Saturday, January 31, 2009

Here's To You Mr. and Mrs. Working Writers of the World

*Here’s To You Mr. and Mrs. Working Writers of the World*
~nominated to the “Real Writers of Genius” hall of fame by your ‘bud’ Jenny

Have you ever heard someone sing so well it gave you chills? Have you ever looked at a painting and been amazed at the richness of color, the depth and vibrancy of each brush stroke? I have heard how the vocalist caressed every note, owned it, held it, made it live inside of me. I’ve seen the sensual shapes and the merging of vision and color beneath the tender touch of an artist transforming a moment into awe.

As I reflect on my week, how feeling poorly and the stress of my husband’s layoff in this tough economy effected my ability to work, I’m humbled by a new insight. While I’ve always felt exceptionally blessed and grateful for having a life that allows me to write for a living, I have never truly connected with the words of friends, peers and coworkers. When they shared the pain and frustration of attempting to tap into their creativity after a stressful day at work, I thought I understood. I may never be able to understand fully, but I have a deeper appreciation for these writers than ever before.

In the old days, artists were apprentices, living humbly as they studied under the guide of the masters. They weren’t expected to spend more than forty hours a week being ridiculed by clients or customers, yelled at by bosses, or engaging in the drudgery of a daily grind. They were allowed to immerse themselves in the craft.

Every day I’ve sat down to work, taking advantage of having my husband home to run the household. Every day, I’ve felt like I’ve been pulling teeth to be creative as my health and financial worries ate at the back of my mind. That changed today. This morning, I heard the song, “Arms of an Angel” by Sarah McLachlan and as usual, it gave me chills.

I thought about all the beauty in the world. The works of Michael Angelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Monet, Norman Rockwell, the sounds of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and my favorite, Vivaldi (his guitar concertos are fabulous.) And as writers are wont to do, my imagine ran away with me a little. What might have it been like if Da Vinci had to flip burgers at McDonalds and paint in his basement without the master Verrocchio to guide him or much respect for his pursuit? Or how well might have Strauss composed his Blue Danube if he had to bartend all night and work on cars during the day?

How in the world do my friends, peers and coworkers manage to evoke such extraordinary works from themselves when they work in government, teaching, medicine, accounting and any other myriad non-writing careers? I am absolutely humbled. But even more so, I want every one of you to know how truly heroic your efforts are to follow your dreams and passions. I see now. My hat’s off to you with sincere admiration.

I also owe you a thank you. No telling how much time I would have wasted pouting about my situation if I didn’t have such wonderful examples in each and every one of you. I only regret that I didn’t recognize your efforts sooner. Know that you are appreciated and also, that you’re supported!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

4th Requirement: Determination

Yeah, okay, so we covered love of reading, imagination and insight--now it's time for determination--and that ain't easy.

I don't know if you beleive in a god, or in karma, or fate, or destiny--I'm not even sure I could define my own beliefs, but these are a few thing I believed and it helped me tremendously:

On Rejections:
I decided that the "universe" had determined I would get a set number of rejections--say 45. Therefore, each rejection sent to me got me that much closer to the day I would be accepted. You can adopt something similar, because it's true--the majority (if not all) published authors have gotten rejections.

On Motivation:
Everyone of us have a naysayer and a supporter in our lives. Get those that support you to help you prove the naysayer's wrong. It's a blessing for those moments when you feel completely overwhelmed and don't think you can write another word. Those supporters need to be informed though--communicate with them, this is very important. Don't be afraid to share your obstacles--because then you'll have great company when you triumph ;)

On those Naysayers:
I recently saw this great quote from Mark Twain and I think it sums it up nicely:
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great. "
Truly, surround yourself with positive, energetic and motivated people who will support you and your goals.

On Writing Every Day:
When I began, I wrote every single day, for as long as possible. Unless the family had some major crisis, I was writing. You do need to do this--but don't beat yourself up if you miss a day here and there. At least write a paragraph, even if you have to scribble it on scratch paper--but in these early years, you need to stay connected and entrenched in the world you're creating.

There's another aspect that is important here. It's not just for your own benefit, but also for the benefit of your friends and family. You'll need to train them for the life you'll have once you become published--because it truly does not get easier--only tougher. The more you're published, the longer you'll need to remain on the computer, and therefore, it helps if you begin training your loved ones now to respect that time you need.

On Goal Setting:
Don't get bogged down with first chapters--your goal should be to complete that manuscript. Besides, you never know what the beginning should look like until you get to the end of the book. Learn the craft as you go, stretch yourself as an author through short stories and flash fiction, but keep your eye on the end of the book--it's the first step in one of many to seeing your dreams come true. Using the above should get you there as soon as possible.

