Every book needs a dose of laughter. Even hard-core, freak-out scary stuff needs a scene or a sentence or a word intended to allow the reader a moment to breathe out some of the tension you’ve mummified them in for pages and pages and breathe in ease.
This post will acquaint you with five make-them-laugh techniques you can choose from when you want to give your readers a giggle, chuckle, snigger or even a good old-fashioned, snorting, belly laugh.
5. K -- the sound it makes is the funniest letter
This rule appears to be universally agreed upon by comedians. So much so, that in Neil Simon’s 1972 play The Sunshine Boys, there’s a scene in which an aging comedian schools his nephew on comedy and the letter k:
"Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka Seltzer' you get a laugh ... Words with k in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland ... Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em."
This is an easy way to add a touch of subtle humor to your writing. Any author can give the diner their character is hiding out in a funny k-name. (Crunchy Cracker Café). By the way, according to my research, these sounds are funniest when you put them in the middle of sentences. (I don’t write the rules -- I’m just reporting them.)
If you want to make your readers laugh, shock them. According to Author Scott Dikkers in his book How To Write Funny, this funny filter includes anything you shouldn’t say in mixed company. He also says it’s a method best used like a garnish. Never the main course.
Example: The television series The Black List deals with grim storylines. The kind that make you me want to close your eyes and turn down the sound. Here is one example of how they used shock to elicit laughter in the midst of a tense scene in which Reddington is trying to extract information from a guy who is part of an illegal organ transplant ring. The bad guy has a heart condition, and Reddington (the bad guy you can’t help but love) has spiked his drink with Viagra.
"Those drinks you’ve been enjoying on the house? They weren’t from the house. They were from me. I hope you don’t mind. I took the liberty of adding a special surprise ingredient. Something to treat any localized dysfunction you may be suffering. Has the little man been falling down on the job? It’s a miracle drug, not so much for a glutton with a bum heart, however. But look on the bright side, you’ll die with a marvelous erection."
As an author, you can easily set your readers up to they think they know what’s going to come next -- and then throw them a curveball. An example of this can be found in another scene from the show The Black List. The character, Reddington, is standing in front of this huge portrait of a woman hanging on the wall in someone’s house, and he says:
"Last night I got up for a scoop of orange sherbet and she caught my eye. I just stood here in the dark, squinting at her. She’s breathtakingly unattractive."
The curveball is the word unattractive. Up until this point, the audience thinks he’s going to wax poetic about her beauty, and he doesn’t. Not only is she unattractive, she’s breathtakingly unattractive. Breathtakingly misdirects us to think beautiful. Had he said very unattractive, the laugh wouldn’t have come. But he used a word that our brains are trained to pair with the word beautiful. We were misdirected, and as a result, we laughed.
Columnist Dave Barry is known for his humor. Humor that is often a result of exaggeration. Below is an example of how he uses exaggeration to paint a picture of a delusional man in Revenge of the Pork Person:
"A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnson."
In this example, Dave doesn’t just stop with one exaggeration, he really piles them on. The key to exaggeration is to not be afraid to go over the top. Exaggeration is no time for subtlety.
A veiled remark about someone or something that indirectly insinuates something. Often, the something has a shock value to it. Example:
"He had the sort of face that makes you realize God does have a sense of humor." -- Bill Bryson.
With innuendo, you don’t want to spell out for the reader why it’s funny. They either pick up on the play on words or they don’t.
There you have it -- five techniques you can use when you want to add a bit of humor to your writing. If you study the examples, you’ll see that humor is often created by combining several methods. How many methods are there? Over thirty. I learned these methods while spending over a year researching, researching, researching how to make people cry.
The easy answer -- surprise them.
And because I’m an educator by trade, I took what I learned and turned my effort into a class on how to add humor to anything.
If you’d like to learn more about this class, check it out. I’ll be teaching it at Lawson’s Writer Academy in October. http://bit.ly/2N5Xc5R
Tell me your go-to-author when you want to laugh, and I'll include your name in a drawing for a $10 gift card to Amazon. The drawing will be on the 25th.
Lisa Wells writes romantic comedy with enough steam to fog your eyeglasses, your brain, and sometimes your Kindle screen. On the other hands, her eighty-year-old mother-in-law has read Lisa’s steamiest book and lived to offer her commentary. Which went something like this: You used words I’ve never heard of…
Lisa’s the author of the Off the Wall Proposals series from Entangled.
