are. You just can’t shoehorn much information about the book into a space the size of a jumbo postage stamp. You got your Big Girl Face and maybe a lightning bolt, and you’re done.

My story (it’s a four-volume series that tells a single long story) is complex. There are about 20 viewpoint characters at one point or another! There are four evil wizards and two other villains (each of whom is the viewpoint character in at least one scene). There’s humor and tragedy. There are dragons, a ghost, an ogre, elves, railroad trains, burglaries, a talking statue, good wizards, a magical flying machine called an aerosphere, people getting killed, a magic wand that turns into a serpent, gods, traitors, healing spells, a woman who turns into a tree, three different girls (the primary characters) all of whom fall in love along the way, the girls’ strange boyfriends — and I’m supposed to convey the essence of this story on a postage stamp. Well, on four postage stamps, but still…

The advice sometimes given to authors who are about to hire a cover designer is exactly that: Boil your story down to its emotional core. That core, that essence, is what we’ll put on the cover.

Well, that list above IS the essence. Deal with it.

Another stock bit of advice is, “Go look at a bunch of book covers online, and tell us which ones you like.” I don’t like any of them. I mean, I like some of them graphically. They’re beautiful. But none of them is even remotely right for my books.

Once upon a time, children, there used to be record stores. You could go into a record store, paw through the bins, and find a record that looked interesting. The cover of an LP was 12 inches wide and 12 inches high. Some covers were simple and elegant, to be sure, but others were quite detailed. One thinks, for instance, of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Staring at that complex collage and trying to figure out who was in the collage was a fun thing to do while you were stoned. Or so they tell me.

Then the CD came along. LPs died. A CD cover is 4-3/4 inches square — less than a fifth as much space for graphics as the cover of an LP. I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I’ll bet the graphics got simpler. Because how could they not?

Just for fun, you might want to take a look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s as it’s displayed on Amazon, at 1-1/2 inches square. You can’t even read the name of the album. (It’s on the drum head.) If this were a new product whose cover was being designed today, that cover design would be a 100% failure. No competent designer would produce anything like it.

I want a 12″ book cover, damn it. I need a 12″ book cover!

I didn’t put it to Deranged Doctor Design in quite that way. What I said was, “How do you convey complexity in a simple image? You’re the experts — you tell me.” That was when they said they didn’t want the job. And I can understand why. They perceived, correctly, that I was going to be hard to please. Trying to do my covers would not be cost-effective for them as professionals; it would take too much time.

What’s the solution? I have no idea. Maybe I should have the Deranged Doctors do a set of generic high-impact wonderful-looking covers that completely misrepresent what’s in the books. That feels dishonest, and I wouldn’t be proud to wave the physical books around at a personal appearance — I’d find myself apologizing, over and over, for the preposterous, misleading, embarrassingly generic covers.

Maybe I’d be happy with a book cover that’s an animated collage. But the technology isn’t quite there yet. There are animated .gifs, but I doubt Amazon wants to display them in the postage-stamp size, and they wouldn’t do well as print covers. (Speaking of which, the Rolling Stones did once do an LP cover that included an image that shifted if you tilted the cover. That was in the ’60s.)

I hate this problem.

Yardstick? What Yardstick?

How do you measure success? If you’re a writer, or in fact an artist of any kind, this is a treacherous question.

Tonight I glanced at a blog post by Derek Murphy. Derek is a very bright guy and a tireless self-promoter. He designs book covers, he writes his own fiction, he builds websites. I’m sure he does lots of other stuff too. I wish I had his energy! But I’m not sure I agree with his view of success.

Let’s look at a few quotes from his essay.

“If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.”

“If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience.”

“They [authors who “made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it”] won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will ‘get it.’ Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells….”

“There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing. But you need to learn the rules of the game first.”

The assumption Derek is making here, and what got my hackles up, is the idea that success is measured by how many books you sell. I’m sure a lot of people think of it that way — but it’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear suggestions about how they could improve their writing, but that’s a different topic altogether.

I dislike the word “spiritual,” and never use it, so I’m going to grope for an alternative here. Success is measured, or at least defined, internally — not on a spreadsheet. It’s defined by the feeling that you’ve done your best. That you’ve lived up to and perhaps exceeded your own expectations for yourself. That you have been skillful at each and every point in the work you’ve just completed. That you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. That you have reached or perhaps surpassed the goals that you set for yourself when you began.

Success is when you feel good about your work. When you look at your work and judge that it is good — that it does what you want it to do. Everything else is just dust in the wind.

The danger in focusing on sales figures as a measure of success is that it warps the creative process. If you’re trying, as you write or paint or sing, to sell your work to the greatest number of people, you will make bad decisions. You will harm yourself, and you will harm your readers, viewers, or listeners. You will deprive them, and deprive yourself, of an entire dimension of experience that would otherwise be available. If you’re writing or painting with an invisible audience looking over your shoulder and judging your work, you’re in big trouble.

Of course, most people need to earn a living one way or another, and a great many artists would like to make a living by selling their art. Having a day job is no fun at all, and having to work full-time or even part-time at some menial or demeaning job will wreak havoc with your creativity too! Nobody said living on this planet would be easy. (Actually, Ira Gershwin did say that: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” But you can’t trust a songwriter.)

I keep coming back to something that Ram Dass said in one of his books. Quoting from memory here, “The only thing you can really contribute to the world is the quality of your own consciousness at any given moment.” If your consciousness is polluted, whether by the need for money or by the fear that your self-esteem will be crushed if not enough people admire you, then that pollution will surely show up in your creative work.

There’s a Zen story — I think it’s a Zen story, anyway, it sounds like one. The young painter goes to the master painter and says, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting.” The master replies, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Becoming perfect — well, that’s not going to happen. But getting better can and does happen. Getting better is something that happens inside of you. You can’t measure it, you can only feel it and know it. What’s more, you get to define for yourself what “better” means.

My wish for you is that you become better; that, as you continually get better, you continue to write as well as you can; and that you find, as you do so, an inner reward that deeply satisfies you.

When Magic Fails

When you have a 450,000-word epic waiting to be published, there are a lot of details to keep track of! For months now, a minor problem has been bugging me. My lead character, 17-year-old Kyura, has been taught a magic spell. It’s the only spell she knows. She can utter an incantation and wave her hand in a certain way, and thereby throw force at something. Like, knock it down without touching it. Useful spell.

She also has a potent magic amulet called the Leafstone Shield. One part of my brain said, “She can only throw force while wearing the Shield.” But when I skimmed through Book 4, there was a scene where she was clearly using the spell even though she wasn’t wearing the Shield. So my brain had short-circuited on that detail, right?

Wrong. There’s also a scene (in Book 3) where she’s locked in a cell in a dungeon and can’t get out until her friend slides the Shield to her under the door. I didn’t remember where the have-to-be-wearing-the-Shield scene was, so I shrugged it off. I mean, are you going to reread the whole story to find that one bit?

Last night, while writing an email to somebody describing the story, I remembered! Aha! So today I was able to tidy it up.

I like to get the details right. I’m kind of a maniac about it, actually. I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but Agatha Christie once remarked that after her mysteries were published she would usually get a letter from some reader or other pointing out a horrible logical flaw in her plot.

As Joe E. Lewis says at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”