The Public/Private Writer

 

 

If you don’t personally know me, I’ve always been a quiet writer in public.  Oh, I do events occasionally, speaking engagements, signings, and conventions.  For the past 20 years, I’ve been raising kids.  My youngest is now 12, so I have more time to get out and he quite enjoys conventions.  Probably more than I ever did because he gets to go play and is fearless to a degree.  When I started attending conventions, I was trying to learn everything I could about writing.  I hung out with some buddies and took my time there seriously.  Some longtime friends might argue, but I was getting an education.

These days I’m giving educations, and I still don’t feel as though I know enough.  I’m still learning, and writing and publishing are still changing.  It’s hard work keeping up.

Also, I’m kind of private about a lot of things.  Unless you know me, then I’ll spill my guts.

For a long time, I wouldn’t put my picture on the back covers or jackets of my books.  I felt like it was too egotistical, and that people would be disappointed when they really met me.  I didn’t think I could live up to other people’s expectations.  For that matter, I still don’t.

However, I’ve come to realize that the whole world is on a celebrity trip at this point.  I blame FaceBook.  Everybody is used to getting on the internet and looking up whatever they want to about anybody else.  One of my students at OU told me that she’d practically given up on dating because by the time she’d “lurked” the date on FaceBook, there was nothing to learn that first night that she hadn’t already seen pictures of.  Still, she was able to find out all that information.  Several of my students, male and female, agree with her.

I do too, to a degree.  When I read the Doc Savage stories, I imagined what the writer Kenneth Robeson must have been like.  Then I learned there wasn’t a “real” Kenneth Robeson and that several guys wrote under that name.  I was kind of bummed.  Then I found out one of the writers was Lester Dent, a guy who’d lived as a telegraph operator in Oklahoma for a while.  We were practically kindred spirits!

Later, I discovered that Lester Dent had actually bought and piloted airplanes and yachts, all as a result of his pulp earnings.  He’d panned for gold and done all of these wonderful and amazing things.  Jack London had the same kind of interesting background that lent authenticity to so much of his writing.

Honestly, when I started writing professionally, I knew I wasn’t that interesting.  I went to school, went to more school, got married, had kids and raised them, and that was pretty much that.  No days as a spy, soldier, or gentleman thief.  I faced the fact that I was much more imaginative than interesting.

Still, I hold my own when it comes to swapping stories about childhood, the adolescent years, and all this time as an adult.  Interesting things have happened, just nothing that would ever make the big screen or capture headlines.  I can be somewhat interesting to talk to, have a way of oral storytelling that I get from growing up in a small town, and generally enjoy people.

But is that enough for readers who want to know more about me?

I don’t know.  And that’s scary.

However, in this day of instant fame and celebritihood, a writer (artist, creative person, cook, baker, etc) has to stand up and let people know them.  Rachel Ray is a success story that I adore.  She was the first popular FoodTV person to achieve superstardom and not be a trained chef.  When you watch her, you see the love she has for what she’s doing, and you get tidbits of her personal life:  her family, her husband, the things she likes.

It also helps that she’s hot and looks good in revealing clothing.

Again, I don’t.

So is it enough to just be yourself?  I’m beginning to think so.  With the advent of blogs, FaceBook, and all the other social networking that goes on, I’ve started blogging.  I was uneasy about it at first, and still haven’t joined in on the FaceBook fun, but I’m getting there.

In this day and age of people expecting to find info on everybody, I think writers have to get out into the public eye more.  Write a blog.  Write a few blogs (I do).  And just talk about whatever comes to mind.  That’s how you treat your friends, and fans want to be your friends.  Kind of.  They want to know more about you and they’re not so much interested in finding heroes as they are in making sure the people whose books they read are as understandable as they appear.  They’re looking for commonalities.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of other writers and television people.  Some of those encounters weren’t very good.  I was charmed by Mark Harmon and enraptured by how down-to-earth Richard Dreyfuss was.  But a lot of “celebrities” act like you’re taking up precious time they don’t have.  That could be true some days, but on others you have to realize that part of your job (as I’ve come to realize it) is getting to know some of those fans on a more personal basis.