She lives in Missouri with her husband and slightly-chunky rescue dog. Lisa loves dark chocolate, red wine, and those rare mornings when her skinny jeans fit. Which isn’t often, considering the first two entries on her love-it list.
To learn more about all of Lisa’s books, visit:
Life can be painful, especially for our characters. In fact, the fallout of an emotionally wounding event such as a car accident, failing to save someone’s life, infertility, or being sent away as a child can derail their life for years (or even decades!) if left unresolved. Not only that, it can change the character’s personality, damage their relationships, and seed their life with dysfunction and unfulfillment.
This is why at the start of a story the protagonist is usually dissatisfied, lost, unhappy, or yearning for something more. They are experiencing something called an unmet need.
Unmet needs are created because emotional wounds generate a FEAR of being hurt again (which can manifest in many ways).
The result? The character holds back in life. They settle. They avoid things that can lead to their happiness because being hurt again is too big of a risk.
A fear of trusting the wrong person after a betrayal keeps Mary from seeking love.
A fear of death after a near-fatal climbing accident keeps Rodney from living life to the fullest.
A fear of losing her only child after the death of her spouse keeps Tonya imprisoned by an inflexible mindset and need to control.
Fear is powerful, but unmet needs can direct behavior above all else, meaning, if the urgency is strong enough, needs will push characters to act even if their deepest, most debilitating fears are telling them not to.
Mary’s need to share her life with someone pushes her to open herself to love again.
Rodney’s need to achieve a lifelong goal of summitting Everest convinces him to take up his passion once more, even knowing the risks.
Tonya’s need to have a healthy relationship with her daughter forces her to let go and support her daughter’s independence.
Your Character’s Arc
Now, this shift won’t happen overnight. We really must ensure that our characters go through a gauntlet of unhappiness and struggle until finally they say Enough! and act. When we do this, readers believe that our characters are pushing forward toward their goal regardless of whatever stands in their way because their inner motivation (an unmet need) is driving them to do so.
A terrific tool to understand the connection between Motivation and Unmet Needs is the Hierarchy of Human Needs, a theory created by psychologist Abraham Maslow. It looks specifically at human behavior and the drivers that compel people to act. Separated into five categories, it begins with needs that are the most pressing to satisfy (physiological) and ends with needs centered on personal fulfillment (self-actualization).
This pyramid representation of Maslow’s original hierarchy makes a great visualization tool for writers as they seek to understand what motivates their characters:
The categories are arranged by importance. So, food, water, and other primal physiological needs are the most critical to fill since they are based on survival. Next is the need to be safe, then to be loved, to be respected, and, finally, to reach one’s potential.
These needs, when met, create balance and lead to satisfaction within. But if one or more needs are absent, a hole is created, a feeling that something is missing. As this “lack” builds in intensity, the psychological pressure will grow until finally it pushes the character to seek a way to fill the void.
When a human need is diminished or missing to the point of disrupting the character’s life, it becomes a motivator. For example, a person can skip lunch and only experience minor discomfort until the next meal. But if it’s been a week since he last ate, his discomfort becomes a gnawing hole that demands to be filled, an obsession he must pursue. He might cross moral lines to steal food, resort to personally humiliating actions such as begging or digging in a dumpster, or even take foolish risks, such as eating spoiled food all because his singular focus is on meeting his need. Everything else—pride, fear, self-esteem, even safety—becomes secondary.
Sacrificing one need to satisfy others happens often, which is why there’s a hierarchy. If a character must choose between a job where he’s universally admired (esteem) or financially stable (safety), he’ll choose the latter. Or his goal to become a doctor (self-actualization) may be set aside if his wife is diagnosed with a terminal disease and he must leave school to care for her (love). Just like that skipped meal, placing one need before others usually isn’t a problem in the short term, but the longer a need goes unmet, the more disruptive it becomes until it eventually hits a breaking point. Unhappy marriages end in divorce when the pain reaches an unbearable level. An employee quits a job when workplace esteem levels bottom out or mistreatment escalates. Everyone has a “final straw” moment, after which they can take no more. How quickly it’s reached will depend on the individual and the reasons he has for being in the situation in the first place.
Change isn’t easy. In fact, it is often painful, and it takes great courage to step into the unknown. The temptation is always there for a character to stay in the safe yet dysfunctional comfort zone: to settle for less while trying to ignore the hole created by an unmet need.
