Ideas as Commodities

I love how it looks like the ladder-backed woodpecker and the finch are having a conversation over breakfast.

The common wisdom these days is that ideas are cheap and everything is in the execution. Young writers – and by this I mean, new to the game – are frequently advised not to worry about someone stealing their ideas because 1) there are no new ideas, 2) writing is about how you tell the story and 3) you can’t stop them anyway.

This is all true.

It’s also true that ideas are easy to come by. The aforementioned young writers often ask established writers – never Old Writers, please – where they get their ideas. Inevitably the established writers will reply that getting ideas is not a problem. It’s having the time and energy to write them all that’s the problem. Also, I think it’s a flow thing – the more you write, the more stories come to you. In some ways, it’s like the young writers and the established writers are speaking different languages. Which is why the established writers will eventually say, sometimes in frustration, just keep writing and you’ll have ideas.

So, if this is true, that ideas are easily come by, then there’s nothing wrong with giving them away.

Indeed, I see people operating as if this is true. They ask on Twitter for ideas for blog posts. And clearly people suggest those ideas. A common lament among writers is that people will offer them story ideas – often of the person’s incredibly interesting (self-perceived) personal history. Of course, in those cases, the incredibly interesting person will think there’s an intrinsic value in their story idea and will try to negotiate a deal. The writer, knowing ideas are a dime a dozen, will decline.

But – are they really?

See, the other reason that this never works – the, hey, why don’t you write my incredibly interesting story scenario – is because it’s not the idea itself, but the fire behind it. That’s what the writer needs. That burning image. The seed of creativity. The story that’s begging to be told, that unwinds itself in loops in the writer’s brain, crowding out everything else. Those ideas? Those are beyond worth.

It puts me in mind of a quote from Robert Bly: “Be careful how quickly you give away your fire.”

Most people interpret this as, don’t yammer too much about your story idea, or you can lose all the oompf behind it, which is also good advice. But it’s come back to me lately because a writing friend asked me for help. She wanted to incorporate certain things into her new book, dynamics that I happen to write well.

Now, I’m big on giving help. I’m a believer in being generous, in the bounty of the universe, and normally I wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, I help friends all the time with brainstorming or plot difficulties or sorting out these kinds of dynamics. I enjoy it and find it feeds me, too.

But, in this case, she asked for more than I was willing to give. At first I wasn’t sure why – just that I balked internally. Then I realized that she was asking for a big piece of my fire. She wanted me to give her, not just an idea, but a whole story, with all the seeds of magic ready to grow.

I tried to find a way to give her only guidance. Then she needed to move on and I was off the hook.

The whole thing, though, made me think.

In fact, I had to create a whole new batch of tags for this post – which, you know, is something I’m trying not to do – because it’s not something I’ve really mulled over before.

I’m still mulling, coiled like a dragon over my treasure.

Not my usual place to be.

Can “That” Really Change Your Voice?

Seems like everyone is dealing with edits lately. I know that’s likely a false observation, based on only a few data points. But one of my CPs was wresting with copy edits she didn’t totally agree with and another received kind of on odd batch of late-breaking line edits after copy edits, mostly eliminating word repetition. Another is coping with pretty deep first round developmental revisions.

For those not in the trenches, there are various rounds of edits we receive from our publishers. They are:

Revise and Resubmit

This is before you get a contract. Usually you’ll get a letter from the acquisitions editor saying what they like about the book, along with what you’d have to change for them to acquire it. A surprising (to me) number of authors won’t do them, saying they won’t “work on spec.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll accept if you revise. Still, as my fab editor Deb Nemeth points out, it takes a substantial amount of time and effort for her to write an R&R letter. It’s much easier to say no. With an R&R, they’re already invested.

Developmental Edits

The first step after you sign your contract. There are one to two rounds of these, usually depending on how well you revise on the first round. These can be overarching changes like “firm up the heroine’s motivation” or “write this chapter in real time, not as a memory.” Sometimes writers react to developmental edits like they’re an insult or as if the author screwed up. No, it happens to established authors all the time and can have a lot more to do with how the publishing house wants to target the book. One friend of mine had grandparents in her YA novel who were way too supportive and helpful. Her editor asked her to go through and make them unsupportive, to add more tension.

