imagine that!

3899_10102616521387013_529553900_nHow good is your imagination? Did you ever imagine riding a moose in a river or lake? Why not? I mean, come on, Teddy Roosevelt actually did it (not photoshopped according to History.com and Life Magazine) and you didn’t imagine it?

Me neither! But then, I would have gone to the hospital if someone shot me. Not Teddy. Campaigning for a third term, he was shot and delivered his campaign speech, bleeding from the undressed bullet hole in his chest. Yeah, officially the most badass President ever.

But I digress.

What about your imagination? What are you doing to nurture and encourage it? It’s a skill, like any other. Visualize, read and analyze fiction (ahem, Annotation Nation anyone?), read things you would never read, do things outside of your comfort zone, take a dare, play with a kaleidoscope, ask questions of strangers outside your usual social circle. Write a story in another genre. Try role playing. Take an acting class. Read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Go outside, lay on the grass or the beach and watch clouds. Play games that involve recognizing patterns. If you train yourself to see patterns, then you can combine things in new ways.

Have fun! And if you have suggestions, please share them. Thanks!

the sin in writing

mantiI’ve been following the Manti Te’o debacle for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that am a Notre Dame football fan and though not an alum, part of the ND family and have friends who are professors there. The truth will out, if not soon, then eventually. That’s usually what happens and my point is not what did he know and when did he know it or whether he was duped or in on it. As of now, besides one statement, he has not come forward. (UPDATED 1/18 he spoke to Jeremy Schaap) I’d just as soon give him the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are in, but right now it doesn’t feel like it will end well, no matter how it plays out. I can see several scenarios – in on it, totally duped, or partially duped, then trying to avoid public humiliation by continuing the story after he realized there was no girlfriend. However, my point is to look at what can we learn from this story – a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story – and how that applies to writing. Coincidentally, the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is “traduce.” 

Someone told a lie and over time a web of lies was created. For a number of reasons, the story blew up. Notre Dame kept winning. That was an unexpected element. Reporters had a talented football player, a nice kid, a team leader with a compelling story and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Some of them scratched the surface – at least one reporter looked for the girlfriend’s obituary and did not find anything. But though no obit is unusual, it happens. Plausible deniability. Could happen. Could a naive young man of faith be so taken in? Well, one of his strengths in football is the kind of focus that doesn’t allow for other possibilities. Just win. Could happen.

mjQnY24-580x386But look at the ripple effect. The original lie, the original impulse to deceive, started rolling, picking up steam, more lies, more deceit, and suddenly it’s all over the news, tabloids, talk shows, breaking out of the sports world to the general news. Seasoned reporters with over thirty years experience say it’s the most bizarre story they’ve ever seen and they don’t know what to make of it. Don’t underestimate the power of shame or the damage of humiliation. Humiliation is a murder of the spirit. People behave in ways that invite a number of different interpretations when shame is involved. And just because you would not feel one way about a given situation, does not mean someone else wouldn’t – slipping into another’s skin is essential to being a good writer.

original-sin

How does this relate to your writing? Drama comes from conflict. Truth vs. lies. Good vs. evil. Gullibility vs. cynicism. Narcissism vs. altruism. You get the idea. What is your central conflict? How can that ripple out to affect the greatest number of characters? What’s the unexpected element beyond anyone’s control? In the Te’o story, one lie mushroomed and affected not only Te’o, but his family, his teammates, his coaches, the University, the fans, even the way sports reporters will cover the human interest angle going forward (which is sad because the last thing we need is more cynicism).

white-roses_1920x1200_15316Sin has gone out of fashion. It implies a divine intelligence, a moral standard. I’m not here to debate that. I do argue that having a moral viewpoint will make your fiction stronger. The best definition of sin I’ve heard is that it begins with treating other people like things and lying is foundational to that. When you wrong someone, when there is conflict, often it begins with a lie to the self or to another. Someone who plays the “catfish” game, who creates a deliberate deception, may do so out of vanity or thinks it all in good fun and no one will get hurt, or worse, that the deceived person deserves it for being gullible. Think of the pedophile – they lie to themselves that it won’t harm the child. The thief lies to himself that he’s justified in taking what does not belong to him. What do your characters lie to themselves about and what are they lying about to others? Do they treat others as things? Does it all escalate? Add the element of surprise and watch it ripple out in your fiction. And please, keep it to fiction. Don’t muck up real lives. As to motive?

