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?

in the mood…

oceanPart of the writing life is managing your moods. You’ve heard that if you wait for inspiration to strike in order to write, well…. Yeah, that novel doesn’t write itself. Do you catch yourself indulging in any of these three behaviors? They’re all part of the same thing with different time references:

Self pity – the past

Complaining – the present

Worry – the future

Managing emotions and moods is one of the disciplines of the creative life.

Here are a couple of links on mood repair kits or how to manage your moods which will fluctuate as you write a novel, deal with agents and publishers and all the rejection that goes along with that process, market it, sell it and prepare the next one.

http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sherri-fisher/20071005428

http://www.wikihow.com/Manage-Moods

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?

Writing & Money

What is your relationship to money? We tend to accept it as a given that if we create, we will be poor, but what it we challenge that assumption?

I contend that the traits that most often lead us into the arts, or at least into creating fiction, are many of the ones that limit earnings. So often we come to the page or the stage out of need, out of hurt, out of a desire to make things right for ourselves, to find a voice denied us. The higher elements of motivation – creativity and imagination – are the ones to point the way to a more satisfying relationship to money and success.

Can you own your full potential? Are you willing to put everything on the line or do you make excuses for not finishing the short story, the novel, the play, etc.?  For not writing today? We all have 10-15 minutes a day to write no matter what excuse we make. What about not submitting it once it’s done or undercutting yourself to a potential agent or publisher?

First comes the inner work. For much more on this, read Overcoming Underearning and Financial Recovery. Challenge your assumptions about what is possible, not only with your time and your writing, but about what comes after you finish.

The Balkanization of society into fragments is not good for the arts. You’re not exploiting another culture if you explore it, certainly not if you love it. I know a Dutchman who loves Japanese culture so much, he learned Japanese and found a way to live there half the year. Who knows what new ideas and relationships may come out of that? We need each other. We need commonality, communal explorations, not only to find solutions, but to find those intersections where great art resides. You want to make money? Do what you have not dared to do. Go where you have not been. Learn about yourself and your limits. And get your work out into the world. It may not come in the form you expect. Chance are it won’t arrive the way you thought it would, but if you don’t try, don’t risk, you are guaranteed stasis.

Breathe into your fear, your fear of finishing or of failure or of success and experience the alchemy that happens when fear is transformed into excitement and energy. That will fuel the persistence necessary to the creative life. Break through your old assumptions. Now, go write!

Writing & Money

What is your relationship to money? We tend to accept it as a given that if we create, we will be poor, but what it we challenge that assumption?

I contend that the traits that most often lead us into the arts, or at least into creating fiction, are many of the ones that limit earnings. So often we come to the page or the stage out of need, out of hurt, out of a desire to make things right for ourselves, to find a voice denied us. The higher elements of motivation – creativity and imagination – are the ones to point the way to a more satisfying relationship to money and success.

Can you own your full potential? Are you willing to put everything on the line or do you make excuses for not finishing the short story, the novel, the play, etc.?  For not writing today? We all have 10-15 minutes a day to write no matter what excuse we make. What about not submitting it once it’s done or undercutting yourself to a potential agent or publisher?

First comes the inner work. For much more on this, read Overcoming Underearning and Financial Recovery. Challenge your assumptions about what is possible, not only with your time and your writing, but about what comes after you finish.

The Balkanization of society into fragments is not good for the arts. You’re not exploiting another culture if you explore it, certainly not if you love it. I know a Dutchman who loves Japanese culture so much, he learned Japanese and found a way to live there half the year. Who knows what new ideas and relationships may come out of that? We need each other. We need commonality, communal explorations, not only to find solutions, but to find those intersections where great art resides. You want to make money? Do what you have not dared to do. Go where you have not been. Learn about yourself and your limits. And get your work out into the world. It may not come in the form you expect. Chance are it won’t arrive the way you thought it would, but if you don’t try, don’t risk, you are guaranteed stasis.

Breathe into your fear, your fear of finishing or of failure or of success and experience the alchemy that happens when fear is transformed into excitement and energy. That will fuel the persistence necessary to the creative life. Break through your old assumptions. Now, go write!

The writing continues

NaNoWriMo has helped me get back in the habit of writing a LOT. They suggest 1,667 words per day to reach the goal of 50,000 words for a first draft. So far so good only in terms of word count. This is a quantity over quality exercise and “first draft” is going to be a very loose term for whatever it turns out that I am writing. I am slinging words at the page and not looking back. In some ways, it’s a longer version of Julia Cameron’s Daily Pages in The Artist’s Way. Write like your hair’s on fire. Don’t edit, don’t think about what you’ve written and never go back to fix it. Be a creative great white shark and keep moving forward:

Some sharks, however, have completely lost the ability to breathe by buccal pumping, and these are the sharks that will indeed drown if they stop swimming and ramming water. These sharks are known as obligate ram breathers (or obligate ram ventilators); only about two dozen of the 400 identified shark species are required to maintain this forward swimming motion . These include the great white shark, the mako shark, the salmon shark and the whale shark.

I spent a couple of weeks in Israel and it was an amazing experience that will take some time and reflection. I went with a group and so much was packed in a short time, it will take some sorting out. But it does go back to the previous post on writing tips from the Bible. What about persistence? What can keep you writing? There are many examples: Peter, Jacob, David, the persistent widow in the New Testament etc. We went to Jacob’s Well and 4,000 years after it was dug, could still draw up fresh water. Jacob served 14 years to have the bride he wanted in Genesis 29:13-30. Two chapters later, Jacob details his persistence:

38 “I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 39 I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. 40 This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”

It is Jacob in Ch 32 who wrestles with God and receives a new name, Israel, meaning “one who contends with God.” He was not one for easy answers or settling.

Will you continue to move forward? Will you persist?

I Want You To Want Me

Rejection.

Well, that’s depressing, but all artists, all writers, must deal with it at one time or another. Maybe all the time or at least it feels that way. The added problem is that rejection triggers me and other writers I know with old echoes of rejection, humiliation, etc. from childhood. Probably true for most writers because of the reasons we started writing in the first place. I can at least report that as your skin thickens and you maintain the attitude that it is fuel to propel you forward, it hurts and resonates less.

William Goldman famously said about movie making, Nobody knows anything, and I think to a degree that holds true for books. The agents and publishers are bright hard-working people, but no one knows for sure what’s going to sell, let alone catch fire, especially in fiction. Sometimes we have to fan our own flames, twirl our own sticks together on a little pile of kindling in the dark and see what happens. Any one agent or publisher (or review for that matter) is not worth the time or emotion to be devastated. But it still stings.

We are spiritual sharks. We must keep moving forward to live.  UPDATE: Leonard Chang has some thoughts on that