Category Archives: About Me

How to Love Writing

“I hate writing. I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

I’ve met a few people who are quick to say they love writing. They are sincere, happy people who tend to glow in the dark. People who eagerly sift through tornado-paths of literary devastation to find the one story that can threaten to replace your well-earned despair with un-warranted hope. I hate* those people.

I also hate writing. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit strong. How about this: I find it difficult to love writing.

Oh, there are moments when writing appears to be lovable. Like the moment when you first come up with a story idea. “I’m a genius!” And the moment when you sit down to start writing that story. “This is the best idea ever!” And the moment when your fingers line up like agreeable soldiers on the keyboard. “When I finish this novel I’ll finally have something to brag about at my high school reunion!”

But those aren’t really writing moments. They’re “anticipation of writing” moments. It’s easy to love writing when you’re approaching the desk. But when you actually begin…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap :-) tap tap tap tap tap.

Tap tap tap. Tap tap.

Tap…tap. :-(

Crap.

To love writing, you have to love, or at least endure, lots of unlovable things. Like these:

  • Staring blankly at a computer monitor for long periods of time.
  • Sitting in a chair for long periods of time.
  • Standing at a standing desk for long periods of time in a half-hearted attempt to increase your life expectancy or impress your writing group friends.
  • Accepting the fact that your vocabulary is entirely…um…what’s the word? Small? Not big? Little? Wait…[searches thesaurus]…oh right, inadequate.
  • Waiting for the kids to fall asleep. Waiting for the spouse to stop bugging you to come to bed. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for your fingers to obey your brain. Waiting for Twitter and Facebook to stop demanding your attention. Waiting for the voice in your head to stop shouting “You can’t write!”
  • Those moments when confidence and self-doubt occupy the very same space and stare at you like you’re supposed to know how that’s even possible.
  • Dirty dishes. Dirty clothes. Dirty children.
  • Lukewarm coffee. Stale donuts. Cheetos dust.
  • Friends who don’t understand you.
  • Friends who think they understand you because they wrote a poem in third grade and got a ribbon for it.
  • Friends who think you’re insane.
  • Friends who think you’re going to be a millionaire as soon as you finish your novel.
  • Insanity.
  • Hoping this novel will make you a millionaire.
  • Another writer’s success.
  • Another writer’s  failure.
  • Backaches. Heartaches. Truth aches.
  • Asteroid strikes. Al Qaeda. The zombie apocalypse.

And that’s just today’s list.

Let’s be honest. After all this, can you truly, sincerely say that you love writing? Can you?

Um…

Tap tap tap tap tap…

Er…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap…

Yeah.

Me, too. [Starts glowing in the dark.]

 

*I don’t really hate them. But I do find it difficult to love them. Which is exactly the same way I feel about writing. (See what I did there? Gosh, I loved writing that sentence. (See what I did there? I know. I deserve a ribbon.))

The Buoyancy of Words

Fair warning: I’m going to stretch a swimming metaphor well beyond my non-metaphorical comfort level. Feel free to believe that this discomfort serves some greater meta-metaphorical purpose. Then let me know what it is so I can say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

Writers spend a lot of time going nowhere.

We start out strong enough, with a perfect swan dive into the ocean of ideas. [Already the metaphor is causing me gastric distress.] But after a few weeks or days or hours of swimming in a Direction We’re Absolutely Sure Of (Until Suddenly We’re Not), we find ourselves far from the dock and nowhere near the distant shore. Our confidence falters and our Olympic-qualifying freestyle pace devolves into draggy doggy paddle.

And then we’re just treading water.

I’m not a very strong swimmer. I’m also pretty bad at treading water, or as I call it, “pausing briefly before drowning.” You may be great at treading water. But even if you are, eventually you have to start swimming again or drown.

