Why Write?

A fellow Second Wind author posted a bloggery today about Keeping the Faith as a writer despite lackluster sales. It’s a concern so many of us published writers have. The percentage of novelists who actually make a living at writing is ridiculously small, and to make matters worse, the top one percent of writers make more than all the rest of us combined.

When you consider how few writers ever make enough to quit their day job, (and this includes some writers who hit the bestselling list), the word “success” when it comes to writing needs to be redefined. Seems to me if writing brings you pleasure that makes you success. So does having your book chosen from thousands of submissions to be published. So does your willingness to write another book despite dismal sales figures. This puts you in a rarified group. Sure it would be nice to make money, but if we were really in it for the money, we wouldn’t be writers. We’d be lawyers or accountants or even sales clerks.

There are good things about writing not being a paying job: we don’t need to write to deadlines, don’t need to worry about wordcount, don’t need to fulfill anyone’s expectations except our own. And that is reason enough to write.

Someone once said that the best thing a writer can do when they’ve finished writing a book is to write another. I thought that was silly advice because if you can’t sell one book (or three), what’s the point of writing more? I now know the point is writing. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words. (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.

One thing I know for a fact: sales do not make a writer a writer.  Of course, sales are nice, but in the end, writing is what makes a writer a writer.

So, let’s all keep the faith. And write.

No Wisdom, Just Words

I’ve been sticking to my self-imposed writing schedule this month, doing a blog a day (sorry to all my subscribers who have been getting an email each day announcing a new post. I promise I’ll go back to my more sporadic posting next month). I’m also racking up the word count on my novel for NaNoWriMo.

I normally don’t obsess over word counts. The way I figure, I either write or I don’t, the scenes are either workable or they’re not. But this month, it’s about the word count. I hoped that by writing so quickly I couldn’t stop to think, I’d stir up my depths, and words of wisdom would automatically appear on the page. Nope. No wisdom yet. Just words.

I did have an odd experience this morning, though. I sat down to write a scene for my grieving woman book, and ended up writing a scene for my poor old work-in-pause, an apocalyptic allegory.

Makes sense, I guess. That novel has been rattling around in my head for years. I started writing it months before I started this blog. Since then, I’ve dealt with three deaths (none of them mine), learned how to use a computer, learned how to navigate the internet, made dozens of online friends, started a dozen blogs (most of which are now clogs — abandoned blogs clogging cyber space), participated in hundreds of writing discussions, gotten three books published, edited those three books plus a fourth (which will be published in the spring), spent hundreds of hours trying to promote those books without actually promoting them (the only thing more annoying that a full email inbox is an inbox full of annoying emails), and  . . . well, you get the point. I’ve been doing everything imaginable except working on my WIP. So today — ta da! A couple of scenes for that book appeared instead of the one I planned to write for my grieving woman book.

I always liked the idea of working on whatever book stood out most in my mind when it time to write each day, but I never tried it before. It might help put the fun back in writing, and who knows what I’ll end up with!

There’s Plenty of Grief to Spread Around

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo, trying to find a new way and new reason to write now that my life has been turned upside down. I never liked wasting my writing — I liked to think that whatever scene I wrote had a place in the story. Writing comes hard for me (even when I’m playing the quantity game rather than the quality one) so writing for writing’s sake was never on my agenda.

This month, though, is all about the words, so it doesn’t matter whether the scene works or not. It doesn’t even matter if I scrap most of the book. It’s important just to write something so that when it comes time to put the story together, I will have bits and pieces to work with.

I always knew the mother and daughter in my story didn’t get along. The mother needs someone who will argue with her, someone who has no sympathy for her grief. I’ve been assuming that the daughter found out about her mother’s cyber affair and accused the mother of being a hypocrite, and that is how I wrote the scene. Now I know that when it comes to grief, there’s enough strife to spread around, so I could probably leave the daughter in the dark about the affair.

Real mothers and daughters (not just storybook mothers and daughters) don’t see eye to eye when it comes to grief. Daughters often feel as if their mothers are carrying on too much, since grown children may come to terms with their loss easier than spouses do. Grown daughters often feel as if they’ve lost both parents when the mother becomes steeped in sorrow. Sometimes the conflict goes the other way, with the mother feeling estranged from the daughter especially if the daugher did not visit the sick father very often. (Not everyone can handle seeing a person dying slowly and in great agony and would prefer to remember the person as healthy and vital.) 

