It is time once again for another entry in my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fiction. In the interest of keeping these intros short, I’ll recap that my literary travails this year have encompassed everything from mystery to science fiction, and I have pulled major lessons about writing from each work. The last novel of this first round was no exception: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the best-known examples of dystopian science fiction, which is becoming one of my favorite genres. I know I said similar things about Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but once again I was completely blown away by this work and consider it possibly the finest piece of fiction I’ve read in my short life. Bradbury’s use of language to describe this futuristic, ignorant world is fraught with incredible prescience. Each sentence is crafted tautly and conveys miles beyond just what the words say. Overall I would say this encompasses the two major lessons I learned from the reading of this masterpiece:
There are plenty of other lessons to draw upon from this novel, but I’m guessing many of you have read this one and seen your own parallels to our world. If not, I can’t recommend this book highly enough as it has affected me tremendously, and in ways I’m still figuring out. Plus it is a great example of how to pack the sentences of a fairly short book with meaning - each one entails much more than the sum of its words, making this a book worth paying deep attention to each time you read it.
Well, that’s it for the first round of fiction in this experiment. Up next is a book on writing itself: Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. I’ll write an essay on that and also present the list of books that will encompass the second half of my year. Stay tuned for more updates on my year of living (actually reading) fictionally!
It’s time for the third update in my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. For those of you keeping score at home, the first book I tackled was Oscar Wilde’s fascinating 19th century novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Next was Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea. Now I have switched gears, turning to a book my wife suggested, Lillian Jackson Braun’s 1988 novel The Cat Who Played Post Office.
I will be the first to admit I never thought I would read a mystery series, let alone one whose main mystery-solvers are a pair of Siamese cats and their owner, Jim Qwilleran. But part of my learning experience over the past year has been opening myself up to new concepts, one of which was trying to understand various niches and where my own writing might fit in among them. As usual, I won’t get too much into the plot or give away the ending, but I will say that this was a very engaging novel and Braun creates a world, albeit a few books into the series (which originally started in the Sixties) that I enjoyed jumping into each time I sat with the work. This leads to the first point about writing I wanted to observe.
These are the three main writing lessons I’ve come away with after reading The Cat Who Played Post Office. And yes, I would recommend this book (or series) to anyone looking to get some enjoyment out of their reading. While it probably won’t cause you to make a deep reappraisal of your world and society, it still should give you some good ideas for how to become a more popular author.
Up next in this experiment I turn to an author who I have sorely neglected for some time, and hope to begin rectifying this by reading what is considered his best work: Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Stay tuned for the next exciting installment in my year of living (actually reading) fictionally.
It’s time for another update on my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. For those of you following along at home, the first book I tackled was Oscar Wilde’s fascinating 19th century novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Next up is Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea.
Having not read much of any Hemingway outside of For Whom The Bell Tolls, which was based off his experience in the Spanish Civil War, I was past due to catch up with his better-known material. My wife encouraged me to read this as it’s one of her favorite books, and I can definitely see why. Hemingway was known for his tight sentence structure and there is no better example of such writing than this novel. Once again I don’t want to spend much time on the plot or influence of this book but let it suffice that this is a book about struggle. Struggle against that major goal in your life, struggle against your own personal demons, or struggle against some external force. The pure brilliance of the novel is that by keeping the story simple, Hemingway allows each reader to take away whatever he or she can regarding their own life. This helps lead into the first major writing lesson I found in this work.
First: Keep it simple. This adage is quite familiar to those who have read Hemingway’s work for years, but it especially rings true in this book. It can be said that not a whole lot happens in this novel, but what matters is how it is told. Through the simple language the reader feels they are right next to the fisherman in his boat, witnessing his travails in hooking the marlin and his strife in fighting off the sharks that attack it once it has been killed. Similarly, the author brings you right inside the internal and external monologues of the main character Santiago as we witness the conflicts roiling his soul in his attempt to land the biggest fish of his life. This is a writing technique that I hadn’t really considered and is one I hope to possibly use in the future. Hemingway had me hooked from the first pages of this novel, and I read with rapt attention all the way through the ending, which does not disappoint but offers a bold shot of illumination as I considered this book through the prism of life itself. This brings me to the next huge lesson as a writer I pulled from this book.
