A challenge to my writing friends

Joe’s Post #152

A Call Out To Writers

So it looks like we have 7 writers now committed to getting a novel done in 5 months.

Silk – Writing a great story set in Texas

Karalee – 5 short stories in 5 months. I’d personally find it easier to write a novel in that time.

Helga – Not sure what she’ll go with at this point, but it’ll be high concept and probably amazing.

Me – Writing a WW2 mystery set in Holland

Paula – Writing a mystery set in Hawaii that I’d love to steal

Richelle – Working on a sequel to her published book, Saints and Strangers.

Sue – A mystery? With all that’s going on in your life, a good murder may be in order.

we want youThat’s awesome. I can’t tell you how cool it is to have 2 more writers trying to get that novel done. Welcome!

But, as I look at our readers, I think to myself, self, why not more?

What do you have to lose?

It’s not the NoMoWobat or whatever the novel in a month is, it’s a novel in 5 months. Look at the math Silk did.

So, I officially issue a challenge to my writing friends. Oct 5th. Start a novel. Completion date – March 5th. Elena, write the sequel to your steamy mystery romance. I know you want to. Sheila, you’ve got a great fantasy story started, why not complete it (though for you, I would suggest starting the challenge after your black belt test.) Bev? Got another novel in you? Elizabeth? JM? Soffer? Luraos? Eugina?

Come on in. The water’s warm.

So, here’s what you need to know

  • If you leave it all to the last month, you will likely fail. This I base on my own experiences. It’s super hard to write a novel in a month, especially since life seems to throw all kinds of curve balls at you when deadlines loom. Start on day 1 if you can, or day 10, if you’ve got commitments, but start as soon as you can and keep at it every day.
  • You are NOT ALONE. Text other writers. Email us. Post on the comments of our blog. Even post on our blog. Stay connected with other writers. Meet them for coffee. Plumbers won’t understand your pain, your struggles. Accountants won’t get it. Only other writers can really empathize.
  • You will hit a wall. We all hit it. The middle sucks. My minor characters have taken over. I don’t know where to take the story next. I have overused the word penis. Whatever. Writer’s block, in whatever Gollum form it takes will eventually visit and pour poison in your ear. My advice, take a day off. Have a massage. Binge-watch Game Of Thrones. And call or text a writing friend who’ll understand, give you support, then tell you to get back to it the next day.
  • Do something to honor each milestone. Outline done. Maybe some new shoes? First 10 pages done. Maybe buy yourself a nice bottle of scotch, the writer’s drink of choice. First 30. Play a day of Candy Crush. First 100 pages. A wonderful dinner with waiters who will refill your wine without you asking.
  • You may not feel elated when you finish the novel. You may feel exhausted. You may feel like you’d rather read Twilight novels over and over and over, again, than take on another task like this. You may feel like you need a drink. Or a box of chocolate. Or a weekend in Vegas with Tatum Channing. That’s all normal. But if I may offer my last piece of advice… when you’re done, celebrate. Not everyone can get a novel done let alone done in 5 months.

So, if you take on the 5/5/5 challenge, would you also like to post on this blog? Let us know and we’ll sort something out. We’d LOVE to hear about your journey, your challenges, your successes, your thoughts.

We are all in this together.

*****

As for me.

30 pages done on my novel.

5 blogs written (see my journeys here.)

How do you get back to writing?

Joe’s Post #140

kris booksI know it’s going to be different for everyone. Like our group. We’re getting ready to have us a writing shin-dig. A bootcamp for getting back to writing. We’ve set aside 3 days, we’ll be taking over Paula’s house, and we’ll be putting our collective butts in chairs and writing.

For me, though, I got the not-writing bugbear off my back in early May.

How did I do it? Well, it was a bunch of factors.

  1. I had a very supportive spouse who made sure I had time each day to actually write. Without her, none of this would have been possible.
  2. I had a deadline. Deadlines work for me. TOR had an open call for a novella so I thought, what the hell. Three weeks later, I have 40,000 words, 200 pages and the rough draft of a story
  3. torI got out of my head a bit (not completely, mind you, but enough to put aside all the negativity and just write.
  4. I’d get up, get a Timmies. Sit down in my chair. Write. Day in, day out. It’s the only way that works for me. For writing. For exercise. For chores. Whatever. I need order in my chaotic world.
  5. I had a story I wanted to tell. It didn’t matter that the odds were stacked against me. It didn’t matter that I began without an outline or deep character backstories. I just wanted to get it out.

The truth is, though, all those factors existed before. Well, maybe not the TOR open call, but other open calls, other agents looking for writers, other contests opened to anyone.

So what was different this time?

Which one of those 5 made the difference?

For me, this time, it was all 5 coming into play at once. I’d done #4 and written about 50 pages. It was a struggle. #3 got in my way a lot. I’ve had #1 all along and deadlines, hell, we used to have a lot of them in the writers group.

