Monday, June 24, 2013

The Superman Connection

If you think about it, writers are a lot like Superman.

Stick with me on this, okay?

I'd like to think that, when he wasn't Superman and saving the world, Clark Kent was a pretty good reporter.  Or at least you'd think he would be after well over 50 years at the Daily Planet.  The point is, no one knew that Clark Kent, journalist, was Superman after-hours or whenever the need arose.

Most writers do not graduate from high school with a degree in novel writing and get hired by a publishing firm and work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, writing novels and collect a paycheck every Friday (I can't think of a more wonderful--or horrific--way to be a writer, although the Friday paycheck sounds really good!)

Most writers have always been writers who discovered they were writers, much like Clark was always Superman.  He just didn't figure it out until he had to use his super powers to stop a runaway train or pick a burning car up off of an accident victim.  Personally, the discovery that I was a writer wasn't quite that dramatic.

When you're a child or a student, writing is one of those skills which receive a lot of praise, although many times the praise is directed at the correct spelling and the proper use of grammar and punctuation rather than the actual story.  On rare occasions, a young person has someone read what they wrote and see something beyond neat margins, no spelling errors, and grammatically correct sentences.  The reader looks at the writer with wonder in their eyes and says those words that every writer longs to hear: "Wow... you should write a book!"

That is the moment the runaway freight train is stopped and the day is saved.

It's also the day a lot of writers suddenly start looking for phone booths (note: if you were born prior to the advent of cell phones, please ask a person over the age of 30 to explain what a phone booth is.)  Because somehow, once it's said out loud, becoming a writer is something that is done on the sly.  Because no one really BELIEVES the writer will someday write a book and get it published. Because everyone knows that writers starve and need a "real" job to make a living and the writing is just a nice little hobby.

So we look for our own "phone booth"... a place where we can write our stories, study the craft of writing, maybe even type out a query letter (while glancing nervously at the door in case someone walks in), and then return to the "real" world and do our day-to-day tasks and work our "normal" jobs and act like we haven't been doing anything special.

For me, THIS is "normal"....
My "Daily Planet" has been the Walmart bakery for the last 15 years... cake decorator by day, writer by night (or whenever I have a pen and paper handy.)  When I finally signed a publishing contract with Oak Tree Press a few months ago, telling the news was a little awkward.  The prevailing response was, "I never knew you were a writer!" (I'm sure Clark Kent got that a lot... or would have if people ever found out what he really did when he went down the hall to bathroom to wash his hands!)  I just mumbled an apologetic something-or-other and then answered the usual questions: "What's it about? When will it be out? Are you going to give me a free copy?"  It's no wonder Clark preferred to remain anonymous.

And still the daily toil continues.  "End of the Road" will be released in a few weeks, but the debut novel of an unknown writer with a small independent publishing house is not about to let me be able to drop the Clark Kent cover and be Superman full-time (why do you think I still buy a Powerball ticket every week?)  But even so, there is a benefit to toiling away at a "real" job.  You get to interact with people and experience life so as to add a touch of realism to your stories; you get paid regularly, if not particularly well, which helps if you like things like food and shelter; and the most important, for me, is that when you don't get a chance to do what you love all the time, it makes the time you spend doing it even more precious and enjoyable.  Of course, the dream IS to be able to wake up in the morning and head straight to the laptop with a cup of coffee in hand to work on the latest work-in-progress rather than slog in to work at 4 a.m. and sling frosting for 8 hours... but some part of me will always be grateful that I found a channel for my creativity that allowed me to make a living while working on that dream-in-progress.

I think Superman--and all super writers out there--would understand.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Truth About Fiction (Part II)

So last week I talked about making a living (or at least having a cheap hobby) telling lies and how an element of truth can make your lies (i.e., stories) better.  Now this is the other end of the spectrum.

All writers want to tell a story.  The problem comes when a writer wants to tell his or her OWN story and pass it off as fiction.  Now, one might think that the best way to make your work of fiction ring true is tell about something that really happened to someone who does NOT have the same name as the people to whom it actually happened (remember: lawsuits are NOT a writer's best friend!) 

Not as often as you think...

One thing a writer quickly learns, however, is that no matter how intriguing, fascinating, exciting, or moving your story might be to YOU, there will be a vast majority of readers who find that same story contrived, boring, fake, and uninteresting.  Why?

Well, quite simply this:  if you're going to write YOUR story, then don't call it fiction.  Call it an autobiography, call it a memoir.  If you're going to write fiction, then write your CHARACTER'S story. And remember that what happened to you didn't necessarily happen to your character, and if it did, it didn't necessarily affect them the same way it did you. Nor would the outcome be the same.  Why?  Because your character might react differently to the events than you did.  A writer has to remember that the story is about the characters, not about the writer.  Don't think you can fool your reader, either.  A reader can tell when the author has decided to tell their own story instead of their character's.  The emotions feel forced because YOU know the entire back story and why the characters feel the way they do and your reader won't unless you take them step by step through every moment in the characters' lives leading up to the moment (please don't.  Please.)

Also, the reader will miss a lot because the writer will forget to tell them a lot.  Have you ever watched a movie for the tenth time?  Do you pay attention to every single scene, every single bit of dialogue, every detail?  Probably not.  You know it so well, you don't need to see every single minute of the film, unlike someone who is seeing it for the first time.  But as a writer, if you don't give your readers all the details, they're going to miss the reasons WHY this story had to happen the way it did.  And there are details that you might forget to mention that are crucial but because you know the story so well, you forget to include them.  There's no better way to lose an audience than to make them feel that they're not in on the whole story.

