Friday, June 24, 2016

What Is It Like Being A Writer?

While reading Memoirs by Tennessee Williams, I came across this passage:

What is it like being a writer? I would say it is like being free.

I know that some writers aren’t free, they are professionally employed, which is quite a different thing.

Professionally, they are probably better writers in the conventional sense of “better.” They have an ear to the ground of bestseller demands: they please their publishers and presumably their public as well.

But they are not free and so they are not what I regard a true writer as being.

To be free is to have achieved your life.

It means any number of freedoms.

It means the freedom to stop when you please, to go where and when you please, it means to be a voyager here and there, one who flees many hotels, sad or happy, without obstruction and without much regret.

It means the freedom of being. And someone has wisely observed, if you can’t be yourself, what’s the point of being anything at all?

I think there is much more to being a writer than what Mr. Williams pens here (at least a good writer), but if this is a valid definition of a writer, then I am, unquestionably, a writer. I fit this description perfectly. I am a voyager loose upon the world, who travels four to six months each year, loving each place I stay and having no regrets when I depart for the next destination. And I craft my stories in my voice the way I damn well want, giving little thought to publishers or audience. If nothing else, I have achieved that freedom in my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for a NY Times bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize, or an Oscar.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Writing Tip: Write More To "Give," Than To "Get"

This is an overall practice and approach to writing (and life) that is perhaps the hardest, but most important thing I have learned in my fourteen-plus years plugging away at the blank page.  It's ironic that it seems as though the only way to really achieve success is to put your energy into continuously bettering yourself, your craft and your work, and trusting that the rest will take care of itself. 

This not from the perspective of one who has mastered it (far from it), and preaches "perfection" (which is impossible), but as one who has learned this lesson over and over, and continues to see it as a best practice.

A writer’s job is to work on their writing until it is viable in the marketplace.  When it is, there is no stopping it - doors open when they didn't before.  When it doesn't, there is little one can do to successfully "market" it.

Of course, it’s hard to know when we're ready, or how close we are.  There are no hard and fast rules on this - it is all subjective.  I think that writers tend to underestimate the amount of continuous forward motion that is required for any project (and ourselves) to be "viable," and focus instead on trying to market what we've done - to see what we can "get," if you will.  I believe our energies are always better expended on diligent creative progress - with professional feedback and guidance, if possible.

We all struggle with this (self included) - no matter how many years we've been doing it.  We're focused on getting the sale, getting the positive reaction, getting our agent to do something, etc.  Getting, getting, getting tends to be our obsession.  But more focus on getting almost never seems to have the desired effect.

However, continuous focus on giving - as in bettering and improving what you're offering to the world, staying upbeat and open, never giving up, seeking to grow and serve – is, I believe, a winning approach.  I'm not saying don't try to move your career forward.  I suggest taking every step that seems right to you at the time, especially if you can do it in a positive way - be it query letters, contests, pitch fests, etc.  My point is that the real business of building a writing career is not about that.  It's about the writing, the craft, the creative process, and your own growth; so that what you have to give is something others find huge value in.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Taking Sides—One Of The Hardest Lessons To Learn

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but in my years of practicing Zen, one of the lessons I have to relearn and relearn is not taking sides.  Sounds easy, right? Oh so wrong…

I’m thinking of this because of Wimbledon, which starts next week. I’m watching a lot of tennis this week, and like most spectators, I have players I like to see win and players I like to see loose. 

I admire all the players on tour, but I generally root for the underdogs, the younger players trying to make their mark on the game—Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov to name a few. The game has been so totally dominated by the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray, that I, for one, would like to see some new faces holding the trophy. 

The players I enjoy seeing lose are the overly arrogant ones, Lleyton Hewitt, Bernard Tomic, Radek Stepanek… 

I get caught up in all those likes and dislikes. But then I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t have favorites. It makes no real difference in my life who wins or loses in these professional tournaments. It is nothing more than my own arrogance that I want the universe to play by my quirky ideas of fairness. In tennis, the only fairness is that the competitor who played the better match wins, no matter what ranking, age, or attitude. 

My prejudices don’t stop at tennis. I often do the same for political leaders and candidates, outspoken religious people, and world events. As if I have any idea what would make the world a better place. How egotistical is that? 

