Still a Writer

My publisher sent me a message a while back asking that I continue to write. He said, “You’re a wonderful writer and you do no service to yourself, Literature or anyone by saying you’re not going to write.” I did write after that message — long after. I finished two of my started books — Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare and Unfinished — but I still have one decade-old story that’s languishing. Someday I hope to finish it. Someday I WILL finish it.

I had added “writing” to the list of daily resolutions I’m trying to get a head start on, then I took it off.

Anyone who writes is, of course, a writer, though it used to be that “real writers” were chosen by faceless editors working for megacorporations, but now there are many different roads to publication.

It used to be that money made a writer. If you earned your living by writing, you were a writer. Sometimes it was acclaim by the self-appointed literati that made a writer. And sometimes it was fame that made a writer. But mostly, it was sales. Money.

It still is sales that make a writer . . . to a certain extent. I know many so-called writers who toss out a book they wrote in a month with little editing, and people buy the books for some unfathomable reason. (Unfathomable to me, anyway.) I know other writers — excellent writers who actually have something to say, who work at their craft, and who write the best book possible no matter how long it takes — who have few sales.

So what makes a writer? Since writing is basically a form of communication, perhaps readers make a writer. And I have readers galore — on this blog, anyway. Some of my posts have had more than 10,000 readers. (But, keeping things realistic, some of my best posts had less than 10 views.) Maybe it’s the ability to touch people’s lives through words that make a writer, and that I have done by being willing to open up and tell the truth about my life.

And if telling the truth about one’s life makes you a writer, then simply living until hit by the urge to put that life into words, is also writing.

What it comes down to, then, is I do not need to resolve to write. Whether I write or not in any given day, I am still a writer.

 

***

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.

I AM Writing

My publisher sent me a message asking that I continue to write. He said, “You’re a wonderful writer and you do no service to yourself, Literature or anyone by saying you’re not going to write; after what you endured with your family (your dad and schizophrenic bro in particular—and the story isn’t over, is it), you have the material for a companion volume to Grief: The Great Yearning —of which I still sell a lot of copies. I want you to keep writing.”

As much as I appreciate the affirmation from my publisher, my life is so up in the air right now, without anything to tether me to the earth (except perhaps my dance classes), that I don’t know if I will ever write another book, though eventually I would like to finish the books I have started, including the book about my dance class. But the truth is, whether I continue to write books or just my daily posts, whether I publish with Second Wind or simply publish on this blog, I am writing because blogging is writing, too.

Anyone who writes is, of course, a writer, though the facility of self-publishing unreadable, unremarkable, and unworthy books has fudged the lines. It used to be that “real writers” were chosen by faceless editors working for megacorporations, but now writers are chosen by themselves, leaving readers floating in a sea of gutless books. (Gutless because so many books have no core. Gutless because so many writers never really risked anything.)

It used to be that money made a writer. If you earned your living by writing, you were a writer. Sometimes it was acclaim by the self-appointed literati that made a writer. And sometimes it was fame that made a writer. But mostly, it was sales. Money.

It still is sales that make a writer . . . to a certain extent. I know many so-called writers who toss out a book they wrote in a month with little editing, and people buy the books for some unfathomable reason. (Unfathomable to me, anyway.) I know other writers — excellent writers who actually have something to say, who work at their craft, and who write the best book possible no matter how long it takes — who have few sales.

So what makes a writer? Since writing is basically a form of communication, perhaps readers make a writer. And I have readers galore — on this blog, anyway. Some of my posts have had more than 10,000 readers. (But, keeping things realistic, some of my best posts had less than 100.) Maybe it’s the ability to touch people’s lives through words that make a writer, and that I have done by being willing to open up and tell the truth about my life. I many never write a book about my dealings with my dad and brother, but here on this blog, I have already written the story as it happened.

I always wanted to be a writer, and for many years it saddened me that I didn’t have the talent. Well, by dint of hard work, I learned how to write. Even found a publisher who loved my books. I just never learned how to sell enough books to make a living at writing, so I’ve never considered myself a real writer.

But I am.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels 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.

What Makes a Novelist?

All it takes to be a writer is to write, and going by the proliferation of blogs on the Internet, almost all of us are writers.

Being a novelist is something completely different. You need to be a writer, certainly, but you also need to know the elements of storytelling, how writingbto create characters that come alive, how to describe a scene without losing the momentum of the story. And then you need to put it all together into a cohesive whole that engages the reader’s attention.

But most of all, you need to actually write the novel, to put your idea into words and get it down on paper or into your word processor. That takes discipline. So does rewriting the same novel perhaps a dozen times until you get it right. Because, as we all know, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.

You do all that, and then one day your novel is finished. You’re proud of yourself for having accomplished something many people only dream about, then the terrible truth comes crashing into you with all the force of a linebacker’s tackle: no one cares. Perhaps your family and friends will care, but even from them you will hear the same self-absorbed comments you get from strangers.