Did you know that drowning doesn’t look like drowning? I’m talking about actual drowning now, not the metaphoric kind. There’s rarely any thrashing, handwaving or cries of “Help! I’m drowning!” A drowning person can’t call out because it takes every bit of respiratory energy just to keep breathing. [The preceding message was brought to you by the American Lifeguard Association. And now, back to the metaphor.]

Two truths:

  • Writing, like swimming, is a solitary act.
  • Writing a novel is like swimming across the Atlantic.

Do you see a problem here? I’ll paint the picture for you: You know that scene from Titanic where the lifeboat returns to look for survivors? Remember all those floating frozen bodies? Novelists. Every last one of them.

We can’t swim across the Atlantic on our own. We need a little help along the way. Encouragement to keep swimming. Direction to send us toward the right shore. This can come from a spouse, a friend, a writing group peer, a mentor. It can come from a tweet or a blogpost. Or…from another novel.

Sometimes the best motivation to keep swimming is evidence that someone else made it to the other side.

I read The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green last week. It’s a heartbreaking, edgy, funny, beautiful novel – the kind that implores you by its brilliance to become a better writer. I grabbed onto it just in time. The novel I’m writing (ten words at a time between editing projects) had been dragging me under. But thanks to John Green’s words, I’m swimming again. I can almost see the shore.

And I can see something else. That familiar look of quiet panic in your eyes. I don’t want you to drown. I want you to finish your novel. Do whatever it takes. Call a member of your writing group and plead for help. Ask your spouse to toss a few kind words your way. Read an encouraging blog post. (You’re welcome.) Read a great novel. Just find a way to get to the other side.

Not just because doing this will make you feel good. (It will.) And not just because it’s an incredible accomplishment. (It is.)

But also because I’m still not a very good swimmer. Someday I’m going to need another great novel to grab onto.

I’d like it to be yours.

 

True Stories

They tell you to tell the truth and this sounds reasonable but you’re not quite sure how to do it.

They also tell you to do other things. Kill your adverbs. Kill your semi-colons. Kill your darlings. Kill your prologues.

Oh, you say, those I can do.

So you set the truth aside and head to the killing fields.

You reach for your metaphoric fountain pen, dip it in metaphoric red ink, and prepare to earn another metaphoric belt in the ancient art of Strike-Thru. At first you move cautiously, uncertain, fearing that you might condemn words just because of the clothes they wear. But it’s not their clothes, it’s the way they strut in them, commanding unwarranted attention like peacocks in a henhouse.

This isn’t a story about peacocks.

You find your resolve. (It was buried under a pile of metaphors.)

Quietly is the first to be silenced.

A semi-colon is decapitated; the comma slinks away and the dot falls. Period.

So much eye-rolling is plucked from the page.

And then, oh the humanity, an entire page is attacked. Words scatter, some find safety in later chapters, others are relegated to a losing game of Words With Friends.

That hurt a little – like the tingling needles that wake a sleep-fallen foot. But it wasn’t so bad.

So now, about that truth-telling thing. What does it really mean? Your invented character kills someone. Cheats on a spouse. Battles cancer.

Perhaps you haven’t done those things. Yet. How do you write about them truthfully?

Most writing advice is about what you do. Cut this. Replace that. Move the other thing.

Telling the truth is about who you are.

This is where writing gets real. Because to write about the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler, you’ll have to access the thoughts and emotions that most closely match the character’s. You’ll spend time in uncomfortable places. Bad memories. Secret fears. What-ifs. Temptations. Mistakes. Regrets. This is where you find the raw material to make the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler come alive.

Time for some potentially disheartening news: You may not have the necessary raw material. You may not have any relevant experience to draw from. [You can thank God for this now if you like. Or you can ask Him for more trials. But really? Do you want a harder life just so you can be a better writer? Who do you think you are? Me?] Can you write honestly about a woman who leaves her husband if you haven’t left yours? Can you write honestly about what it’s like to attempt suicide if you’ve never swallowed a bottle of pills. No. You can’t. (Feel free to argue with me here.) You can come close, of course – you can write about what it’s like to ponder those things if you’ve pondered them, you can draw from similar life experiences and try to extrapolate truth from those, and you can learn from others who have made those choices. But you’ll still be circling the truth, writing about it instead of revealing it.