And last, keep trying:
They won't know about you unless you tell them. Somewhere out there is the person who loves your book, wants to see you succeed and will give you the shot you've prepared for. (Luck happens when opportunity and hard work meet.) Be not only determined to write your book, but to keep mailing (or emailing) queries in batches. Once you send out, compile the next list you want to send to and when you get your responses, send out to the new list immediately. Repeat.

Determination isn't just a feeling. It's not just a vow. It's not just something you choose to be--determined. It's taking action. Without the action, you sell yourself short. Don't create that regret!

Please let me know if you found any of this helpful or if you have any questions. I'll be happy to respond in the comments!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

3rd Requirement: Insight+Exercise

The first (love of reading) and second (imagination) are on this blog, so if you haven't had a chance to read them, they're there whenever you have the chance :)

Today I'm discussing insight and why that is a requirement. Now, some of you may be familiar with a red flag I've mentioned in the past. This red flag tells me who does, and doesn't, have what it takes to be a writer. (I discussed this in a blog about honesty.) This red flag is a level of maturity that allows a person to have the insight necessary to write believably.

This does not mean age-wise. I've met sixteen year olds who have a higher level of maturity and insight than some sixty year olds. It also doesn't mean one has to be the MOST insightful or mature person on the planet. Without maturity to accept what your insight tells you however, that insight will be useless.

Let's begin by defining insight:
*Clear or deep perception of a situation

For our purposes, the above definittion is the one we need. The study of mankind, in many different ways, is how one can come to that clear and deep understanding of a situation. The path to insight is paved with curiosity. Those who are incurious are the ones who often end up stunted in their maturity, and hence practice a type of insight that is based solely on what they themselves would or wouldn't do (projection, as it's often called.) This is a shallow reflection of true insight.

See, true insight accepts the good with the bad, the positive with the negative. There's a saying in fiction that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. This is true. If we aren't curious to know why, if we are dismissive and judgemental to the exclusion of understanding, then we fail as a writer to create a three-dimensional--and otherwise believable--character. Without a believable character, there really is no story.

The one essential element of insight is not just being honest about human nature, but about your own human nature. To create a character who is TSTL (too stupid to live) means to create a character based on your conceptions of your own innocence. This is the character who's never accountable for the man/woman he/she chooses to marry or the friends he/she has or the situations he/she choose to be in. This is what raises the red flag for me.

If you cannot be honest about your own short-comings, about the areas of your own character that need addressing, then you can't be honest about the character you're creating. Being vulnerable on the page isn't easy. During a recent review, it was mentioned that my heroine (Kaylee, in DFF) was too forgiving at one point. I don't know which point that is, but I was shocked to see that offered. It's something I struggle with in my personal life--being too forgiving. I don't see that as something to be proud of, but rather, how I can often allow people to wipe their feet on me one too many times. It's a weakness I have to overcome--especially if it's making it's way into my writing.

I allow myself to be vulnerable on the page, however, and that's why the rest of that review spoke about how much they loved Kaylee as a strong heroine who doesn't back down--because it's not only about your flaws, it's also about your strengths. Think of Stephen King and how he's used his own history and the culture of his upbringing to pepper all his writings. He is vulnerable on the page. The same can be said for Anne Rice, and J.K. Rowling, and Clive Cussler.

Anyone who's studied poice procedure understands how ten eye-witnesses can tell ten differing stories. We each bring our own perspectives to the table, we each bring our own expectations as well. We bring our flaws and our strengths. So, let's take this factual event and imagine how two or more different witnesses might have reacted:

A pair of young black men attempt to steal a white man's car. This white man, accompanied by a group of his white friends, uses a baseball bat to beat them so badly, they fracture one man's skull--and they do this while shouting racial slurs. When the white men complete this beating, they steal the black man's sneakers.
You can choose any type of witness you like: a card-carrying member of the ACLU, the daughter of a Grand Dragon, an elderly hispanic man who speaks little English, a sixth-grader on his way home from school...

Try to choose characters completely opposite from yourself in gender, economic class, ethnicity and age. Use insight into human nature, think of different historical or important figures you read about in school or biographies of people who had experiences completely alien to your own (Anne Frank, Lincoln, Pocahontas, Einstein, etc.) Use your own personal experiences in social settings. Define the emotion--and then remember a time when you, yourself felt that emotion, and walk in the shoes of these utterly foreign characters.

