Monday, July 28, 2014

The most dreaded word in a writer's vocabulary: rejection

Patty here…

Is there anyone out there who has ever felt as if they were a terrible writer and a worthless human being because the responses to your agent query letters are coming back addressed to Dear Author or Dear Sir or Madam and all say something like:

  • I’m not taking on any new clients at the moment.
  • In this difficult publishing climate, we feel that we would not be able to place your work successfully.
  • No, just no.  

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov 


I saved all of my agent rejection letters. Some of them were quite amusing although I doubt the agent intended them to be. A couple were addressed to me and signed with real ink (very classy). Most were impersonal form letters. One was a 1/3-page barely readable form letter that looked as if it had been copied a thousand times and then ripped from the mother page with a dull ruler.

If you are lucky enough to snag an agent, you must face the next round of rejections—from editors. Famous authors are not immune:

“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell 




Writers must develop a thick, protective skin in order to survive the onslaught of criticism. How should writers handle rejection? In my quest to find answers, I asked Bonnie MacBird, a multi-Emmy award-winning writer/producer, actor, artist, and author of the Sherlock Holmes adventure, Art in the Blood. Bonnie also teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I wanted to know what advice she gives her students.

"Rejection, hmmm. I know something about that. I'm an actor as well as a writer. A three-part sketch I once wrote for a show called HOT ROLES told of a young actor who fantasizes about an upcoming important audition. First he imagines the audition from hell -- he's got the wrong sides, then he's misunderstood, belittled, and finally thrown out of the room in a fury by the director. So he gives himself a pep talk, and re-imagines the audition, this time he kills it, and lands a star-making role. Snapping out of it, he realizes it's time to actually go to the audition. He arrives at the real thing. Waits. Waits some more. They call his name. He reads. Silence. Thank you very much. No feedback. We'll call you. In other words…nothing.
Alas, that's how rejection mostly is, nowadays. Impersonal. Nothing useful imparted. At best, as a writer you may receive a one line email. You can't even wallpaper your walls with this kind of thing. To be fair, I understand what readers face. I spent four years on the other side of the desk as a feature film development exec at Universal. I read six scripts a day, novels, plays… and twelve to fourteen pieces of material every weekend. And covered theatre. During this time, I wrote over a thousand reports, and hundreds of direct responses to agents and writers, never forgetting for an instant how much work went into each script or book.
As a writer, I hope for the same, but rarely get it. Back then, Universal had big bucks and hired Ivies with strong work ethics to read, and mentored us with experienced story wizards. But as a Disney exec once said when reneging on a promise, “that was then and this is now.”
Publishing companies nowadays have fewer dollars and fewer people. I'm guessing the stacks on the desks are higher. And…frankly… it's harder for young people used to googling, texting and surfing to really read a whole book now. But they are in the business of words, so this excuse only goes so far.
So, when I'm rejected, here's what I do. If there is a smidgeon of information I take it to heart, but only in the aggregate. If one person says the ending doesn't work, and four people (and you) know the twist is killer, don't listen to the first guy. Learn to be discerning in how you take criticism. But be open to it. Develop some armor. Beyond that, press on. My main tactic is to be already on to the next project. That, and chocolate. And a good run. Fuck 'em. I am in good company, and at least my work is out there, being considered. That's a win for me."



Craig Faustus Buck, an L.A.-based journalist, NYT bestselling nonfiction book author, TV writer-producer, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Anthony Award nominated short-story writer and novelist says:

“Gloom is a writer's best friend as far as rejection is concerned. If you expect to be rejected, you'll never be disappointed. And when you're wrong, it's an orgasmic surprise. Rosy expectations will turn a perfectly normal rejection into a personal tragedy.” 

Here's Chuck Wendig’s tough-love take on rejection. Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer who writes a blog called TerribleMinds. Read his entire post on rejection here:

“If you’re a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who puts her work out there, you’re going to face rejection. It’s like saying, “Eventually you’re going to have to fistfight a bear,” except here it’s not one bear but a countless parade of bears, from Kodiaks to Koalas, all ready to go toe-to-toe with you. Rejection, like shit, happens. Rejection, like shit, washes off. Get used to it.” 

