Authority

All my life, or at least all my life that I can remember, I wanted to be an author. When I was much younger, I wrote allegories and parables, stories that mimicked children’s books but with messages for adults. I also wrote snippets of poetry, such as this one:

In a strange sort of way
It’s comforting to know
That no matter what we do to this earth
It well accept and accept
Until it comes to the end of its resources
And then, as though we were no more
Than an unwanted cloak
It will shrug us off
And begin again

Not that there is any particular significance to this poem, it’s just the only one I found on my computer.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to become serious about writing. I quit a job, sat down at the kitchen table, put a pen to paper and waited for the story to come. I knew what I wanted to write — a novel about a love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with sensitivity and great wisdom — but no words came. I had always assumed that writing a book was sort of like automatic writing, and for many authors it is. When that approach to writing failed, I tried to pull the words out of my head one by one, in an attempt at telling the story. Unfortunately, I discovered I had no talent for writing and no wisdom, either, so I gave up writing.

Many years later, I decided the heck with it — talent or no, wisdom or no, I wanted to write. And so I did. That first book is so spectacularly bad that it is packed away where even I can’t see it. But I am not one to do things haphazardly, so I kept on writing, kept studying books on how to write (most of which made no sense to me). And gradually I learned.

I thought writing would help solve my financial woes (I can hear you writers out there laughing at such naiveté), and even though I did find a publisher (after 200 rejections), I never did find the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow.

Besides financial gain, I’m not sure what I wanted by being an author. Acclaim? I don’t know if I ever did want much acclaim (being of a rather self-effacing nature), but I wanted something. Maybe the knowledge that huge numbers of people loved my books. Maybe respect. Maybe to make a difference. I don’t know. Still don’t, actually. (I guess I figured that if I made a living by writing, whatever else I wanted would come along with it.

And then Jeff died. When I discovered that few writers (including writers who write about grief) understood the devastating nature of losing a life mate/soul mate, I decided to blog about my grief, how it felt, how it changed my world, how I learned to live again.

As it turned out, for a small group of people — those who had also lost their mates — I made a difference. Even today, years after they were written, those grief posts are still making a difference, helping the bereft understand what they are going through, offering the words to describe what they themselves can’t describe, showing them that no matter what other people tell them, their long period of grief is not only understandable and normal, but is a necessity. Would you really want the person you loved more than anything in the world to disappear without tears and sorrow? No, off course not. Our pain is a way of honoring them. And, despite what people say, grief is not emotional, or at least not just emotional. It’s physical, spiritual, intellectual, hormonal, chemical — it affects every single part of ourselves and our life.

It awes me at times to think that my words matter to people. It awes me at times to reread those old posts when someone leaves a comment and realize how . . . inspired . . . they were. Maybe there is a bit of that automatic writing going on after all. How else would I be able to be a conduit for such wisdom and understanding and even author-ity?.

And so, after all, it turns out I really am an author — a person with the ability to influence others and to make their lives easier.

***
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Is the Internet a Good Place for Aspiring Writers?

I had several topics I wanted to talk about today, but then I checked in with my discussion group on Facebook where they were talking about aspiring writers attacking other aspiring writers, and now that topic is the one foremost on my mind.

I never encountered attacks when I was learning to write because I didn’t get on the internet or meet other authors until I was already an accomplished writer. In the beginning, it was just me, pencils and paper, and an idea. (I didn’t even have a typewriter, let alone a computer.) Later, it was just me, pencils and paper, an idea, and a steady stream of books about writing — hundreds of them. Writing coaches often remark that you learn about writing by writing, but it takes a lot of writing (some say 10,000 hours, some say 1,000,000 words) to become adept at the craft. I thought that by studying how to write I could hurry things along so I could start making money from my books. (Hard to believe I was ever that naïve — the money part, that is. Learning to write was the right thing to do.)

I’ve hidden my first novel so I don’t come upon it by accident — it’s that bad. Of course, while writing it, I thought it sounded wonderful. Words added up to sentences, sentences added up to paragraphs, paragraphs added up to . . . well, you get the picture. Later, when I learned to write, I saw the horror of it. To this day, no one has read any of that draft, and no one ever will until I rewrite it. And re-rewrite. And edit. And re-edit. And copyedit. (I still like the premise, so it’s on my exceedingly short list of ideas for books.) I can’t imagine what sort of horrendous attack posting any part of that book online would have garnered, but as much as the attacks would have hurt, they would have been deserved, though I would not have known that.

One of the first things I did after getting the internet and learning my way around was to start this blog. (On September 24, this blog will celebrate its fifth anniversary. That day will also mark 365 days of daily blogging and my 1000th post +2. Any suggestions for a gala celebration?)

A couple of weeks after beginning to blog, I entered a writing contest where people left comments on the first chapter of a novel. By asking some people to vote, I enraged them since they considered such messages spam, and they retaliated with some of the most scathing commentary I’ve ever encountered. After those comments — and the 200 rejections I received before I found a publisher who loved my work — I became inured to attack.

The disparaging remarks never cease. Once my books were published, I got a few low ratings from other writers who thought (foolishly) that by giving me single stars it will make their ratings look better. I also got bad reviews (or at least mediocre ones) from people who simply didn’t understand the books, mistook the genre, or realized too late the books were outside their comfort zone.