I take time to get to know people.  My wife tells me I’m a people-magnet, and my kids joke about the way perfect strangers come up to me and spill their guts (not in any hari-kari kind of way!) about things they’ve done and seen.  My wife says I’m the eternal student, always willing to learn from anyone, and people get sucked into teaching me stuff because I’m really interested.  I don’t know.  I get to know a lot of cool stuff.

I’ve also come to realize that no matter how dull and boring I think I am, no matter how shy I want to be by nature, I’m in a job field where that’s just not possible.  If you’re a writer in today’s world, you have to get out there.  You have to become known for something.  You can’t be invisible.

I remember when sports heroes used to stay after games to meet fans, to sign stuff, and to give them that fifteen seconds of feeling like they’d encountered a legend.  Doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, and I don’t think the public is quite as enamored of those folks as they used to be.

Writers have a better chance of getting to know their fans through their stories and their blogs, and from the times they’re actually out in the world.  So if you’ve been afraid of revealing yourself before, this is the day and age to stand up and get noticed.  People expect it.  They’re curious.

I find myself reading lots of blogs of different people as well, and I enjoy them.  It doesn’t matter if the person is a celebrity or just a “regular person.”  They all have something to say, and I can generally relate to them on one level or another.

So get out there and get a blog started if you haven’t.  Let your fans know what you read/watch/listen to.  Give them more ways to get to know and understand you.  I’ve found very few relationships, even ones conducted through email, where I didn’t get as much as I gave.

When To Read

When a writer isn’t reading, he or she should be reading.  Stephen King is quoted as saying something like, if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

I believe that’s true.  Otherwise writers are simply trying to imitate television and movies and comics in prose form.  That doesn’t work.  A writer has to read the medium he or she is going to work at in order to understand it.  It’s simple logic really, but most people miss it.

As an example, let’s take a cobbler (shoes, not pies).  The guy makes shoes day in and day out.  He knows from shoes.  Probably knows how to make ladies shoes and how to make men’s shoes.  Maybe he even knows how to make sandals and slingbacks, but I’m betting probably not because those are special skills too.

At any rate, let’s say this cobbler is commissioned to make a pair of boots.  Seems like it would be easy, right?  Except that’s deceptive.  The leather would have to be cut differently, the stitching would have to be done differently, and even the fit would be different because a lot of boots (cowboy boots) don’t have stitching.  Work books could be a type of tall shoe, but I don’t think stylistically that would satisfy.

So when a reader sits down to write a particular kind of book, some studying is necessary.  I’m not going to try to analyze what should be read and whether it should be read while you’re working on your story (I believe it’s okay to do so although other people think writers unconsciously “borrow” from things they’re reading).

I want to approach WHEN you should read.

Most people read for diversion.  They pick up a book, read for a while, go see the doctor, read for a while, snooze, read for a while, go get the kids from a sports practice, read for a while…you get the picture.  That’s fine for those folks.  We want them.  They provide a means for writers to keep a roof over their heads.

Writers need to approach reading as part of the job.  When you’re reading (anything you’re reading, book, magazine, fiction, nonfiction), you’re on the job.  You’re supposed to be paying attention to the writer working his or her craft.  Pick up nuances of how characters are handled, how situations are introduced, how conflict is elevated, how backstory is spooned in.

Most writers feel they can read any time and pick those things up.  That’s just simply not true.  Learning to write from reading isn’t strictly osmosis (though a lot of it, thankfully, is).  But at a certain point your writer’s education is going to be through unswerving observation and dedication.  You can’t just learn a trick or two.  You’ve got to learn them all, then figure out which ones you need and which of those you do best.

All of us have books that we start and don’t finish.  I think most of that is because we read when we’re tired or we start on a book and don’t have enough time to finish it soon enough.  We expect our minds to be resilient enough to maintain everything.  Readers enjoy genre reading for this reason, or favorite authors.  They can sit down with a new romance novel or mystery novel or western novel or Famous Author novel and set their minds to cruise through the pages on a familiar voyage.

Writers can’t afford to be lackadaisical in their approach to reading.  So I have some basic premises I’d like you to consider when reading.

