Category Archives: About Me

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?

The Way I Walk

I write the way I walk.

When I know where I’m going, every step is purposed. I am not easily distracted. My footfalls are metronomic. And when I get to my destination? I feel good. I feel capable. I feel smart. I treat myself to a cookie because I deserve it. Hey, every little accomplishment means something.

Most of the time I don’t know where I’m going.

I walk in circles. I take the easy path. The impossible path. I stare at a sidewalk crack. I climb a tree. I sit on a fence. I hide in a bush. I chase nervous rabbits. I pet rabid dogs. I look for messages in the sky. The dirt. The rain.

I walk slowly. I run to feel the wind. I stumble. Sometimes on purpose.

I see things. I miss things. I find things. I lose them.

I’m tentative. Awkward. Uncertain. Bold. Confident. Afraid.

I get lost. A lot.

But I keep walking.

I know authors who only know how to run. They plot their path and race to the finish line without looking back even once. They set absurd word count goals and then destroy them. They manufacture motivation when they can’t find it in a cup of coffee. They invite the muse at daybreak, but write anyway when she doesn’t show up. They complete one novel and start right away on another.

They are word warriors. They are finishers. They are the reason books get published.

They are my heroes.

(Sometimes I hate them.)

I’ve been walking for five years with my current novel. Many times I’ve come to the same place in the road – the fork that veers left and on to the end of the story. I know almost everything that sits along that path. It’s a good path. The novel is finished in my head. I’ve written it there to completion.

But my heart isn’t ready to write it down. I don’t know why. (And I do.)

Sometimes I listen to the other books that are waiting in my writing queue. They’re a restless bunch. They don’t like the way I walk. They want their turn.

How much longer? they ask.

I don’t know, I answer.

So I keep walking.

I’ll keep walking until I see the fork in the road, until I feel the ache in my heart, and until that ache becomes gravity and pulls me to the left. Then I might even run.

But when?

I don’t know.

Crap. There’s the fork now.

Soon?

The Blank Page

The blank page strikes fear into writers, but too often for the wrong reason.

These writers (perhaps you?) see it as something to fill with cleverness and excellence that will excite the senses and convert the masses. They consider it a space to stuff with characters and plots and subplots and twists and tension and conflict and resolution.

To them, the blank page is a empty thing that demands to be filled. And when it doesn’t get its way, it mocks them. It belittles them. It questions their writing talent. Their commitment. Their masculinity. Their femininity. Their parenting skills. Their love of Hemingway. Their selfish use of oxygen.

The blank page is evidence of an empty heart. Or mind. Or (gasp) soul. This is a terrifying idea.

And so they scrounge and scrape for story scraps in their ubiquitous (and surprisingly destitute) “ideas” folder and shop for characters at the local Starbucks. They read Rowlings or Robinson for inspiration, then stare with glassy-eyed panic at textured walls, praying for a seed of brilliance to reveal itself in the randomness.

All to satisfy the need to fill the page, to deny the yawning abyss of irrelevance and purposelessness its prey.

I think they’re scared of the wrong thing.

The page isn’t empty at all. It’s absolutely packed. It’s filled from edge to edge with every book, every movie, every song, every tear-filled breakup, every hope-filled phone call, every sin, every grace – every single experience and thought and dream and bliss and agony the writer has ever known.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t this just a matter of semantics? I say the page is empty, you say it’s full – either way, I still have to choose what to type and that’s a daunting thing.”

It’s not semantics. It’s a completely different way of thinking.

If the blank page is empty, you need to find things to fill it. Go ahead and put a sentence on the page. It’s still pretty empty, isn’t it. Okay, go find more stuff. Hurry, before that solitary sentence begs for the mercy of the eraser. What’s that? You’re stuck? You must be looking in the wrong place.

But if the blank page is full, everything you need is right there. And isn’t it, really? Aren’t all your story ideas (the good ones and the terrible ones) – or at the very least, the seeds for those ideas – already a part of who you are? If not, maybe you’re going about this writing thing all wrong. Ever heard of “write what you know”? That means write from who you are. Don’t “try to be a writer.” Just write. Look at the stuff that’s already in you – the stuff that’s already there on the page – and circle it. Underline it. Re-arrange it.

Uncover it.

The blank page isn’t empty.

It’s full of you.

Now that’s scary.