I'm very excited today, and was a bit emotional earlier because my book, The Kindling went to press today. That means it's being printed and is on en route from being an idea in my head to being a physical, tangible book. It's difficult to express how this feels or what it means.
I looked at the date on the first draft. March 18, 2009. It's been a long, long time. Some of that is because I'm obsessive about rewrites. But most of that is because a great deal has happened in my life since then. So, it's all the more exciting to see it getting so close to being a reality.
Being a theatrical creature, I'm used to creating in a collaborative way--there are actors, designers, technicians--all kinds of people with whom you can talk and discuss. You bounce ideas off each other and there is a potent synergy created.
Writing a book is much, much different. It is done in isolation. I have a wonderful critique group who read it and give feedback as I go, and my kids are very good at this, too. But it's not the same. As an introvert, part of this is wonderful. But it's also odd after years of theatre work, and it is a little scary. What if you think something is really funny or suspenseful or cool--and then readers find it lame?
So, there are two relationships that come to be very meaningful to an author. First of all is the cover designer. Covers sell books. People do judge a book by its cover. And so an author is extremely dependent on the designer to make his words into something that will hopefully entice a reader, something the author can be proud of. I've blogged before about the wonderful designer who did my cover. I've been so grateful for her good work.
I haven't talked, however, about the editor. Gosh, I love my editor! I already trusted Melissa because we worked on my first book. I felt that she was sensitive to my voice and my words, but also brought a clear head and sharp eye.
One of the best things an editor can do for an author is take out the parts that are lame. The parts that don't work, find the mistakes and so on. I've heard horror stories from other authors about editors who were overly harsh and prescriptive. I've heard horror stories about the other side of things as well, editors who didn't make any suggestions or changes, who really didn't seem to care about the book.
So, I'm grateful for my editor, who walked that line well, I think. Who seemed to care about the book and wanted it to work, who was open to my suggestions and thoughts and also had a firm hand when the prose needed it. She was generous with the changes she allowed me to make, and was also very patient with my appalling and persistent misuse of commas.
It is a cliche to refer to a book as your child. But it's a cliche because it's true and accurate and so people use it all the time. So, today, as my baby is shipped off to the printers, I want to take a moment and thank the literary OB/GYN/Midwife.
I normally don't like to give writing advice because there are a lot of people who have been writing much longer and better than I. I'd rather stick to things I know, like snarky thoughts about camping, old-fashioned musicals, or discussing the strange but lovable creatures we call middle school students.
But I've had some major writer's block lately and it has me thinking about how to deal with it. I know that a fair number of aspiring authors read this blog, so I'm going to pass on what's helped me. Not in the spirit of pontificating, but just in case it helps anyone.
Because of the way my life is structured, I don't usually write everyday. It's just not feasible. Instead, I write in long patches on weekends or holidays, or during little league practices and that sort of thing.
I also write intuitively. That is, I don't have an outline. It just doesn't work for me. I wish it did and I've tried. I write more through a process akin to dramatic improv. There are clear terms and parameters, but within those parameters things happen in a wonderful, spontaneous way. I imagine I write this way because I was a theatre person long before I was an author.
This is all well and go0d--but it means that I'm extra susceptible to writer's block. If I have one gap all week to write and nothing comes--that's bad. And if that inspiration doesn't strike character-wise, then I'm stuck.
This week has been spring break. I wanted to get several posts done for a blogging gig I have as well as finishing a book I've been working on for a year or so. I have an idea for a new book I want to start, but I have a rule that I have to finish before staring the next one. Otherwise, I have 10 or 15 partially finished novels in my computer. So, I felt some urgency.
Here I was: motive, opportunity, and very rare large blocks of time. My laptop was warmed up, ready to go. And writer's block struck. Here's what I did that helped me.
1. Try something else. I know that a lot of people say the cure for writer's block is to keep writing. But I also think doing something else for a while can have a beneficial effect. I get some of my best ideas when I'm mowing the lawn or weeding. My wife swears that inspiration (not for writing, for other things) strikes her when doing dishes. Doing something that requires you to use different parts of your brain, something active and hands-on is always a big help for me. Exercise is similar.
2. Go back and make sure you didn't make a wrong choice earlier. I suspect this is less relevant for those who outline and write with a clearer plan. But I find that sometimes I have taken a wrong turn with a plot point or character choice. In doing that, I've limited the options or weakened the conflict. I usually find that if I go back, I find something I can tweak or change. That will often unlock the next several chapters very nicely.
3. Edit what you have. Sometimes when I'm really desperate, I'll go back and edit or polish earlier chapters. Besides the value of having a better final product, sometimes something I see will spark something for the point of the story that is stuck. It might be some unintetional foreshadowing, or a line of dialogue I had forgotten about. If nothing else, then I get a jump on the editing and revising that I will inevitably do.