I spent years on my books — perfecting the craft, rewriting and editing, following the suggestions of my editors to make them even better. They are the exact stories I wanted to write with the exact words I wanted to use. If people don’t like my books, that is their prerogative, and they are welcome to say so, but I’m not changing a single word to reflect the tastes of the few who dislike or who misunderstand my books. The way I see it, reviews are for other readers, not me — I already know what the books are about.

Most readers say nice things about my books, and most of the reviews are wonderful. Many of the reviews seem to have been written by my friends, but generally it worked the other way around. I became friends with my reviewers. How could I not? They have such great taste!

The internet is a great tool for writers, but I wonder if it hinders just as much as it helps. If I had put myself out there too soon, I’d have taken attacks personally, and maybe followed a different path with my writing. By waiting to put myself out there after I’d become an accomplished writer, it didn’t matter so much what anyone said. I knew the truth.

How to Begin Writing a Novel

A woman left a comment on a writing discussion today saying she decided she wanted to write a novel, then she requested advice on how to begin.

My advice?

Write a word. Any word. That’s all it takes to start writing.

A book begins with a single word. Many novice writers get intimidated by the thought of writing an entire book, but all you ever need to write is one word. I know that’s not much of a goal, but in the end, it is the only goal. That’s how every book all through the ages got written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.

So, to begin with, just write. Get a feel for words. Read fiction. Get a feel for how a story flows. Once you are in the habit of writing, read books on how to write. Sometimes it takes a long time for it all to click. I’d written two and a half books, read dozens of books on how to write in addition to the thousands of novels I’d read, before it all clicked. Most of what the how-to-write books said didn’t make sense at first. Rising conflict? Stakes? Showing? Telling? I hadn’t a clue what they meant, but I stuck with it, and became a good writer. I’m not naturally talented, but I discovered that it is possible to learn the craft. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it’s about thinking. Some authors can sit down and let the words flow and lo! There is a story! Other authors write extensive outlines, detailing the entire story before they ever set one word to the page. I don’t do either. I think about what story I want to write and why I want to write it. I figure out who the main characters are, what they want, how they are going to get it, who is going to stop them getting it. I figure out the beginning and the end (because I need to know where to begin and where I am going), and I figure out a couple of scenes in the middle, to give me an idea of how to get there. Then write. I am a very slow writer, but still, being a slow writer, I’ve written five books that have been published.

The best skill to learn after you’ve written your book is how to rewrite. Chances are, you dumped too much information in the first chapter because you assume people need to know everything about your character before they can understand her, so usually the first thing you do in rewriting is dump the first chapter. But to rewrite, you have to have written. So just write. And write what you want. Writing is all about practice. A person who wants to learn how to play the piano doesn’t just sit down at a piano and immediately start playing. You have to learn the basics, have to practice, but still, you can plunk at the keys to get a feel for piano playing. The same thing goes for writing.

All too often, inexperienced writers tiptoe through their novels, letting major events — fistfights, gunplay, murders, betrayals — take place off-page. It’s much easier to let characters emote afterward than for the writer to take the time and trouble to tackle the action scene. I know I have passed on opportunities to create such scenes, thinking the characters’ reactions all-important, but I forgot one thing: readers need to experience the drama.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring such complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise an action scene, but the only way to learn is to plunge headfirst into action. Write it fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to study the publishing business. Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion. With so many millions of people out there who have written a book or who want to write a book, the competition is fierce. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words, or so they say. (I’m only halfway there.) So write. Your next book might be the one that captures people’s imaginations and catapults you into fame and fortune. Not writing another book guarantees you will never will reach that goal. It also keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

My Journey As a Writer

During my Daughter Am I blog tour, I have talked a lot about my writing life, I have done several interviews, I have even shown photos of my workspace, but today’s stop is by far the most candid. I worry sometimes that I’m telling too much — do people really need to know what an incredibly long journey my quest to become a writer has been? It’s an unending journey, to tell the truth. In the past eight years, I have learned how to write, but I want — need — to become the best possible writer I can be, and so I continue to learn.

I also worry that this long hiatus where I haven’t been writing will kill the urge to create, yet I know it’s in the times of not writing that my brain collates what it has learned, and so when I sit down to write I don’t have to think so much about not using adverbs, for example. I simply don’t use them. I first noticed this trait during the writing of A Spark of Heavenly Fire. I wrote the first fifty pages or so and then stopped for the summer. When I went back to writing in the fall, I felt more assured, more competent, and the writing came easy. Well, easier. Writing is never easy for me, except when it comes to stream-of-consciousness blogging. That I can do!

I always need to stretch myself as a writer, so I doubt I will ever become prolific. I also doubt I will ever do any sort of sequel that uses characters I’ve already created, unless, of course, I decide it will be a challenge. I seem to have the strange propensity for writing books I don’t know how to write, and so I always seem to be starting from scratch. I’m not the first writer to discover that writing never gets easier– it just gets harder in different ways.

I’m straying a bit from the subject, which is today’s blog stop. This is a special day for me. I am at Sheila Deeth’s blog, and she has been a staunch supporter from the moment we met online. It’s no wonder she asked such an interesting question, and it’s no wonder I let down my guard and answered.

So, please visit Sheila and me as we discuss: One Writer’s Journey.

Daughter Am I Blog Tour 2009 Schedule

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Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.