Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Insecurity, Not Good Enough and Other Sucky Things Writers Do to Themselves

Opened notebook, pen, books and glassesIf you are a writer, you’ve probably asked yourself why. Writing is serious business. It’s solitary. It’s demanding. And no matter how much you study and how much you practice, it is a craft that you never master.

On the one hand, you have to be a little bit crazy to want to lock yourself into a room several hours each day to create worlds with the written word. On the other hand, story telling is sacred art. Stories can teach us, provoke us and make us feel and think in ways that we might not have otherwise. And the writer is always looking for this–what is it that I am writing which touches a universal place in the human condition?

Even with a lofty vision of what writing is to you, it will always be an unforgiving taskmaster.  I write and perfect to the best of my ability only to discover the one flaw in the work that will unravel it all, baring my insecurities. I laugh at the rookies who when confronted with cutting 6,000 words thinks that they will be able to use it somewhere else, as through you can just cut and paste one world into another. But I digress. . . In spite of a daily discipline, in spite of focus and unending practice, I have moments where I wonder if I am good enough? Can what I’ve written cut muster? Why do I do this?

That answer ebbs and flows, and it sucks to wrestle with the demons of insecurity and not good enough. So why then, put myself through it? Why does anyone, in any craft where excellence is held in high regard, put themselves through it? It would be so much easier to be a lady who lunches.

I don’t know about other writer’s reasons for creating in this way. For me, I think it comes down to how it informs my unsettledness and gnawing discontent. It feeds something in me that wants to look down from on high and move the pieces around the board to make it mean something. Writing is born of a dark, chaotic place in my psyche that is engaged in the perpetual activity of examining the what if’s in life. The meat of grief, falling from grace, love, betrayal, revenge and how those things can push us toward transformation is my grist. It makes me lick my lips.

Still on a day like today, when I am filled with doubt and I sit down to write anyway, I feel as though I am doing the right thing. And I suppose that counts for something, that and a fervent prayer that I will get to the “good enough.”

Most people who read my blog are writers too. So the question of the day is: why do you write?

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Why Would You Even Want to Write a Book?

Opened magic book with magic lightsAsk most writers, and they’ll tell you that the traditional publishing industry is fickle if not unkind; and that self-publishing is a tremendous amount of work for what, in most cases, amounts to the sale of 100 to 200 books. In an age of offerings worth binge watching, time for the written word is receding into an antiquity of independent books stores and rotary dial phones. Technology has the influence and the edge.

So why write a book at all? I’ve asked myself this question in the past year as I’ve slogged through the slow revision and polish process of completing a novel.

I fell in love with stories before I was even in grade school. A slightly inebriated mother with a vivid imagination made up bedtime stories for me that delighted and enlivened my imagination. And the slight hint of vodka that hung in the air was my first understanding that life was interesting, messy and rarely as polite as we try to make it out to be.

Although I was a terrible student in school, English class was my great joy and I couldn’t wait to do the writing assignments. By the time that I was a teenager I was typing the poetry of unrequited love on my baby blue Smith-Corona, trying to bend the words to capture the horrible, beautiful, angst that I felt. Emotions that lived in the captivity of my heart and mind needed to be liberated by carefully chosen words.

There has never been a time in my life when I did not write. Eventually I would earn a degree in creative writing and poetics. I would work an internship at a newspaper and write a few magazine articles before life intervened with marriage and a mortgage. Then one day as I approached retirement, I decided that it was my time to write a book.

And wouldn’t you know it, as I got around to writing that book, technology was sucking the life out of the written word. The fast pace of our techno-driven society had replaced the slow, delicious reading of a story with hand-held screens, communicating in abbreviations and initials. OMG! So much for choosing words carefully. Back to the question: why, when knowing all that would I even want to write a book?

I wrote my book, not because I am a writer, but because I am a storyteller. Yes, writers can construct beautiful prose, but it is stories that connect us. They give us clues into who we are and how we need to be. A good story can change the world.  And even when you strip away the focus and deliberation necessary to read, storytelling must endure. Technology cannot replace story, it can only replace its delivery.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen to books. Clearly there are fewer readers for the novel format. New fiction writers come and go each year with few breaking out into careers with any promise of longevity. Writers must now be marketers too, participating in an Internet that is a cacophony of unrelenting promotional noise to sell their wares. And most of all, one-time readers are turning to other media to involve themselves in story. What will be the result? A book engages the imagination, while the flickering light of stories on a screen requires little engagement at all. In fact, it has an addictive quality to it. Does anyone remember the feeling tone, let alone the details of binge watching, or just the feel-good seduction it has provided?

