My Writing Process

I’ve been tagged to do a  the Writing Process Blog Post by Jenny Neill. You can read her blog post here.

If you follow these posts–which you can on Twitter by using #MyWritingProcess–you’ll see the wide variety of practices that creativity engenders. We all do it differently, there’s no one right way to write.  Which can be comforting where you encounter dogmatic rules or teachers who insist that their method is best.

So, here are my answers to the four questions:

 1. What Are You Working On?

Tricksy question. Writers don’t just write, so here’s what’s up today (besides this blog post, of course): I just sent a query to a magazine, and put in four ideas for blog posts to another site. I check a couple of writing job sites each day. I also investigate writing markets that I hear about: who’s buying what sort of article, and how much do they pay? What kind of stories are they looking for?

I have two talks to give in September–one an hour long, so I must prepare those. The talks are in support of my books in a roundabout way–meaning, I wouldn’t be invited to a writing group to give a talk if I hadn’t written a couple of books, and the books will be available for purchase (fingers crossed). In support of those books, I also blog and stay active on Facebook.

About an hour each day is spent on my WritersCalendarLA.com website–a calendar of events in Los Angeles of interest to writers.

But I sit down and write as well as doing all that other stuff. I’m about 80% done with the next nonfiction book. and I work on that every day. Well, I try to work on it every day–today, I slipped up.

2. How Does Your Work Differ from Others of Its Genre?

I wrote a historical novel about Ancient Gaul, then a nonfiction book about Baby Boomer trivia, so I’m tempted to answer “Genres, schmenres.” But both books are works of history and required a lot of research,  and so history is my genre. Not every article I write is about history, but because I do have a degree in the subject, my queries in that area meet with a little more success.

I like to think I’m different from most historians in that I am not academic or dry. I don’t footnote everything (although some magazines request a fully footnoted manuscript). And I differ from most non-historians in my devotion to accuracy and detail. I enjoy research; I make sure of my facts.

My life as an author would be much easier if I had stuck to one genre and carved myself a nice little unique place in it, but freelancing teaches you different lessons. When you freelance, you must be able to switch from topic to topic on demand. History, especially, is not a big seller, so I write about other subjects as well.

 3. Why Do You Write What You Do?

A lot of writing is opportunistic. We write what we do because this is the writing that pays the bills–that kind of loops back to the previous section.

That said, most of the topics I pitch are of interest to me. Of course, right?  Who would ask to write a story about algebraic functions if they hated math?

But even when I’ve been asked to write about a subject that bores me–home maintenance for air conditioning systems for example–I look at a few websites until I can follow the mechanics of how those systems work and how the pieces fit together. Then, I find it interesting–as if it were a puzzle and I had to devise clues and workarounds.

The books, though, are entirely my choice and I write what I enjoy. That’s probably why time just disappears when I work on those stories.

4. How Does Your Writing Process Work?

I write whether I feel like it or not. Oddly enough, very good prose can result from forcing yourself to write even when you’re uninspired.

For nonfiction, I often start writing in the middle of a piece. When I’m researching, I’ll find little stories or facts that I want to include, and I’ll start scribbling, playing with them, making paragraphs. I know absolutely that I still need a lede and an introductory paragraph or two, but writing out the middle helps me see both how the beginning should go, and what the ending will be. You could say I build a bridge first, then look for the best landing spots on each bank.

Then I rewrite. Constantly. And when I think I’m done, I put the work aside for a day or two, then reread it. I always find something to change! It’s amazing how a good night’s sleep refreshes your eyes and your brain.

I don’t work with outlines usually; the exception is personal essays. I find that an essay goes astray very quickly if I don’t create an outline. I need to know what my main points will be so I can move from one to the other. My guess is that’s because an essay is not a story, necessarily. The beginning, middle, and end are not self-evident so I must impose a structure.

And  . . . that’s it!

Now I Tag Three Other Bloggers:

Dana Melton and Jessica Alexander, who publish under the pen name Kirby Howell, have been writing together since 2000 when they met at the University of Alabama.  Dana, a native Southerner, quickly showed Jessica the joys of living below the Mason Dixon Line.  Having lived in nearly every other part of the country, it didn’t take Jessica long to acclimate to sweet tea, grits, and football.  They now live in Los Angeles with their husbands and have penned two young adult novels, Autumn in the City of Angels, and its sequel, Autumn in the Dark Meadows. Their blog is at KirbyHowell.com.

Debra Ann Pawlak writes from southeastern Michigan. Her latest book, Bringing Up Oscar, The Men and Women Who Founded the Academy, is available online in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio versions. Her work has also appeared in various publications such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, Scoliosis Quarterly, Aviation History, Pennsylvania Heritage, The Writer and Michigan History Magazines. To learn more, please visit her website at DebraAnnPawlak.com  or her Facebook page (Hollywood: Tales from Tinsel Town). You can follow her on Twitter too: @DAPwriter.