5 ways to help authors; 5 things for authors to avoid

ImageSeveral times this past year, I had people ask how they could help me with my books. The first question I asked was whether they’d bought any of them.     No.      Well, there’s a start! You want to help an author, buy their books. Forget all the fancy posts on book marketing – there’s some helpful information, but the main way to sell books is by word of mouth. That is what I’ve heard consistently from publishers, agents and other authors. Word. Of. Mouth. You like an author, please tell other people! Buy their books as gifts for your friends. Spread the word, use social media, post it on Facebook, Twitter, put the book cover on Instagram. If you know a photographer who’d take a good author photo in exchange for credit and building up their portfolio then pass along that information. You don’t have to come to every single reading, but show up once in awhile and bring someone with you. After the reading, say something nice to the author, even if it’s just “Good job!” (thanks, Kate!) It is hard for people who spend most of their time alone with imaginary people to get up in front of a group and read. Say something nice to them – acknowledge what they did.

There’s a ton of noise that we have to break through, so anything you can offer in the way of help, support, networking is GREATLY APPRECIATED! (and if it’s not, a pox on that author!) We writers are largely an awkward bunch who often don’t know what to ask for or how.

Summary for if you know a writer:

1. Buy our booksImage

2. Tell others

3. Post kind reviews (they don’t have to be 5 star, but there’s no need to trash them either; if you don’t have something nice to say…)

4. Use social media to spread the word

5. Come to our readings once in awhile

Okay, writers, you are not off the hook. It’s tough out there and you want all the help you can get. But don’t be a narcissistic taker! Say thank you. Help other writers. There’s none of that fixed pie nonsense in this. There’s plenty of publicity and readers to go around. If someone helps you, say thank you! I know you’re socially awkward but, come on, two words. Too shy to say it in person? You’re a writer, write a thank you note. No excuses. Again, don’t just take. Someone does you a favor, acknowledge it and at some point, if you can, return the favor. Especially if it’s another writer. Be nice to everyone – if you knew what secret burdens people were bearing, you’d be nice to everyone, even the mean ones. Maybe especially them. Plus you never know who someone knows. Word spreads. True in the literary world, super true in Hollywood. A manager never bothered calling me back over a business matter – I took notice because it was rude and totally unnecessary. He also made his client look bad.

I’m not saying you have to get all tit-for-tat about it. A favor is a favor, not an obligation. Don’t keep score. Do your best. Have integrity.

If you give readings, practice. Be entertaining. Put some life in it. People have taken time out of their day so make an effort. If you have to get a coach, make friends with an actor and get some tips (you can offer to run lines with them or something similar in return). Film yourself. Show your audience some respect. This falls under the same consideration as making sure your manuscript is as good as you can make it before you send it out.

Something Kate Maruyama pointed out is the Acknowledgments page and I’m going to include one in my books from now on. Seems to be more of a tradition in non-fiction than fiction, but there’s no reason we novelists can’t do it. None of us get there on our own. People help whether they read our manuscripts, provide moral or financial support (we should all be so lucky!)… anyway, you get the idea. Proclaim them! Do an Acknowledgements page and list them. Maybe you don’t have an agent or manager yet, but there are other people who helped and encouraged you along the way.

Pay it forward. Help other writers. Promote their work. Don’t ask people to go comment on your short story, essay, etc, if you have no intention in doing so for them at some point or haven’t in the past. Don’t keep going back to the same people every time you put a piece of writing out into the world. It looks like you’re manipulating the comments (fair point) and everyone’s busy. You can tweet or Facebook general requests, but be careful of asking specific people. Don’t over-ask and let it go if they don’t respond. Yes, I’ll say it again: everyone’s busy. Assume goodwill and move on.

