Monday, November 24, 2014

Perseverance, with an Example

Every writer, myself included, has given others some of the standard advice. Write what you know (or some version of that statement), and never give up. Keep going no matter the obstacles. Persevere, persevere, persevere. And every writer who has ever published anything will nod her head knowingly. On this wet and windy Monday morning I offer an example of that advice.

Dorothy Stephens is a freelance writer who published her first novel, for the YA audience, at the age of ninety. Someone who knows her has to tell you she's ninety because otherwise you wouldn't believe it. That aside, her novel, A Door Just Opened, is set in rural America in 1910. The story takes us into the life of thirteen-year-old Anna, who longs to escape the world of the farm and attend high school. But there is no money to send her to school, her mother needs her on the farm, and soon her older sister, Mary Ellen, brings a complication that threatens to sink the family. Based on a family story, the book was published by Fire and Ice, a young adult imprint of Melange Books, LLC.

I first met Dorothy through a friend, another writer, who steered me to Dorothy's memoir, Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959. The memoir was a finalist for the 1996 Bakeless Prize in Nonfiction, 1993, given by Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Dorothy's memoir is a reminder of how much the world has changed as well as how free we Americans once were when traveling abroad.

I'm writing about this here, today, not only because I admire Dorothy and enjoy her work but also as a reminder to me to look beyond immediate circumstances.

Over the last several weeks I have been dealing with a family illness, and as focused as I have been on this my mind has occasionally wandered into more selfish terrain, where I have the shocking, nearly debilitating thought that I will never write again, that I've lost my place in the pantheon of midlist writers, and, yes, that I'm drowning in melodrama.

I'm not terribly good at selfless acts, and I never fully ascribed to the idea that you "go where life takes you," as though I were in a canoe without a paddle--and without hands. But those moments pass, and at the end of it all, as things start to improve, I forget the selfish thoughts, congratulate the patient on such a strong recovery, and sit down at my desk, once again trying to figure out how to solve a murder I set up before I had a solution. Very short sighted of me, I know, but apparently typical.

Dorothy Stephens is a delightful person and an accomplished writer, and, at the very least, a sobering reminder of the importance of taking the long view and persevering all the way.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Resting" as Part of Writing and Editing

Writers share lots of practices and habits without thinking they have anything in common with each other. As practitioners of a solitary profession, we tend to think we’re entirely on our own. But we do share practices that help us develop and complete our work.

I’m a strong advocate of writing a fairly complete rough draft, working on that until it is nearly polished, and then setting it aside for one to three months, depending on the length of the work (a short story or novel, for example). I leave myself enough time to become “unfamiliar” with the work so that when I return to it I will read something with a fresh perspective, discover ideas I didn’t know I was including and characters who surprised me, and I will notice where the writing gets mushy and the story line is rushed. I will see the flaws, and I hope the occasional successful passage.

But what will I do during this waiting period? Sometimes I like to alternate between an Anita Ray story and a Joe Silva mystery. I could start another writing project, perhaps another novel, but that might interfere with my ability to return to the original mss, the one that is settling and aging nicely on the corner of my desk. I could work on book reviews or short blog posts, but I do that anyway throughout the week. I could begin another short story, something that won’t take the entire waiting time but enough of it. Or I could resurrect an earlier story started and abandoned. 

This time around I’m resurrecting a forgotten Anita Ray short story, one that I abandoned and forgot about. As I read it over I can see where I went wrong—three terrific murder suspects but no murder. Instead I originally wanted to concentrate on a different sort of crime, something akin to espionage, but that meant the story would meander for a while and lose its coherence. Perhaps the idea is better suited to a novel or novella rather than a short story. But now I want to use the setting and characters and set-up for a story, so I have begun reworking it. As I trim dialogue, insert a murder scene, and recast one or two characters, I find I have a much better, tighter story.

The story has been sitting forgotten for over two years, but the lovely thing about computers is that it’s still there, easily accessible and readable. I’ve been working on this story for a week now, rethinking and rewriting. Meanwhile, my unconscious has been sending me snippets of dialogue to incorporate into the “resting” novel when I return to it, and problems I had left unsolved or solved awkwardly now seem to have ready and elegant solutions.

The period of “resting” a story or novel is also a different way of working on them. By the end of the month I’ll have a reworked and nearly finished Anita Ray short story and be several steps ahead in completing the novel I set aside a few weeks ago.

John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction and other books on writing as well as several novels, once commented that novelists can be slow thinkers, slow to come to solutions, by which he meant writers should be willing to wait for the right solution to come along rather than jumping at the first idea they have. Don’t grab the first idea, the first twist. Let the story rest and see what rises to the surface over time. After a period of time away from the work, I find it easier to see what needs to be reworked and where I can strengthen the story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Knowing Your Characters

A new story or novel usually begins for me when I see characters moving around, engaged in a specific activity. Once I know these visual images will be part of the story, I begin looking more closely at the protagonist.