But when all 5 come together, watch out. Especially if you can somehow work through #3. Get past all the rejection slips. All the people who tell you you can’t write or write about THAT. Get rid of that negative voice that says you can’t start a sentence with ‘the’ because you heard it in some workshop. Forget what you read in a book about books. Get past past failures.

The key to writing may be different for everyone, but for me it became a matter of all the right things falling into place at the right time. I hope that after our bootcamp, everyone else will catch fire as well.

To write or not to write everyday

Joe’s Post #139

Is there a right answer?

it hardcover_prop_embedStephen King believes in writing 1000 words a day, 6 days a week. Hard to argue with the guy who wrote about killer clowns and domes and sold a zillion books  There’s also a 750 word/day club. I even suspect there’s a 12 step writing-every-day program.

On the other side, people like Paula or Cal Newport argues that such a regime is for full-time writers, only, that we doom ourselves to failure by setting such an artificial deadline.

So let me present another POV.

I doesn’t matter.

Write every day if that motivates you. Personally, I find that such a goal is good enough to keep me going in the short term, but not good enough for a long term project like a novel. For that, I need to be in love with the idea or the characters or a really comfy chair.

If writing once a week for a good 5 hour stretch works, that’s ok, too. Or writing a novel in month. Whatever.

I think it all comes down to motivation. What makes you want to sit alone in a room, stare at a blank screen and try to knit a story from the cobwebs in your brain? What makes you commit hours and hours and hours to something only your cat or critique group may read? What makes you put aside family, the latest Bachelor episode or a golf game so you can put words on a page?

torFor me, it was a deadline that motivated me to write. A deadline from an open call by one of my favorite publishers. TOR. They were looking for novellas. 30,000-40,000 word length.

I had a short story that I loved and thought, hey, why not turn it into a novella? I loved the setting – NY in a slightly altered universe, one where magic is creeping into the world little by little. I loved my character – a creature of the old world, a Fey, who means to misbehave like Malcom Reynolds in Firefly, and uses his magical talents to solve crime. I loved the plot, but I knew I’d have to create a new one for the novella.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite what they’re looking for. It didn’t matter that I’d never written a novella. I didn’t even matter that we were out of motivational wine and chocolates.

I just decided to write.

In 10 days, I’ve got 80 pages done. Oh, I know, it could be better, but that’s 80 pages on a brand new story. I was writing again. About 15,000 words worth.

Due to commitments, I couldn’t write every day, but if writing every day gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it. I didn’t write one day for 5 hours, but if writing once a week for 5 hours gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it.

In the end, whether you’re inspired by a deadline, a daily goal, by a trip you took, an adventure you had or something you just need to get off your chest, writers write.

So, as Silk said, this day we write, but I have to ask…

What process to you use for writing? 

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones. Without a doubt, though I hear good things about Outlander.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  80 pages on the new novella.

Social media update – If you like this blog, please follow us or share us on facebook

Best thing last week  Back to writing, again. 80 pages is not bad.

Worst thing  Finally over my cold, but it’s left me with diminished hearing. Dammit. I may need to get a hearing aid. I greatly feel this is the beginning of the slow slide that will eventually see me in adult diapers and a hover-walker.

For anyone interested in the TOR open call, see this link.

 

Researching no research

Joe’s Post #121

Research – is it even necessary?

Ok, here’s the thing. I’ve always believed in making sure you got it right. Like measuring twice before banging your finger with the hammer. Or ensuring the porn you download doesn’t have a virus.

You know, the important things.

So getting the research right on any novel is very important to me. For my mystery in the California desert, I went down there, stood in the baking sun, tasted the dust, smelled the creosote, listened to how people spoke and even talked to a cop or two.

veniceFor my fantasy novel, I drew on Venice’s amazing history and deliberately stole all the details I remember (or imagined) from when I visited the place.

Easy stuff, really.

This new novel, though, I have some work to do. Holland. 1940. Gosh. The list of what I don’t know is massive. So my research began.

As part of it, I began to read books written about that time. Tamar was one of them, the book I’m currently reading.

Here’s the thing.

It has no world building. It could be England. It could be the 50s or 60s (except for the fact the hero is parachuting into Holland and is afraid of being killed by Germans). The extent of the details are things like, he saw a rook. He went to the Maartin’s farm. She put on a coat. They went into the barn. He turned on the wireless.

Are the German uniforms described? The bikes they ride? The feel of heat after a cold night?

Is anything described through the eyes of the character?

No, not really. He’s almost comatose.

And this book became a best-seller?

Why?

Maybe it was the characters.

Nope, pretty standard fare. Nothing outstanding. No real personalities, just, you know, normal people (which is very accurate, historically, but boring as hell).

So, if you pardon my language, what the fuck?