These wise words are a reminder that when climbing the stairway to success, progress is made one step at a time.



Happy Monday!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

To Outline or Not Outline, That is the Question


My apologies to Shakespeare. I wonder if he outlined his plays?  There has been a mountain of articles written about the importance of writing an outline before you start a novel. Much like extreme politics, I fall somewhere in the middle on this subject.  I generally know how a book is going to end (at least one that I'm writing) and I usually can find a way to start the novel. In most cases I have 7 to 15 scenes in my head that I want to incorporate into the novel. And everything in between happens because characters say something or do something that pushes the novel in a certain direction. I really don’t bother with a full fledged outline.

My friend, and great novelist, the late Barbara Parker believed in outlines. But she did something many people don't seem able to achieve: her novels did not appear to be mechanical or tied to an outline. They were wonderful, witty legal thrillers that felt fun and intelligent at the same time. Occasionally, I read an author and get the feeling they wrote an outline and stuck to it no matter what happened.

This blog is all about writing and fulfilling your dreams of being a writer. That may or may not have anything to do with publishing. Publishing and writing are two separate animals. If you enjoy plotting out the book in great detail ahead of time and knowing where you're going, then you should outline. If you want to spend an hour a day jotting down ideas and making your characters say all the things you wish you could say in real life, you probably do not want to outline.

If I had outlined this blog ahead of time I would've realized there really isn't that much to say about outlining. Because now, only a few hundred words into it I am completely out of ideas. I will do what I always do in this situation and turn to some of my friends to see what they would say about outlining.

From our own, insightful Paul Levine:

For me, it’s essential. Maybe if I were smarter or could hold more gigabytes of information in my head, I wouldn’t have to do an outline. But I need to know where I’m going. That said, I sometimes outline in portions. I’ll do Act One and to the midway point of Act Two….then begin writing. As I near the end of my outline, assured I’m going in the right direction, I’ll outline to the end of the book. (However, I will know the ending when I begin part one of the outline….just not all the beats or plot points to get there).

From the beautiful and talented Harley Jane Kozak:

There are many advantages to outlining and as far as I can tell, the only disadvantage—for me— is that I don’t enjoy doing it. The very word “outline” activates my Inner Procrastinator. So I don’t outline. I do write out thoughts and ideas and vague plans and maps as I go along, and even descriptions of the plot, but I would never call that an outline because I don’t want to wake the Inner Procrastinator. 

From Paul Newman look-a-like and legal thriller author James Sheehan:

You know everybody has there own take on that. I've been on different panels with authors who say they have the whole thing outlined chapter by chapter. Others have a more global approach. Me- sometimes I start with the ending. Sometimes I have an idea but I don't know where it's going to go. I never have the complete story because I don't know my characters when I start and after I know them pretty well, they show me the way. I never put an outline down on paper. It's always in my head whatever it is.

From award winning author Reed F. Coleman:

I have an organized mind and have only on the rarest of occasions found a need or want to outline. I enjoy the surprise of not knowing for sure what I’m going to write next and therefore hope the reader will be as entertained and surprised as I am. It certainly keeps me on my toes. On the few instances I have tried outlining, it’s never turned out well. I feel as though I have already written it, so why would I want to write it again. It removes all the sense of danger, risk, and surprise for me. I think as with all thing about writing, one has to find his or her own way and to discover his or her own process and routine. See what works. If outlining suits you, outline. If you feel it takes the punch out of the work, don’t. I know several authors who do limited outlining. Go with whatever works for you.