Grief should bring families together, but often it tears them apart. All that anger surfacing. The denial. The recriminations and guilt. Not everyone goes through the stages of grief in the same order. Nor do they go through them at the same time or with the same intensity.

With so much emotion to deal with, it does seem as if the daughter doesn’t need to know about the affair. In fact, I’d just as soon she didn’t come to visit her father while he was dying, at least not toward the end. A friend of the mother’s stopped calling too, which left her to deal with her dying husband without much of a support group. Which is why she had to find it online. Which is where she found her cyberlover.

If the daughter doesn’t know, though, I’m not sure how the mother will explain to the daughter why she’s taking off to meet the guy, but maybe the estrangement between the mother and daughter is such that no explanation is necessary. I’ll guess I’ll have to wait to see what happens when I finish the book.

Don’t Mess With a Grieving Woman

This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel:

Amanda was fumbling in her purse for her keys when a voice said, with low-toned menace, “Give me your purse or I will kill you.”

She jerked her head up. Standing between her and her Corolla were two men who looked barely old enough to shave. One jiggled from foot to foot like a child who needed to go to the bathroom, but the other stood firm, his hands steady on a gun.

The scene didn’t seem quite real. Perhaps she’d wandered onto a movie set? She looked around. No cameras. Just the two men standing before her in broad daylight.

Was there such a thing as narrow daylight? She giggled at the thought. Then stopped abruptly. I really am going crazy.

“What’s with you, bitch?” screamed the man with the gun. “Gimme your purse or I’ll kill you.”

“Promise?” Amanda said, clasping her purse to her chest.

The jiggling man lifted his hands and pointed a finger at her like a gun. “Yeah, we’ll kill you, bitch.”

“Okay.” Amanda stared at them, hope blossoming in her chest. God provides, David had been fond of saying. Maybe God was providing a way out of her grief.

The hand with the gun began to waver.

“Do it, man,” yelled the jiggler.

“Yes, do it,” Amanda said softly.

“I’m out of here.” The gunman took off running.

The jiggler danced in place. “Where are you going?”

“She’s crazy. Or a cop.” The words floated back to them from between a pick-up and a mini-van.

The jiggler looked longingly at Amanda’s purse, hesitated, then trotted after his companion.

Opening a Vein

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.  ~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I always thought the above was a silly, though poetic thought. If a story really does mean that much to a writer, why are so many books barely adequate? They tell a story, but have no depth, demand no blood in response, give no transfusion.

Even from a writer’s point of view, the idea seems rather overblown. Writing is more of an intellectual activity, at least it always has been for me. But not with this NaNoWriMo project, my grieving woman book. For the first time, I understand the sentiment. I feel as if I am opening a vein while writing the story. Or at least picking at scabs. I thought I was moving right along with my grief, handling it well, but yesterday while writing I hit too close to the truth.

I worried about doing this project, wondering if it was too soon to re-immerse myself into the world of grief, even if only through fictional characters, but I jumped in with both feet. And now here I am, crying again.

I have a hunch that the only way out of this writing dilemma is through, so I’ll continue to open my vein of grief. As Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

These are the final words of the scene that destroyed my equilibrium:

“Do you need some liquid morphine?” Amanda asked.

David looked up at her. “Is it time?”

“You can have the liquid whenever you want it.”

“I don’t want to go to Hollywood and be an actor.

An actor? Amanda tried to decipher his words. His mind seemed to take convoluted paths when the simpler words wouldn’t come. Then all at once she understood. “You won’t become a drug addict. I promise.” She left the second part of her thought unspoken. You won’t live long enough to become addicted.

Feeling Disconnected to My Characters

I’m sticking to my NaNoWriMo schedule, but I’ve developed an aversion to my character. She sounds whiney and self-pitying, though she’s only grieving, but I need to make her sympathetic, special, someone a reader would care about. She is not coming alive for me.

Often books start with a scene that shows the hero in action, perhaps doing something noble or self-sacrificing, or just being strong and vulnerable. Something that immediately makes the reader feel a connection. But how can I make the reader feel connected, when I don’t feel connected to the character? Which is odd, considering that she is me. Sort of. I only know my grief, so that part of me is part of her. The story, of course, is fiction.

