Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Writing for Yourself

Learning to Soar    

Write what you know. That's what we're told when we begin writing fiction. Usually, we're kids then and don't know a heck of a lot. So, that advice goes out the window real quick.

Write what you like to read. This is what we're told when we're taking matters seriously and trying to get published. Even then, it's kind of bogus. I recall wanting to write a vampire series and being told by my agent and several editors that vampires weren't selling. Just from looking at books in bookstores I could tell that was bunk. Vampire books never go out of fashion, right along with loner cowboys and damsels in distress. But I was discouraged enough to put aside my vampire dreams because "those in the know" had decided that what I liked to read was dead. (Forgive the pun.)

Write what you'd like to be reading. Ah. Now we're talking. This is the best directive you can give to writers and it will save them a lot of trial and error as they attempt to write what they know and then try to emulate what they're reading. 

Writing what you would like to be reading fills a void and, therefore, makes your novel different enough to stand apart from all others. Why? Because it has your unique fingerprints on it. You aren't encumbered with only relating what you've personally experienced or by trying to fit your ideas and characters into a neat, prefabricated box that other authors have constructed. You are writing a book from your head, your heart, and your own creative imagination.

You pay homage to other writers' styles by using them as scaffold while you construct your story and create your characters. No doubt, you're comfortable enough with a specific genre to use it as a blueprint. Beyond that, you're free to entertain yourself.

Ask bestselling authors and most will tell you that their "big breakthrough" novel was one that they'd wanted to write for some time, but they were either discouraged to do so or they weren't brave enough to attempt it for a few years. However, once they shook off the bindings and wrote what they really wanted to write, they made believers out of the nonbelievers.

My advice? Once you know your craft and yourself, don't worry so much about what others think you should write. Write your story the way you want it written. You won't please everyone and you might even write a book that most of your acquaintances won't read, but someone will read it -- and love it. Many someones just like you are waiting to read your next book, even if they don't know it yet.

 As Garrison Keillor says, "Be brave and do good work." Excellent advice.





Sunday, June 25, 2017

Here, Take it, It's Free

Freebies. Why That Still Smarts.

Giving books away has been a no-no in my life ever since I was first published. It was drummed into me by other authors to NEVER give away your work -- except to your mother and maybe some siblings (providing they actually read books). So, now that every expert in the field of book marketing is telling me to "GIVE AWAY YOUR BOOKS," I find it very unsettling and not an easy thing to do.

But I'm doing it. (gulp)

Not all of of my books, mind you, but one and sometimes two of them. The powers-that-be call this "baiting" or "magnet books" that attract readers to your body of work. Yes, I'm used to sending out ARCS (advance reader copies) in hopes of getting a review or two out of them, but giving books to readers is a new activity for me.

I understand how it works to build your reader base and get them talking about your books. When I go onto Goodreads and see people asking if anyone knows of any good westerns or romantic suspense series, I fume. Why? Because Goodreads doesn't allow authors to jump in there and write, "Read mine! They're fabulous!" Nope. You can't do that. You must remain on author pages where you can post your new book or cover or whatever and hope that readers migrate there to see it. Fat chance.

So, I've jumped onto the freebie bandwagon and have been sending my books to people left and right, free of charge. I'm also going to begin offering a novella of mine to anyone who signs up for my elite readers group or my elite Facebook group. 

Of course, if you're a KU member (Kindle Unlimited) you can get my books for free any old time you want. However, it's alarming to discover how few reviewers are KU members. This is, of course, because they don't ever buy books, so they sure aren't going to pay for a KU membership.

It's also odd to discover people who STILL don't read ebooks, for whatever reason. Most of the time, it's because they say they can't afford an ereader. This seems preposterous to me. You can buy a Kindle Fire for $50 and get books, movies, email, etc. on it. That will SAVE you money, in the long-run. Especially, if you're one of those people who never pays for books, but gets them free on various online sites. Spend  $50 and not another dime to read thousands of books. Yes, the majority of those free books suck. But, hey. They're free, so quit whining.

If one out of five people I have sent books to actually leaves reviews of them on Amazon and/or Goodreads, I will be a freebie convert for life. If not? I'll still keep giving them to readers in hopes that some of them will enjoy them so much they will want to read more of my books. Gee. They might even want to BUY one!