From our fabulous and talented Patricia Smiley:

I spent as much time outlining my first novel as I did writing it. Many trees gave their lives for that document. After all that work, the outline and the book weren't anything alike. I want to be a detailed outliner; I truly do, but I simply can't follow one. Writing is an exploration for me. I know I have to get from A to B. Planning an elaborate route is pointless, because I often stumble upon detours never imagined at the outset. I'm not a pantser, either. I start with a loose idea of the story. I know the heroine, the victim, the killer and maybe a few other characters. I also know the motive for the crime. Character development comes next. I often find the story in the characters' bios. After that work is done, I make a list of all the scenes that will have to happen. It's not an exhaustive list. There
will be more as the plot progresses. Then I begin writing scenes and not necessarily in order. If I feel energy in the last scene of the novel, I often write it first. I see the value of outlining, plotting all those twists, turns and plot points, but when I see one of those three-act plot graphs my head starts to spin. The beauty of writing is we all have our own "process." I've tried many approaches and will continue to do so, but for now, I write scene by scene.

From former MWA EVP and outstanding author Harry Hunsicker:

I like to have a general outline, something short, an idea of where I’m going. The advantages are you don’t waste quite as much time on blind alleys as you do flying by the seat of your pants. The downside is that some of those blind alleys might be better that what you outlined. I also prefer to have a bottle of cough syrup handy as well as some Brazilian diet pills.

From our own bestseller Jacqueline Winspear:

When I begin a novel I have the whole story “mapped” in my mind, but I do not labor over notes, because I prefer to “dance with the moment” as I’m writing and I don’t want to feel restricted by my own planning. I know the opening scene, the closing scene, landing points across the arc of the story, and I have my title. I make some notes as I go along in a composition book - which I divide into chapters, so if I have an idea for a scene I put it (broadly speaking) where I think it belongs. I am a visual person so another thing I do is to put three large poster-sized Post-it notes around my room - on the first I draw a diagram that looks a bit like the standard mean in stats - a mountain, if you will, except that it leans a bit to the right - and I mark off the landing points of the story along the way. On another I keep track of my characters - and I’m a real one for changing names as I go along until I get one that really suits them. Finally, on the third I list the things that I need to know about that I don’t know - so for example, when I was writing one of the early books, I had Maisie Dobbs involved in a car accident. I wanted her wound to be dressed with something akin to a Band Aid (what we call Elastoplast in Britain), but I suddenly thought, “Heck, was it invented then?” I put that on the list to find out about (the usual tracking down of expert historians at the companies that make this stuff) - and discovered that in fact it was invented but only available in emergency rooms, not to the general public.  So, I had to weave a bit of dialogue about how the doctor on the street happened to have some in his bag!

It’s really important for me not to be too prescriptive because one never knows what other ideas might come up, and that’s really, really important to me. I was once on a panel with someone who wrote 60 pages of planning before he started.  To me that was three chapters, right there.

From renowned music critic and author Jim Fusilli:

I used to outline in great detail in order to focus on prose while writing. But now I write freely and look at what I have after I've completed a first draft. I find my prose is much freer and my characters more vivid when I'm not limited by an outline. Characters grow beyond the framework as the story unfolds, and I don't think we can know that if we adhere strictly to an outline.

This all shows you several important points:

  1. There are any number of ways to write an outline, or not.
  1. I’m still able to trick people into doing my work.
  1. I have a lot of friends I love.
Today’s quote is:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” 
 
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Left My Heart...in the Muir Woods

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Marcia and I are on a delayed honeymoon to San Francisco and Mendocino in northern California.  (Hey, it's July!  We live in South Florida.  Like Canadian geese, we migrate in search of better weather).

I've been coming to San Francisco since 1981.  Marcia had only been here once before, for an oral argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  (My trips were more fun...but this one...is the best).

All these year, and I'd never been to Muir Woods, the thousand-year old Redwoods forest donated to the federal government by philanthropist William Kent at the urging of conservationist John Muir in 1908.  (Kent paid $45,000 for the land in 1905.  In today's dollars, that's about a gazillion.  Whatever, the place is priceless).

Here we are: Tree Huggers!