You know the comments I mean:

  1. I could have written a book, but . . .
  2. I always thought my life would make a good book . . .
  3. I wrote a book: My diary.
  4. I’ve written a book; it’s all up here in my head, I just have to get it down on paper.
  5. So? I’ve written a hundred books; they’re all packed away in my closet.

Taking their lack of support in stride, you send out your opus to find you’ve reached another level of indifference. On this level, you are not the only person who had the discipline, the ability, perhaps even the talent to have written a good novel; you are one of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. And the agents and editorial assistants who have to plow through those mountains of words don’t care; they haven’t the energy.

If you are lucky, one day your manuscript will be on the right desk at the right time, or maybe you’ll decide to forget the traditional publishers and self-publish. And then you really hit that wall of indifference because in this new world of the published, every single person has written a book.

Being published does not make you a novelist. Even the most rudimentary novels can be published nowadays so there is no special accolade to being published, no special sign that you have passed into the realm of being a novelist. Nor does becoming a success make you a novelist since some of the most execrable fiction on the market — bad writing, paper-doll characters, and scenes that hang lifelessly in the background like dusty drapes — make their authors a fortune.

So what does make a novelist? Maybe caring about the craft. Maybe caring to get it right rather than just writing something and throwing it out there in the hopes that no one will notice the lack of skill. Maybe writing the story only you can write and not setting out to be a King/Koontz/Clancy clone.

Maybe just . . . writing.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Is Talent More Important Than Passion and Persistence?

In my Suspense/Thriller Writers’ group on Facebook, one author mentioned that she was skeptical of her ability to come up with an interesting idea. Horror writer Rob M. Miller gave a wonderful response that I’m reposting here. Considering the ephemeral nature of Facebook, in a couple of days his comment would have disappeared into the great maw of FB, and I didn’t want it to be lost forever. As to why Rob leaves such helpful and detailed comments, Rob told me, “I’ve been very blessed.  Have had several incredibly talented writers, authors, and editors … well, just give, and give so freely.  Facebook, and blogs like yours, offer opportunities to pay-it-forward.” So, here’s Rob’s take on talent:

Let’s shoot the elephant first: Maybe you have no talent.

Ouch.

But, hey, maybe…?

Talent, though, is over-rated. Heart trumps talent. As does persistence. Talent, or natural ability, only carries a person so far, and then it comes down to heart, passion, time, and yeah, work. Workworkwork. This holds true with just about anything. Certainly with the arts, but also with athletics. Is Michael Jordan a gifted athlete? Absolutely. But such an assertion also masks, or can easily gloss over all of Michael’s hard work.

Personally, I do believe that writers are born with some kind of special something, some X-factor, some proclivity for story, character, situation. It’s indefinable. Writers often don’t necessarily have genius intelligence quotients (I.Q.), but often do have very high emotional quotients (E.Q.).

One might theorize that writers are most often inherently empathetic, or for our sci-fi lovers, are empaths.

Maybe that’s it. At it’s core, maybe it’s about the ability to feel the pain of others.

Author and writing instructor Maralys Wills has put out that in her many decades of experience, she’s found quality writers to have two domineering traits: a) that the writer has been through trauma; and b) they tend to be optimists.

I tend to side with Mrs. Wills on this. (God help the writer who’s a pessimist.)

With that out of the way, let’s presume (’cause it’s better to be an optimist) that you have been born with that magical W chromosome that producers writers, then it can be a confidence issue.

This is common.

Jack Ketchum (or Dallas Meyer), one of Stephen King’s favorite authors — and one of mine — has mentioned more than once of having a writing friend, a gentleman with more “talent” than Jack, but who keeps his writing to himself, afraid to have it seen, afraid of rejection.

And, of course, even amongst the greats, or the commercially successful, one might be surprised to find that even these icons are still (and always have been) quite human. Stephen King has talked about finishing one’s various projects, that even when a writer thinks they’re producing crap, they can be wrong. The cliche is true: We are our own worst critics.

With writing books, classes, critique groups, online writing groups (like this one), etc., there’s often an arrogance involved. Even a necessary degree of arrogance — after all, if a writer didn’t have passion, and passionate opinions, what would they have to say or write about? End of the day, though, despite there actually being sound writing principles worthy of a craftsman taking the time to learn, writing well is often more about what not to do than what to do.

Proof?

Look at the number of times writing rules are broken, and with great impact, such as with Cormac McCarthy work “The Road,” where established guides of good and proper grammar were tossed for the sake of story and delivery.

Sometimes a writer, even those blessed with talent, needs to simply put in the time. Often, this is easy, what with the necessary and very true maxim of: write write write, read read read, write write write.

Sure. But write what? Read what? Practice with what?