Barbie Herrera writes under the pen name, Martha Emms. Her book, Portrait of Our Marriage: Memoirs of Love, Family, the Internet, and Obsession takes you behind closed doors into the hidden world of a couple’s sexual relationship. Follow their journey as a husband’s casual interest in pornography escalates and changes their lives. Intimate details shared from eight women’s lives add to this blatantly real addiction of our time. This story has mature content but is not pornographic. Follow Martha on Facebook and @barbiesway on Twitter, or on her MarthaEmms blog.

Being Fascinating on Social Media

Face_Twit_160934814If you’ve set up–or are thinking about setting up–a Facebook page or Twitter account for your book or for yourself as an author, this is for you.

won’t talk about how to get zillions of followers. (You can pay to do that but I advise against it–followers gotten that way do NOT turn into readers.) No, this post is about posting great content, so that you attract and keep the kind of followers who will read your book and articles.

You’ve Set Up the Account. What Do You Do Now?

Your plans may include asking all your friends to like or follow you. Ask them to recommend you to their followers. Add your new site to your business cards and email signature. All good. Then what?

Well, whole books have been written the then what. My suggestion is that you work your new accounts daily, putting up interesting posts and tweets, so that the followers who give you a try are intrigued enough to stay with you.

catEvery day. It’s gonna chew up some time, and I’m sorry, but unless you are wealthy enough to hire a personal assistant to do this for you, resign yourself to being on Facebook and Twitter for an hour each day–at least at first.

That hour does not include surf-time. It doesn’t include chatting or posting on your personal page; in fact, the smartest thing you can do is NOT EVEN LOOK at your personal page when you open Facebook. Go straight to your author or book page instead.

Can you cut the time down to less than an hour? Yes, and I want to guide you to that point.

Social Media Posting: A Primer (just slightly misleading)

I have actually read–I am not making this up–a “social media for authors” booklet or post  that swore you could handle all your social media outlets in 12 minutes a day.* These were his instructions for Facebook, as well as I remember them:

Log into Facebook. Bring up your author page.

Quickly check to see if you have any waiting messages, and answer them.

Check and “like” any response to previous posts.

Post your message for this day; log out.

Bring up your book page.

Quickly check to see if you have any waiting messages, and answer them.

Check and “like” any response to previous posts.

Post your message for this day; log out.

Repeat for any other pages you have.

Now, let me be clear. This is good advice; you do have to do this. But the idea that it would take less than 12 minutes daily is bogus (yeah, I had another B word in mind).

The author lumped Twitter into that 12 minutes as well, assuming that his readers were all set up on a Twitter-management program like Hoot Suite which responds to all new followers automatically and sends out tweets at programmed times. Again, nothing wrong with that; my problem is with the 12 minute time frame.

gr8contentThere is a flaw in all this and I’m sure you’ve spotted it. You can’t do all this in 12 minutes because . . .

Because . . . what are you going to tweet and post?

The Question of Content **

Once in while you might say, “Hey, my book, the fabulous NOVEL, is on sale!”

Once in a while. . . . But the rest of the time the posts and tweets must be interesting. A link to news that’s relevant, a clever saying, a picture–and it should be related to the book topic, or to you as an author. And it should be something different for each page.

pq4f88beeeSee the problem? You have to go searching for fun, interesting content, so you’ll be spending a bit more that 12 minutes a day on the pages and Twitter account. You want content so great that Mr. Spock will do a double-take, or at least go “hmmm.”

I raised the question of what to post so that I could answer it, of course. If others have better or more efficient solutions, believe me, I’d love to hear them.

How to Find Fresh Content

Like or follow interesting sites and forward along their good content.

That’s it.

Well, that’s 90% of it. Of course you watch the news, you see things, and if they are related and interesting you post about them. You generate charming ideas of your own, too, and you can set up Google alerts on phrases that will bring you odd little tidbits.  But if you are a busy writer, your everyday posts will often come from other fascinating people.

How Do You Find Pages to Follow?

First, log into your Facebook page or Twitter account.

  1. Look up your favorite authors, folks like Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, etc., and see what they’re posting. Interesting, huh? I picked them because they are very active. Like them. I’d recommend following Mary Balogh as well. She may not be as famous, but she proffers great posts.
  2. You can follow dead authors too–J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance. Their pages are filled with quotes from their books and news about related topics.
  3. Follow bookstores. Little ones and big ones. They often link to interesting articles and post funny cartoons about books.
  4. Use the search bar to find pages/tweeters related to your book.

cover-blog size#4 is vitally important, and will work differently for every author, because every book is different. The words you search for will depend on your book topic. For Death Speaker: A Novel of Ancient Gaul, I searched the terms druid, raven, Gaul, France, Celts, Celtic, Celtic lore, etc. Yes, I turned up a lot of  basketball pages and moved on. Then I searched Beltane, Iron Age, Brittany, Carnac, Archaeology, and more. Not all panned out, but I found plenty to like.