Line Edits

This is what it sounds like – the editor goes through the whole book, line by line and scrutinizes every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph. Usually there are two rounds of these. Hopefully the second is far less painful than the first.

Copy Edits

The final round! (Or two.) The Copy Editor is a different person, very specialized who has the job of Quibbling. They fact-check. They fix everything according to House Style (the established rules of the publishing house – for example, Carina has a no colons or semi-colons rule). Copy Editors tend to be very literal. They hate metaphorical language and they love Perfect Grammar above all else.

So, my friend who was angsting over her Copy Edits was upset at having a lot of “thats” inserted. It’s the difference between, for example, “The hammer that she used every day” and “The hammer she used every day.” A lot of writers hate “thats” and work to eliminate them. Copy Editors tend to insert them, for perfect sentence structure. The writer felt that (heh) this changed her voice.

There’s lots to be said about voice – volumes, really. Amusingly, as I was deciding how I could wind this up succinctly, I was discussing on Twitter this book I finished reading  last night, how much I loved it and how, this morning, I’m missing it. And my editor, the aforementioned fabulous Deb, replied: “That feeling of wanting to be back in a story after you finish reading the book? That’s the quality I look for in a submission.”

And that, my friends, will never be affected by a few more that’s.

Heh – at least I amuse myself.

Inspiring Quote

This seemed the best way to post this for @alwayscoffee, who posted this link today. I told her it reminded me of this, from William Faulkner’s speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Sweating the Small Stuff

One good thing about dark winter mornings is that I’m awake for the sunrise. Not something I would otherwise make an effort for, but look what I miss in the summertime.

Today is our 21st anniversary. On this date, lo these many years ago, David took me out for a drink and to see a movie after the Superbowl. I’m terrible at dating and neither of us had much fun. Still, he persisted and I liked him, so we had a little fling.

We’re still flinging.

Funny how that works out. More and more I think that life, the universe and everything doesn’t take well to being planned out. Certainly not to being controlled. That’s why I like the idea of Tao – grab a wave and do your best to ride it without drowning.

It seems I see a lot of people grasping for control lately. Maybe it’s a feeling of instability embodied by that deathless phrase “in this economy.” I don’t even know what that means anymore, except that it somehow conveys that people are afraid. And fear often makes us hold on tighter, with clenched fists and squinched-up eyes. We might become less tolerant, rather than more flexible. Less inclined to let the small stuff go. Less able to see that it’s all small stuff.

One of my book blogger Twitter pals posted this today – a contract that an author sent to a book reviewer. It seems to be yet another attempt to control the uncontrollable – if, when and how a book gets reviewed. And, it’s ultimately an unenforceable contract. I’ve heard of other authors telling reviewers that they can only post reviews of three stars or better. Or arguing with readers who give story “spoilers.”

Ultimately it’s like trying to keep Tom Cruise from being cast in your movie: it might be terribly wrong, but it’s not a fight you can win.

As my friend Laura Bickle says, “I don’t want to die on that hill.”

A particularly poignant way of pointing out that we have to pick our battles. Fight for what you want, for what’s right, necessary and important.

But, really – don’t sweat the small stuff.

(Hint: it’s pretty much all small stuff.)

Wrestling with Stupid

This one almost doesn’t look real, does it?

So, I have this cousin who lives in the South. For you non-US types, when I say South with a capital “S” that refers to the states in the southeastern part of the country. Pretty much anything east of Texas and south of the Mason-Dixon line, which is an old demarcation, and people will argue with it (just as many people would argue that east Texas counts as the South), but it works in general. The South has its own culture, way of speaking and values. These values tend towards strong belief in Christianity and a fundamental racism that continues to persist in the white population.

For example, the last time I was down South, visiting an old friend, her teenage son asked me why I put brown sugar on my oatmeal because “only colored people do that.” I was shocked speechless. I suspect he thought that, by not using the N-word, he wasn’t being racist.  Being fundamentally polite and a guest in my friend’s home, I didn’t point out the multiple flaws in his argument. Still, I was terribly bothered that my intelligent, open-minded friend had raised a son who would think and say such things.