And now some better news. Circling the truth will still satisfy most readers. That’s because most readers haven’t done those things either. They key is to circle as close as you can. Readers know when you’re faking it – when you’re trying to tell a truth you haven’t spent time with yourself. But when you get it right, or nearly right, readers will feel that truth on a primal level. Then you’ll be one of those authors readers can’t wait to tell their friends and neighbors about. “The author just gets it” they’ll say, not quite sure what “getting it” means.

But you’ll know what it means. You told the truth.

No matter how you get there – whether by looking closely at your own experience or examining the lives of others – it’s going to hurt. You will see things you don’t want to see, feel things you don’t want to feel, ponder things you’d rather not ponder. And then you will see them and feel them and ponder them again as you write the first draft, the second, the third.

One of my jobs as editor is to push a writer to dig deeper, to discover that well they can draw from to craft characters who reek of truth. I’ve worked with a few who couldn’t do this. Some just didn’t have the life experience to draw from. (This is why so many novels from young authors fall short of brilliance – the authors just haven’t lived enough.) Some had plenty of raw material but didn’t want to go there. (It hurt too much, or they didn’t think it was necessary.)

What about you? Are you willing to suffer a little (or a lot) so your writing doesn’t?

Can’t I just delete more adverbs instead?

Sure. If that’s what you really want. Is it?

Tell the truth, now.

This Could Be a Problem

I like languishing in obscurity. Languishing is my love language.

This could be a problem.

Well, not yet. But it will be if I reach any of my writing goals for the year, which include: a little book based on my #thewritinglife Twitter updates; the first novel in a YA series; a contemporary adult novel that’s been six years in the making; a few more blog posts; at least one provocative tweet.

You can’t have a successful writing career unless you embrace marketing and self-promotion.

I get it. If no one knows about you or your book, the book won’t sell.

In my past life as an editor in a traditional publishing house, I spent many hours in marketing meetings. I understand the rationale, the importance of planning, the risks and potential rewards. I find marketing fascinating. Nothing tests the creative process like trying to come up with ways to make every book a bestseller when your dollars are limited. Marketing meetings may be rooted in reality (“this is our marketing budget for the book”), but they’re fueled by big dreams. Even when pressed down by the weight of that reality, the air in most of my remembered marketing meetings was always thick with hope.

I inhaled that hope. I wanted each book to sell a million copies. I wanted each author to become a household name. I wanted to walk into Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes and Noble to see eager readers holding the books in one hand and open wallets in the other, their expectations high and about to be exceeded.

It was easy to believe this for other people’s’ books. But now I’m closing in on the reality that I soon will have a book (or three) of my own to unleash upon the masses. The closer I get, the more I long for obscurity.

This isn’t because I hate or fear marketing (see above). Nor is it some lame attempt to apply reverse psychology to my publishing dreams. (Unless it works. Then it was my intent all along.) I wish I were high-minded enough for it to be about letting the words stand alone, untainted by the evils of self-promotion. (I’m not.)

It’s just that I like obscurity. Obscurity is my favorite pair of pants.

Experts will tell you that marketing and self-promotion are games of chance you can’t afford not to play. They’re right. Absolutely right. Especially if you want to sell books.

I do.

This could be a problem.

Finding Stories

I don’t know where you find your stories, but I find mine everywhere. All I need is a little prompt – an object, a smell, a look from a stranger. Some of my favorite stories are inspired by listening to the words people don’t say.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant. I have a window seat. It’s just after the lunch rush. I’m going to look around and eavesdrop and see what stories appear. I’m sure I could find a hundred, given time, but I’ll limit myself to the first five that appear. And so you can see how my brain works (don’t look too closely), I’ll put the inspiration for the story idea in brackets. Keep in mind these are just seeds of bigger ideas (or possibly suited only for a short story), but you gotta start somewhere, right?