You can do this exercise privately, or share in the comments. Please let me know though, if this helps or if I've only confused everyone :)


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2nd Requirement: Imagination

My last blog post about the four requirements neccessary for being a writer discussed the love of reading. Today I'm going to discuss why imagination is important--and it may not be what you're thinking ;)

First, let me say that there are no new stories under the sun. Trying to come up with a unique plot twist is an exercise in futility. What one really needs to focus on is how to lead the reader down a path, without them knowing the true path they are on. That's the key.

In The 6h Sense, the audience is led to believe they are following the life of a lonely child therapist attempting to help a child who sees ghosts. The twist at the end is discovering Bruce Willis's character is the ghost. The idea that a ghost doesn't know he's dead is not unique. We've seen it time and again in a zillion different stories.

Second let me also say that there are no new characters under the sun. Every 'type' has not only been used, but defined over and over again from the time of Aristotle and Socrates to Vogler's Hero's Journey. To attempt to create a unique character is an exercise in futility. What one really needs to focus on is how to create a memorable character. That's the key.

A person who has fallen into insanity and obsesses over something he cannot have is not memorable: Golem from the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein is.

So where does imagination come into play if there are no new characters or stories to write? Why is imagination so important then?

Because without imagination we can't take what's been done and make it unique to our own style, writing, theme, plot, novel and voice. Imagination, therefore, is not how we create a story--but how we create a memorable and unexpected story. It's not nearly as easy as one would think.

There are a few methods for exercising your imagination in a productive way. The Snowflake Method is one example. There are others more or less along the same lines. The methods are based on the belief (and I agree) that our first ideas or thoughts are more shallow, have less depth, than those that would follow. The method teaches how you can take a central thought and make "branches" (or the design of a snowflake) and further brainstorm off a central theme. (There's more to it than that, but that's good for our purposes here.) Here's an example:

In the previous blog, I shared how to decide on your subject matter and what you're passionate about. Mine was apocalyptic settings with characters who are altered. Let's take a very popular option: A character surviving a nuclear holocaust. We'll call her Jane.

(Because I don't have the freedom to do circles with connecting lines, I'll do this in descendning order.)
Jane was a school teacher.
She has the polly anna style optimism that either infuriates, or charms.
She has darker secrets, the polly anna facade hides them.
Maybe these secrets give her an inner strength no one would believe.
Maybe her father was a perfectionist--maybe he abused her.
Or maybe her dark secret is deeper, more magical?
Maybe she surrounds herself with children because she can see people's souls?
(This can also be done for scenes and overall plots.)

So now, instead of having a bright and chipper Jane teaching the children who survived the holocaust, we now have a secretive woman with supernatural powers who prefers to avoid the pain caused by seeing into the souls of adults, a pain she learned at the hands of her perfectionist and abusive father. How might a character like this react to her secret being revealed? How might a newly emerging power struggle for governance believe an ability like hers could benefit them? What might this mean as a story of survival?

As you can see, very little thought went into the above--you're witnessing what it looks like to "wing" it--but I wouldn't be able to do that without applying experience and insight (coming soon!) into human nature with a focus on creating a memorable character. What will make her memorable (or not) will depend on how much she's challenged by the situations I put her in--and how unexpected is the nature of the path I take the reader down.

Had I focused on trying to be unique--I would never have chosen a nuclear holocaust, a cheery elementary teacher, an abusive father, or a 'psychic' ability. None of those things are unique. They do have the potential, however, to become memorable.

So when you start using your imagination, draw from the real world around you to make it believable, allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page (more on this when we discuss insight) and practice some derivitave of the Snowflake Method above to go deeper into that imagination to create memorable stories and characters.

Hope that helps and I look forward to reading what you think in the comments. If you have any questions, or want me to further explain anything I may have glossed over or been unclear about, please let me know!


Sunday, January 18, 2009

4 Requirements for Being a Writer+Exercise

There are some things that one can’t teach a writer. They must be either adopted as a lifestyle, or be inborn in the person. These include:

1)A love of reading.

Without the above four traits, one might want to reconsider becoming a career (fiction) author. Of course technical writing and other non-fiction writing venues may be possible, but for the most part, the four listed traits are a must. Let me explain further for each trait in the list over the course of the upcoming week. We’ll start with number one today:

1) Reading is mandatory.
If you have no appreciation for the written word, becoming a career author in fiction is a little like an anorexic attempting to become a food critic. Whatever you choose to read, however, is solely up to you and what you’re passionate about. Some people enjoy reading biographies. Does this mean they have to write solely biographies? Of course not. They would be better off, though, attempting to write in a “biographical style.”