Monday, February 13, 2017

I've Got You Under My Skin

Skin to Skin

A large part of being successful when writing fiction is the ability to slip into character. Ideally, we should become each viewpoint character. Sometimes writers make the mistake of being more like a camera looking at the characters. Or they pop into everyone's head and tell you things about every character (omniscient viewpoint). There are times when these tactics can work well.

However, 98 percent of the time, writers do their best work when they "become" the viewpoint character and stick with one character per scene. This means that they feel, see, taste, smell, think, and know only what that character feels, sees, tastes, smells, thinks, and knows. In this way, the reader is immersed completely in the story. Ping pong viewpoint -- switching from head to head -- can be jarring and keep the reader off balance. Sometimes the reader has to backtrack to figure out who's who and what's what. It can be that confusing.

Writing in first person helps writers stay in one viewpoint and not slip in and out of a character's head. It's a good device for that and it's a popular viewpoint for many romance novels (ala Fifty Shades of Grey). Third person viewpoint is trickier, but I like it because it seems more like a novel rather than a diary to me.

Whatever viewpoint is chosen, the objective should be to use it to make your readers live along with your characters. I like to think that I can pull them in so far that, should a doorbell chime or a phone ring or someone speaks to them, they startle. They're so deeply into that fictive world that they forget everything around them. I know that as a reader I love books that suck me right in so that I'm oblivious to time passing and what's going on around me.

The same thing happens when I'm writing. Once I get inside my character and surrounded by the scene transpiring, I have no idea of the time. Often, I come up for air, so to speak, and I'm shocked that two or three hours have gone by. That's when I know I've been on a roll.

When I was learning the profession of novel writing, viewpoint was the thing I tackled first and it wasn't without struggle. Slipping into someone's skin -- even someone you've created -- is no easy feat! But it's so worth it. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Loss of Excellence

The Way We Were Was Better

If you ever watch Judge Judy on TV then you know that people are far less educated than they used to be, say 15 or 20 years ago.

I watch Judge Judy and I also watch some old game shows on TV. The difference in how people communicate is striking. First of all, quite a few immigrants show up in old game shows, such as "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marks. These contestants are impeccably dressed in suits, ties, dresses, hats. Their hair is carefully combed and the ladies are usually wearing pearls or some other nice jewelry. They are in public, so they are showing their best face to the world. They speak in whole sentences, and although English is often their second language, they speak eloquently and politely. It's truly a revelation to see how Americans used to be. I suppose that's how we gained our reputation as a civilized country where people can seek and find better lives.

Contrast this to Judge Judy where contestants often show up in clothing better suited for the beach. It's not unusual for Judge Judy to chastise someone for wearing shorts and a tank top into court or for having boobs largely on display. She has been known to send them out of the court room or ask women to borrow a sweater or shawl to cover themselves so that we won't have to stare at their breasts spilling out over their plunging necklines.

These modern day contestants mostly grew up speaking English, but it's difficult to believe because they don't speak in full sentences or use actual words. Very often people on Judge Judy say, "My car was tooken by the tow truck." Judy will admonish, "There is no such word." This is received by a look of confusion. "Oh. Okay. Anyway, it was tooken by the tow guy." Duh.

Or they will say that they "borrowed someone some money." No. You "loaned" money to someone. The other person "borrowed" it from you. Again, total confusion ensues.

Litigants will declare that they "conversated" with their friends. Judge Judy will point out that there is no such word as "conversated." She might even acknowledge that some dictionary publishers have caved and included this bastardized version of "conversed." But Judy, bless her, refuses to allow this horrid non-word to exist in her courtroom. I want to yell at them, "Just say, 'we talked, moron!'" Because I can't stand hearing "conversated." There is nothing sadder than a poorly educated person trying to sound educated by using a made-up word. Only geniuses like Shakespeare are allowed to get away with that.

Statistics show that America has slipped down, down, down in the world education scale. I think we're around #26 now with Asian countries holding top spots. I hear people talk about classrooms being too crowded and teachers being too over-worked and under-paid. The latter, I can understand. But too crowded?