If you need help understanding what unmet needs an emotional wound might create, just check out the entries in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. In fact, here’s an example of a wounding event right from the book: Accidentally Killing Someone.
If you want to access a tool that helps you plan an unbelievably strong character arc based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Unmet Needs, try One Stop for Writers’ Character Motivation Thesaurus.
Do you know your character’s unmet need? How does it drive them toward their goal? Let me know in the comments!
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of six bestselling resources including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. A proud indie author, her books are available in six languages, are sourced by universities, and used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers ®, as well as One Stop For Writers®, an innovative online library filled with unique tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
I’ll SHOW then TELL:
“Goodbye LA, G'day Australia.” She wiggled her hips and Beyoncéd into the hall.
That fun example was written by multi-Immersion grad Elaine Fraser.
Now I’ll TELL:
Allusion is a rhetorical device. It’s a quick reference to a famous person or event that includes the trait.
BEWARE: Allusion comes with a warning.
Always consider your readership. Their age, their interests, their world.
If the reader doesn’t know the person or event referenced, it may pull them out of the story.
Will they know the famous person or event?
Does it date you? Date the book?
Did the reputation of the person you referenced change, and ruin your allusion?
Tiger Woods. Martha Stewart. Justin Bieber.
Even if they’re on the good list now, they’d jerk your reader out of the story.
Would it be smarter to skip the allusion?
But — remember that allusion includes the trait. If the reader doesn’t know the reference, they’d probably understand your message.
Check out this character description from Tana French.
I’d been expecting someone so nondescript he was practically invisible, maybe the Cancer Man from The X Files, but this guy had rough, blunt features and wide blue eyes, and the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been.
Love the fresh writing too:
…and the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been.
Wow. Smooth and powerful.
Check out this no-allusion version:
I’d been expecting someone so nondescript he was practically invisible, but this guy had rough, blunt features and wide blue eyes, and the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been.
If the reader doesn’t know the Cancer Man from The X Files, they still get the point.
More examples of using allusion in character descriptions.
Bootleg Magik, Cathy Matuszak, 2-time Immersion Grad
Thin. In an Ichabod Crane awkward sort of way. Rangy and lean like the boys back in Ireland who were just starting to grow into their fast-sprouting bones.
Fresh writing. And the last part of the last sentence carries a universal truth. The reader nods and smiles and keeps reading.
She stormed back into the room, hands on hips, her cropped black hair sticking every direction but down, and then she glared at me, the same glare my stepmother used to give me when I gave her the Nazi salute. That woman was so touchy about her resemblance to Hitler.
Wow. Smart, fresh, funny, zany, powerful. Quintessential Darynda Jones.
His head was too big for his shoulders so that you feared his neck would collapse from the weight of it. His hair was crew cut all around, except in the front, where it hung down in a Caesar line above his eyes. A soul patch, an ugly smear of growth, sat on his chin like a burrowing insect. All in all, he looked like a member of a boy band gone to serious seed.
Allusion can also deepen characterization. Read the last sentence in the last two examples:
- That woman was so touchy about her resemblance to Hitler.
- All in all, he looked like a member of a boy band gone to serious seed.
See how Darynda Jones and Harlan Coben went deeper? Smart, smart, smart.
The next allusion is embedded in another rhetorical device.
That was before my father died and took my mother and sister with him. That was before I discovered Snow White was nothing but a fairy tale that would never come true for a girl like me. That was before I knew that sheds weren’t just used for creating beautiful things. That was before I knew they were also used to destroy.
Amy Mateo wrote an anaphora, using the same word or phrase to kick off three or more phrases, clauses, or sentences in a row. She slipped allusion in the second sentence of the anaphora.
The paragraph is beautifully cadenced — and she deepened characterization too.
A few more examples, analyzed.
Pursued, Megan Menard
- Tires squealed, Celia screamed, and the way Mom drove like a maniac, you’d think we had to Jason-Bourne it outta there.
Smart cadence in the whole paragraph. Those first two 2-word pairings give the sentence a cadence jump-start.
Plus, Megan Menard turned allusion, Jason Bourne, into a verb. That’s a rhetorical device called enallage. Not that you have to know the Greek words. Definitely smart writing!
- The cloud that swirled around John made him look all tough-guy-in-the-mist. The stone, the raindrops, the gear. It wasn’t Everest and John wasn’t Bear Grylls, but this climb sure wasn’t for a wuss.