Developing a character in fiction often seems to be an exercise in choosing hair and eye color, height, and physical build. The man, of course, is always handsome and strong and drop-dead attractive in most novels. And the woman is equally gorgeous, at least to him. These are the details we learn first. But I want to know much more about my characters before I begin writing, alert to the fact that I will discover more as I work.

I keep a set of questions to answer as I begin working with a new protagonist or important character. These questions are equally important for the main characters in subsequent Mellingham books. I may not use all this information in the story, but if I begin writing without knowing the answers to these questions, the character will come across as flat and undeveloped. This is the process I went through to develop Chief of Police Joe Silva, who appears first in Murder in Mellingham

Here is the basic list I work with. You may have other questions important to you and your stories or settings.

Where did she go to school, or college?
How did she pay for it?
Did she graduate?
What is her economic or social class background?
Does she own a set of formal attire? How does she look in formal clothes?
Does she have a distinctive walk or mannerism?
Is she left-handed?
Where is she in the birth order in her family?
Were her parents young or old when she was born?
Are her parents still alive, still married?
Does she maintain close relations with her family?
Is she athletic? What are her pastimes?
Is she a regular voter? Is she politically savvy?
Does she have pets? 
Does she know her neighbors?
Does she have a lot of friends, or a few very good ones?
What kind of car does she drive?
How old was she when she learned to drive?
Does she need to be able to drive for where she lives?
What is her first reaction to someone threatening her?

The last question may seem to be the whole point of a story, for example, but is in fact how the story grows. In some parts of the country a man or woman is expected to respond to a phsical threat with enough force to make the other person back down. But in other parts of the country, the first choice of reaction is humor, to defuse the situation among other things.
The question of education is equally important. A working class man or woman who went to college in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps as the first in the family to do so, would appear on campus for the first day of class well dressed, perhaps in a blazer or formal sweater. A young man or woman who attended prep school would dress differently.

Someone who is very conscious of social class and maintaining status would choose a car carefully. Someone who grew up with money and didn't care about it could be just as happy driving a junker, but he would have the car serviced regularly by a very good mechanic. In Love Takes a Detour, the people of West Woodbury village are dependent on their cars. The rural area has no public transportation, and the outlying farms are too far away from town for walking. Keeping a car on the road means women as well as men are ready to do quick repairs.

Chief Joe Silva is typical of the man who grew up in a working class family, broke the tradition of generations and went to college. He paid his way through by working part time, and, typical of that era, left school with no student loans. He remains close to his large extended Portuguese family, and takes people as they are. As the chief of police in Mellingham, he encounters men and women of all classes, and he judges them only on their behavior. He doesn't like ostentation, and he admires those who are good parents. The sixth book in the Mellingham series, Last Call for Justice, focuses on Joe's family and background.

Just as our close relatives can surprise us with a quirk or personal taste they never revealed before, so too our characters can startle us as we write. This is the best part of discovery, when the character comes alive and leaves the author's control, and I always look forward to those moments of going deeper into a character I thought I knew.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finding the Ending

Every part of a story poses its own problems and challenges. I often find multiple solutions but one usually jumps out as the best. Writers spend hours crafting the perfect opening sentence and then the opening paragraphs, thinking this is the most important part of the book. If the opening doesn't grab the reader, the following pages will remain unread. I don't know if the opening is the most important or not, but certainly I spend a fair amount of time on it.

The middle, after the crime has been committed and the sleuth is drawn into the investigation, has the challenge of keeping the reader engaged, maintaining the desired pacing, laying out clues to keep the reader intrigued, and developing characters to make the reader care as much about them as about the solution to the crime. The middle often threatens to sag, and one solution is to introduce another crime, another murder. This is the land of complications, and the more the better.

The ending would seem to be the easiest part to write. The sleuth pulls together all the clues, applies brilliant deduction or magical intuition, or whatever her particular skill is, and the villain is caught. The ending, however, is more than the climax, more than the capture of the bad guy. The ending is, in one measure, the definition of the story the reader has been following. If the sleuth has been working with or intermittently encountering one who could be a romantic interest, the ending could focus on that, and that by itself redefines the story. Or, if the sleuth has been struggling with a particular burden and overcomes that at the end, either through confronting the villain or discovering something in the process, the story shifts from romance to personal journey. Or, suppose the sleuth has learned something important about family, her own or another's, that changes the tone of the story yet again.