I have an exercise I often do with new writers. If you like, you can do this with me now. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

*Make four or five columns down the page. (The more you make, the more you’ll get out of this.)
*At the top of each column, write the title of an all-time favorite book.
*Beneath each one, list four or more reasons why you loved that book.

A quick example from mine:

The Stand(King)------Swan Song(McCammon)-----Strangers (Koontz)
Flu Apocalypse ------ Nuclear Apocalypse -----Challenged Reality
Good vs. Evil ------ Good vs. Evil -----Gov. vs. Citizens
Altered Characters--- Altered Characters -----Altered Characters
Supernatural ------ Supernatural ----Alien Aspects

As you can see from these favorites of mine, they share common traits. These common traits indicate what I love to read, and hence, what I would love to write: Apocalyptic stories with a clear definition between good and evil, supernatural aspects and featuring characters altered in some significant way by the apocalypse.

My last book most closely matches what I should have been writing all along. Kaylee’s world is destroyed (apocalypse) when she starts seeing ghosts. The more she battles (good vs. evil) these supernatural elements, the more her innate powers begin to emerge (altered.) As you can see, the translation doesn’t have to be literal—Kaylee’s apocalypse was simply being unable to maintain a “normal” life.

If you’d like, take a moment to share the results of this exercise in the comments. I’d love to see what you thought of the exercise and what you came up with!


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Who Deserves Our Help?

Once in a while (well maybe a lot :)) a comment is left on one of my blogs that gets me thinking about a subject so much that I believe it needs it's own blog post. In a recent reply, SD offered a comment that inspired me to write this post:

"It comes down to motivations and goals. Why do you write? Is it for self gratification or is it a career. Hopefully there's a balance of both."

This, I think, is where the root of so many problems crop up.

My husband, who comes from a much wealthier home than I grew up in, once became angry with me when I gave five dollars to a beggar on the street. I was surprised. Our conversation went something like this:

"Y'know Jen, he's just going to go buy drugs or get drunk with that money. Probaby the reason he's begging to begin with."

"How do you know that?" I asked. "Just because he's down on his luck doesn't mean he's an addict. Besides, we can afford to give him the five dollars, it won't hurt us."

"You don't know if he isn't an addict either."

"I don't have to know if he's an addict. I need to know that *I'm* a person who, when seeing they can help, doesn't refuse that help. Whatever happens to that money is on his soul--not mine. Refusing to give him aid when I could WOULD be on my soul."

I'm Christian, but I don't like to discuss that much becuase I don't think it matters, truly, what religion someone is. However, I do believe in what the Bible teaches and the story of the angels disguised as beggars being refused aid from all the prospersous and finding it in the impoverished couple has always stuck with me. It's a good lesson to teach and to learn.

See, at one point, I was also homeless (a runaway) and as I was under 16, I couldn't get a job and had to find a way to eat. When I was given money--I used it to buy food. There is no hunger worse than that which you have no idea will be satisfied or not.

About now you're probably wondering where all this is going :)

The point is--the goals and motivations of others don't matter. Our goals and motivations do.

Are we going to be motivated to help only those writers who have a career goal in mind? Or are we going to encourage and support others who are interested in writing and learning the craft, regardless of what they choose to do to make themselves happy?

Will we tell that angel knocking on our door that his goals don't appear lofty enough for us to help him learn the craft?

In the end, we'll be known by our actions. Our focus should be less on what another person wants to do privately with the knowledge we can share, and more on how we wish to impart that knowledge.

Now of course all that would fly out the window if a child molestor tried to hire me to edit his child-porn magazine! I would be on the phone with the authorities so fast it would make everyone's head spin.

But of course, most writers here are merely interested in learning what they can in order to make their own informed decisions about what they would most like to accomplish. Some discover that they really don't love writing enough to do the grueling work of completing and preparing a manuscript for publication. If we help them discover that about themselves, then we have done our part and given what we could. If we help a passionate, driven writer along on their journey, then we have done our part and given what we could.

I believe that life is so much easier when you simply concern yourself with reaching your own goals and allow others the room to do the same. (Barring of course, those who have goals to cause another person harm.)

So do writers intent on self-publishing deserve our help? Do writers intent on writing political works that oppose our own ideas deserve our help? Do writers of a different religion, ethnicity, or culture deserve our help?

Of course they do.

The only time we should refuse our help is if that person is intent on causing harm to others.

At least that's the way I see it :) What do you think?