Another wowzer! Megan Menard gave the reader a strong visual. She used a hyphenated-run-on, a frag, two allusions, and anchored it with a powerful thought. Compelling cadence too.
Long Lost, Harlan Coben, NYT Bestseller
“Listen to Mr. Billy Gates back there. Knows everything about the Internet all of a sudden.”
The POV character is being sarcastic about his dad. But Harlan Coben didn’t give the reader a clichéd, predictable, skimmable response. He gave the reader something fresh wrapped up in a Humor Hit.
- She had to smile at Junior’s massive backside in overalls, waddling beside her tall, lean father. Their personalities were the flip sides of a coin as well; her dad’s Atticus Finch to Junior’s Vinnie Gambini.
Love how Laura Drake compared physical traits and personalities.
- Red shortie cowgirl boots, a lacy black square-dance miniskirt puffed with petticoats, a white bustier cut down to there, and a black lace bolero jacket. Char swallowed, attempting to focus on the woman’s features. A nimbus of black curls overwhelmed her deathly pale, sharp-boned foxy face. Huge dream-catcher earrings bobbed with her every move.
She looks like Dolly Parton gone Goth.
Ha! Dolly Parton gone Goth? Awesome!
The Last True Cowboy, Laura Drake, 2-time Immersion Grad, Cruising Writers Grad
To Be Released December 4
- My hair is more strawberry than strawberry-blonde, meaning if it takes longer than ten minutes to catch a ride, I’ll look like Elmo. With freckles.
- “Why do I get my hopes up? I’m like Lucy with the football, in Peanuts. We’ve done this at least once every year since we were twenty.”
- From what I can see, the kids on the dime-sized dance floor are just bouncing around like Red-Bull-charged Muppets on pogo sticks.
Hello, Humor Hits!
Smart and fun to use Elmo, Lucy, Peanuts, and the Muppets.
Notice the amplified simile Laura Drake created in that last example.
…bouncing around like Red-Bull-charged Muppets on pogo sticks.
Not just — bouncing around like Muppets on pogo sticks.
But — bouncing around like Red-Bull-charged Muppets on pogo sticks.
Laura Drake upped the humor. Upped the power.
Remember — If you use allusion, always, always, always consider your readership.
Keep in mind this blog spotlighted one of the twenty-five rhetorical devices covered in-depth in my online class, Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More. That class will be taught in November.
The lecture packets for the Deep Editing course are always available through my website.
Kudos to all the Immersion grads who shared examples for this blog. Love, love, love their stories and their writing!
And – a lovely THANK YOU to the brilliant WITS gals for inviting me to guest blog.
Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner.
If you POST an example of ALLUSION, I’ll put your name in the drawing twice! If you don’t have one, write one.
You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.
Lawson Writer’s Academy – October Classes
- Diving Deep Into Deep POV
- Two-Week Intensive: Show Not Tell
- Ta Da, How to Put Funny on the Page
- Battling the Basics: The Essentials of Writing
- Maximize Your Crazy Easy Author Website
- Write Better Faster
- Editing Magic: Work with a Professional Editor
I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS Thursday night, at 9PM, and post them in the comments section.
Thank you soooooo much for being here!
Like this blog? Give it a social media boost. Thank you.
P.S. – Check out my Immersion cruise for Cruising Writers, Dec. 2–9. Have fun in Montego Bay, Georgetown, and Cozumel. And learn how to add power to your WIP on the four days at sea.
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Margie Lawson — editor and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.
She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.
To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Los Angeles (2), Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com
If you follow me on Facebook you know I'm the Queen of Pinterest (and if you don't, why not? Beauty pics, cat memes, inspirational quotes, odd Victorian photos — COFFEE! It's a sea of happy in a chaotic world. LauraDrakeAuthor). When I saw this the other day, the photo caught my eye first. Then the message slammed into my writer's soul. Yes! This!
We get so wrapped up in the structure of writing — we take classes, go to conventions. We own about a zillion craft books (or maybe that's just me) and we're always looking for the next tool to make writing less effort. Scrivener! Mind Mapping! The W plot! The Snowflake Method! Don't get me wrong, all that is great. Lots of it even works.
But all of that won't help you write a book that readers fall in love with. You have to connect with them on a deeper level to do that. They have to care. It doesn't matter what you write — fiction, poetry, action/adventure, or even non-fiction — if you don't grab them by the heart, they'll put the book down.