Summary if you are a writer:

Image

1. Say thank you or write a thank you note

2. Return the favor

3. Be nice and if you can muster it, entertaining

4. Put them in your acknowledgements

5. Pay it forward

going deep

spiral-galaxy-ngc1232-1600Why do you write about what you write about? What images or feelings stay with you after reading a story or watching a film? What genres resonates the most with you? Horror? Thriller? The life of the mind or the heart? Mystery? Romance? What feelings or images stick with you? Do you know why? What is it in your own life that has happened for those to be the ones that stick?

As 2012 winds down, I would invite you to take some time off for yourself and by yourself to ask the big questions of life. Why are we here? If you have a faith tradition, reread its scriptures. Read some philosophy. Read the book of a faith you do not belief in or follow. Challenge yourself. Think about your beliefs. Take some time to mull over what is important to you and why.

It is easy to follow the news, to stay informed, and feel like that is enough, but if you are creating art, it is not enough. You may be informed, but there’s no depth to it. And with so much information available, it is easier than ever before to remain on the surface, to be busy, distracted.

To deepen your thinking and therefore your writing, to add something meaningful, requires a strategic drawing heic0402aback to ponder, to wonder, to take the time to think. I don’t think there is a simple straightforward connection between this time and what you may write, but as artists we need to pull back from time to time to think about why we create. I do believe that over time, if you make this a regular practice – and the time is of course up to you from daily to annually – there will be a change in your writing. More resonance. More depth. More wonder.

What's the rush?

In the last post, I briefly addressed the dragging of feet that can go along with finishing your work or getting it out into the world. We cannot know if success will come quickly, after many years or not at all. All we can to is to try to be prepared and that means making the work and ourselves the best we can.

There’s another way to defeat yourself and that is rushing work out. NaNoWriMo can teach you to just write and write fast. Very fast. There’s huge benefit in that. Clean out the system, prove to yourself you can be far more productive than you imagined, discovering that your characters have things to say in scenes that may not make it to the next draft, but give you valuable information on who they are and so on.

Sometimes you need to slow down. Examine the work, your process…. That can mean slowing down to play with the story. Whether you write fast or slow, it is important to honor your own process once you land on it, but be aware it may change from piece to piece or book to book. What is important about not rushing is not rushing the work out into the world. We tend to believe we’ve written THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD as soon as it’s done. It takes perseverance to write over seventy thousand words for a novel. Talent aside, it’s a lot of work! You feel you should be rewarded – at least appreciated – and that’s fine, but don’t act on it, not until you’ve had more eyeballs on your manuscript. Reward yourself in other ways and take the time to make sure your work is ready to send out.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have at least one great mentor and to surround yourself with talented writers, preferably ones who will tell you the truth. And one or two non-writers as well. Ask a few people to read it before you start querying agents. This does not apply if you’re, say, Jonathan Safran Foer with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor on your senior thesis. There are exceptions. Now back to real life!

Pay an editor to go through it and make sure it is free from errors and that it flows. Get both specific and global notes. Check the punctuation and do not rely on spell check. Look at the overall structure – do sequences make sense? Is there a strain of a theme that gets lost halfway through? I will give you an example. I had a very talented editor give me notes on WRESTLING ALLIGATORS. She pointed out that I made an allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth at the beginning that was then not explored in the rest of the text. It was a challenge, but in one of the subsequent passes (after I’d dealt with her other points), I spent a fair amount of time walking in the hills trying to come up with an answer and finally found it. It enriched the manuscript in a way I never expected and I would have not found it on my own. If I had rushed the manuscript out, that piece would have not been addressed and I would have missed the growth I experienced in that challenge. I really enjoyed solving the problem and discovering a way to solve it will benefit future work.

There are many things about the writing life that are challenging and one is the balance you have to strike between knowing when to go fast and when to slow down. Have you ever wish you’d taken more time before sending work out? Or do you have a triumph about taking your time?

What’s the rush?

In the last post, I briefly addressed the dragging of feet that can go along with finishing your work or getting it out into the world. We cannot know if success will come quickly, after many years or not at all. All we can to is to try to be prepared and that means making the work and ourselves the best we can.