One of my problems is that she carried on a cyber affair when her husband was dying (her daughter caught her at it, which is why the mother and daughter are at odds). I have to make the widow realistic enough so that people will believe that she can be in love with one man (who she hasn’t met yet) while grieving another. In today’s society, loving another negates grief, but from talking to people who have had more than one husband die, grief for one man and love for another can live side by side.

So, what problems are you encountering in your work in progress? How are you making your characters sympathetic, special, someone readers would care about? Do you feel a connection to them? Do you need to feel a connection to write the character?

Introvert or Extravert?

I don’t like the words introvert and extrovert. The common definition of an introvert is a painfully shy person or someone who thinks only of him/herself, while an extrovert is an outgoing, sociable person with interests outside him/herself. In our society, which rewards the gregarious, being an introvert seems to put one at a disadvantage. Introverts, however, are not always shy, and apparent extroverts can be uncomfortable in crowds. And introverts are no more self-centered than extroverts.

According to Laurie Helgoe, author of Revenge of the Introverts published in Psychology Today, “It’s often possible to spot introverts by their conversational style. They’re the ones doing the listening. Extraverts are more likely to pepper people with questions. Introverts like to think before responding—many prefer to think out what they want to say in advance—and seek facts before expressing opinions. Extraverts are comfortable thinking as they speak. Introverts prefer slow-paced interactions that allow room for thought. Brainstorming does not work for them. Email does.”

Colin DeYoung, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, says that introverts do best in quiet conditions and extraverts do better with more noise.

So being an introvert is neither a disadvantage nor an advantage, simply a different way of processing information. Which could provide an answer to a conundrum I’ve been considering for some time now: why some authors can effortlessly flood a page with words, and others struggle to find a few words.

All the books about how to write say not to edit as you go, but to let the words gush out of you, to write the first draft as quickly as possible. As much as I like the idea of letting the words flow and seeing what transpires, nothing shows up on the page unless I sit and ponder. So, even though few writing coaches admit it (and why would they? They are probably all extroverts) there are different approaches to writing: extrovert and introvert.

A writing extrovert would be someone who can write anywhere — on a bus, in a crowded room, in a coffee shop. Even when alone, they like to write accompanied by sound, either music or the television. And no matter what, the words gush forth as fast or faster than fingers can type.

A writing introvert would be someone who can only write when alone and in absolute silence. The words come slowly to these authors. Once involved in a scene, however, these writers get into the flow of writing, and the words can come more quickly, though still slowly in comparison to the writing extroverts. And, though they are gradually shifting to computers, their preferred method of writing is by hand so they can get the best mind/hand connection.

Of course, few people inhabit the extremes of this writing spectrum — most authors find themselves somewhere in the middle.

It’s apparent what kind of writer I am — an extreme introvert. I need the quiet so I can find the few words that bobble to the tip of my mind. What kind of writer are you?

Questions About Writing Stories

I received an email the other day from someone who wanted to interview me for a class project. I think he’s for real, but some of the requests I have been getting recently are questionable, so I thought I’d post my responses here to stake my claim. Feel free to respond to any of the questions. If the interviewer does, in fact, read my blog as he said he did, I’m sure he’ll be glad of the additional input.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went. It’s also important to make the writing easy to read, which means the writing must be grammatically correct. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than having to decipher convoluted sentences with improper punctuation. Ideally, a story should leave readers a bit better off than they were before, either because of what they learned about the world and themselves, or because of the respite from their everyday lives.

Do you keep those qualities in mind while you write?

The only one of these qualities that I keep in mind while writing is to make sure what I write is readable. Other than that, I focus on the story, setting the scene then developing plot and characters into a cohesive whole.

Which of those qualities do you think is the most important, if there is a ‘most important’ one?

Some people think character is most important, others think plot is the most important, but you really can’t separate the two. Plot is what happens to a character, what a character does, or both. You cannot have a character without a plot. To show who or what a character is, you need to show the character acting, and that is plot. You also cannot have a plot without a character. If an asteroid falls to Earth, that might be newsworthy, but it’s not a story until you have characters interacting with the asteroid. Who found it? What did they do with it? What happened to them as a consequence of their actions? That’s what makes a story.

How much of a story do you have in your head before you start writing it?

I know the main characters, I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story, and I know how I want the characters to develop, but I don’t flesh out the individual scenes until I start writing them.