This one is a complete mystery to me. I’d like to show this to Don Maass and say, for the love of God, why did this one sell? I want to know. I really want to know.

But, in the end, it’s a lesson in book publishing. I must remember, I must have this tattooed to some part of my body normally covered by a bathing suit, that this is a subjective business. Someone, somewhere, loved this book, bought it, edited it, marketed it and sold it. Readers loved it. Or at least enough of them for it to do well.

tamarIf someone has read Tamar, please let me know what you thought. Maybe it was something I missed. Like a secret code or something.

For me, however, books like this bother me. I’ve been told that I have to build a world that my readers can immerse themselves in, that take them to another time and place. And that’s why this one bugs me. It breaks that rule in a big way.

It’s like you’ve been told if you’re good, Santa will bring presents. Then you see someone who’s peed on the teacher’s cat and set fire to the Smokey the Bear sign, and HE got a present from Santa, too???

WTF?

So, let me ask you, is it really necessary?

************

Best Show Last Week – “Interstellar”. However, it was a movie too complex for my small brain. Event horizons. Black holes. Time dilation. Still, it had moments of sheer brilliance and I hate to say it, but Matthew McConaughey acts his balls off.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – In a perfect world, I would set this aside and read something else, but my OCD is bad when it comes to my need to finish a book (or movie.)

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

#Class taken on blogging 3

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 1

Health – Better.

Best thing last week – Connecting with people who have been in Holland during the war. More of that this week, and I’ll be writing about that experience next week.

Worst thing – Still be massively confused about wordpress.org. It is a serious time-sink to get all the widgets and plugins and and SEOs and themes all figured out.

Surrey International Writers Conference – social media

Joe’s Post #116

Ok, so there’s like twitter and linkedin and tumbler and blogs and youtube and something called vines and snap chat and *head explodes*.

dressupNow, understand that I grew up in a world where we had to actually get up off the sofa to change the channel from Mr. Dressup on the CBC to whatever the heck the other channel was, where our phones were connected to a wall, where computers that now fit in our iphones filled entire buildings, and where we read newspapers to get our news.

So all this new technology and social media is a bit of a challenge, especially for a writer trying to figure out how to expand his online presence.

Fear not! On Friday, I had a lot of this explained to me.

I want to thank Sean Cranbury, Sarah Wendell, Chuck Wendig and KC Dyer for helping demystify it all and make it all seem possible.sarah So let me condense what I learned. First from Sarah Wendell. She said simply, remember this is SOCIAL media. Be social. Be authentic. Be generous. Be consistent.

It’s the generous part I’ve not done a good job at. Being on social media is about connecting and I think I’ve been more about entertaining (even if I failed at it) than connecting. I’ll try to do better.

She also said that writers may have to find their readers in different areas of social media. Joining a FB group that talks about Justin Bieber would be a great place to go if you want to sell a book about the death of an annoying boybrat. Ok, just kidding, it would be a great place to go if you were writing about him, but less so if you were writing and wanting to comment about the state of affairs in Iraq.

See, every form of social media has an audience. Know who that audience is. Within that media, there are groups. Find those groups. But don’t just connect to sell a book. Connect to connect. Connect to be social.

ce9f6e7f0564dc2ff07723effcd89b2c_biggerSean Cranbury said the same thing when I had the great pleasure of chatting with him for 20 minutes.  His advice, give to the community. The writing community. The reading community. The book community. Make a difference in people’s lives.

Be social.

Hard for an introvert to hear. Harder for one to do.

But I’ll try.

Lastly, when the three titans gathered on a panel, we all were given more boat-loads of great advice. Let me share a few of them.

  • Be the best version of yourself online.
  • Don’t ever buy mailing lists, make the connections yourself.
  • Follow, watch and see how great communicators do it. On twitter, try following comedians. They’ve learned how to be funny in 140 characters.
  • Social media should never be an obligation. Do it because you want to do it. If you don’t want to, then hey, don’t do it.
  • Listen.
  •  Promotion is not a dirty word. Sometimes it’s nice to know when you have a book out or what you’re reading. It’s ok. Just don’t do it as your only thing – then it’s just noise.
  • Talk about other people’s books more than your own. Be authentic.
  • On FB you are the commodity. No problem with that, just realize it.

I hope that helps out a bit. All of this is a good place to start. I still have a lot more to learn but somehow it doesn’t seem that scary anymore.

Blogs to check out:

Felicia Day –  http://feliciaday.com/blog (from The Guild). Funny. Honest.

Sarah Wendell – http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com. So much cool stuff here and a great example of a successful blog. She’ll make you lol for real.

Chuck Wendig  – http://terribleminds.com. Love him or hate him, he’ll get you thinking and laughing.

Sean Cranbury – http://seancranbury.com (and a host of other links accessable from his website). A wow site.