I went to school with Baby Boomers. Our classrooms and graduating classes were huge. I never felt deprived of an education. In Tulsa Public Schools in the 1960s and 1970s I had the choice of taking general math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. I chose from French, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. I could elect to take band, orchestra, choral music, or speech/drama classes. I had English classes and advanced English classes along with newspaper and/or yearbook classes. I had civic classes and geography classes, classes in economics and world and American history. In gym, we even studied interpretive dance along with gymnastics. I couldn't swim when I was 16, so I was given swimming lessons in high school. (The pool at Will Rogers is closed now, but it was used every day when I was in school there. We were taught to swim and dive. Those who already could swim were taught competitive swimming and diving.)

By the time I graduated, I was well-versed in arts and sciences and ready for college, having all the credits needed for any university. I wasn't a straight A student or "gifted." I was ordinary, run-of-the-mill, average. I struggled with math, so my parents enrolled me in summer school for math classes so I could concentrate on that one subject in a smaller class with more individual teacher attention. It worked because I made As and Bs in those math classes (before I was making Cs and having a devil of a time keeping up!).

Public school options have changed and, evidently, not for the better. Students are graduating with much lower standards and spouting words like "tooken" and "conversated" with aplomb. They haven't studied any other language, which is good, I suppose, since they haven't mastered their own. They have indulged in the arts only through MTV, YouTube, and going to concerts. 

We are a nation of people who have accepted less and less and now aren't surprised by having it. The top one or two percent receive the best the country has to offer, including education, and the rest of us cater to them and pretend we still have a thriving middle class and that we're not slipping farther and farther down the "dumbing down" ladder.

I write this with a wince, knowing that I sound like an old lady shaking my finger and whining, "In my day . . . "

But, hey. In my day it was much, much better. We spoke and wrote with confidence. Reading newspapers, magazines and books was something we saw our parents doing every day and so we did it, too. Knowing who was president, vice-president, our state representatives, our governor, our mayor -- these were things that we all knew because we were expected to know them!  Not knowing showed that you were ignorant and lazy. Even people who couldn't read made it their business to know such things because they wanted to be aware and involved.

Before we point all our fingers at the education system, maybe we should look at ourselves. Children copy what they see. How often do you read the newspaper? What magazines do you read regularly? How many books do you read every year? Do you ever discuss civic matters with your children or in front of them? Do you take an active interest in their homework and how they execute it? What kind of role model are you?

Granted, we don't have to wear dresses and pearls every day or three-piece suits, but we should take pride in our outer appearance and our inner deportment and character. We should never allow "tooken" and "conversate" to be spoken without a cringe and a correction! Complacency breeds mediocrity. We're already at mediocre. You want to go lower?  





Sunday, November 27, 2016

Writers Never Die -- Or Retire

I'm at a strange crossroads. I'm sort of retired, but not really because writers never actually retire. Not as long as their brains function.

In a couple of weeks I will receive -- gulp! -- my first Social Security retirement check. I have already received my Medicare Health Insurance card. I am officially old. A couple of months ago I eased out of my "other" writing job of writing and editing a monthly small business magazine. I still do a little work for it -- proofing and some rewriting -- but it is no longer a priority in my life. I work part-time for an animal rescue group keying and logging in medical and adoption data. But my main job now is my novel writing, so I've transitioned back to that. For a couple of decades all I did was write novels for a living. Then I hit a dry spell or impasse -- I'm not sure what it was. I just know that what I wanted to write and what the editors at the publishers I'd been working for wanted were two very different things. So, I stopped writing novels and concentrated on writing non-fiction again. I had been a newspaper reporter before I sold my first novel.

Here I am back at writing novels full time and doing a bit of work for the animal rescue organization. And I'm eligible for Social Security. Yikes! How did I get here? And why don't I feel retired?

Well, of course, I'm not retired. And God willing, I won't be until I'm incapable of writing or dead. Even after death, writers don't instantly fade from the landscape. Our writing endures. For the vast majority of us, it won't endure forever as with such luminaries as Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare, Austin, etc. But our work will linger for a good long while after we're gone. It will remain nestled in readers' brains and hearts and they will smile when the recall "that book" they so enjoyed or "those characters" that made them sigh or smile or cry a little.