How do you do that? Well, you don't have to run out and buy anything. Just:
Think less, feel more.
You can't 'show' anything in your writing that you're not feeling. Readers are smart; they ferret out non-genuine in a heartbeat. That doesn't mean you can only write about what you've experienced. I've never lost a child (thank God), but I was able to write a woman who had, in my RITA winner, The Sweet Spot, because I've lost someone close to me. I know what that feels like. And even if you haven't lost a loved one, grief is a human condition, so we have empathy — especially as writers. We wouldn't do this if we weren't fascinated by people, right? I was writing yesterday, crying over an orphaned baby I created in my head (wow, that does sound crazy. I wouldn't admit that outside a group of writers!).
Think less, feel more.
I do my most poignant writing when I'm not thinking. When I immerse myself in the character to the point that I AM the character; seeing, smelling, feeling what they are, with their backstory and their unique take on the world. Then I dig deeper. The brilliant Donald Maass taught me about layering emotion. He said (paraphrased):
Think about it; how often in your life have you felt pure joy? Pure sadness? Pure any emotion. My guess is, not often. Much more often, our emotions are mingled. At a funeral, you will feel sadness, but you also feel gratitude, for having known the deceased, right? On your wedding day, the happiest day of your life, I’ll wager you felt more than happiness. You were nervous. Will I trip in the aisle? He won’t shove the cake in my face, will he? Will my new brother-in-law drink too much and bring up that kiss he we shared, two years ago?
See what I mean?
Better yet, dig deeper and show an unexpected emotion. We all feel things we don't talk about. The stuff we're not proud of. For example, imagine a woman who served as caregiver for her mother in her ignoble, downward spiral to an awful death. The daughter was at the bedside at the very end. What would she feel? Grief, of course, loss, and sadness. But wouldn't she also feel relieved? For her mother, but also for herself. She's put her life on hold for six months, and now she's free. Then what would she feel? Guilt and shame would hit, right?
Now, your reader may never have experienced anything like this, but I guarantee, if you pull out a deep, honest emotion like this and lay it on the page, your reader is going to immediately empathize with your character. You've grabbed them by the heart.
I love it when I get to that deep place. I close my eyes, and my fingers fly over the keyboard, trying to keep pace with my feelings.
Effortless writing. We all need more of that, right?
So that's my writing resolution. 4 words. What could be simpler?
P.S. I said it was simple, not easy.
Getting out of your own way never is.
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In all her glorious dorkiness, Laura did a live video, reading the opening to her December release, The Last True Cowboy.
Check it out HERE.
I had a blog post all queued up for this week, but I’m on a plane back from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ annual Colorado Gold conference and can’t stop thinking about the weekend and what it made me realize about this business—and the authors who are the soul of it.
Nearly 400 writers—published and not yet published—agents, and editors convened in Denver for the conference. If you’ve attended events like this—brimming with inspiration, education, and camaraderie, all centered around the love of the art and craft of language and story—you already know their myriad benefits: the chance to learn the craft and the business from authors at the top of their games and to hear how they achieved their success. The opportunity to pitch directly to your dream agent or editor, to ask them questions in person in panels and hear about their agency and market trends—to join the brightest lights of publishing for a drink at the end of the day and talk shop or just chat. The overwhelming generosity and support of other writers: the friendships that form (and endure), the critique groups that are created, the tips and suggestions and connections and commiseration.
If you’ve never attended a conference, pick you a good one and get yourself there. If it’s too expensive, volunteer. If it’s still too expensive, drive or carpool and split a hotel room with three roommates, or find one nearby and day-trip (and evening-trip so you don’t miss BarCon). Trust me, it will be worth it, partly for all of the above reasons.
But mostly because of the stories, and what they will teach you.
I don’t just mean the actual stories—the stacks of books you’re likely to find for sale in the pop-up bookstore. The bag full of them you may be handed on registration. Not even the freebies lying around or pressed into your hands.
I’m talking about stories like the ones the keynote speakers tell—like Christopher Paolini (bestselling teenage wunderkind author of the Inheritance Cycle) talking about writing his first novel out of boredom living on his family’s rural Montana homestead—and rewriting it, and rewriting it, and his family nearly losing their home with the expense of self-publishing and self-marketing it, and his relentless speaking engagements and book signings and the excruciating effort to talk to person after person, one by one, to convince them to buy his book until finally something caught fire and it started to sell, and a major publisher came calling with a major deal, and then a film deal.