Best Twitter recommendations… all the above. Plus John Oliver. Sarah Silverman.

New word of the day. Dickbar (thanks Sean Cranbury). Ok a second one. Doxing. (It’s basically punishing people you disagree with online by publishing their home addresses for everyone to see.)

Some of the best tweets, check out #siwc14 or siwc2014:

Submit your work. You’re already unpublished; the worst that can happen is that you stay that way. quotes

“It tastes like dead Druids.” Scotch, with ”.

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, ‘s keynote at cc:

Have a great writing week!

Tomorrow I write!

 

 

 

 

Surrey International Writer’s Conference – part 1

Joe’s post #115

surrey IWCThe day is finally here. SiWC 2014. I wish I could have attended all the days, but I couldn’t so chose to hit up one day in particular. Friday.

I had a mission.

Learn more about social media. Bug people about social media. Tweet something. Figure out if I actually tweeted something. Read someone else’s tweet. Say tweet 20 times.

Oh and have a bit of fun and learn something new from Don Maass.

My first thoughts of the day were, why did I have to have a crappy cold right now? My second thought was is everyone having as hard a time as me figuring out how writers use social media effectively? I mean, really, none of this should be hard, so is it just my age, my deteriorating brainage or is it really kinda complex?

Well, I had the right people to help me understand it. I’ll talk a bit about them in the next post, cuz, you know, I’m like that. In my novels, I’d call it a hook. Here, it’s just me being a bit of an asshat because I want to give everyone an idea of the SiWC experience.

So, yeah, for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t nervous at all. Nothing to pitch. No agents or editors to see. Just me learning and having some fun.

Having not registered ahead of time, I had to get in line to buy a day pass, a huge extra- large cup of Timmies in my hand. (Double-double, thank you very much). Day-passers are kinda like brussel sprouts at a turkey dinner – I’m not sure anyone really wants them. Case in point, we don’t get dinner.

Sigh.

I do like a good dinner.

IMG_6038[1]I got my high-tech name badge and fancy wrist band and marched off in search of a blue-pencil mentor.

For those who don’t know, the blue pencil meetings are a chance to sit down with someone who’s ‘been there and done that’, and made a living at it. Usually you bring a bit of writing and let them read it so they can help you better understand what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes you leave in tears, sometimes with great insights.

In my case, though, remember, social media focus. So I lucked out and found an opening with, oh, crap, almost gave it away. No, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

After signing up at the blue pencil, I went to listen to the opening keynote speech in the grand ballroom. With minutes to spare before the speech, I took a look at my thick-as-a-yearbook guide. It had a great title, the guide did.

This day we write!IMG_6037[1]

Which I love, but which was probably not exactly accurate for the day. Or the next 3 days. Maybe these 3 days we listen and then, THEN we write. Dammit! (I would have added the dammit for sure.) I’m honestly not sure anyone got a lot of writing done, but the idea still works.

I may put that sign on my dog to remind me what I have to do.

Anyway, if you’ve never been to SiWC, it’s quite the thing to walk into a ballroom filled with writers. The only odder thing might be a room filled with cosplayers or lion-taming tax accountants.

It’s a huge room filled with people, the vast majority women, who have gathered to learn more about writing, to discuss what they are working on, to connect with the writing community, and maybe even pitch a book or two to agents and editors.

Old, young, tall, short, hats, no hats, suits, shorts, t-shirts, glittering black blouses, sandals, high heels, tattoos… man, if you ever wanted to get some great characters for a book, you just have to go into that ballroom, but more than all of that, it’s a room full of people who say, proudly, I’m a writer.

I barely had time to look at the guide once before the event started. Having gone a few times before, one of the highlights in the morning is always Carol Monaghan.  (In the evening, it’s singing with the always Scottishly charming Jack Whyte.)

IMG_6018[1]Carol is just one of those people who lights up a room, someone who never seems to take herself to seriously and always finds something funny to talk about. She was in fine form today and started the conference with a laugh.

Then came the keynote speaker, a veteran agent named Peter Rubie, who was funny in the way only the English can be funny. He noted that the best stories are about people, not plot, that this is (and will always be) a subjective business (saying that some people love caviar, but he hates it, so no matter how great that caviar is, he’s not going to like it at all), and that procrastination and not actually writing can be successful ways of actually writing. Hey, I told you he was English, they think differently, but my takeaway from his speech was this…

He told us to ignore what everyone tells you about writing. Have fun. Write what you love to write.

I loved to hear that because my next project is likely going to be a pure labor of love.

So,  tomorrow, the whole social media smack down. Wow, did I ever learn some cooooool stuff.

 

 

Surrey Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writer’s Contest

surrey IWCAnyone going?