Second: Using a novel to tell a deeper truth about life. Hemingway’s final published work has been analyzed to death and read by countless children and adults who have found their own meaning in the fisherman’s battle to hook the marlin. All I can really speak to here is what I took away from the story, which is that each one of us has our own “marlin” in our lives that we are constantly pursuing. How many of us have sought a goal such as this and caught up to it, only to find “sharks” arrive to tear and drag away the carcass? Due to a lack of preparation, Santiago finds he has very limited tools to help him both keep the line going and fight off the sharks as they try to steal his prize. How many of us have felt the same disappointment in ourselves that he did, vowing to do better next time? The sheer force of the elementary language causes us to view this story as a metaphor for our own lives, and is written in such a manner that anyone can take away a parable that fits their own struggles. That is a major accomplishment for any writer, and proved without a doubt this man deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature the year after he published the work that would draw him international renown.
As with Wilde’s novel, this is another one I would highly recommend for any writer who wants to see a near-perfect example of the use of language to tell a deeply complex story. Once again we can learn volumes through the text itself, and while Hemingway was no stranger to offering advice to other writers, it is through his own work that we can learn the most.
Up next on the agenda for my year of living fictionally: Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Played Post Office. Or as my wife would put it, an example of “reading for pleasure” and a forcible ingestion of a type of genre book I would normally never take a second look at. Of course, this was before my time working at a bookstore and learning about the value of various niches. Stay tuned for another essay on that book as we carry on - and as always feel free to toss me your own recommendations for later in the year.
(Part one of this essay involved the more superficial reasons of “why to write.” In this next part, I will attempt to dig even deeper into the reasoning behind our creative impulses and how to harness them for your art.)
In the first part we looked at how to take events and actions and scenes from your own life and see the story value in them. But how do we even come up with such things in the first place? As I wrote in the last part, ultimately this decision will have to come from your own heart, just as our life experiences don't match up very well. But in a way, isn’t that exactly the point? You ought to be able to describe your dreams and desires much better than I could, and are the only one who can view deep into the well of ideas within yourself. So how do we access this part of ourselves: the one that seems a mystery even to us, the observer of our internal life? To briefly return to the more superficial part of all this, it needs to be a clear signal from your subconscious that can also be turned into a good yarn. Returning to my first novel, Our Senior Year, the signals from my subconscious were the feelings I was experiencing during that year of my life. But I wouldn’t have had anything without a proper story. Therefore I had to add other aspects to the story, either by repurposing other things that happened in my high school days or even making stuff up. You can do the same thing - just hone in on a strong memory from your life. What were you feeling at that time? Can it be expressed through the written word? If so, get that part down first, and then see what’s missing. This can be done in myriad other ways, but I’ve found that if you harness a good idea from your life first, it can lead to the rest.
For as Picasso supposedly said, “art is the lie that lets us see the truth.” At the end of the day this is what you should hope to accomplish with your art: creating an excellent lie that lets the world see your inner truth. This could be the simple truth about growing up in a small town, dealing with its high school residents, and your religious family, as it was for me. Or it could deal with your own set of specific circumstances. Remember, this is your best asset. Nobody has lived your life before, and nobody will since. Draw from the most volatile of your own experiences to get the best results. I’m not saying any of this will be easy, of course. Putting your own personal pain and misery on paper for the world to see isn’t a smooth prospect even for the best of us. I anguished over what people from my hometown and family would think before I published that first book. But I don’t worry about that anymore, because I created a falsity that told a truth about myself and the universe of a small town. As long as you are being true to yourself and your story, you shouldn’t give a damn in the world what anyone else thinks about it. (Ok, you’ll have to care about what some people think, like your editor, but that’s a ways down the road.)
If that doesn’t work, you can go more abstract or less. A simple look around you may suffice. Can you tell a story about the people you see near you, or your apartment, or your home, or your neighborhood? Or if you want to go more granular, consider your deepest held beliefs and principles, and try to puzzle out why they exist. If you think this country is messed up and going adrift from the intent of its founders, try to gauge why you feel that way. Is it because our democracy is failing? Is it because people are apathetic? Write an essay corralling your feelings that may be of use in a larger story. If you have feelings for another but you are ashamed or afraid of them for whatever reason, try to figure out how they are holding you back and put it into words of your own choosing. We are getting more in the territory of dealing with the overall picture of life here, but any writer worth their salt can tell you this is the center of the “why write” question.