1)  Know whether you’re reading to learn or for pleasure (no, these are not mutually exclusive, but learning should be)

2)  Be rested (you can’t read effectively if your eyes are tired or your brain is struggling to focus)

3)  Block out enough time that day to read (I would set an arbitrary amount of time, anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour, or an appreciable page count — I make it a point to sit down for 50 to 100 pages a night when I’m reading a book)

4)  Block out enough time in the next week or two to finish the book in a timely manner.  (If you read 50 pages a night and the book is 400 pages long, you should finish the book in 8 – 10 days, allowing a missed day here and there)

5)  Make notes about the book (I do this best by writing review of books I finish and putting them on my blogs and on Amazon) so you can remember what you read, what you liked about it, and what you think might have been improved.

6)  Make notes about new information you find intriguing or interesting.  These may be things you will revisit in your own fiction after a little research.

7)  Try to read at the same time every day.  Doing something is easier when you make it a habit.

I hope this helps you realize the importance of your reading time.  Don’t take it for granted.  Reading is funamental, and it’s probably the best way to understand what it is you’re trying to do in your own writing.

And if you read something good, please send me a note and tell me what it was.  I’m constantly looking for new books to read that are worth my time.

HAVE A PLAN: THE OUTLINE

 

NOTE:  IF YOU’RE NEW TO THIS BLOG, GO TO THE “PLOT” SECTION AND BEGIN READING.  THAT WAY EVERYTHING WILL BE IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.  THANKS.  ENJOY!

Now that I have my fantasy story in mind, have a character that’s reasonably well thought out, and have a crackerjack ending in mind that Hollywood might not die for but would at least respect, I have to put the story all together before I start writing.  This is the most creative aspect of the story in giving the tale form, and the part that I love the most.

Assembling a story, which is what you’re doing — although the art crowd will probably protest that this is too pedestrian, is deceptive.  It takes a certain amount of imagination as well as recognition of rules and acknowledgement of reader expectations.

Let me address the art crowd first, the “pantsers” as they like to call themselves.  They believe in throwing characters into a conflict and sorting them out as they go.  They feel that they’re more organic this way, that their characters (all made up and put on the same two-dimensional paper) are somehow more “real” than someone that assembles the story arcs and action before sitting down to work.  (Personally, I think they’re afraid of the boring aspects of the writing, which is sitting down and finishing.)

I’ll illustrate the process in a way that may make sense for you.  Let’s say we want to make a pair of shoes.  We know we want to make shoes.  As a professional cobbler (I’m not, that’s why there are elves), I know the tools I’m going to need to make these shoes:  something to cut them out, something to sew the pieces together, something to punch the eyelets, something to use for strings, thread to sew, possibly color, etc.

Since I’m a professional, I’ll go to my toolshed and bring out all the tools I know I’ll need.  So (sew?) they’ll be close to hand.  Once I get started working, I don’t want to be interrupted going back and forth for things that I knew I needed before I sat down.  Once I’m sitting, I can work, I can give myself over entirely to the process, and I don’t have to figure out where anything is or what I’m going to need next because I already know from past experience.

Occasionally, there may be some surprises.  I may have to go back to the toolshed for some problem that crops up, some extra tool to polish up a piece of the work, a different kind of thread to hold things together.  That sort of thing.  But the point is, I’m limiting my trips back and forth to the toolshed and allowing myself to get fully immersed in the creative of the product (yeah, PRODUCT, not ART).

Pantsers I have known have started to work, then had to go back to the toolshed constantly.  They didn’t know the characters was going to need this bit of knowledge — have to figure out how the character knew that.  They didn’t know they were going to end up in Baton Rouge during the course of the story — have to go research Baton Rouge.  They didn’t know the character was going to need to repair an elevator — hmm, there are four different kinds of ways to move elevators (see TYPES OF HOIST MECHANISMS).

The point is, they have to get to the same place I am when I start.  Except that they take longer to finish out the piece they’re working on because they’re so busy running back and forth to figure things out.  (There are exceptions to this rule, but I’m speaking generally.)

I still have to figure all those things out, but I invest all that time up front.  I figure out what I need to know and I learn it before I need to know it.  That way all the research is quick to hand (internet links, printed pages, books I’ve read and marked for reference).

Let me bring this point home.  Let’s say you’re out on a date (doesn’t matter what sex because you’re the one trying to deliver on this fantastic date — which is what you’re doing as an author, by the way).  You want to impress this person, win this person over, show this person how good you can be at dating.  More than anything, YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE DATE YOURSELF.  Dating isn’t just for the other person.  It’s supposed to be good for you too.  If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.