4. Keep writing. Sometimes I know what I write is no good. Sometimes it's almost painful, in fact. But it can be changed and polished and revised later. Getting something on the page means I'm part-way there. I believe it was Madeleine L'Engle who said, "Books are not written. They are rewritten" and that is very true.
5. Do other things you have to do that you won't when you start writing again. This is related to number 1, but it's important so I'm listing it again. Because many writers do tend to get carried away and write for hours at a time when inspiration strikes, I have tried to be conscious of using the down-times more consciously. I try to play games with the kids and engage with my wife so that, when inspiration does come again, I hopefully have filled their buckets a bit before I go and become a hermit again--a hermit who mutters madly over his computer while trying strange expressions and weird voices.
So, just before Christmas I got the first version of the cover for my book, The Kindling, which will be released in June (or July--I can't remember now. I'll have to check). This is an initial draft only. My publisher is very good to get feedback from the author--as well the various editorial and creative staff. So, it's possible that the final cover will look different, even very different. Still, it's fun to get covers, and I thought some of you might be interested in the process and seeing how it evolves (if it does).
It's incredibly exciting to see the cover for your book. It makes it real somehow. It's also exciting because it's a visual representation of your book--an interpretation of the essence of your story. So, it's a pretty big deal. What do you think?
P.S. You can read a little about the book here.
I realize I've been a bad blogging buddy lately. You come here and then I don't go to your blog. I feel like that one sister in the ward who always has people babysit her kids but is just never free when people need it in exchange.
So, sorry! I'm hoping things ease up a bit soon. School started, of course, and for moms that means 9 months of partial freedom. For teachers, it's just the opposite, of course.
Then, I've been working like a madman on my middle grade novel. Nights, meals, bus rides to 8th grade retreats, election speeches by class officer candidates--however, I don't work on it during Church meetings because even I have my limits.
Anyway--I want to talk about that novel for a minute.
When it was first written, it was a little over 400 pages and it was brilliant. I knew it. I read a lot in this genre and I just knew it was excellent. I had some kids read it and they loved it, too.
I knew this was good. I could see in my mind how good it was. Then I gave it to some friends to read. To my surprise, they showed me the weaknesses. Too many instances of telling not showing, way too much narrative, long passages of unnecessary explanation.
At first I was confused. They must not get my genre, I thought. And then I looked more closely. They were absolutely right.
You see, my idea is wonderful. It's interesting and a little unique. And in my mind, it works perfectly. But they, of course, couldn't see my idea. They only saw what I had translated that idea into. And the two didn't match.
I fancy myself as very self-critical and tough on myself. But because I was so tuned in to the wonderful idea, I missed the rough execution.
My friends did me a HUGE favor by helping me see my work with new eyes. And I went back and slashed and sliced ruthlessly. Any writer will know what I mean when I say that each slice felt like it was going into my heart. But the book is sooo much better now!
A few more read-throughs and I'm going to send it off and try to get an agent. This endeavor was faciliated greatly by my friends, who loved me enough to be honest. They helped me see the difference between what I wanted and intended to do and what I actually did. Good friends. May I always have those kind of friends and may I always be one of those friends! I think there is a larger parallel here, but I'm going to leave it for you all to apply. I've gotta run!
I thought I’d talk a little about some of the criticism I have received for my book. Understand, I’m not fishing for people to say, “Oh, it was wonderful, don’t worry!” nor am I feeling defensive. But I am trying to learn and thought it might interest some of you as well since I know there are other beginning writers who read this blog.
When I my book was accepted for publication, I knew that some people would like it and some wouldn’t. I knew some reviews would be good and some wouldn’t. Over 20 years in the theatre have left me fairly objective about my work and open to intelligent criticism. In fact, I pay careful attention to the critical reviews and analyze them because that’s how we learn. I’m a big believer in being teachable. I’m new and want to get better. What I didn’t realize was that those good and bad reviews would cite the same things.
For example, the element that I have heard the most about is the characters. Those who like the book feel that they know the characters, that they are real. They care deeply about them and are drawn into their stories. Those who don’t like the book feel that characters are shallow and clichéd, stereotyped cut-outs.
As I said, it surprised me that different people felt so strongly about the exact same thing, and saw them from such different perspectives.
I’ve been thinking about the character issue a bit. This is interesting to me because, there are things I would change about the book if I were to start on it again tomorrow. But I think the characters would be basically the same.
That’s because they are as they appeared in my mind. Changing them just so they wouldn’t be clichéd would see dishonest to me.