Also, People Huggers:

Here's what I recommend if you want to really learn about the trees.  Hire Tom Martell, a personal guide who'll pick you up from your hotel, get you to the woods at opening time, 8 a.m., (before the crush), serve you a picnic lunch, and spend three hours, hiking and giving you the scoop on the place.  Finally, he'll drop you at the Ferry Station in Sausalito.  All for $75.  (Another ten bucks for the scenic ferry ride past Alcatraz and back to the city). 

Here's Tom's website.    The official Muir Woods website is here. 

Morning at Muir:
But so much for the woods.

Let's talk about food.

We've had clam chowder and oysters at Hog Oyster in the Ferry Building, Dungeness crab cakes and Petrale sole at the iconic Tadich Grill, crispy zucchini cakes with cucumber and mint yogurt dressing spinach pies, and watermelon salad with toasted pine nuts and basil at Kokkari.  Here's that watermelon salad, which I'm going to make at home.




The Tadich Grill opened in gold rush days (1849), and no Jim Born, I was not the first customer.
Tonight's it's Vietnamese food at the Slanted Door.  Looking forward to cellophane noodles with crab.

And of course, no trip to the city by the bay would be complete without a cable car ride...and a Giants game (Sunday) against the Dodgers.
With the permission of my fellow bloggers, I'd like to stay here until after hurricane season. 

Paul Levine







Monday, July 21, 2014

The hardest part of publishing is waiting.

Patty here

I just finished writing my fifth novel. Now that it’s done, I’m faced with the most difficult phase of publishing (at least for me)—waiting.

Everybody faces this dilemma at one time or another. Writers are no exception. We wait while trusted readers pour through the pages of our manuscripts, looking for continuity errors, overwriting and plot holes. We wait for agents to answer our query letters. We wait while editors read our manuscripts and decide if they will purchase our books. If we’re lucky, we wait for pub dates and reviews. So, what should a writer do to pass the time, other than to celebrate making it to the finish line?


“Start writing the next book” is the advice most commonly given. We are told if we wait for the phone to ring we may not be a real writer. We may be a person who wants to be published and earn buckets of money, fame or whatever. They caution: What if we get a two-book deal with the second one due in twelve months or six month? While we do edits and promotion plans for the first book, we’ll fall behind schedule to finish the second. There is also some pressure to love writing. Not all writers do. Putting words on the page is torture for me. The test of a real writer is that regardless of the downsides, he or she just can't stop doing it.
"I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all."  —E.B. White
Waiting can destroy your spirit, so I try to avoid it. For me, writing isn’t only putting words on the page. It’s thinking about what I want to write next. It’s also about “filling the well” of experiences that I’ve lost while sitting for hours and days at my computer creating a story that I hope somebody will want to read. Filling the well requires me to go back into the world and see what’s out there. Here are a few ways I find inspiration:

Research trips. I ask myself what interests me; what geographical area have I always wanted to know more about? Maybe I can’t afford a trip to Katmandu but I can trek to a local museum or library. I’m fascinated by genealogy and have always wanted to write a story about family research gone sideways. Fortunately, I’m just a few miles from the LDS family library, where I’ve spent many hours looking into my own family history. I've taken classes there before. Maybe it's time to sign up for another one.


Public transportation. For me, character is king. I spend a good deal of time developing mine. One of my favorite sources of inspiration is to take the city bus and people watch. I take notes describing behaviors, hand gestures and facial ticks, knowing one day I will use them to build my characters. A description in my first novel came from a note I’d jotted on a paper napkin, describing a woman who walked past the window of the restaurant where I was eating.

Explore Settings: Places always inspire me to write because they spark sensory images. Let’s say you stroll by a dark, trash-strewn alley and think it’s the perfect place to dump a body (if you’re writing a crime novel). Pause. Use all your senses to describe the place: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and the even the feel of grime on the brick walls. Take photographs. Note how your body reacts to the scene. Does your heart pound? Does your jaw tingle? Describing emotions is difficult for me. I have to work at making them real. Visiting dark alleys gives me an opportunity to experience those feelings firsthand.