You and I are meaning seeking creatures, and story gives our world meaning. That is why I write. I see storytelling as sacred art that engages and enrages its audience to think, feel, and reflect. Yes, I would love to be widely distributed and have millions of people read my books, but I’m not convinced that books will survive our technological age. In the event that they don’t, I will keep writing stories anyway. It’s the thing that keeps me in awe about what it is to be human, and provides a sense of purpose.

It will be interesting to see what happens next: from gathering around the fire to tell stories that teach us, to reading books that engage us, to new forms of media that will continue to inform us about our miraculous lives. Whatever delivery system our stories take on in this brave new world, storytelling will remain essential.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Why of What We Write

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Recently I was given a list of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. It’s a great list for anyone who writes fiction. Number #14 on the list is not really a rule, it’s a question, and it’s the most valuable question for a writer that I have seen.

#14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

What a great question. Readers don’t read because of the “what.” They read because of the “why.” Doing the exercise as part of my novel revisions process is proving to be revelatory.

The what and how of my novel can be found in the external plot points and milestones, but the heart of the story that will keep a reader engaged can be found in the answer to question #14, because that answer is about what I believe in and what I stand for.

I can tell you that my novel is about a surviving twin who has never been able to accept that her sister committed suicide and this sets her upon a quest to find out the truth about what happened; or I can tell you that my story is about how grief is an advocate of change and growth when you embrace it, because when you walk through grief, it becomes a healing grace. I like the second answer best, even though the first answer is true too.

Now while many story coaches may tell me “no,” a story has to be about something that happens, I am starting to view that stance as only partially correct. Yes, a good plot does prevent you from writing just a rambling narrative. But it is the “why” of the story that will be remembered by the reader more than the what and how. What I remember about Toni Morrison’s “God Help The Child,” is less the milestones of plot and more the feeling tone of a woman who is trying to untangle the wounds of her past with a heroic determination that leads to her transformation.

Here is what I am learning: A plot is the external events of a story. The emotional arc gives us the internal events of the story. To have a full, rich, compelling read, a writer must find a way to wed the why of the story with the what and how of story. As I pondered question #14–“why,” I found myself wishing that I would have known to do this before I started my novel, but interestingly, the answer was still within me. Now that I am clear on it, I know that it is coloring my revisions, inviting me to a deeper dive than if I had not answered the question at all.

As I wrote down my answers as to why THIS story, I noticed the power and passion behind the statements that I was making. This was not just answering a question about my story, this was laying out what I believe about life. Readers want to know the why. Even though the exact words may not make it to the page, the why will be revealed in the emotional logic of the story. The passion birthed from the question is the quality of emotion that I want to capture on the page. Here are a few of the things that I wrote down:

  • I am compelled to tell stories about women who rise above inner and outer adversity, because they courageously answer a higher calling within themselves to stand in the light of their truth.
  • My heart is touched and moved by women who learn to believe in themselves; by women who are determined to create and live a new vision for themselves in spite of and because of adversity.
  • I believe that women are not victims, but heroines in their own story; that women do not need to be saved or rescued. Their strength and courage are innate.
  • I believe in transformation.
  • I want my story to be an inspiration to women who believe in second chances.

That’s some good stuff to know about a story. It’s some good stuff to know about yourself. A lot of writers look upon words as being their artistic tool. But cranking out sixty-thousand words is just a jumping off point. A writer’s tools are emotion. It’s the emotion and passion that you are able to put on a page that will make a reader care about your characters and the story that they are living through.

I will never write another short story or novel without first contemplating this question: Why must I tell THIS story?

How about you? Do you think that this is a good question to ask before you begin writing your next work of fiction? Hit me up in the comments section and let me know.

Here is the link to Pixar’s 22 rules:

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZHlzYXJ0Lm9yZ3xtcmVsbGlzfGd4OjFjNDNkMThjY2Q1MmIyNTE

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Investing In Your Writing

iStock_000072638051_SmallA frequent myth shared among writers is that being a writer doesn’t cost anything. You can write for free. This is only true if you are writing just for yourself. The minute you start writing for readers, writing becomes like every other art form. It comes at a cost. It becomes an investment. Whether you are a dancer paying for ballet shoes and weekly classes or you are a musician buying strings for your guitar and learning to read music . . . OR if you are a writer desiring to know and understand craft, there is an investment.