I’m still making up my mind. Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs, but the ultimate result was a complete failure to interest anyone in my book. Worse, some of the agents never even got back to me, which I find increasingly odd in an age where indie publishing is becoming (or has become) acceptable and profitable.

sean ranHowever, let’s take a look at this year. There’s a good social media presence, and some very accomplished people, which could be very interesting for us 5/5/5. There’s even a masterclass on owning your online space by Sean Cranbury. I like owning my space and Mr. Cranbury knows his stuff.

diana G

Diana never put her arms around me, but then I’m not a highlander

Diana Gabaldon will be back, as will Jack Whyte, and frankly, they’re both worth the price of admission, both great speakers, great story tellers. I have a secret crush on Diana so whenever I get near her I go back in time and become 9 years old, again, blushing and mumbling and looking at my feet. I think I said to her last year, as I stood beside her in the food line up, “Errr, uhm, book, you, that thing, you know, ack, character, highlander, urm, erp, ah, oh look there’s a muffin.”

There’s a pretty good selection, as always, of workshops, and one of my favourites, Hallie Ephron is giving a keynote speech. She written one of my writing bibles, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style,” and she’s amazingly approachable.

Same with Don Maass. I often learn more in one of his two hour workshops, than I could learn in a year at college. He’s also written one of my other bibles, “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and while I haven’t written one yet, there’s still good advice in there. Totally good advice.

I guess it’s up to every individual (and their finances) to determine if this year is worth attending.

IMG_1557

That’s me on the left

For me, even being a card-carrying introvert, I have fun talking to the people there. When I’m not sweating like a used car salesmen at a tax audit, I can actually have some fun, talking craft or experiences or even learning a thing or two from the person sitting beside me.

If the other writers decide to go, then I’ll probably tag along for sure. I mean, I’m the only guy in the 5/5/5 so I’m sort of like their pet. Like a bulldog or pet pot-bellied pig.

But everyone, please at least check out the web page. Check out the writers, agents, editors and gurus who attend.

And maybe I’ll see a few of you there.

 

Writing Advice – 5¢

advice

Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #38 — Helga always comes up with the best advice on writing from her beloved ‘masters’. She has enlightened us recently with her exploration of le Carré, and the fabulous quotes she found from Hemingway and Atwood. Can you tell she loves to research?

When I glance at my groaning writer’s bookshelf, I see advice from writers P.D. James, Bill Bryson, Kingsley Amis, Janet Evanovich, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth George, Jack Hodgins, Hallie Ephron, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, William Safire, and of course everyone’s favourite man-of-few-words, Elmore Leonard (who nevertheless managed to stretch his famous 10 Rules of Writing out into an 89-page hardcover book, although, to be fair, it does have pictures).

That list doesn’t even include the dozens of books I’ve happily purchased at writers’ conferences and online that are full of writing advice from experts who are better known as writing teachers, editors, literary agents, writing coaches, publishers and others who write about writing (although some of them also write, well, regular writing too).

This all got me thinking about advice writers give other writers. Let’s face it, we are awash in it. In fact, there are times I feel I could actually drown in writing advice. Like so many other things we struggle to learn, it all makes sense … it’s all so easy … once we already know the thing from our own experience. Oh, conceptually it’s not difficult to wrap your mind around. We’ve all read the many, many lists of rules. (Most of them say much the same thing, so don’t bother reading all of them hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). And, just to make matters a bit trickier, there’s lots of equally sensible sounding advice that tells us there are no rules.

But don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate all this advice. Believe me, I do. I lap it up. A prolonged bout of writer’s block – say anything over 15 or 20 minutes (yes, I’m kidding) – sends me straight to the bookshelf for a dose of it. An hour or two wallowing in advice usually brings my blood pressure down without need for further medication, after which I can calmly return to my blank page with a very clear idea of what not to do.

What’s so much harder than grasping the concept, of course, is applying all this good advice to your own work right there on that actual blank page. It’s a little like trying to learn to play a sport by watching it on TV.  I don’t care how many times you see Tiger Woods swing a golf club or read books or study videos by golf pros, it’s not going to automatically get you into the cup in three strokes. Really, you just have to whack away until you ‘get it’ intuitively, physically, right in your bones.

Still, I’m grateful when I read advice from a great writer who once, like me, wasn’t. It’s a comfort.

Was there ever a profession more generous with its trade secrets? So full of mentors, coaches, evangelists? Writers seem to love to write for each other and about each other. After all, it’s what we do and who we are. I can’t imagine the same sort of soul connection between, say, chemists or bankers. Writers all have a common cause, a shared belief in the power of words and ideas, a passion for stories. We’re in love with them. Why else would most of us invest the insane amount of time, effort and heart into our work for so long with so little recognition or recompense to show for it?

Perhaps that’s one reason writers are so absolutely tribal, such a mutual aid society. Or maybe our willing embrace of each other comes from working alone so much.