Or like Kate Moretti, whose first book was written in snatches while her baby slept, then quickly sold, and who benefited from a well-timed BookBub ad that catapulted her—a brand-new author with a debut book—to New York Times bestseller status, who confesses that six books later she still wrestles with the feeling of never having earned her success.
Or like Corinne O’Flynn, indie-pubbed author of the USA Today–bestselling Expatriates fantasy adventure series, who wrote her first book while battling serious health issues and losing both her daughter and her mother, who literally arrived at the conference fresh from being rushed to the emergency room for an allergic reaction and having a shot of adrenaline administered directly to her heart to accept the Indie Writer of the Year award.
Those stories are inspirational, aspirational. But if you’re doing the conference right (and that tends to involve staying in the common areas and out of your room as much as possible and talking to total strangers, usually in the bar, and often with alcohol), you’ll also hear countless stories from the other writers in attendance: the author who got dumped by his publisher or agent after a few books and finds himself back in the dugout again. The one who submitted to her dream agent four separate times over three years with four different manuscripts until she finally, finally got the yes. The one who still hasn’t. The one who came last year with a dream of writing a book, and is here this year pitching her completed manuscript. The ones who met at a conference when they were all struggling in the trenches and formed a critique group and are now all successfully published. The one who, despite crushing critique from an industry professional, is here anyway, trying to keep believing in her writing and herself but contemplating quitting…who received multiple requests for submissions from agents over the weekend.
The one who went to her first conference more than a decade ago as a freelance copyeditor desperately wanting to do something more creative in the field she adored, not just correct the mechanics—and is now a developmental editor working hands-on with authors to shepherd their visions into the world and traveling to conferences presenting editing workshops to the bestsellers of tomorrow. (That one’s me.)
What you will learn from all these stories, the common takeaway of almost any gathering of like-minded creative souls is that everyone has had a different path to get to where they are. And almost every one of them—whether the lifelong writer who amassed six unpublished manuscripts and a thousand (literally ten hundred) rejection letters who is working on the third in his series that finally sold, or a relative neophyte who stumbled to the pinnacle of success and suffers from impostor syndrome—feels no different from the hundreds of writers still dreaming of “making it.”
What conferences teach you is that you have made it already. You are a writer by virtue of the fact that you’re writing—and even if right now you’re struggling to write your first manuscript (or your seventh), or desperately hoping for an agent or a publishing contract, your world can 180 on a dime. When Kate Moretti’s book launched onto the NYTimes bestseller list and her career started to suddenly take off, she told her husband in shock, “I think my life is about to change.”
At any moment, your life—your writing career—could be about to change. But you have to be ready for it: Do the work. Learn your craft—always be learning your craft. Find your people—writers and other industry folk—and build your support network and connections. Be part of this industry at writers’ events. Read and be generous about buying other authors’ books; if money is prohibitive, then be generous with reviews or retweets or talking them up to friends.
Most of all: Stay in the game. If you love this craft, don’t quit. Tell your stories. Know that if you do, if you simply persist no matter how long it takes, no matter how much rejection you may endure, no matter how many times you lose faith in yourself or your writing and struggle to get it back, you will be rewarded. Maybe you won’t be J. K. Rowling. Maybe you will simply be a solid midlist author. Maybe you’ll indie-publish. But your stories will be read. You will make a difference in someone’s life. And you will make a difference in your own because the act of fearlessly making your art, of sharing your truth and your creativity, is sacred and it’s magic and it enriches your life and the world beyond measure.
And if you are at a writers conference, or pitching an agent, or sending off a manuscript to publishers or reviewers, breath held and heart suspended and riddled with doubt, remind yourself of this: None of this exists without you, the author.
You are the source, the nexus, the fulcrum of everything every publishing industry professional does. You are literally the creator, the fountainhead, the raison d'être of this business. Remember that if you feel overwhelmed or supplicant or inadequate or just tired. Every successful artist on earth has felt that way—and most still do, at times. But you don’t have to earn your way into anything: You are the golden ticket.
Getting on the elevator on the way to my first presentation this weekend, I found a lone woman already inside, her hands clasped in front of her solar plexus, her face a bit pale. I introduced myself, and in the standard greeting of writers’ conferences I asked her, “So what do you write?”
“Oh, this is my first time,” she said apologetically. “I’m pretty nervous.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” I fell into step beside her to the conference registration area. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
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Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.