So during the date, you keep discovering the things you forgot.  Dinner’s on the table, where’s the silverware?  Glasses are on the table, where’s the beverage of your choice?  You’re ready to eat, where are the candles?  It’s a special moment, where are the flowers or the card?

See?  The date still gets accomplished and the other person probably has a wonderful time, but YOU’RE NOT RELAXED AND ENJOYING IT.

When I date/write, I want to be able to concentrate fully on the experience.  Not the things I forgot or left out or could have done differently.  I figure that out before I sit down to write or put my wife in the car.  (I also work to keep things fairly simple in writing and in dating because making things complicated when there’s no reason to can lead to a whole new pack of woes.)

Either I’ve made my case or I haven’t.  Some people just love misery.

Since this fantasy story with the zombie ship is a short piece, I figure I’m going to need from one (no way to do less) to five scenes.  I’m either writing a straight 5000 word shot, or I’m going to break it down potentially into five 1000 word segments — generally for pacing and effect, but we’ll get to that.

So I take my seat (not writing the story yet, see?) and put on my director’s hat.  If I was going to film this story, what would I SHOW?  Not TELL, SHOW.  Very important to today’s readers.

Scene 1:  I’ve got to intro the hero and the setting.  Because I want to seize the reader’s interest immediately (to pay off on that snazzy title I’ve yet to come up with), I’ll intro the character with problems.  Here this guy is, down in the hold of the ship to count cargo because THINGS HAVE BEEN DISAPPEARING.  While he’s there’s, WATER SLOSHES OVER HIS BOOTS (this was kind of normal because boats weren’t exactly water-tight back in the day) and we’re aware that THE SHIP COULD SINK because there’s a STORM BREWING OUTSIDE.  While that’s going on, he has to WONDER IF HE’S GONNA GET STABBED by the crew.  Then he discovers THE SHIP HAS A STOWAWAY.

See?  That’s attention getting.  And it’ll make the readers wonder what’s going to happen next.  I hope.

Scene 2:  (I’m going to break when he has the stowaway at swordpoint, then bring the lantern in closer to discover that it’s a girl), our hero gets the girl’s story.  Her father had arranged a marriage for her and she had to escape.  The PROBLEM?  The father is one of our hero’s biggest clients on this voyage.  Do you see how his life is screwed?  Plus, he has to keep the crew from putting their hands on her and protect his reputation later because the girl could say he did THINGS to her so she’s not as valuable as a bride to her father’s business associate (pervert).  While he’s trying to figure out what to do about that, the MYSTERIOUS SHIP arrives in the SUDDEN FOG.  (cue spooky music.)

Scene 3:  Our hero (still nameless, notice) spots the ship, sees the ZOMBIES, and knows they have big trouble.  Intro the local legend of the zombies.  Haunted/cursed waters since the recent war.

Scene 4:  The battle begins.  The zombie ship pulls ALONGSIDE and the two crews FIGHT.  LOSSES happen.  They discover they can’t outrun the ship.  Our hero figures out his last desperate gamble.

Scene 5:  To underscore how screwed they are and explore the possibilities.  Throwing cargo overboard?  Not enough time.  Outrunning them?  Never gonna happen.  Hero comes up with his plan and reveals it.  Crew thinks he’s crazy, braver than they thought, but crazy.

Scene 6:  Hero swings over to zombie ship, has problems falling through yardarms and fights zombies, and DEPOSITS BOMB.  Swings back to his ship just as zombie ship BLOWS UP.   Hero survives and wins support of crew.

Notice that the first two scene descriptions are longer.  Had to have those to list all the background info I wanted to put in and how I wanted to add it.  Also missing:  the crew spokesperson.  I figure a harder, older man who believes he should have been captain of the ship.  As it turns out, he’s not as clever as our hero and learns that.  He’s a good follower, but he’s not good at figuring things out.

Try to keep your scene list short and choppy.  If you can get it all on one page, even a novel, you’re doing great.  You just want a laundry list.  You’ll have other documents to help pull all the pre-planning together.

So I’ll write this and send it in.  The beautiful thing is that it can also be the first two chapters of a novel if I decide I like the character enough and want to see what he’s going to do about delivering the cargo and dealing with the beautiful stowaway.  I’m already noodling that idea around. 🙂