By the time you are working in the long-form format of the novel or the memoir, craft becomes the big thing. Story. Craft is what makes cream rise to the top. It’s probably a safe bet to say that if you’re reading this, you are already a good writer. But good writing is only the prerequisite. At the end of the day, what we all really want is a good story. Story connects us. It mirrors the state of the human condition in prose. It touches our hearts, curls our toes and opens our mind to possibility. Story makes us human.

Imagine this: you make an investment in yourself as a writer. You attend what amounts to a mini-MFA. You immerse yourself in the study of story for four and a half days while the rest of the world falls away. That’s what I am doing with Jennifer Blanchard Williams and Larry Brooks this April in Portland. Will you join us?

Your Story on Steroids: A 4-Day Novel Development Intensive is a challenging, unprecedented workshop all about the craft of writing your story. Regardless of your level of experience, this workshop will push you toward being a better storyteller, a better novelist, and a better memoirist. And yes, it is an investment. And it’s too good of an investment not to share it with my blogging friends.

Here are the details:

April 3-7, 2016 at The Benson Hotel in Portland Oregon. Visit our web site listed below and if you have questions, there is a phone number for you to dial or you can send an email to me through the site. Suppose that a four-day  deep dive in to the multi-layered, heavily nuanced form of novel construction up levels your craft from this point forward?  If you only do one writing workshop this year, make it this one. Go ahead. Invest in yourself. Your writing is worth it and so are you.

www.novelintensives.com

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

We Are All Connected By Our Stories

iStock_000015967475XSmallEvery writer should have the experience of attending a writer’s conference at least once in their writing life. I drove that I-5 ribbon of highway that cuts through the state of Oregon to get to The Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, and that’s where I spent the past few days. Two of the women in my writing group joined me in Portland and we were grateful to have each other throughout the long weekend.

Writers are a quirky lot. We spend a lot of time in our introverted creative bubbles, so when we do venture out, it’s kind of a party. “Oh my gosh, you mean I can interact with other human beings?” Usually we are observers of the human condition, but at a writers conference, we are the human condition.

We all connect with others through our stories. We spend all day telling each other stories; the story of the plumber who didn’t arrive on time, the story of the tantrum throwing child at the market, the story of how I got to the writers conference. And writers have other stories too, not the stories of day-to-day, slice of life, but stories carefully molded and crafted to allow someone a vicarious experience, an insight into another world, stories that are not about us or for us as much as they are for the precious and sought-after “reader.” These are the stories we call “novels.”

All throughout the conference, writers carefully carried about these stories as if they were babies . . . the stories we created and birthed from our hearts and minds. These are the stories that we took with us into pitch sessions, relaying hundreds of pages to an agent in just a few minutes. Eight minutes, that’s all you get to pitch your story and you have to be able to tell an agent or an editor what your story is about, not the actual story. No easy feat, and one I spent months preparing for.

In the heat of the moment, those eight minutes are the blink of an eye! Tell you what, though, I did well. Out of the three agents that I pitched my novel to, all three asked to see more of my manuscript. I was confident, passionate and I didn’t throw up on anyone’s shoes–something that I had feared. Walking into my first pitch session, I felt like I had drunk four pots of coffee. I couldn’t tell if I was nervous, excited or was having a panic attack. It was one of those times when I had to keep reminding myself to breath, because obviously I wasn’t! You can imagine how relieved I was when that first agent said, please send me your first four chapters, a synopsis and a bio.

Now, no one has offered me an agent contract yet, and my manuscript will have to stand on its own, but I am going to let myself bask in the satisfaction of a job well done for a few days and enjoy the fact that I gave three good pitches before I send off the requested pages.

I attended some panels, New York Times best-selling authors, talking about their craft and their process and some Q&A sessions with writers. The only classes I took were taught by Larry Brooks, and I found myself wishing that I had a semester with him instead of just a few hours. If you don’t know who Larry Brooks is, and you are a writer–you are missing the ultimate instruction on the art of novel-writing! Go buy Story Engineering today!

My pitches went well because of Larry Brooks and all that he has crammed into my head, and because of my story-coach, Jennifer Blanchard. Both insisted that I know my story. Isn’t it funny how we are surrounded by story, we all connect through story, we make up story and yet when asked to succinctly recount what it is our novel is about, we can get tongue-tied? The craft of novel-writing is so multi-layered and nuanced that we really do owe our respect to its form if we are going to be read. And that means, strange as it sounds, you have to know your story inside and out.

I slept for crap at the conference. I ate too much and I didn’t get outside. But I met dozens of interesting writers who inspired me with their focus and perseverance. And it was absolute heaven to talk shop, talk about our stories, take class and pitch agents. Today I am filled with a good and satisfying exhaustion and I don’t intend to get out of my jammies until noon.