Newspaper articles: I keep a file of old newspaper clippings. I reread them periodically, hoping one of them will inspire a great story. I recently came across an article about the role of elephants during WWII. That struck a cord. I also love stories about old, unsolved crimes. 

My point is that once I finish a book and find myself in the waiting mode, I don’t feel as if I’m a failed writer if I don’t immediately put more words on the page. Thinking is writing, too, as is research and riding the city bus. I hope this fifth book finds a publisher. I think it will. If not, it was a book I needed to write. It was cathartic for me. Now, all I have to figure out is what’s next.

Happy Monday!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Thoughts About The World

from Jacqueline

I wasn’t going to post on the blog this week – frankly, I’ve been flying all over the place on my book tour, so I arrived home today (Thursday) a bit tired.  And thank you, all those of you who came to see me – it’s just so heartwarming meeting readers of my books and makes every airport security line worthwhile.

I have dragged myself to the computer because I’ve decided to share something weighing heavy on my heart. 

You don’t have to be a person genuinely interested in global events to know that, of late, all the skirmishes around the world seem to be heating up as much as the climate (oh, I know there’s debate about the whole warming thing, but let’s save it for another time, when I don’t have to look at photos of polar bears languishing in water while searching for an icy safe haven).  What with Hamas and Israel, with ISIS bearing down on Baghdad and Boko Haram terrorists in Africa – I mean, if you read the newspapers online or in print, the Taliban and Al Qa’ida are being superseded by even more menacing terrorists, and the IRA, ETA and goodness knows who else are positively ancient by now – the world is becoming an even scarier place.   And now this – an airliner shot down over the Ukraine, possibly by Russian weaponry. Among the dead were Dutch, Australian, British, French, Malaysian, German and people of other nationalities. The world is in mourning.

I remember – I think it was last year sometime – reading an article drawing attention to the fact that every 100 years, in so-called civilized society, mankind faces a worldwide conflagration serious enough to consume societies across the globe. In short, a world war.

For whatever reason, I am deeply, deeply disturbed by war – not dates, not generals and their bravery or mistakes, not politicians and their wisdom, or lies and subterfuge seen in hindsight, but by the suffering of ordinary people.  And here we are, on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the start of the first major war of modern times, and look what is happening around us. 

Winston Churchill said that the Great War 1914 – 1918 was the first war in which  man realized he could obliterate himself completely (and do forgive the use of “he” and “man” – for all his eloquence, Churchill was as chauvinist as they come, and of course, that was the accepted form of speech in those times).  But he had a point, and boy, do we know it today.

I do not have answers.  I am not a political journalist with a point of view informed by being in close contact with people stationed in the higher echelons of power.  Thank God. I am just an ordinary person and I am feeling a sense of déjà vu.  I remember watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about the dust bowl, and gasping when that footage of a massive cloud of dust rolling in across the plains loomed large on the screen; dark, forbidding, as if the apocalypse had arrived. Today, when I heard the news about the Malaysian airliner being brought down over Ukraine, I felt as if I were out there in the middle of nowhere watching a black cloud bearing down. 

London's Imperial War Museum has just opened its doors again following a major refit – just in time for commemorations to mark the outbreak of WW1 – the Great War.  If you have never been, it is an amazing museum, housing not only exhibits on the trenches of that terrible war, but also twisted metal from the World Trade Center – as far as war goes, it covers all the bases.  I have been there many times, my first visit at age seven. I have used the archives for research to bring color and depth to my writing.  But there are two things I want to share here. 

The first is a small exhibit I hope they have retained in this refurbishment – it’s an electronic world map, and at any time you can look at it and see red lights flashing to show countries currently at war. Visitors are always amazed at the number of red lights. I’d bet that screen is close to melting right now.

The second is part of the museum’s history.  The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, essentially as a depository for documents of national importance relating to the world war then in progress, and as a memorial to those who had died.  It became a place where people could find out more about their loved ones who had perished. In 1936 the museum found its present home, in Kennington, south London.  Those of you who have visited the Churchill rooms, the Imperial War Museum North, IWM Duxford (a former Royal Air Force station), and the ship HMS Belfast, will know that they are now all part of the same organization, and it’s big and awe inspiring – bringing home a crucial part of global social history to the general public; the history of war. 