When you're writer, you can't turn off your ideas. Even when I was writing nonfiction mostly, I was dreaming up fiction stories or rewriting the ones I was reading. It's like eating for us. You can go a while without it, but then you have to indulge or wither away.

So, here I am at the crossroads of retired and still working. I know a lot of people are here with me. Most of them, however WANT to retire and simply can't because it's not financially feasible. I can, but I don't want to, so I won't. I'll keep working, keep writing, keep plotting, keep looking for more readers for my books.

It's an odd place to be, though. Every day -- even weekends -- I feel that I must work as I have for so, so many years. Today is Sunday and I haven't written on my novel-in-progress yet and I might not! Maybe that is my form of retirement. I will take days off. I won't write on Sunday and maybe not even on Saturday. (Yes, I know, I'm writing now. Just go with this.) That seems like a good step toward retiring. I might even go away for a few days and not take my laptop so that I don't write while I'm gone. 

Baby steps. That's the ticket! I'll take baby steps toward slowing down and not feeling that I must work every day or perish. That go-go attitude kept my mortgage paid, the lights and heat on, and food in the fridge. I've lived a blessed life, being able to make my living as a writer since even before I graduated from college.  I know this. I've known it every day when I sat down at the computer (or typewriter, back in the day) and set to work. Breaking away from that every day routine will take some effort, but I feel I should do it. I should retire a little.

Now if I can just make those characters in my head be quiet for a day or two at a time, this might just work.

Work. There. I said it again. See what I mean? Oh! I just thought of a killer scene for the book I'm plotting! Jeez Louise. This retirement business is tricky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why We Read

Infectious Reading

I recently read an interesting article by the ever-interesting novelist Neil Gaiman about the importance of reading. Often, I see posts on Facebook and other places wherein people fret about the younger generations not appreciating reading and preferring to play video games. This fretting flies in the face of huge sales of Harry Potter books and many other adventure novels aimed at children and teens.

I'm of a mind that there will always be avid readers, just as surely as there will always be those who can't bring themselves to read more than a caption under a photograph or instructions on how to play a new game.

Gaiman quotes Rebecca Solnit, who asserted that "a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another." That's so very true, and it's why many people not only enjoy books, but also films, TV, and video games. A book, however, gives you a wholly different journey because, when done well, it allows you to know someone else's mind, feelings, and experiences. You don't just "watch." You live and breathe with a character or characters.

As Gaiman puts it, "books are the way we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth..."

He cautioned against preaching and writing what you wouldn't be that interested in reading. Difficult tasks. That might surprise some, but writers know it's true. The need to "preach" hinders us all. We have beliefs and truths we want to present in every novel, but if we hammer home these "lessons," we risk alienating our readers. Likewise, every writer has written "fluff" to fill out a book. Fluff is usually scenes that go on too long and serve no real purpose other than to add pages, relating information the writer has recently learned and feels compelled to share even it's boring to others, or fascinating facts that end up stopping the book's narrative. To take the editing pen and strike out paragraphs and whole pages takes courage, but is necessary. Like cutting out a cancerous growth.

Lessons or ideas should be sprinkled in, rather than poured into book pages. Otherwise, you will over-season and ruin your original, good recipe for a well-told tale.

In my new novel. SOLITARY HORSEMAN, I dealt with three "lessons." With so many, it was a delicate mission to keep them under rein so they didn't trample my story. Throughout, I had to remind myself why we read -- to immerse ourselves in another place, time, and body, so that we emerge different than when we entered that fictive world. Also, and this is no small thing, to entertain and delight. When I write, I craft scenes that I hope will compel readers to keep turning the pages, but also to elicit smiles, frowns, and maybe even a giggle or longing sigh. This happens when readers "become" the characters; when they forget where they are and what they're doing and take breath for breath with the character in the book.

I recall when I read THE STAND by Stephen King. In it, a deadly disease was killing off most of the population and symptoms started off with people coughing. I had been reading the book during my break at work. When I went back to work, a co-worker walked past me and coughed. My heart froze and my gaze snapped to the person as a sickly fear slithered through my mind with the thought, He's infected! Of course, in the next instant I was back in my own world and laughing at myself even as I marveled at Mr. King's ability to wrap me up so tightly in his fictive world.

That my friends, is talent. And that is also why we read.