Seriously, if you’re ever sitting by yourself in a strange airport or a crowded restaurant and you feel the need for human contact, just ask around and find yourself another writer. There’s bound to be one close by, if you believe the (now hoary but never really refuted) research finding that 80 percent of Americans want to write a book. When you locate this other writer (or wannabe writer), I guarantee you will have a lively conversation partner until your plane takes off or your dinner arrives. No secret handshakes required.

safire-bookBut back to Good Advice on Writing, which just happens to the title of a book by William Safire and his brother, Leonard Safir, on the topic. This is probably the best anthology of quotes on good writing ever collected – a whole bookshelf between two covers.

(I always had a bit of a crush on William Safire, the crusty, crafty columnist for the New York Times for 30 plus years. While I found his libertarian political views appalling, though always expressed with seductive charm, his columns on language were some of the best entertainment in print. Safire, in fact, wrote in just about every format imaginable; by his own account he was a: “reporter, press agent, lexicographer, speechwriter, novelist, pundit, anthologist and language maven.”)

Even in the preface to the book, impatient perhaps to get to the point, Safire immediately begins doling out good advice. When I read him, I feel like we’re sitting together in a good bar in New York City, chatting writer-to-writer over some kind of cocktails they haven’t mixed since the 1940s. Here’s a sample:

“This anthology is for the reading writer; specifically, the writer interested in good advice from successful practitioners in the art of transmitting original ideas. Although you are at the moment in the role of a reader, I presume you are a writer, or would like to be a writer, or get a kick out of hanging around writers and would not be averse to having them consider you a valuable associate.

“For me – the one doing the writing in this writer-reader symbiosis – that happily defines this book’s primary audience, but to you – the reading writer – it should raise the question: Is it a good idea for a writer to try to define an audience? More broadly, whom is the writer writing for? William Zinsser, quoted herein, has this answer: ‘You are writing for yourself … Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it.’

“Writing for yourself is not as arrogant as it seems … in the big writing decisions, from the selection of theme to the evocation of character, the good writer thinks only of an audience of Number One. Self-indulgent? Sure; that’s one of the pleasures that come with the pain of pulling a real purpose out of your mind. Creative authenticity comes from seeking to suit oneself and rarely springs from a desire to please others.”

Safire even advises us about the advice to be found in his book. He encourages skepticism.

“When writers read, they read with narrowed eyes, knowing that their emotions or thought processes are being manipulated and subtly directed by a fellow member of the scribe tribe … Writers read skeptically, often doubtfully … Reading writers are never mere receptacles. Read the sometimes conflicting advice of other writers [in this anthology] to help sharpen [your] purpose, but read with those narrowed eyes.”

To illustrate, he quotes one of his favourite pieces of advice from Somerset Maugham:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But should that seem to throw a pall on our writers’ tête à tête (remember, we’re still sitting in that New York bar), Safire just orders another round of Sidecars, or Rusty Nails or whatever our poison might be and reminds us why we’re all in this crazy world together:

“Many of us have been in varying lines of work, but insist that first and last we are writers. That’s because writing is less a profession than a professing – a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.

“When you’re tired of writing, you’re tired of life.”

Breaking the rules

rule bookSilk’s Post #26 — Everybody ‘writes’. (Let’s leave the very real literacy problem aside for the moment and concede that writing is a pretty commonplace activity.)

We all express ourselves in written words, somewhere, somehow, for some reason.

But becoming a ‘writer’ is quite a different matter. The decision to take up writing as a profession, even when (or maybe especially when) it’s a second career, takes a mole hill and turns it into a mountain. The simple, familiar, natural act of putting words on paper (or on screen) becomes a sometimes bewildering challenge.

You read a book – probably many books – and you become seduced. You think: I can do that, how hard can it be to tell a story?

Of course, very few would admit to thinking that naive thought, especially somewhere around chapter five of their first book. But surely most of us must have privately entertained a similar notion at some point. Otherwise, would we have set out on the Writer’s Journey at all?

Would-be novelists do not get very far down this road before they find themselves anxiously looking for road signs to tell them where they are and how to get to where they want to go. As soon as we realize we’re probably lost, we hunt for a friendly filling station where we can find a map, and maybe buy a guide book. We grab what help we can find, and top it off with a large coffee to go.

Once you understand that knowing how to put words on paper is not the same as knowing how to tell a story, what you really want to know are the rules of play. You have an idea for a novel, but where do you start? How do you move the plot forward? What do you do at the end? It all seemed so obvious before you faced that blank page. Now you cast your eyes skyward and beg for some reliable commandments that will get you to writer’s heaven.

Fear not. Apart from tax accounting, there is probably no field of endeavour so richly endowed with rules as the enterprise of novel writing. Many centuries of English etymology have yielded a whole universe of rules on usage, vocabulary and grammar, with such a mind-boggling array of exceptions to every rule that just navigating the language is an epic quest in itself.