The trick is to catch myself before I get rolling down that path. With tennis, it’s easy. I simply remind myself that I’m a spectator. I tell myself to sit back, watch, enjoy the artistry of the game, and be appropriately grateful that I live in an age when I can see all the greats of the game battle for dominance from the comfort of my den.

For me it comes down to being thankful the universe is what it is, rather than what I would have it. That alone makes life interesting ever second of the day.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Writing Tip: Get Feedback From The Right People

When it comes to writing, I don’t put much store in "natural talent," or that "some people have it, and some don't".  I think "talent" is a combination of passion, persistence, hard work, and openness to feedback - through which a writer continues to improve his/her craft.

But where to go for feedback, and what to do with it?  Ideally, you go to other writers whose opinions you trust and respect.  Friends and lay people who don't meet this criteria will tend to be vague, too easy or too harsh, and not particularly helpful, because they don't really grasp what you're trying to accomplish and/or how to help you.

If you don't know any professional writers, book editors, literary professionals, you can hire a professional to evaluate your work. If you can’t afford a pro, then find peers—fellow writers or people aspiring to be one—who are at your level and willing to trade serious feedback on your work for the same in return.  (Please realize how huge an imposition it can be to ask someone to read your material and give a detailed and honest reaction to it - it takes valuable time, may not be enjoyable to them, and they risk alienating you with what they say about it, or visa versa.)

Writers—especially new writers—need encouragement and people who read their work and offer constructive feedback.  Getting demoralized about your work is not helpful, but we do need a reality check and perspective from others—all writers do—and that can be painful.  But that's how a writer grows.  I recommend encouraging your readers to hold nothing back - and not get defensive or try to convince them they are wrong, which just shuts them down and makes them not want to give more.  You should get as much out of them as you can, collect the information, and then determine what to use and what to ignore.   

You don’t have to agree with everything they say, or follow their specific guidance.  I like to have multiple readers, and I look for what there's a consensus about. On the other hand, being defensive and stubborn may stifle you as a writer, and alienate those giving you feedback. The key is to uncover the real problems and not get distracted by minor/personal whims. For that, you may need back and forth dialog with your beta reader where you ask probing questions to dig down to the heart of the issues. 

And then, YOU decide how to fix whatever they have uncovered, through the filter of your sensibility. You want others to help you find the problems, period.  Only use their suggested fixes if you really believe in them.  If not, find your own.  They may be trying to help with suggestions, but it's not their project, it's yours.

Your work has to please you first, but ultimately you want it to please others too.  Getting quality feedback is essential to achieving this.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How To Stop The Violence

When a person thinks of himself as gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, American or European, Republican or Democrat, or anything else, they separate themselves from the whole of mankind to identify with a subset of humanity. This simple act causes most of the violence in the world. It is a violent act.

Defining yourself by belief, nationality, sexuality, or race breeds violence because it creates divisions between humans, and those divisions will eventually cause strife, and often leads to discrimination, bullying, bloodshed, even war.

So a man or woman seeking to end violence in the world, would do well to start by abandoning all the labels that would demand loyalty to any country, political party, religion, sexual orientation, race, and simply concentrate on understanding and being a part of the whole of mankind. For that matter, don’t stop at just mankind, see yourself as part of this living eco system we call earth.

When every person on the planet sees himself or herself this way, then there will be an end to violence. Don’t wait for everyone else. Join the peace movement now.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will be as one
-John Lennon

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Relating to Others Compassionately

When meeting people for the first time, I try to approach them from a standpoint of the most basic things we have in common. We each have a physical structure, a mind, and emotions. We are all born the same way, and we all die. All of us strive for happiness and try to avoid suffering. We all want respect, and to be treated fairly. We are all driven by the environments we live in, and we all strive for a better future.

Seeing others from this standpoint rather than emphasizing secondary differences such as race, sex, nationality, religion, political viewpoints, or financial status helps me to feel that I’m meeting someone who’s the same as me, no better and no worse. I like to think that all humans have 98% in common, and only 2% differences. I find that relating to others on this level makes it easier to communicate with them compassionately, and respect their place in the world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Writing Tip: Three Kinds of Feelings a Reader Experiences

I read in a book (Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias) that there are three kinds of feelings a reader can experience while reading a book—boredom, interest, and WOW! Funny enough, with many books I experience all three over and over again. It is a rare book that can WOW me on every page, yet that is what we writers try (or should try) to do. In fact, I find it much more the case that most books bore me on the majority of pages, with a sprinkling of interest scattered through the book.