“Write what you know” is a platitude worthy of being ignored if you think you can, but there is a reason it has stuck around for this long. And that’s because it works. It works because it’s so simple. What do you know? Think about the thousands of answers to that question, any one of which could lead you down a rabbit hole into a story idea you didn’t even think was hanging out among the inner recesses of your subconscious. Or maybe it’s sitting right there in the open, waiting for you to understand how well you know it. This could be your feelings for another person, the way you view your occupation through the prism of the current society, or how you deal with setbacks and advances in your own life. The point is, only you know how you’re going to react to these things, and therefore only you will know where the story lies. And if it’s not in that particular thought, move on to the next one until you find it.
This second part of the essay is rambling into esoteric territory, so I’m going to leave the topic alone for now. I hope that you have found a bit of guidance into the “why” of writing through these posts, but if you didn’t please know that what works for one writer won’t always work for another. At the end of the day all I can hope to accomplish is helping others locate what I have found within myself that allows me to press forward with my writing. The “why” for me is easy: I have found what I’m meant to do with my life, and now comes the hard part of refining it and trying to find a modicum of success. But in order to figure out that big “why” we must first locate the initial “why:” why we sit down to pour our hearts and thoughts out onto the page in the first place. Once you discern that within yourself, you’ll be ready to start creating stories.
Those of you following this blog in 2016 know about my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. This is off to a grand start as I’ve finished the first book on my reading list: Oscar Wilde’s seminal (and only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While I could spend the majority of this essay expounding on the literary shattering of the 19th century social consciousness that this incredible piece of work affected, this operation is more geared toward taking away writing skills from each book I read.
So regarding the novel itself I’ll keep it brief. This was absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read. Considered a “philosophical novel” it is all of that plus much more; a daring look at aestheticism in the age of Victorian prudishness, it also contains one of the more remarkable examples of early science fiction writing as a play on the Faust legend of selling one’s soul to the devil. Except in this case Wilde does the story one better in that Dorian Gray’s soul has been transferred to a portrait, which keeps track of every malady and malfeasance he accomplishes while his own face retains its youthful luster. For those who have yet to read this marvelous work I won’t give away too much of the plot other than to say it will keep you hooked straight through to the end.
Now I want to move on to the takeaways from writing I gathered from reading this amazing book. But first a quick aside: I’ve written before about how rather unnecessary all those “how to write” lists and columns from authors have become to me. Instead of looking at those, I have maintained that the best way to learn from an author better than yourself is to simply read their work. That should teach you everything you need to know about how to improve. And in this case, that comes through in spades.
First: The adage of “show, don’t tell,” and its purported usefulness. This mantra is spouted to almost every writer attempting to make a go of it, and for the most part it is valuable, if pithy advice. Yet Wilde almost entirely ignores this in his novel. While the literature is a pure joy to engage with, and is a valuable critique of his own society at a time when that was frowned upon, just as interesting to me as a writer is what he doesn’t say. We are right there with Dorian Gray as he finds out the horrible secret of his portrait, but not necessarily when he goes on to a life of debauchery and hedonism outside of a full chapter on his interests in tapestries, jewels, and other expensive tastes. In a later scene in the book, Gray blackmails a scientist friend of his into performing a horrific act that will eliminate some evidence. These two are mentioned as having been good friends until Gray’s sullen reputation causes them to never see each other again. Not mentioned is the actual incident, or what Gray uses to blackmail his friend. Long stretches of time pass with barely a mention, and you have to pay close attention to see what point of the story has been reached in each chapter. To me, this would appear to go against the “show, don’t tell” rule, but in fact is an excellent example of how to elude things like this in the service of telling a story. For up until reading this book, in my mind the most sacred of golden calves in the writing world was description: make sure your reader knows what’s going on by showing him or her, and making sure they get the full measure of your scenes and characters. Wilde turns that on its head by consciously avoiding a lot of the headier parts of the story in favor of letting his audience consider what Gray is up to during the intervening chapters. While this probably comes as little surprise to more advanced literary readers, to me it was a quiet revolution in my style of writing, and one I suspect will be attached for some time.
Second: The use of the novel to speak volumes about one’s society. As is pretty well known, English society didn’t care much for Mr. Wilde or his supposed improprieties. Despite being one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century, he was cast aside by his peers for daring to criticize his contemporary culture and its vagaries and norms. Seeing this in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to recognize just how important it is to use art in this regard. Those of you who have known me for a while understand my obsession with politics and the situation our lovely world finds itself in these days. In fact, the bizarre qualities of our modern life (escape of accountability by politicians, rampant corruption in the financial sector, devastating poverty for the vast majority) are things I hope to target in my third novel. So it’s very motivating to read such an incredible analysis of Wilde’s own day in his text, just to see how well to do it. This is seen no better than in Lord Henry Wotton, friend of Dorian Gray and a supposedly bad influence on him who leads him to a lifestyle of ruin. And how does he accomplish this? By urging his young companion to engage in art with all of his senses, and to live for the moment in any way he can. This type of lifestyle was unheard of in 19th century England at the time and caused mass opprobrium against Wilde that could culminate in him being put on trial for various obscenities a few years later. Sadly, as is too often the case with many great literary authors, Wilde obtained a more fair scrutiny after his death. But the legacy of his work reflected a sea change in the notion of what a novel, and art in general, could and should be.