And last, but not least, the hard, cold truth is this:  The truth is not always all that interesting.  Some people might actually find your story boring.  Your grandmother's life story may be fascinating to you, but that's because you love Grandma and have a strong connection to her.  Your readers don't.  Unless Grandma's story is relevant to your character's story (remember who this is all about now?), it isn't necessary to give all the details.  If you're writing Grandma's story, then feel free to give details relevant to HER life, but don't make your character live Grandma's life.  Or yours, for that matter.

Let your characters live their own lives.  You just follow them and write down what happens. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Truth About Fiction (Part I)

I can't remember who said it, but I've heard that fiction writers make a living telling lies.

That's only partially true.  The very word "fiction" implies that what you are about to read, see, or hear is totally fabricated; it's simply a made-up story about made-up people doing made-up things.  To a certain extent, this is a factual statement (at least, I would hope Stephen King made up most of his stories.)  Certainly as far as my own mystery novel, "End of the Road", goes, there really isn't a Bonney County in New Mexico, nor a Black Horse Campground... and certainly the people who live there (and die there--it IS a murder mystery, after all) only exist in my mind.  Or do they? 

Writer at work

Any writer will tell you that in every work of fiction, there is an element of truth.  There has to be some truth, even in a made-up story, in order for people to actually believe, not that the events in the story really happened, but that they could have happened, and for the reader to actually care enough about the characters to see how the story plays out.  A friend of mine gave me a coffee mug for my birthday that says, "Please do not annoy the writer.  She may put you in a book and kill you"--the implication being that all of our characters are based on someone we actually know.  Of course, a smart writer knows better than to put real people in their stories and merely alter the names... lawsuits have been filed over this sort of thing!  But if you try to make up a person completely out of your imagination, they come out... well, unreal.  Fake.

But isn't that the point of fiction?  To invent something completely out of thin air?  Well, try it sometime.  Try to invent a place or person or event you've never seen or heard about.  Is it even possible?  Don't your experiences color your "original" creation?  I know mine do.  The places I go and the people I see and sometimes meet inevitably offer an element or two that goes into my fictional world.  Reading a newspaper or magazine article about something that happened or watching a news broadcast can trigger an episode of playing "What if...?" and a totally different story emerges... with some small bits of "facts" that make it ring true and real.

Even writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror or any other genre that requires the reader to really suspend belief have to incorporate some truth into their stories--real emotions, real fears, real struggles (man against himself is probably the most satisfying--and least original--conflict a writer can introduce into the story.)  Take your own fear of failure, of the dark, of bunny rabbits, of whatever, and let your characters experience it.  Let your own hurt and anger at your birthday being forgotten, your name being mispronounced, at some random stranger's racist comment become your character's.  That's the only way your readers will be able to identify with your fictional characters and come to care about what happens to them and keep them interested in the story you have to tell.

But too much of a good thing... well, that's Part II of this blog entry.  Next week, we'll see how too much "truth" can ruin a good story.

And as for my opening sentence:  the real truth is that SOME fiction writers make a living telling lies.  The rest of us just find the writing to be the real reward.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Time: Finding It and Making It and What the Difference Means to a Writer

One question I get asked a lot when people discover that I'm a writer is, "Where do you find the time to write?"  It's a legitimate question, considering I hold down two jobs, besides the writing, and also have a family.  Time is something, if you look at my daily schedule, of which I don't have an endless supply.

Time is a funny thing.  We talk about it as if it were money--we spend time, we make time, we save time, we waste time, we find time.  The difference is, when we actually do manage to save money, we have a tangible measure of it (although it's never really as much as we would like, is it?)  There are innumerable gadgets on the market designed to "save" time... and I'm willing to bet a lot of us have spent (or dare I say "wasted"?) a lot of money that we "saved" to buy these items.  But where is the time we saved?

There is no time bank... no matter how much time we save, we can never find it when we need it.  If you don't believe me, ask any writer on a deadline.  Whether you're a student working on a term paper or a novelist trying to finish their edits, it seems like all the time in the world is never enough.  But who really has "all the time in the world"?  There are day-to-day intrusions to a writer's time--jobs, school, household chores, family obligations, and sleep.  And they are necessary intrusions.  Bills must be paid, laundry must be done, kids must be fed, WE must be fed... and whether we like to admit it or not, we DO need to sleep!  So where do we find the time to write as well?

What some people did while the rest of us were watching TV

Time to write is easy to find--if you really want to look for it.  It's usually hiding behind the time spent on Facebook.  Or behind the time spent watching "Duck Dynasty".  Or the really tricky spot...  behind the time spent on lunch out with friends, shopping with your mom, or going to a movie.  Granted, everyone needs time to relax and just do fun stuff.  The thing is, if you want to be a writer, you have to have time to actually write.  And since all days only come with 24 hours, you have to decide what is going to be given priority on any given hour. 

So what will it be?  Sixty minutes spent watching the same episode of "NCIS" you've already seen (come on, you know summer is rerun season!) or those same sixty minutes spent working on your poem, your story, your song?  Those thirty minutes spent sharing the same picture of Grumpy Cat/Capt. Picard/the most interesting man in the world with the latest pithy comment that everyone on your friends list has already shared, or those same thirty minutes scribbling in your writer's notebook?  And what about that lunch hour at work... why not brown bag it a couple of days a week and hole up with your notebook instead of spending an hour going out to the same lunch place you go to every day (not only will you "find" time to write, you might also--wait for it--SAVE money!)

And this doesn't apply just to writers.  Anyone who wants to do something, learn something, be something, has to invest time.  Whether you want to be a painter, a pianist, a teacher, a gardener... none of these things happen without setting aside time to work on them.  All the money in the world won't make you a better writer... but a little time every day spent honing your skills just might.