But here, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the museum’s history:  The main IWM is housed in the remaining buildings of what was once the Bethlem Hospital for Lunatics.  In the local dialect it was known as “Bedlam.”  Now you recognize it, don’t you?  The archives’ reading room is available for use only by appointment – I have worked there for several hours on different occasions – and is situated in what was once the chapel of the old asylum.  It is a place where you cannot help but spend at least a few moments in silent reflection on mankind, madness and conflict, perhaps looking up at the plaque:  Thou Shalt Not Kill.

I think there is something so appropriate in this part of the museum’s history, that a deep and broad recording of war should be housed in a place that once incarcerated those overcome by lunacy.

The Great War led to the end of the first great age of globalization.  Eighteen million people (military and civilian) across the globe died.  Millions upon millions were wounded, mentally and physically, and that wounding leeched into families for generations.  If ever there was a time for both believers and non-believers of any stripe to fall to their knees, I think it might be upon us.  Or it might all blow over, and – as my Dad used to say – “This time next year, we’ll be laughing.”


Make sure you have that laughter.  Hold close those you love, and try not to fall out over the silly things. Who cares if it’s not your turn to load the dishwasher, walk the dog or clean up after someone else.  Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you and yours are safe, that’s all that matters, really.  I remember my mother scolding my brother and I when we were kids in the midst territorial spats.  “Stop arguing,” she'd say.  “It’s the little fights that grow big and start wars.” 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Advanced Metrics

James O. Born

It's time to get back to the nuts and bolts of writing a novel.  Sure, we took a break to talk about the fun stuff like promotion and other things that don't necessarily affect your actual writing.  Now it’s back to work.

Evaluating our work.  This is not necessarily an artistic evaluation, but more of a statistical evaluation.  This falls in line with my background in statistics and I’m comfortable thinking of most things this way, but writing is not like "most things".  There are as many ways to look at a novel statistically as there are to examine anything.  What got me started along this line of the inquiry was an article by Clive Thompson that was in  the May, 2014 print edition of Wired magazine. I was unable to find a link to the actual story online and provide a link.  I went the extra step and contacted Mr. Thompson via e-mail to make sure he didn't mind me talking about it. 

The one-page story covered a study that put 19th-century British novels through various computer analyses and looked for patterns.  They discovered that as the century advanced, the number of terms describing action doubled as well as words that describe people's bodies.  There are several theories as to why this occurred, but the fact that this was discovered at all is what's interesting to me.  Just as something like the computer and word processing programs have changed novels in the last thirty years everything from the migration patterns of 19th-century Brits to the availability of writing implements could create a change in trends.  Perhaps it was something as simple as the reading public's case.  I will leave the article's conclusions for you to find yourself.

You don't have to use the power of the computer at a major university to dissect your work.  I have known several authors (who may or may not wish to be identified) who went to great lengths to study the patterns of action versus description in their novels.  They would literally chart the level of action in each scene, then look at the chart to make sure it grew like a wave and descended into the next action sequence.  And by action, I don't mean gunfights and stabbings, but something that propels a thriller or crime novel.

I personally disagree with this type of cold, analytical dissection of one's own novel.  While I am fascinated with the work done by academics using computers and well-written articles like Mr. Thompson's, I prefer to have my novels obtain a sort of organic progression.  Obviously, due to the nature of most crime thrillers, there would be more action towards the end of the book.  But as things occur, I like them to be the result of the actions and intentions of my characters and I also like those actions to surprise me as I am writing the book.  This is not an unusual experience for most writers.  (We will cover outlines next week.)

Some would say it comes down to writing versus storytelling, but I think it is more a function of personality.  Some people are more comfortable telling a story in a simple and straightforward manner and, at least in my case, know how stories like this in real life would unfold.  It would break my concentration and momentum in writing a novel to stop and study how it rises in crescendos and dips in certain places.  Don't get me wrong, like all writers, I review what I've written and hope I have an understanding when a book is lagging.  I don't always take Raymond Chandler's advice on this subject but I like it: When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun.