There’s another way to defeat yourself and that is rushing work out. NaNoWriMo can teach you to just write and write fast. Very fast. There’s huge benefit in that. Clean out the system, prove to yourself you can be far more productive than you imagined, discovering that your characters have things to say in scenes that may not make it to the next draft, but give you valuable information on who they are and so on.

Sometimes you need to slow down. Examine the work, your process…. That can mean slowing down to play with the story. Whether you write fast or slow, it is important to honor your own process once you land on it, but be aware it may change from piece to piece or book to book. What is important about not rushing is not rushing the work out into the world. We tend to believe we’ve written THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD as soon as it’s done. It takes perseverance to write over seventy thousand words for a novel. Talent aside, it’s a lot of work! You feel you should be rewarded – at least appreciated – and that’s fine, but don’t act on it, not until you’ve had more eyeballs on your manuscript. Reward yourself in other ways and take the time to make sure your work is ready to send out.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have at least one great mentor and to surround yourself with talented writers, preferably ones who will tell you the truth. And one or two non-writers as well. Ask a few people to read it before you start querying agents. This does not apply if you’re, say, Jonathan Safran Foer with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor on your senior thesis. There are exceptions. Now back to real life!

Pay an editor to go through it and make sure it is free from errors and that it flows. Get both specific and global notes. Check the punctuation and do not rely on spell check. Look at the overall structure – do sequences make sense? Is there a strain of a theme that gets lost halfway through? I will give you an example. I had a very talented editor give me notes on WRESTLING ALLIGATORS. She pointed out that I made an allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth at the beginning that was then not explored in the rest of the text. It was a challenge, but in one of the subsequent passes (after I’d dealt with her other points), I spent a fair amount of time walking in the hills trying to come up with an answer and finally found it. It enriched the manuscript in a way I never expected and I would have not found it on my own. If I had rushed the manuscript out, that piece would have not been addressed and I would have missed the growth I experienced in that challenge. I really enjoyed solving the problem and discovering a way to solve it will benefit future work.

There are many things about the writing life that are challenging and one is the balance you have to strike between knowing when to go fast and when to slow down. Have you ever wish you’d taken more time before sending work out? Or do you have a triumph about taking your time?

Kurt Vonnegut’s Seventh Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re almost there – here’s #7 of 8 rules for writing fiction by Mr. Vonnegut as delivered by guest blogger Aaron Gansky.

by adgansky

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. –Kurt Vonnegut

Pneumonia, maybe, and a host of other things. Would we call this literary promiscuity? Perhaps, and the same risks apply. Vonnegut is not alone in his call for monogamous literature. Stephen King, in his book On Writing discusses a similar idea. He mentions that every writer has an ideal reader, and should hold that ideal reader in their mind as they’re writing. For King, his wife is his ideal reader.

We’ve heard the adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The same holds true for fiction. If you write to please all of the people, more often than not, you will fail to please anyone (most notably and sadly, yourself). Your story will lose itself in trying to be something that it’s not, that it shouldn’t be. It will get lost in itself, so to speak, and perhaps never see the light of day.

Your ideal reader may be the same for all your books, or they may change. For example, if you’re writing a western, you’ll likely have one reader in mind, maybe your father with whom you grew up watching Bonanza. Maybe, after the western, you try your hand at a fantasy, and your ideal reader is now your first girlfriend, who swore she wanted to save up her money to have plastic surgery on her ears to make them pointed like an elf’s. Maybe you write a horror, and you think of your best friend with whom you spent every Halloween for the last twenty years. Then again, you may be lucky enough to have, as King does, a wife that fulfills multiple roles and, regardless of the genre, serves as an ideal reader.

Either way, understanding who  your ideal reader is can help shape the path of the novel—what would they most like to see next? What would surprise them here? How would they feel about this particular scene?

Knowing your reader (singular) can also help you finish your book. Two often we get caught up in trying to add something for everyone, which is both futile and frustrating. Somewhere, about a hundred pages in or so, you’ll realize that your novel lacks a clear direction. There are too many threads to make a quilt. Instead, you’re working with enough threads to make several bed sets.

Streamline and focus. Your reader will thank you.