But that pales in comparison with the rules of storytelling that must be followed if you want to turn your idea into a bestselling novel. Let’s start with the rule that there are only Seven Basic Plots. Or perhaps there are five. Or twenty. There is no real general agreement on this rule.

In fact, right away you discover that you’re going to have to choose among competing rules.

And there are many prescriptions for what a writer must, or must not, do. The aspiring writer, eager to learn, is given to understand that the penalty for breaking the rules is a rejection notice. Career suicide. Eternal obscurity. Among the most conventional of these rules (listed from memory after a couple of years of seeing them over and over and over) are:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Write what you know
  3. Avoid too many adjectives, and all adverbs
  4. Write in active, not passive, voice
  5. Don’t go on and on and on and on and on
  6. Put conflict on every page
  7. Banish boring backstory
  8. Mind your POV
  9. Keep the writer’s presence invisible
  10. Don’t use exclamation points (for much more than you ever wanted to know about this topic, see my earlier post, “I miss the exclamation point!”)

Did you notice how I made a neat list of 10 rules? I’m following a literary tradition here. The gurus who give writing advice, many of them writers themselves, like to come up with pithy lists of rules.

Elmore Leonard has Ten Rules for Writing, as Paula noted in her post “Deja vu all over again”. So does Etgar Keret (plus a few hints about nose-picking). Neil Gaiman managed to edit his list down to Eight Rules for Writing. The great Robert Heinlein’s Six Rules for Writing are some of the tersest and wisest.

But that’s just a tiny sampling. There are pages and pages full of rules to learn. Books full. Seriously, there is no end to this overflow of wisdom. It’s an industry.

But there’s a catch. And it’s a big one.

Nobody ever wrote a great book by following rules. 

I’m not suggesting all this rulemaking and advice is not helpful. Rules encapsulate broader lessons that writers need to learn, and provide useful (if sometimes confusing) signposts along the road to from “Once Upon a Time” to “The End.” However, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that following rules is certainly no guarantee of success, nor is breaking them a guarantee of failure.

I offer evidence from two very different points in the literary spectrum.

Exhibit 1: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

girl-with-the-dragon-tattooThe blockbuster book. The hollywood movie. The phenomenon. Together with the two other titles that make up Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, this series racked up 65 million sales worldwide in a little over five years, and spawned three darkly dramatic Swedish films and a star-studded Hollywood remake.

I have yet to talk to anyone who started the series and did not get sucked into it. I also have yet to talk to a reader who doesn’t claim they almost abandoned it as they laboured through the slow-moving, backstory-riddled, unexciting first few chapters.

“Why the hell is everybody raving about this thing?” was my first reaction. But I stuck with it. Millions did. And we were rewarded with an original and daring saga, driven by unforgettable characters.

Flawed? Certainly. Perhaps if Larsson hadn’t dropped dead at 50 and had polished it further with the help of a good editor, it would have been a better book. Or maybe it would have been “fixed” by rewriting it into a forgettable formula suspense-thriller, or never have been published at all.

If Larsson has a biographer, I hope they’ll name the book The Man Who Broke the Rules.

Exhibit 2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

midnight's-childrenThe Booker Prize. The art film. The critics’ darling. This 1981 saga of India is an enduring work of literature that became a movie 31 years after it was published. Critics lavished praise on Rushdie’s second novel, the sale of which prompted the author to quit his part-time job as an advertising copywriter and become a full-time novelist.

“An extraordinary novel … one of the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation.”      — The New York Review of Books

“Huge, vital, engrossing … in all senses a fantastic book.”   — The Sunday Times

What most people know Rushdie for is his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, which earned him a different type of notoriety: a 1989 fatwa calling for his execution issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for what was judged to be the book’s irreverence in its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.

But while Rushdie’s work made him an outlaw in the Islamic world, it made him a superstar in the literary world. Midnight’s Children was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” prize in 1993 for the best novel among Booker Prize winners for fiction over the prize’s first 25 years. In 2008 it went on to win the “Best of the Booker” by popular vote.

I defy anyone to dive into the rich, thick soup of Midnight’s Children with anybody’s list of writing rules in hand. You will be overwhelmed with the wanton breakage of virtually all of them. There’s tell-tell-telling that doesn’t at all feel like telling. Bizarre, lurching changes in POV, concurrent with dizzying shifts in time and space. The book is littered with odd punctuation, so that it often feels like you’re reading a song with some hidden rhythm rather than a piece of prose. It’s difficult. A book to give an agent ulcers. Yet the whole thing is utterly engulfing.

What to say about an author so given to rule breaking and prize winning? He’s a survivor. A creative voice that has persisted despite death threats, assassination attempts, multiple marriages, the commercial obsession of the publishing industry, and every writing rule book. Oh, and the advertising business.