I am grappling with these choices now as I come to the end of a story about a young woman who was born into a family of healers. Through a deathbed confession, she learns about a theft from her home before she was born. When she attempts to reclaim the stolen articles, she uncovers a body. This is a story of family, a marriage that never happened and one that did, the sacrifices made by another to preserve her marriage, and learning to care for a dwindling parent. I have written all but the last one or two scenes, and in choosing the final ones I will be choosing how readers will look back on the entire story. Through the frame I construct, will they see a romance, a definition of the role of the paranormal in ordinary life, a story of families undermined by years of lies, or families preserved at all cost?

I have read several books lately that have powerful stories but weak or extremely unsatisfactory endings, as though the story is enough for the reader and when it's time to end, the writer just stops writing, plugging in any scene that will serve to end the story. In my view the ending is much more organic than that. This week I'm finding the ending for the story of Felicity, a young healer living in a farm community who discovers truths about herself, her family, and the world she lives in. And I have to decide on which one to explore in the final scene.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Enduring the Life of the Writer

I recently came across a quote by Kurt Vonnegut that had me nodding my head in agreement. But as I did so, I wondered how many people really understood what Vonnegut was getting at. The quote is this.

 “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer.”

Plenty of people say they want to write, but what they really want is the prestige of having written. They want to stand around at a potluck dinner and casually mention they've just finished their novel, or they want to sit on a panel at a conference and talk about how hard it is to understand this character and his motivation. They want, in essence, to be seen as a writer. Few really want to live the life of a writer. And that is probably because few understand what that life is like, and when they do get an inkling of it, they find something else to do.

Writing is a desk job and, even worse, a seven-day-a-week desk job. Writing requires the discipline to
claim a seat every day at the same time for hours at a time, to work on projects that may become tedious, disappointing, frustrating, confusing, threatening or worse, and keep at it until you either finish it or abandon it, wasting valuable time and inner resources. And you do it alone.

For many years I was a free-lance editor and ghost writer. I reached my desk every morning, five days a week, at nine o'clock. I took a break for lunch and worked till at least five o'clock. I tracked all my time, for billing reasons, even stopping the clock to take a phone call. I kept a careful record of hours for my final invoice, in case anyone cared to challenge it. If you are a ghost writer, you may negotiate lots of specific terms but you can never know until you begin how you're going to feel writing this particular project. You may find that you despise this book after the third chapter, but you also may be very reluctant to quit the job at hand because that's your paycheck. If you've taken an advance on the job, you're going to have to give money back.

If you are going to write for a living, you are going to be tied to deadlines. Once you agree to a project, for example, editing a six-hundred-page book on labor relations in Egypt, you're accepting the publisher's schedule, and the vicissitudes of your life matter little or not at all. If the author is late responding to your queries, you may still not be able to renegotiate your deadlines.

And you have no one to complain to about the injustice of it all except your partner. Spouses of writers are known to be extremely generous and tolerant, if they last, out of necessity.

Once I started focusing on writing fiction during the day, instead of late at night or on weekends, life did not change. I still had deadlines for book reviews, articles and essays, and manuscript evaluations.

And whenever I went to a potluck dinner, the last thing I wanted to talk about was my "work." I can't talk about a story I'm working on, and god knows I don't want to talk about the writing life. It's a job. Do you expect a plumber to talk about the sink he put in earlier that afternoon?

Some years ago I dropped into the Boston office for a nonprofit that provided pro-bono legal referrals for artists. The room was small, with a window looking out over a busy downtown street. The walls were covered with bookshelves packed with legal tomes. The desk was a chaotic mess. The young woman who worked there was the sole employee. She had no other co-workers in that old office building, and saw no one during the day unless she went out for coffee or lunch. Depending on your attitude, she had the best or the worst job in the city.

The life of the writer means that you spend most of every day alone. You have no one to bounce ideas off of, except for the weekly or monthly writers' group.  The rise of social media has changed things a bit for writers. Now we can check in online with a host of strangers doing just what we're doing--trying to stay focused on a story that refuses to cooperate. But we're still alone with our problems.

If you're a writer, no one cares if you're tired or depressed or have allergies. Your editor only cares if you turn in your work on time and in publishable condition. You can send your mss out to beta readers, but in the end you're the only one who can fix things in the story. And when your story does get published, you may have to tolerate interpretations that make you think your story was published in a foreign language on another planet. And then there are the well-meaning friends and relatives who think you should talk to their Auntie Gertrude who once wrote a really good poem and met an editor, though, of course he'd be 120 by now if still alive, but he did have a son in the business too.

Vonnegut was certainly right about the rigors of the life of the writer. But those of us who do endure it know that it's the only way to live. It's merely a bonus that it's also the best way to escape the inanities of this world, and perhaps save some of our own sanity in the process. If you don't love to write, to choose automatically to spend most of every day with yourself alone and naturally lean toward facing frustrations and problems alone with no help from anyone else, then writing is probably not for you.

I found Vonnegut's quote at a site that offered 20 quotes on writing by any number of writers--Vonnegut, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and many more.