Some stories wow me because the prose is unique, poetic, and fire my imagination. I mean, some writers can paint portraits or landscapes with a few well-chosen words, like Zen brush strokes. Sometimes the wow comes from brilliant and valuable insights, which is difficult to put on every page. For the most part, I think the wow comes when the story engages the reader emotionally through drama. 

As Cordon Lish said: “It’s not about what happens to the people on a page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”

That, in my not-so humble opinion, is what a writer should strive for on every page, to touch those emotional buttons within the reader, sometimes gently and sometimes brutally. That’s why people read fiction, to ride an emotional rollercoaster. They want to feel something. They put themselves into the characters skin and feel the joy, sorrow, pain, bewilderment, and tension that the characters feel. 

Emotion means “disturbance” from the Latin “to disturb or agitate.” The writer’s job is to disturb the reader, move their hearts and minds by the words you string together on the page. It’s what the reader demands. It’s why they plopped down twenty bucks for a book. They want a emotional ride, and they want it on each and every page.

It’s important here to distinguish between a character’s emotions and the reader’s emotions. Sometimes, in a comedy for example, a character might be being dragged through hell but the reader’s response might be laughter. In a thriller, the protagonist is often calm and unaware, yet the reader is tense because he knows something the character doesn’t. Sometimes you want the reader to experience the same emotions that your characters are feeling, and sometimes you want the reader feeling something entirely different. A good writer focus more on the reader’s emotions than they do on the character’s emotions.

Bottom line: it’s not enough to write a well-structured plot where the protagonist follows the hero’s journey and changes his perspective at the end. It’s not enough to offer brilliant insights every dozen pages or so. A writer needs to reach into the reader’s gut on page one, and keep massaging those emotional buttons throughout the story. Easy Peasy right?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Feelings of Accomplishment – Finished the 1st Draft of Novel #8

Feeling a high level of accomplishment today. I've had a story in my head for the last five years. Over a year ago, I began writing the manuscript for it, and today I finished the first draft. 207,000 words, 547 pages. The working title is The Unfortunate Consequences of Immortality. I expect that title to change before submitting it to my publisher.

Starting Monday, the real work begins--editing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing Tip: “It’s Real” or “It’s Cool” is no reason to include it.

I recently read a novel that was chocked full of details the author thought was cool, and he used them to spice up an otherwise dull storyline. All writers have ideas for scenes and details that on their own seem interesting, unique, real, or cool, but if those ideas don’t connect to and advance the basic problem of the story, they will take away from or muddy the waters of the emotional investment the reader is experiencing. A writer wants to heighten that emotional investment, not siphon it off. And let’s face it, if a storyline needs those cute little details to be interesting, then perhaps it’s the plot you should be working on.

To heighten the reader’s investment, every scene and every detail ideally should change or affect the central driving question that forms the backbone of the story. The two reasons that I’ve noticed that writers (and I do it myself) drift away from the core problem is:

1. They have a shortage of story, meaning, they don’t have enough conflict surrounding the central plot. They end up creating situations and including meaningless details, scenes, and dialog as filler to round out a story. Readers, generally speaking, are not stupid. They can smell filler a mile off and it pulls them out of the story as they struggle to understand how this affects the central problem.

2. They include something “real” and/or “cool” even though it doesn’t compellingly move the plot forward. This is not so bad when it’s simply details of who’s wearing what, or describing a room, but I’ve seen writers include several scenes and even chapters that were merely filler in an attempt to entertain the reader. 

A story is about x, where "x" equals compelling characters and a central problem/question that propels us through the entire narrative. Anything else you include stands a good chance of diminishing the reader’s emotional investment. 

Ideally, all elements should advance the central theme/problem.  But all good scenes serve multiple purposes, and there can be room for informational, interesting, "real," or just "cool" elements that don't develop the main problem, as long as they are weaved into something that does -which should make up the main thrust of the scene.

A compelling emotional journey with a coherent emotional impact is the goal.  If everything you include serves that, you'll be in good shape. So as you map out a scene and before you write that scene, examine