As a general rule, I say have your car book, your bedroom book, and yes, a bathroom book … works that are always being read. Always be reading something within your favorite genre of fiction, but always reading a non-fiction work, too, as well as a work on the craft of writing, and another tossed in that’s outside of your favorite genre … perhaps even a work that’s in a field you might not normally consider. For me, that’s chick lit. Though it was akin to pulling teeth, I determined to read Billie Letts’s work “Where the Heart is,” and “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. With Letts, I remember being alone in my apartment, taking a bath, reading the final pages, and bawling my eyes out, thankful that no one was around to see me break down. (So much for ever denigrating chick lit again.) And, of course, the novel by Wells is simply brilliant, and brilliantly written.

What else might a writer do?

The could — and probably should — write a bestseller.

In 2001, I attended the annual World Horror Convention in Seattle, Washington, where I met the iconic Michael Slade (pseudonym for Jay Clarke). This brilliant author, during one panel, suggested that developing writers could do far worse than sitting down and transcribing, word for word, one of their favorite bestselling works of fiction, the entire book, front to back.

Sound tedious? It is. And, at times, can be boring. But it helps. A lot. In my case, I spent a bit more than a week transcribing Stephen King’s novel “The Dark Half.” The rewards were many.

Doing such an exercise helps to force a writer to reverse engineer the structure of a book, of a part (i.e., Part I, II, III, etc.), of a chapter, of a scene, and yes, even with paragraphs and sentences. Grammar and punctuation is absorbed as well. So’s how to build suspense … how to characterize. Hell, a lot of things.

I’m thankful I took Mr. Slade at his word; I know many did not — and still don’t. It’s not hard to imagine, is it, that such an exercise would be off-putting? After all, it seems like work.

But that’s the answer for the writer, or a significant chunk of it: putting in the work. Optimism and work. Passion and work.

We should read garbage once in a while to bolster our self-confidence and the greats to remain humble. We should be happy where we’re at, but never satisfied.

And we should work.

We can do that.

Was I born with that amount of talent? With that? Have I been mightily blessed, or merely cursed with a love and desire to write, but without that special something?

Such questions don’t really help. They can, however, hobble an artist, which is never a good thing.

Better to persevere, remembering that those things which are too easily given are often too lightly valued. Better, perhaps, to, through blood, sweat, and tears, develop ourselves.

In the meantime, for something practical, if your own work appears to be missing some needed bit of pixie dust (and maybe it’s not), you might consider Michael Slade’s advice.

And do consider mine: there’s always better and worse writers out there besides ourselves. We are what we are, and we are stuck with ourselves. We have a tendency to flip back and forth between being very thin-skinned (’cause we’re emotionally connected), and covered in rhino-hide (a covering we also need), but let’s never get too wrapped up in comparing ourselves with others, or our work with the work of others. It’s a fruitless waste of time.

All we can really do is write the best we can, practice and learn, and do it all over again.

What fun, what pain, what adventure.

***

With a love for reading and writing that started in his youth, Rob has traveled far to get to the place where he can now concentrate on breaking into the horror market.

Born and raised in the “micro-hood” of Portland, Oregon, he grew up as the oldest of three children, the son of a book-lover and a book-hater.

It was after two years of free-lance stringer work, and a number of publishing credits, that he tired of non-fiction and decided to use his love of the dark, personal terrors, and talent with words to do something more beneficial for his fellow man -– SCARE THE HELL OUT OF HIM.

A Writer Writes. Whenever.

“A writer writes. Always.” Says who? Disregarding the physical impossibility — besides writing, one has to eat, sleep, work, do at least a minimum of household and personal chores — this adage simplifies what is a complicated process. Sure a writer writes, that is axiomatic, but every writer is different, and each must find his or her own way.

Writing, like life, is about strengths and weaknesses, and if you don’t find yours, you miss out. Perhaps you are naturally disciplined, in which case you are one of the always writing writers. Perhaps you are naturally undisciplined, in which case you should be one of the always writing writers. But most of us fall somewhere in between: disciplined when we need or want to be, rather lazy the rest of the time. Sticking to a writing schedule doesn’t make a writer, it’s what you write and how you write it that makes you a writer.

Unless you’re a published writer (if you are, will you introduce me to your agent?) or have firm expectations of being one, there is no reason except desire to adhere to a strict writing schedule. Perhaps if you are new to the game it would be a good idea to write at the same time every day for a while to get you in the habit of writing, but once you’ve completed a novel, you’ve proven you can do it, so what’s the point of forcing yourself? It should be fun, and it’s not fun doing something you have to do just because it’s time to do it. The one caveat is to make certain you write enough so you don’t lose the ability or the interest.

I know this goes against all the advice you hear, not just about a writer always writing, but also about needing to act like a professional in order to be a professional. You’re not a professional, and when the time comes, you will act like a professional, but until then it’s important to learn to write, to live so you will have something to write about, to think about what you want to say.

And it’s important to write, because a writer writes. Whenever.