At any rate, my father is from the South, so I have family there. I’m not terribly close to them, since my father died a long time ago. Once my grandparents passed on, there was less connection. But my father’s younger brother had two sons and I’ve always valued my relationship with them, though it’s grown progressively more tenuous over the years.

On a visit about ten to fifteen years back, my younger cousin had a whole bunch of questions for me. He was a teenager at the time, with a keen and restless mind. I’m kind of an object of curiosity for them, having grown up out West in the Rocky Mountain states, with liberal ideas and a fancy education. There’s also a sort of mythology around my dad, who was selected to go to the  Air Force Academy back when they took two guys from every state, based on academic record and a senator’s recommendation. It was a seriously big deal for my small town father, whose parents quit going to school at 12 and could never have afforded to send him to college.

My cousin asked if everyone out West was really smart and talked like I do. He wanted to know if I thought all Southerners were stupid. He said he saw people walking around with t-shirts that had fingers pointing to the person next to them saying “I’m with Stupid.” He wanted to know what I thought of that. They were good questions and I tried to answer them honestly. We had several good conversations about who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do with his life.

Later, he decided to go to Seminary and become a minister. His parents called to tell me the news and how terribly proud they were of him. I was surprised, but hoped he’d do well.

He and I talked on Facebook here and there. He studied languages and old texts, which made him happy and we had fun talking about those things. Now he’s a practicing minister and engaged to a pretty blond girl from his home town. I ignore the preachier things he posts. Sometimes I’m tempted to comment. I rarely do. Keeping the peace.

But, the other night, during the State of the Union address, he posted “Obamar got purdy werds.”

I haven’t shaken the crushing sense of disappointment yet.

I wonder what happened to the boy who thought wearing shirts that say “I’m with Stupid” lowers people. The guy who worried that the way he talked made him sound dumb. I really wanted to ask if all that study of Latin and Greek had made him forget how to spell in English.

Now, I should say that I know plenty of people who don’t like President Obama’s policies. I’ve had interesting debates with people and they often present cogent, articulate arguments for what they don’t agree with. But for this guy, who I know is smarter than this, to appeal to his buddies by lowering himself, just makes me sad. Worse, I know that a huge part for my cousin is that Obama is one of those colored people.

I don’t know that I have a point to this (now very long) post. I didn’t reply to the comment, so what I wanted to say to him has been burning in the back of my throat.

No, sweetie, not everyone in the South is stupid. Just the ones who choose to act that way.

Addicted to Advice

Sunrise through my office window. I’m a lucky girl.

I have a confession to make and I’m hoping you all won’t think less of me for this.

I am addicted to advice columns.

I know, I know. It’s rubber-necking entertainment. Probably feeds my lowest voyeuristic cravings. But I love it.

The letters from the people seeking advice give such fascinating glimpses into the lives of others. It interests the same part of me that likes to go walking late on summer evenings so I can catch glimpses through people’s windows. (Yeah – watch out for me. A friend of mine calls it Caveat-Non-Drape-Puller.) I think this is the same part of me that writes from characters, first and foremost. I love seeing how people think, feel and struggle. How their lives are shaped by their decisions.

I call it research.


So, I’m sharing today my favorite advice columnists. This topic is on my mind because today is Wednesday, which means I get a new Dan Savage! He might be my favorite of the lot. I actually learn from his perspective. Most of them, I’m less interested in the advice than I am the question. Dan Savage once pointed out (graphic sexual advice to follow – skip if you’re delicate about such things) that giving oral sex to a man is much more difficult and strenuous than giving it to a woman. That one remark opened my eyes to so many things.

So he leads my list:

Dan Savage

Carolyn Hax

Dear Prudence

Cary Tennis

Ask Amy

Dear Abby

Lately, however, I’ve been disappointed in Abby’s extremely conservative advice. I sometimes wonder if, by sticking to her mother’s schtick, she got stuck in the 1950’s. I might drop her soon.

Any good ones I missed? Oh, and feel free to hit me up to discuss particular letters or advice. One of my favorite things to do.