Do you do any research for your writing? If so, how do you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

The research for Light Bringer, which will be published mid 2010, took me approximately twenty years. The research for my other novels took two to five years each. Sometimes I consulted maps or guidebooks, sometimes people told me what they knew, but mostly I read books on the various subjects.

How do you prefer to start a novel? For instance, do you try to start it out with a ‘bang’, or do you prefer to start out with a low point?

I start with a good hook, sort of a small bang, and I work up to a bigger bang.

How (or when) do you decide that you are done writing a story?

A story is done when it is published. Otherwise, it is never finished. The more one writes, the more one learns, and the more one learns, the more one sees how earlier works can be improved. The only thing that stops this cycle of learning and rewriting is getting published.

Do you have any specific pattern of writing, however subtle it may be, when you write? (Using specific plot devices consistently, for instance)

The only device I use now (though I did not do it in the beginning) is a theme. If I know the theme of a story, I can keep focused on the main concept and not go off on tangents. A story needs to be tightly constructed without extraneous scenes or exposition. If not tightly constructed, a story loses its power and impact, sort of like a comedian who tells a rambling joke without a punch line.

The term ‘well developed characters’ is extremely vague and the definition differs depending on who is asked. What, in your opinion, does it mean?

A well-developed character gives readers a sense of that character’s personality, feelings, and struggles. A well-developed character changes and matures as a result of all that the character experiences during the course of the story.

What is your goal for the story to be when you write? That is, how do you want your stories to say what they say?

My only goal is to write the stories I want to read. If my books do have a message, it’s that nothing is as it seems. We are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that is more of a side effect. Mostly I just want to write good stories with good characters.

Writing as Conversation with Readers

One of the guest stops on my Daughter Am I blog tour is the Second Wind Publishing Blog. I talk about a fan letter  (well, fan email) I received, and cite a quote by John Cheever, “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone.”

Many writers don’t consider readers — they write solely for themselves, or at least they say they do — but often as I am writing a passage (or more precisely, after I have written it), I wonder what readers will think. Will they understand my references? Will they find the humor? Is my writing clear enough? I like thinking that perhaps someday a reader will share the product of my mind.

Malcolm R. Campbell, author of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire responded to my guest post with, “Whether it’s a book, poem, post, review, article or news story, I always hope somebody will say something. One never knows. It’s a slow conversation, so much time having gone by between the moment when something was written and the moment when somebody tells you they found it.”

Such a wonderful description of writing/reading — a slow conversation. I know I’ve read many books where I felt the author and I were having a conversation, silent though it may be. I read and I think about what I read. It’s quite a heady realization that now I am a writer with readers of my own.

If you’re interested in reading the original blog post, you can find it here: Writing Without a Reader is Like a Kiss Without a Partner.

I am also at the D.C. Examiner today: Pat Bertram speaks about her novels and her writing

Today is the last day for the Clue Game at the Simpson Haunted Mansion

Also, this is your last opportunity to leave a comment to win Daughter Am I from: Book Reviews by Bobbie

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On Writing: Looking Up

When your characters look up, what do they see? Sunsets and sunrises are so prevalent in books as to be clichés, yet every day there is a sunrise and every day there is a sunset, even if it’s too cloudy for us to see either. I suppose mentioning the rising or setting sun makes more sense if there is a reason. For example, tonight there was a gorgeous sunset here because of the fires in California. The smoke drifts to Colorado and is trapped by the mountains.

I try to find different things for my characters to look at, because to a certain extent, a character is what he sees. If a character sees a flock of what looks like hawks, and he or she knows that they are vultures, it tells you a bit about the character. Vultures fly in packs, hawks fly alone. Or so I’ve been told. Both hawks and vultures are equally lovely as they coast on the updrafts, but somehow knowing that the regal bird is a vulture and not a hawk takes away some of the beauty of the scene. 

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the characters see helicopters patrolling the skies above quarantined Colorado. In Light Bringer, which will be published next year, the characters see unnatural lights in the sky, they see strange airplanes, and they see an impossibly brilliant rainbow. In my WIP, the characters see a light in the west on Easter morning, and for just a moment, they think it’s the rising sun.

So what do your characters see when they look up? Does the sight have a bearing on the story? Does it tell you a bit about the character?


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