Now, every day, I’ve got a couple dozen posts and pictures that could be very appropriate to the Death Speaker Facebook page. All I have to do is like and share.

attachmentDitto with the Boomer Book of Christmas Memories page, where my search terms were along the lines of Baby Boomer, GI Joe, Barbie, Ideal, White Christmas, 1950s, etc. I can’t say I’ve got my social media handled in 12 minutes; most days it’s around 20-25.  And there are days that it’s an hour, but that’s because everyone I follow is so dang fascinating.

And Another Thing:

A few more things, really, but all can be fun. These items lead you to Pay Attention and get the most out of Facebook.

  1. Like posts often and leave comments. Always be civil, not critical, but try to add something too. You want others to click on your page because you sound interesting.
  2. Notice when a page you’ve liked is sharing from yet another site, and click and like that site.
  3. Type in your search terms every month or so. Facebook pages come and go; there may be something new.

I strayed from Twitter over the last few paragraphs, but you get the idea, I’m sure. Instead of commenting on a tweet, you might retweet it, or respond cleverly to the tweeter.

It’s all about getting good attention and building up followers, because they are your audience as well as potential book buyers. The number of followers you have could sway folks who might be deciding whether they should invite you to speak to their club or sit on a panel at a conference. The number of followers might interest an agent, or an editor who wants an essay on your book topic. Someone who follows you might have influence you haven’t even dreamed about. So consider each follower a contact that could change your life.

 

 

*Sorry, it has been a year or two since I read it and I don’t recall the author (other than his gender) or site.

** The Great Content jpg came from this website, which also posts  about writing great content–the advice there is different than mine.

The Importance of Place in a Story

IN PARADISE cover

The setting can be the most important part of a story.

What brings this rumination on? I just finished reading In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen.

Brilliant, wonderful book on so many levels: the precise  language, the slow presentation of the protagonist (the overused metaphor “layers of an onion” comes to mind), the haunting descriptions of both the crumbling setting and its history, etc. etc.

And let me just say that I think the big reviewers (NYT especially) missed the point of the book, and were so eager to equate the character with the author that they missed Professor Olin entirely. I wish I hadn’t bothered to read their reviews, because it kept me from running out and getting the novel until last month.

But now to the topic of this post:

What really strikes a reader–what must be the first thing mentioned when saying anything about In Paradise–is how important the SETTING is.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Paradise takes place at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1996. A group of 140 folks have come together to meditate at Auschwitz, and we follow one particular person as he reacts to others and to the place itself.  I’ll say no more about the book because I don’t want to even hint at what you should discover for yourself.

But you can see that such a dramatic venue couldn’t be replaced with any other, fictional or not.

Setting. We all get it, right? We hear in classes and lectures and read in articles and books that setting is vitally important to a story. As important as a main character.

Take any genre. Westerns? Self-defining. Historical? Heck, us history geeks read the books BECAUSE OF the setting, first and foremost!  Mysteries? Almost all good mystery series, from Sherlock Holmes up through Thursday Next, rely on settings to distinguish their books from the thousands of others out there. Anyone who picks up the next volume of  a mystery series these days is welcomed into a world and decade they’ve come to love.

sci_fi_city_by_mrainbowwj-d6whh09SciFi? Good SciFi novels bring the future alive. You come to recognize the spaceship or the exotic planet or the crowded, subterranean bunkers as home. The setting shapes the characters and forces most of their decisions.

In fact, that last sentence sums up the importance of place quite nicely: it shapes the characters and forces–or at least, guides–most of their decisions.

The setting can also set the mood of the story and of each scene. It can inspire awe, or present solutions to problems. It can create problems.

images (1)Here are some classic examples:

  • The sweeping stories invented by the Brontës and Jane Austen just could not happen with the same charm anywhere but in 19th century England. Think about the reason those protagonists–Jane Eyre, Elizabeth, Heathcliff and Cathy–have for every action they undertake, even for their inaction. Those reasons would not exist in another time. (Thanks to the skill of the authors, we understand them perfectly.)
  • Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and Gandalf live in Middle Earth–no where else.
  • The Great Gatsby takes place in New York. 1920s New York. You can modernize the music to make a point, but no one has ever been foolish enough to try and change the setting. The greed, the arrogance, the naïve hedonism could not fit into any other decade.
  • Harry Potter. Every single scene is imbued with magic! Nothing happens in a boring coffee shop (except for a wand-battle in the last volume).

images (2)Pick your favorite book–the one you fall into as if it were a down comforter arranged on your reading chair on a winter’s evening. Now, could you take  all those characters that you love and drop them into another place and time? I doubt it.

So if you write, be it fiction or not, treat the setting of your story as a character. Give it richness and complexity. Touch all our senses with its particular flavors and textures.

How? Do whatever it takes. Peter Matthiessen went to Auschwitz to meditate, not once but three different times. One can only imagine the notebooks he filled with descriptions and thoughts.