So let me ask Colson Whitehead, New York Times Sunday Book Reviewer to wrap up this rule-breaking point for me:

“There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

Late bloomers take heart

late-bloomers

Silk’s post #25 — I wonder how many of you reading this post are over 40? I see quite a few hands going up. How about over 50? Or maybe, like me, over 60? And how many of you are writing as a ‘second career’?

Maybe it’s something you’ve dabbled in since you were a teenager. Maybe you did your best to scratch your fiction-writing itch by pursuing a tangentially related ‘first’ career, where you had to write something else (newsletters, legal briefs, manuals, speeches, advertising, academic reports, lifestyle features about patio furniture).

Maybe writing a novel is something you always dreamed of doing, but life got in the way. The need for money won out. Or the demands of a family. Or maybe every time you hunkered down alone in your writing space with a blank page in front of you, the world called you out, whether joyfully or rudely.

Or maybe you just got on that career track and didn’t get off until you reached Retirement Station.

It’s okay. It’s all good.

We are the Late Bloomers: the hardy, vibrant, colourful displayers of creativity who dare to run riot in autumn. We bring our own heat to the season, our own illumination.

I once asked an agent on a panel at the Surrey International Writers Conference whether age made any difference in his inclination to represent an unpublished writer. I’m a realist. My thinking: it’s in an agent’s interest to sign hot young writers on the ascent – early bloomers who might produce years of lucrative bestsellers.

His answer was, “No, I’m just looking for great writers.” But he took a half-step back before he figured out what to say. It told me that: a) yes, a writer’s age probably does make a difference to an agent, but b) it’s politically incorrect to say it (or maybe even think it), especially in a room full of conference attendees who have an average age north of 40, and who have just paid a bunch of money to rub elbows with you, and who are good prospects to buy your book on how to write.

Okay, call me a cynic – but you’d be wrong. I just wanted to know the truth, but it doesn’t change my passion for writing one bit.

Now, call me a romantic, an optimist, even a pollyanna, and I won’t argue.

I think late blooming writers are like vintage wine. Our ideas, feelings, perspectives, and understanding of people and the world have reached the peak of flavour and complexity. We may be new to novel-writing, but we’re not new to reading and observing and thinking and feeling and communicating. As Helga reminded us in her great post on why writers write, we have stories in us that are bursting to get out.

Some pretty smart people have contemplated the subject of creative late bloomers, and they seem to love to quote each other. I followed an interesting trail of Internet breadcrumbs on the topic, starting with a link on Nathan Bransford’s great blog, which took me to an article from 2008 in The New Yorker by writer and culture guru Malcolm Gladwell titled “Late Bloomers”.

Gladwell, himself anything but a late bloomer, examines the idea that:

“Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exhuberance and energy of youth.”

galensonI can’t tell you how happy I am to report that this turns out to be a myth. But, of course, you already knew that and so did I. Gladwell’s essay borrows heavily from Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, a book by University of Chicago economist David Galenson that studies artists and writers who did what is acknowledged to be their best work either very early or very late in their careers. To quote Gladwell quoting Galenson:

“Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues … tend to be ‘conceptual’, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental.”

I especially love the example Galenson uses to illustrate the experimental approach of the late bloomer: Mark Twain’s trial-and-error method of fictional storytelling. Galenson quotes yet another observer, literary critic Franklin Rogers, on Twain’s methods:

“His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.”

According to Galenson, Mark Twain “fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on Huckleberry Finn so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete,” at the age of 50.mark twain

Sounds all too familiar.

The implications of this insight may explode some of our received wisdom about late bloomers. They aren’t necessarily late starters, for instance. Some of them work most of their lives at their art in obscurity, often with the help of a patron, such as a family member (think Van Gogh), before they become ‘overnight sensations’. If they’re lucky, that happens while they’re still alive.

Some late bloomers just “don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re 50,” Galenson asserts. Another assumption he questions is that late bloomers are simply “discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts.”

Galenson’s 2011 article on the Huffington Post, “Literary Late Bloomers,” cites a veritable galaxy of literary stars, in addition to Mark Twain, whose most famous works were written in middle-age or later: John le Carré, PD James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, John Updike and J.M. Coetzee, for example.

Although I’m glossing over the more arcane and subtle points of Galenson’s arguments, and Gladwell’s comments on them, my interpretation of their conclusion about late bloomers can be summarized as follows:

Late bloomers do their best work late in life because that’s when their genius ripens.

reading-specsAre you still with me, all you old boomers and late bloomers? Doesn’t it make your heart glad to hear that you may be at the peak of your creative powers right now – even if you have trouble finding your reading glasses from time to time?

Last word here to Gladwell, who has such a great way with words:

“But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after 20 years of working at your kitchen table.”

Amen!

Now get back to that kitchen table, or that pillow-strewn bed, or that coffee shop, or that writing desk and bloom.