Waiting – Barry is a busboy at a busy chain restaurant in a Chicago suburb. Most customers ignore him or offer fake, polite smiles that Barry recognizes as the kind someone offers a person they think is mentally handicapped. He’s not. He’s just quiet. He’s also rich. He inherited seven million dollars two years ago, but he hasn’t touched a penny of it. He’s waiting to fall in love first. He wants to be loved for who he is, not for his money. On a particularly rainy Wednesday, a woman who is clearly annoyed by the young man she is enduring lunch with smiles at him with a different kind of smile. The kind that sets his heart to beating fast. She looks vaguely familiar, but he tells himself this is because she’s eaten there before. He’s wrong.

[A busboy was Hoovering, and hovering, near my table.]

Barriers – When Jerry Kincaid is stuck in I-40 traffic on the August afternoon following the worst day of his life (his girlfriend left him for a state trooper), his attention is drawn to the orange safety barriers – the ones they fill with sand or water or something to keep drivers from killing themselves should they drift off the highway into the median. He reads the manufacturing information and notices the model name is appended with “Mark 3.” A strange curiosity compels him to find out what happened to the “Mark 1″ and “Mark 2″ models. The next day, on the way to the manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median. A year later, the “Mark 4″ is introduced.

[There’s sidewalk construction going on across the way, complete with orange safety cones.]

Every Thursday for a Lifetime – Father Karcher has lived a long and mostly uncomplicated life. He’s weathered more than his portion of the global disdain for the sins of his ilk with quiet humility, nodding and sighing and even tearing up at just the right moments to absorb the anger meant for evil men who have damaged so many young lives. But despite his own bitterness toward the wrong-minded priests, he never points an accusing finger. “God’s fingers are better suited,” he says if anyone asks. Every Thursday he sits in the small coffee shop at the very same table, sipping hot Passion tea (an inside joke, but not the one his parishoners might expect, particularly around Easter) and waiting, hoping, longing for a few moments of shared secret silence with the dark-haired woman who’s been coming every week for years.

[An aging priest sat alone at a corner table. He looked wistful.]

A Trail of Crumbs – She almost always can be smelled before she is seen – the middle-aged woman with the clothes that are much too big and the dog that is much too small (they didn’t even see him the first three times, hidden as he was in her suitcase purse). She comes at the end of the day, just before the doors close, and asks for whatever bread they’re planning on throwing away. Kelly is the only manager who breaks the rules and gives her some. Just a loaf or two. One evening, when Kelly is feeling paradoxically depressed and adventurous, she follows the woman. After a few dozen twists and turns through unmarked doors and down unlit stairwells, she finds herself in an underground city. It is a world unto itself. Not the stronghold of criminals and ne’er-do-wells, nor the trash-riddled sewer of sad lives and sadder stories she expected to find, but a bright and beautiful community that always smells like a summer rain; a place where the only currency is love.

[Saw stacks of bread behind the counter. Wondered where it all ended up.]

Listening – Matt and Joanne have been struggling lately. He calls it the “eleven year itch” and she calls it “that damn golf channel.” Following a particularly nasty disagreement on the relative merits of marital counseling, they agree on a more unique approach to sorting through their mess. They decide to interview long-married couples in search of practical wisdom. Secretly, they’re each hoping to find evidence to support the opposite result – they don’t think the marriage is salvageable. At first, they get their wish – these long-married couples don’t seem the least bit happy. But as they delve deeper and deeper into the strange (and sometimes disturbing) love lives of strangers, they find themselves growing closer instead.

[A young couple was sharing a table with a much older couple. There was something in the way the young couple was sitting (as far apart as the booth seat allowed) that prompted the story idea.]

* * *
Q: Where do you find your stories?