I went to France for Death Speaker, and came back with hundreds of pictures and notes on the weather, the moon, the bushes, beaches, and boulders.

Wherever you’ve set your story, go there–physically if you can, via imagination if you can’t. Learn what the streets smell like and when each plant flowers.
6c976000d150c43adff7ae966c0efdafEven if the place is made up, even if it’s another planet, you have to know what your characters will experience there with all five of their senses (unless they have four or six senses, which I suppose is possible). How many moons, and when do they rise? Do they cross each other at times?

In the Game of Thrones world, winter comes every ten or fifteen years. In an Ursula LeGuin story I once read the seasons changed only once in every generation. Those kinds of shifts have repercussions! They determine how children are raised, the myths that are taught, the foods eaten (or whether there is food to eat). It would also shape a world’s economy and politics.

Look, I’ve read a few fantasy books that didn’t think these issues through. Those booksy were inconsistent, and worse–the stories were shallow. The characters often had no depth, either. IOW–uninteresting. And that is the last thing a book should be.

downloadYou don’t have to be wordy; the best descriptions can be terse and perfect. Think of Night Circus–better yet, think of your favorite book again. How did the author pull you in? Discover the tricks and use them to spice up your work. And by spice, of course, I mean specifically which spice: cinnamon? basil? an addictive substance? What color is it? Is it a pod or a leaf? How finely ground and in what sort of bowl? You get the idea.

 

 

Chorus Line, Carrie Bradshaw, and the Real Writing Life

A Chorus Line features a great song for writers, “The Music and the Mirror.”

Like all the songs in that musical, it was originally written for dancers but it speaks to everyone. You don’t need to be a dancer to get the song–we’ve all felt a bit useless at times:

Give me somebody to dance for
Give me somebody to show
Let me wake up in the morning to feel
I have somewhere exciting to go . . .

tumblr_lu8t4yJ46n1qjrugbo1_500Does that sound like Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, the newspaper writer with a shoe habit? Maybe on a bad day? With newspapers cutting staff left and right, I think the next Sex and the City movie should revolve around Carrie losing her job. Her book deal falls through and she’s forced to join the throngs of real freelancers scrambling for gigs.

My beef with Carrie is that she adds to this ridiculous idea most people have, that writers do very little work, live glamorous lives, and make lots of money.

So let’s address those points.

First, the amount of work.There’s a very funny open letter to Carrie from freelancer Lucy Ledger in which she says, “I’m pretty sure I work 10 times harder than you but my picture is not on the side of a bus.”

Since writers always seem to be available for lunch or coffee, folks assume we don’t work much. The truth is that most writers write 10, 12, 14 hours a day. The reason that we’re always available for lunch or coffee is that we are desperate for a break and some human interaction. Writing is lonely.

As for being glamorous:  imagine me laughing so hard that I must run to the bathroom before I pee my pants. Now imagine I’m back. That’s about as glamorous as it gets.

That leaves making lots of money, which fictional writers like Carrie and Castle seem to do easily. The truth: writing is a poorly paid profession. There’s no minimum wage for freelancers. That’s why so many of us are waiting on tables, teaching high school, or signing up with Kelly Services.

Writers scramble to find writing work. They send query letters to agents and editors, proposing articles and new books. There’s lots of competition and the markets change constantly. I say that not to whine, but to be clear: writing jobs aren’t handed out like day labor gardening stints. You don’t hang around till someone says, “Hey you, give me 500 words on your favorite celebrity!”

I wish. In reality, the writer thinks of a topic, spins it, finds a market, creates a killer pitch for the idea, sends the pitch to the right editor–and often hear nothing in response. Ever.

(Is that news to you? An old friend of mine thought that writers just called up magazine editors, identified themselves as writers, asked for work, and got assigned a story. And that the editor also provided all the research material to the writer. No.)

Back to the song: “Use me, choose me . . . “

Now, while waiting for editorial responses, a writer also looks online for work. It’s easy to spend several hours a day looking for writing jobs. CraigsList and other sites post gigs for writers, so of course every other writer in the world is checking them out along with me and sending a letter or application. Sometimes I get lucky. Since my specialty is history, I’ve gotten a few jobs by letting my academic work push me ahead of the crowd, and that’s fine.

downloadThere are also places that offer work at a price of a penny a word.  Quite a few places, sadly. Even worse are sites that don’t pay at all, but will remunerate you later based on a certain level of clicks that your article may attract. Kind of a “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”  set-up, only I don’t think anybody ever makes enough money to buy a hamburger. At least not a big, juicy Bluenami from Islands.

Not all writers scrounge for work. Either they don’t need the money–like Carrie, they married a Mr. Big–or they have day jobs that they don’t dare give up because, let’s face it, who wants to spend 3 or 4 hours working on a someone else’s blog post that’s only going to get them $5? And when I say blog post, please don’t assume that blog post will be on the writers’ choice of topic. No, when you work for hire, the post you must write could be about maintenance on an HVAC system, the nearest parks to a condo development in another state, or edible plants that grow wild in the Pacific Northwest.