Mr. Chandler offers other device that's very close to our topic today: And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.

Once again, as with almost everything we've discussed, the choice is up to you.  I like to enjoy creating a novel from beginning to end and everything in between.  Using these kind of analytics would crush my soul, and frankly, at this moment, I don't make enough as a novelist to give up my soul.

Todays other quote is more about reading:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.   –Haruki Murakami

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Use Your Experience


Perhaps one of the most common arguments I hear from people about their desire to write a novel stems from their personal experiences. Every bartender I meet (and there have been many, although far fewer recently), says that someone should write a book about their bar. Certainly most of the cops I know feel they have enough experience to fill more than one book and a number of lawyers have approached me about writing both novels and nonfiction books.

This makes perfect sense. Everyone would like to take advantage of a life spent creating another career. From reporters like Carl Hiaasen who wrote many of his early novels from the perspective of a reporter or a photographer to doctors like the late Michael Palmer writing about physicians, there is a proud tradition of novelists turning their previous careers into fiction.

When I talk about experiences, I don't necessarily mean work experiences. Augusten Burroughs turned his personal experiences growing up in foster homes to the nonfiction bestseller Running With Scissors. Everyone has a set of personal experiences that are somewhat unique. Whether it's growing up in a quirky Southern family on the banks of a slow-moving creek or in a family of close but loud and tough immigrants on the streets of Brooklyn, there are comic and dramatic events everyone can weave together to create a compelling story. The trick is in the weaving. I can't tell you how many people I hear say they are going to write a book. Frankly, it's more likely they will produce a book. Writing takes focus and talent as well as a degree of study. If statistics are any indication, then it’s more likely by more than 10,000 to 1 that a book someone produces will not be compelling enough for someone to publish. For the purposes of this discussion I am still talking about traditional publishing. E-books and self-publishing are topics for the future.

You can look at the contributors to this blog and see the influences of our day-to-day lives in our books. Jackie writes a wonderful series set in England during the first world war in the 1920s.  Obviously she has a grasp of what it's like to grow up in England, but also the remarkable research tool of talking with her older relatives and friends who could give her insight to the time period. She used her personal experiences, although not necessarily her work experiences, to craft remarkable novels that are compelling and a pleasure to read.

Patty Smiley is a perfect example of using experience to put some zing into a novel. Her Tucker Sinclair is a business consultant, which gives her leeway to get involved in virtually every business but always involves crime or criminal investigation. Patty knows that the setting, Los Angeles, because she has lived there for many years and understands what goes into a criminal investigation from her work with the Los Angeles Police Department. More than that, she worked at a number of different jobs including acting which gave her the basis to create realistic backdrops to excellent novels.

Paul Levine is a very nice fella and we're very proud of him.

Obviously, not only do I try to use my police experience to provide the reader a realistic view of how an investigation might unfold but my day job has been a useful promotional tool for me as well. I've never had a publisher who didn't want to make use of the fact that I had worked in both federal law enforcement and as a law enforcement agent for the state of Florida. My earlier novels took experiences I had and generally turn them on their head. But those experiences were still the basis for the plots of the novels. Like any cop, I constantly come in contact with interesting and odd characters. I'm not confined to one area geographically or professionally.  I regularly spend long hours with corrupt politicians, drug enforcers and lawyers. (I won't say who I prefer to spend my time with.) That gives me a broad background from which to pull both characters and plot ideas. But the books don't write themselves. I spend more time reading and studying the craft of writing than I do actually writing a novel.

So when you're at your job as a dental hygienist or a airline pilot or a firefighter in Duluth, Minnesota, keep your eyes open for something out of the ordinary that makes you laugh, or cringe, or cry. Anything that makes you feel a strong emotion. That might be the basis for a novel.

Today's quote is:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”―Flannery O'Connor