Here’s an example: there was a summer camp on our campus this past week. One of the offerings was a robotics class. Two of the students taking the class are girls of Chinese descent. I walked past them and happened to hear them comparing their notes about violin lessons. Incidentally, they have soft voices.
Now, if I were to write a novel about an Asian girl who talks softly but takes robotic classes in the summer and plays the violin, I would be accused of writing a clichéd character. I understand that. And yet…there are Asians who do those things and they are just as real as Asians who do not engage in those activities. So, if I write about a young woman of Asian descent, do I need to studiously make her do the opposite of these real-life counterparts? Have a bad attitude, talk back to her parents and watch MTV instead of studying—just for the sake of not being cliched? I get that this can be refreshing to some extent. But to do it for the sake of just not being regulat seems as contrived and unrealistic as a cliché.
I suppose I could have taken the characters as they appeared in my mind and changed things around. Curtis could have been a poor, grumpy Elder’s Quorum President. Ed could have been a lonely ultra-orthodox conservative. Stephanie could have been a middle-aged woman with depression instead of a young mother. That sounds like an interesting story. But it wouldn’t be my story. I can only write about what I know and what I can imagine. One well-known author/agent/editor/publisher says emphatically that we don’t want to portray regular people in books—we should emphasize the eccentric and show what peopled don’t know.
I understand that. But in theatre, success of characterization is measured by the degree to which an actor or director takes an ordinary person and gives them depth and a credible emotional life. In fact, if one is playing an eccentric character, most actors will try to tone down the eccentricities, or at least ground them in a realistic emotional context. The highest praise for most actors or directors would be that they showed new emotional layers in an otherwise ordinary, common, regular character.
That’s what I tried to do with The Road Show. Whether or not I succeeded is an open question, and one that every reader can answer for his or herself.
Part of what I hoped to accomplish with The Road Show was to take characters that were readily recognizable in Mormon circles and lift the curtains on their lives a bit. I hoped to open the reader’s heart and help see beyond the obvious.
That is one of the great revelations that comes with being a bishop. Ordinary, average people come to you and suddenly you see that they are struggling with terrible problems and burdens. It may be a cliché that someone struggles with pornography or depression, but it is not a cliché to that person as they experience it first-hand with all the human drama that comes along with it. When a human is suffering they are anything but average, anything but cliched.
My goal was to start with recognizable types, clichés if you want, and hopefully help the reader see that there was a real person there. The idea being that in real life, I think we look at people and quickly assess them and then assign them into our own clichés. He’s a liberal, she’s a conservative, he’s unorthodox, she’s uptight—without realizing that the human emotions they have make them living, dimensional people.
The extent to which I succeed is clearly a matter for individual readers to decide. But I maintain that the goal itself is worthy. That's the kind of LDS fiction I want to write--it's the only kind that interests me.
Ok, does this post make me sound defensive? :)
I am going to interrupt the hoopla surrounding the roll-out of my book, as well as the red-hot giveaway (with participants now in the low double digits :) !!!! Click here to be next!) to blog about something that was infinitely special, and to remind myself of a lesson I learned yesterday.
It started with an interruption.
It's spring break, and I had hoped to do a LOT of writing: I have a new novel I'm trying to rough out, I wanted to get some posts in the bank for my gig on Mormon Mommy Blogs, and then I wanted to work on a plan for a book trailer for The Road Show. Promoting a book is almost a full-time job. Yesterday, I was going to be super productive.
But then Jeff, my three year old wanted to play Memory. I hate this game and have since I was a kid. The fact that my three-year old trounces me has not made me like it any more. Simultaneously, my seven-year old wanted to play Monopoly. I had Church meetings last night and I knew if I didn't get my writing done in the window I had, I never would.
But, I chose put the writing aside and go play with my kids. They're growing so fast and life is so busy that I don't get many opportunities to do that.
I've been sad lately to see Jeff start talking more like a child than a baby--saying his "r's" and "l's" and just growing up. I've been a little emotional about that--my baby is getting big. He's also not nearly as cuddly as he used to be.
I played Memory (and won!) and then started Monopoly. While we were playing that, Jeff started to get tired. He came and curled up against me and just stayed like that for a good hour or so--drifting off and dozing, and cuddling. In only happened because I was down on the floor and available.
We're so busy with all the kids, work, church and so on, and Jeff's so big, I don't know how many more opportunities I'll have to just cuddle with my little boy before he's too big and grown up to do that. So yesterday was a gift. I'll have plenty of time to write later. But those few moments will never come back. I've been reliving--and relishing them--ever since.
I'm so glad I paused to play the game. If hadn't interrupted my work, I would have a few more pages in my novel, but no memories of a cuddly, chubby three-year old on an afternoon in early spring..
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