Actually, that last one was kind of interesting.

But you get the idea. These aren’t the kind of thing you can toss off without research–way more research than anyone should do for a penny a word.

But it’s writing and it pays. I look at such jobs as  my way of telling the universe, “Hey, I’m doing my part. I’m taking the work I can get.” Amazingly, once I swallow my pride and start plugging away, something better does come along.

“Give me a job and you instantly get me involved.
Give me a job and the rest of the crap will get solved.”

I know other writers who earn money as writing coaches and editors. Some teach their craft; they’re very good writers, but they need that supplemental income that comes from the class.

I also know some absolutely great writers that have honed their skills and energetically built up a network and resume, so they always have work at top-paying markets. I am not jealous; I know how hard they worked to get themselves to that point and I applaud them.

That’s an upbeat note to finish on, but here’s one thing more: like most creatives, writers are happy doing what they love, even if they’re not getting rich. We take those other jobs because bills have to be paid, not because we’ve become disenchanted with writing. Like the hoofers in A Chorus Line, we are  passionate about our craft–but our careers will last longer than a dancer’s.

So there.

 

 

Editing Advice from a Pro

The nice thing about living the Los Angeles area is that there are so many meetings–both social and instructive–for writers there. **

oldtypewriterRecently, I listened to a wonderful editor of many years’ experience talk about writing. She said that the most important choices writers make is what to put in, and what to leave out.

Yes! And I would guess that no one gets that exactly correct, because each reader is a little different. Some wish for more detail, while others are impatient to get to the end.

Time changes our preferences too. I just read Middlesex: A Novel that won the Pulitzer Prize twelve years ago. Guess what? Much as I loved  it–loved it, truly madly deeply loved it–there were a few parts where I thought the author went on a little too long. Did he? The Pulitzer committee didn’t think so. I am sure the reason I did is that in the last twelve years, we’vecome to want more and more trimmed from our stories.

Remember when Joe Friday used to say “Just the facts, ma’am,” whenever someone started to ramble? Who knew he was prognosticating?

Manylintes

Really?

Anyway, back to Editor Aviva’s talk. What to put in and what to leave out?

She used the image of a stage, so picture your story on an empty stage, scene by scene:

  • Where does the spotlight go?
  • How many people are on the stage? Do they all need to be there?
  • Really?

OnelightTo start setting the stage at the beginning, you must be clear for the reader about who the protagonist is and what the story is about. Every detail should contribute to that.

She put this in another way: Think of your story as a magnet. Everything in that story must adhere to the magnet. Little asides and scenes that don’t adhere to the story should be dropped.

In all the areas Aviva the Editor talked about–voice, point of view, structure, etc.–the main advice she had to impart was CONSISTENCY. Always be consistent.

  • Point of View: once you establish a point of view, stay with it!  If you’re omniscient, jumping into everyone’s head, you have to stay with that. If you’re telling one person’s story through their eyes, stay with that.  If you tell a story from one person’s standing for 150 pages, please don’t suddenly switch to another person for a chapter. That’s so jarring it can ruin the story.
  • World Building: Even in SciFi and Fantasy, where you create the world, you must be consistent. If you create a world where the sun rises in the west, make sure it rises in the west throughout the novel. If the world is a burned-out wasteland, that world could not suddenly have a garden in it, right?
  • Characters: These must be consistent too. They must feel real, and they can be complicated, but the annoying girl with a whiny voice will not suddenly turn into a mothering, gentle soul. Now, people should and do change in the novel, but you have to lay the groundwork for that. You just don’t have people changing for no reason, or doing things randomly.
  • Style: If you’re writing in a tough-guy, 1940s voice, stay with it. Don’t change in the middle of the book! Don’t ‘forget’ to use it for a chapter or two!
  •  Stay consistent to the end. The reader must feel that the story is DONE. Folks have changed. Issues are resolved.

One other word of advice. In a book, you are opening the door for the reader to see another world. You have to kick it open!  You can’t just nudge it a little. Plunge in, and bring the reader with you.

** Rather than bore you with a recitation of all the opps a writer in LA has to be entertained, instructed, and befriended, I’ll just mention that said opps inspired me to create the Writers Calendar LA.  If you’re in the Los Angeles area, please check it out. And if you like, scroll to the bottom of the calendar and treat me to a virtual cuppa coffee to keep me chugging along.

Stories . . . They’re Everywhere! Arghh!

telling storiesI once thought it might be fun to say to everyone I met, “Tell me the most interesting thing that ever happened to you or your family,” then gather all the stories into a book.

I still think it’s a good idea. Maybe I should delete that paragraph so that no one steals it.

The point is that stories–good, thought-provoking, colorful stories–are everywhere. If you write, you need to know that.

