Waiting For an April Time

My bloggery of yesterday about where to go from here generated a few emails, with people telling me not to give up writing. No fear of that. Writing is a part of my life, and I still have many books in me, but I am at a crossroads, on a plateau, standing still . . . choose your cliché. (I haven’t yet told you about my love affair with Microsoft OneNote, but I just found another use for it! The WordPress article editor doesn’t add the accent mark on cliche, so I wrote the word on OneNote which does add the accent, and I copied it here. You gotta love such a versatile application!) 

I know I shouldn’t  overthink everything — as Theodore Roethke wrote: “A mind too active is no mind at all.” — but this is one time in my life that I feel like indulging myself in an orgy of thinking.  During the past eight years of learning how to write, writing my four novels, studying the publishing industry, sending out query letters, dealing with hundreds of rejections, finally finding a publisher, preparing the books for publication, and then waiting for their release, (to say nothing of learning how to use a computer, to navigate the internet, and to promote) I had the idea that I needed to write a certain way to be acceptable to a publisher. So I tried to become a writer some mythical publisher would be willing to accept. Well, unlike other authors who’s options are limited by a publisher who wants them to continue writing in the same genre — often with the same characters — I have a publisher who loves my writing and seems to be willing to publish any novel I produce. So that leaves me untethered. If I don’t have to conform to the dictates of the publishing industry, that means I have to conform to my own. Which means I have to know who I am. But the fact is, the last years of writing have changed me, so I no longer know. (Which makes me wonder: do we write a book, or does our book write us? It seems as if changes in our lives affect what we write, and what we write affects our lives and brings about changes.)

Basically, what I’m doing with all this overthinking is opening myself to the changing seasons of my life. Trying to figure out where to take my writing and where my writing (and my resistance to writing) is taking me. 

A couple of weeks ago, during my online discussion with Lazarus Barnhill (author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People), Barnhill mentioned that Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing three pages every morning. Basically stream of consciousness stuff. Well, I got the book, and now I’m doing the morning pages, and surprisingly, I love it! I thought it was the puzzle aspect of writing I like. Maybe it’s just the writing. So, even though it’s not creative writing, I am doing three pages a day. And I’ve mostly reclaimed my blog for myself instead of using it to promote other people, so even though that’s not creative writing, either, it also is writing. (I am still doing a bit of promotion, though I’m gearing it more toward discussions than guest appearances. Right now I am having a discussion with Malcolm Campbell, author of The Sun Singer. That discussion about the writer’s journey will be posted on this blog in another week.)

In her book The Stillwater Meadow, Gladys Tabor wrote: “People have seasons . . . There is something steadfast about people who withstand the chilling winds of trouble, the storms that assail the heart, and have the endurance and character to wait quietly for an April time.”

Well, that’s what I’m doing — waiting (not so quietly) for an April time.

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On Writing: Choosing Your Subject Matter

Warren Adler has generously consented to host my blog today and to share his expertise. Adler is the world famous author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys. Adler says:

Subject matter is an important element in novel writing.  What, who and when are issues that can determine the impact a novelist makes on the publishing community. For a publisher, marketing issues are paramount. Since the public is notoriously fickle in its interests, the publishing marketer often has to anticipate what will most engage the public mind in the twelve to eighteen months it will take for a mainstream publisher to produce and market a book. For non-fiction it is a lot easier to anticipate. For fiction, publishers need to consult a psychic. 

It is an antiquated system and much debated, but not on trial in this space. For the novelist, basing one’s work on marketing prognostications, can, I suppose, be useful for one’s career prospects. I wish I could be helpful in this regard, but, alas, I admit surrender. Unfortunately, I have taken the path less traveled. I guess my compass is not set to the magnetic north of commercial blockbusting. 

Getting published and staying publishable is based primarily on other issues. A publisher’s first question is “will a title sell?” At times he will base his bet on what has sold before or check the computer numbers of an author’s track record assuming that after one or two outings a novelist who has not developed a base of readers will never find a niche. It is highly unlikely that a publisher will nurture a novelist through more than two, maybe three, books if he or she does not meet the bean counter’s goals. To a publisher a book is a commodity and we all know that a commodity, a product, must make a profit. I am not being critical of the process, merely realistic. 

The fact is that I cannot write a novel based on a publisher’s marketing systems. My choices of subject matter are too eclectic. I write what I must write, based on my own instincts and inner navigational system. Since I believe that writing is a calling, I heed the clarion of my interior compass. I write to meet my own needs to tell stories and base the menu of my choices on the bedrock proposition that human nature is constant and unchanging and real stories cannot be made to measure.

Nevertheless, by dint of pluck and luck, I have managed to attract publishers to 27 novels, with translations in 30 foreign languages so far and through my pioneering electronic publishing enterprise, I hope to expand my coterie of devoted readers. I ply my merry way, having stumbled upon a comfortable place for such a counter intuitive writing journey. 

For the budding novelist hungry for fame and fortune, I am probably not a very good role model. Forgive me not providing a magic bullet for recognition and mass readership. And who knows? Lightening might strike, and you will find that your novel fulfills your hopes and dreams for recognition and, with luck, lots of money. 

Indeed, the most commercially successful novelists have branded themselves by hewing to the boundaries of various genres. Writers have made millions following the rules of creating stories that fit into preordained slots. Sometimes they have invented new slots such as “the woman in jeopardy,” a genre pioneered by Mary Higgins Clark, or “the good lawyer,” a genre practically invented by John Grisham or the “strong woman family dynasty,” genre stumbled upon by Barbara Bradford Taylor. Or the wildly successful Christian based series Left Behind. Cheers and congratulations to them. They have found the secret of a successful and sustained novel writing career. 

My effort here is far more parochial, advising how to create a novel that is as important to its creator as it is to the potential reader. Above all, the reader must be engaged, from beginning to end of the writer’s effort. I am assuming, of course, that a pipeline from storyteller to story reader exists. Constructing that pipeline is a related subject that will be dealt with in another time and place. My website is a prime example of finding an alternative road to readership. 

Thus, you will find my discussion about subject matter for a novelist inconclusive. I will not resort to clichés about writing what you know, since intuition often trumps experience. Having written what many have cited as the most realistic and accurate divorce novel in recent memory, The War of the Roses, the point is made. I have never been divorced and am happily married to the same lady since I was barely out of adolescence. But whatever the subject be sure to choose wisely before too much effort is expanded on the work. 

Sometimes it takes writing many words before a novelist can be comfortable about the story path he has chosen. I have often abandoned an effort after a hundred or more pages, having discovered that the subject, the plot, the characters, the emotional mood, the idea itself can no longer engage my interest. 

My advice is to think long and hard before choosing the subject matter of your novel. I have found that a story grows in one’s mind like a potato in a water glass, creating many sprouts that are always popping up. Indeed, even as the novel takes shape on the page, ideas continue to sprout setting off new paths to revision and rewriting. I will often think about every element of the story long before I begin the act of creation. Even then, the work might pale as it progresses. 

The trick is to embark upon a writing road that sustains your interest and keeps you excited and engaged throughout the process. If you can’t wait to get down to work every morning and approach your composition with excitement and enthusiasm you are on the right track. If not, as the saying goes, don’t give up your day job.