I know a lady in her 90s who thinks her tale would not interest anyone–it’s not as if she were a Holocaust survivor, she says. No, she was merely a newlywed who traveled by steamship and rail to the old country–Berlin in 1937–to visit her husband’s relatives. There, they had a front-and-center view of Krystallnacht–the night when  Nazis went on a rampage, smashing windows and setting fires to Jewish-owned shops and synagogues. During the next few weeks, she and her husband–both Jewish–managed to get some of his relatives out of Germany by train. They used coded telegrams to learn if the next stations were safe from Nazi inspections, and spent some time wondering just how much protection their American passports would be if push came to shove.

But who would be interested in that?

A friend of many years just revealed that her marriage in the late 1970s was performed by Johnny Cash, who’d only become a minister that week. A coworker and her daughter took fencing lessons from the guy who taught Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn and who donned the Darth Vader costume to duel with Luke Skywalker in the 1980s. And should I even mention the 80-something lady who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and a prison camp to be rescued by Otto Schindler, and who was the inspiration for the little red coat in Speilberg’s film? She is setting down her own incredible life story with the help of another writer.

Amazing tales are all around us. You probably know a few too. They don’t have to be about a whole life; memoir is not autobiography. An incident or a year is perfectly acceptable as fodder for your imaginationMaybe you don’t know the end of the story or all the details, but the bits and pieces inspire you. That’s fine.  

My father sat his parents down once and put a microphone before them. It was the early 60s and he wanted them to talk about their lives. When I listened many years later, my first thought was disappointment. My grandmother , who had a phenomenal memory for addresses and dates, droned on for a full 20 minutes about every house they’d lived in. Every three or four months, a new one: “And then we moved to Juanita Place, 3530, that was in Inglewood, and then that December we moved to Boyle Heights, to a blue building on the corner of . . . “

But I soon realized the bigger truth behind this, which she kept at bay with her stark addresses: They had no money. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, they moved from a place whenever the landlord threatened to bring the sheriff. A few months here, a few months there. Often the move took place in the middle of the night.

That’s how my father grew up. And that’s a story, a sad one in his case, but I can see it being a funny story too, for a different family. The Marx Brothers, maybe.

Please understand–I am not suggesting you appropriate someone else’s biography and use it for your plot! Bad, bad. But a story like my grandmother’s may spark a lively scene in your 1920s romance, of someone sneaking out of their home before the landlord comes calling. That happened to many folks; it’s generic and not traceable to any one person.

I realize these are all old stories. OK, how about the 30-something adoptee who traced her birth parents and went to visit her newly-found family in the Carolinas? She came back to her West Coast home depressed and overwhelmed; she hated everything about them. Including their toothlessness. Or the aerospace industry engineer, who was found wandering the streets of Tijuana as a toddler and adopted by missionaries, then educated in the top schools? A brilliant man, but still hampered by an accent and shyness he can’t seem to shake. The crazy lady writing her rambling memoir that (she’s convinced) will expose the malfeasance of corporate America’s GMO food producers and change the world forever has a story to tell too–all grist for the mill.

Jennifer Egan filled A Visit from the Goon Squad with vignettes that charm–like the story of a 1970s African safari recalled fondly by a character reminiscing, twenty years later. And then we’re there, on safari, meeting new people, seeing younger versions of the characters in the book. At the end of that chapter we learn that one of the children on that safari starts a Facebook page fifty years later, which led to a chance meeting and marriage for two of the participants, now senior citizens. I loved that small bit and wondered if a real-life episode inspired it.

In my last corporate job, my boss walked in one day and said, “I hear you write?”

“I do.”

“My mother has a great story. I just don’t know what to do about it.”

The boss’s mother was raised in a proper Japanese home in Southern California in the 1930s. At one point, her traditional parents–no doubt worried that she was becoming too Americanized–sent her to a Japanese “finishing school” in mainland China. Why they decided on China and not Japan itself is a mystery to all. Maybe it was cheaper there. Japan had taken over Manchuria a few years before and had a strong presence in China.

Right after the young lady traveled to China and settled into her new dormitory, all hell broke lose. The Japanese picked that time to attack China. Ever hear of “The Rape of Nanking” ? Japan attacked Shanghai, then Nanking, the capital city, which became the site of some of the worst wartime atrocities in modern history. If I went into detail, I would make you physically ill. In Nanking alone, 300,000 people died in six weeks. And the war spread out from there.

So here’s this teenage American girl of Japanese descent in mainland China. The school’s shutting down, teachers are fleeing, and there’s a vicious, bloody war going on. Neither she nor her dozen classmates speak any Chinese language. Some of them don’t even speak Japanese! They’re in a dangerous place and their only hope is to split up and escape, go south toward Hong Kong, and try to get back to the USA. They make a pact to contact each other once back home.

My boss’s mother made it. She never heard from any of the other girls. Not one.

By the time I heard the story, the woman suffered from Alzheimer’s. She’d never talked much about the horrors she saw in China and I don’t know how much of the details her children were able to learn. Her story–the little I know–still gives me chills. What a novel or movie that would make!

So when people say they don’t know what to write about, I really think they’re just not listening.

Confessions of a Non-Communicative Writer

Writing used to be the haven of the socially inept.

William Hogarth's The Distrest Poet--from Wikipedia.

William Hogarth’s The Distrest Poet–from Wikipedia.

We could be shy, cowering in our garrets. Wallflowers, plain or geeky but secretly brilliant . . . we might appear to be nobodies now but would become famous after slipping away from our unappreciated lives. Think Emily Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole. Among the living, there’s Thomas Pynchon–even Lemony Snicket.

Then there were the rude, brooding authors, often drunk and brutally honest, even more often drunk and wildly dishonest. Their boozing or drug-taking was excusable, along with occasional foul mouths and surly or arrogant demeanor, because these were souls tortured by the inner visions struggling to emerge. Hemingway is my ultimate example of this stereotype, but you might prefer Bukowski.

Engraving after William Marshall, publidhrf by William Richardson, 1794. From Wiki

Engraving after William Marshall, published by William Richardson, 1794. From Wiki.

Back in the day, writers didn’t have to appear in public. Or if they did, they didn’t have to presentable. Unkempt clothes and a growth of beard added to the mystique. Women could wander the streets in pajamas like Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction. If you were a writer, you could talk to yourself. Life was good.

What the hell happened?

I aspired to that style of authorship. Mystique becomes me. I can brood well when motivated, and I do talk to myself, though drugs and drinking are out. But someone has changed the rules, and I’m not happy about that. In fact, I may start drinking in protest.

Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk. Yes, she was fabulous. Sigh.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. Yes, she was fabulous. Sigh.

Where once writers communicated solely through their work, they are now expected to be media-savvy on all levels. The ideal author is animated and coherent–check them out o YouTube. They wow their fans at TED Talks and conventions, and make entertaining party guests.

Technologically, today’s authors are conversant with Twitter, post selfies on Instagram, and stand ready to jump on the mastery bandwagon of whatever the Next Big Thing turns out to be.

I honed my craft–writing–for years so that I could be invisible. If I wanted to charm folks into buying my books I would’ve gotten hair implants and budgeted for a better wardrobe. And I hate letting a trendy avatar speak for me–where are the rotund and sagging characters?

Posting this blog essay represents the summit of my technological expertise. And I like it that way. Dammit , Jim, I’m a writer, not a programmer!

Yes, I know I’m pissing into the wind. But what good is a blog if I can’t vent on in once in a while?

Warning: Writer Distracted

I just read a very amusing blog post at the 8 Great Storytellers site. It’s all about “Why Writing at Home Won’t Work.”

Wait a doggone minit! I write at home! I do just fine, thank you very much. What does this upstart mean, it won’t work?

This shirt available at Zazzle.com

This shirt available at Zazzle.com

After skipping through email, deleting merrily till she gets to the one about the Zappos clearance sale (“Squirrel!”), and trying to eat breakfast, the author–Julie M. Brown–puts herself back in front of the computer and opens a new Word document, saving it with a temporary title:

 save as . . . What is that out there on the lawn? A flock of birds eating my grass seed? I jump up and run outside with the hose to scare them off. That’ll show you! I holler. Since I’m now outside with the hose running, I decide to sprinkle the lawn. And water the pots, pull a few weeds, and . . . oh my, look at that gorgeous pink rose! I should put it in a bud vase on my desk to inspire my work. I go inside to get my gardening shears. I rummage through several drawers to find them and go back outside to snip the lovely rose. Then I prune the rest of the bush. And the bush next to it.

Just like me!  Well, except that I have no lawn or roses. I like these ladies at 8 Great Storytellers.

The blog post makes its point, but notice that it got written. Julie M. Brown turned her frustration with distraction into a humorous article. She managed to sit herself down and write.

There’s more to be said about this.

Countless sages have talked about the importance of disciplining yourself to write. In a 2008 article from Writers Digest, James Scott Bell claimed that he made himself write 350 words before doing anything else.  Why?  “There are any number of things I can do besides write. If I don’t watch it, my day can fill quickly with little tasks, distractions, interruptions, phone calls and crises of various magnitudes.”

Yup. The Internet is full of advice on how to discipline yourself to ignore the phone and everything else, and write. I just looked. I even found a concise one-page article on why we are hardwired to be so easily distracted.  But I must admit that before focusing on this post I googled Karen Valentine, just because I was curious about whatever happened to her, and previous to that I was on Facebook and before that a couple of calls setting up an Oscar party and on and on.

It’s not just me. We are all being led away from our work with painful ease. Beelzebub in this case is a mouse and a fleeting, half-remembered item of cultural trivia.

distraction

So whether your coping methodology is to write 350 words immediately or set a timer for 50 minutes or unplug the TV and/or modem–or even to simply realize that if you don’t write, you won’t get paid and your bills are due and the homeless shelters are quite unpleasant compared to a heated apartment, you have to find it in yourself to shut the noise out and write.

Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012. She’s written more than a dozen books for adults, a half-dozen for children, several volumes of poetry, and a few collaborations. Briefly, she is prolific. She is the same age as I am, and she runs a bookstore as well. No excuses.

One of her poems is called “Advice to Myself” and I love it, partly because it tells me she has the same problem as the rest of us–distraction–and partly because it tells me how to solve that problem.

The first line of the poem is:

“Leave the dishes.”

My mother, my grandmother, my aunt-with-the-spotless-house and every other female relative is probably turning over in their grave at this very minute, but Louise Erdrich’s advice trumps everything that I ever learned from anyone else. And let’s face it, I never kept a very neat house anyway.

I don’t know if it’s legal to reprint someone else’s poem here, so instead I will provide you with a link to read the rest at Garrison Keillor’s page. He used this poem on his Writers Almanac series several years ago, and I’m sure he had permission. Here it is.

And that, gentle and distracted reader, is how to sit down and write.

Lincoln and Slang

I learned something today that solved an old mystery. Any Lincolnophiles out there?

Lincoln schmoozing at Gettysburg, before he spoke. Lamon is the big guy on the right.

Lincoln schmoozing at Gettysburg, before he spoke. Lamon is the big bearded guy on the right. From Wikipedia.

If so, you may remember that after Lincoln gave his short speech at Gettysburg (so short that the photographer didn’t have time to set up and take his picture while he spoke), he sat down and murmured to his friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, “That speech won’t scour.”

I always took it to mean something like “That speech won’t play in Peoria,” to use the slang of fifty years later. Or is it Poughkeepsie?  Or “That speech doesn’t have staying power.” And actually, all those things capture the sense of it. Lincoln thought his speech had failed and would be forgotten.

Still, what an odd word to use: scour. Scour is when you scrub something with iron wool, right? (I’m dating myself here. Iron wool is what we used to call Brillo or SOS pads–those soap-encrusted scrubbers used to cut through grease on frying pans.) You scour with the iron wool–clean with it. Scrub ruthlessly. Wreck your nails. What does that have to do with giving a speech?

I have just learned that “scour” had a different meaning back then. To a farmer–and most people were farmers in the 1860s–scouring had to do with plowing a field.

Plow designed by John Deere in the 1840s, from ohndeere1837.blogspot.com/

Plow designed by John Deere in the 1840s, from ohndeere1837.blogspot.com/

As you pushed your plow through the earth, the rich, black dirt (well, in Illinois it’s rich black dirt) scooped up by the plow either turned over and fell to the side, or clumped up on the mouldboard of the plow–a big pain, because then you had to stop plowing often and scrape the dirt off.  A good plow flipped the dirt to the ground along the row. That was called scouring.

Lincoln’s words were verdant with meaning, as always. Everyone knew what scouring was; after all, Lincoln was not a farmer himself, and he knew. Everyone also knew their Bible back then. In Matthew 13, Jesus told a parable comparing words to seeds scattered in the earth, and that would have been familiar to anyone who heard Lincoln’s comment.

Words were like seeds; the Bible story said. They could, in the right soil, take root and grow the way the farmer planned. Plowing scoured the soil and made it right. Lincoln wanted to plant an idea and he feared he had not scoured the dirt well.

Nothing is richer than slang and idioms, but sadly, nothing ages faster and loses its meaning more quickly.

I learned about scouring from Ian Frazier’s article on the John Deere Plow in Special Collector’s Issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which has been sitting in my bathroom,  partially-read, for three months.

Hey, there are two types of people in the world: those who read in the bathroom, and those who don’t. Those who do are infinitely more interesting, imho.

My Big Fat Google AdWords Campaign

attachmentI’m going to pass this along, for what it’s worth. I created and ran a Google AdWords campaign for my my book The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories. It started about ten days before Christmas and ran into the second week of January.

I figured this book was perfect for such a campaign. It is a Christmas book aimed at Baby Boomers, or at people buying gifts for Baby Boomers. I wanted to put the book in front of those people. How better than to connect it to words and phrases those people might type into Google?

The young folks at Google AdWords were excited and eager to help. They worked their magic on my ad, building the click through rate to an astounding percentage over that first week. It was downright exhilarating–so exhilarating that I doubled my daily expenditure during the last week before Christmas. After all, I wanted to strike while the iron was hot, right?

I understood that in spite of the great click-through rate and the other acronyms they threw at me,  there was no way to measure the actual effectiveness of the ad. Amazon would not allow that. I could not tell how many of the potential customers who clicked on my ad actually bought the book, but my hopes were high.

The result? Sadly, the sales did not pay for the expense of the ad. Not even close.

As I said, just passing it along.