These are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned from reading this marvelous work, but you out there may draw different conclusions. That’s why I would strongly urge anyone to pick up this book if you haven’t read it yet. And I would highly recommend it for those of you trying to figure out your own writing voice, as it’s a great example of how to write exceedingly well. (And if you’re looking for further recommendations, I posted my own set of favorite fiction books last year.)
Next up on the docket for my year of living fictionally: a change in the lineup, as my wife really wanted to read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea together (much like we read To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago - and yes, we are married dorks). It’s a relatively slim volume I’m ashamed to admit having never read, and shouldn’t knock me too far off course from the list I created earlier.
And of course, those of you out there are always free to send me your own recommendations. I’ve received a few great ideas so far, but can always use more. Now it’s on to the next book!
One of the big-picture items of the writer’s life is sitting down to decide what to write about each day. But even larger than that in terms of what you hope to accomplish with your career is the “why” of it all. I’ve covered a few important topics on the writing process last year; this year my plan is to first take a deep dive into the issues motivating a writer and then continue on with how to get that novel sitting in the deep recesses of your brain into a reality.
So, why write?
Unfortunately this is going to be another one of those topics in which the only real, right answer will come from your own heart. If you’ve decided to sit down at a word-processing device and pour your heart out, you’d better be damn sure this is what you’re meant to be doing. But how does one figure that out? Where do all the ideas come from, and why won’t people stop asking where your ideas come from? I wish there was a simple answer to all of this, because if so I would’ve milked it for all it was worth and made a lot of money doing this. Truth is, just like motivation, whatever forces you to want to create must come from inside. Nothing I can do or write will ultimately help you in this regard. That being said, I can at least try to provide some guidance for your soul as you head down this journey.
The big “why” of it all should be some kind of trigger from your life. An easy exercise to figure this out is to understand what is driving you. I can offer up an example from my first novel here. Our Senior Year was a story I had been carrying around with me since my own senior year of high school. I saw somebody like myself as the main character, and thought of a composite of some of my friends that could exist as other characters. It would be my attempt at telling a basic “boy meets girl” story that takes place in countless high schools across the nation, only in this case my shallow mindset at the time forced me to *spoiler* have the main character commit suicide once he realizes the relationship can never be. Looking back on this time (as it became a more major theme of the actual novel), I can see that I was trying to tell a story to deal with how I was feeling in those days, and felt that this would be the only way I could get it onto paper. As the story progressed I realized there wasn’t a whole lot of other plot there, so I subsequently came up with some other ideas, such as the *spoilers* car accident and the college visit. But ultimately this story was borne of the necessity of what I needed to tell.
Now try visualizing a story like this from your own life. What story is inside you that you are burning to tell? What can’t be fully realized until you get it into that kind of form? If there isn’t anything there yet, dig deeper. There are many reasons to write, and this is just one way to access those feelings. But how you deal with those feelings is the key: this is a story that has to be told, and you are the only person who can get it right. Is there a relationship in your life that isn’t going well? How are things going with your parents? Do you enjoy the place where you live, your current status in life? All of these things are worth pondering if you’re trying to get to the core of what it is to feel that writer’s drive. Again, these are just partial motivators, but they are one way to get started. The “why” of writing is that a story is burning deep within you that must be let out - are you able to calm your mind enough to ponder and think it through? I had to learn how to do that so don’t think it’s going to be an easy or short process. But when it comes down to it, this is a solid way to get ideas, which contrary to popular belief don’t just appear out of the ether (ok, sometimes they do).
The larger point I’m trying to make here is the “why” of writing can be anything you want it to be. On another side of things, say, the journalistic side, perhaps there is something going on in your neighborhood that really gets you animated and makes you want to effect some change. Find out who the key players are, interview them, and find other relevant government documents or other supporting elements that will bolster your overall picture of the situation, and then find a way to get it to the masses. The main element of this is whatever drives you: the story, the article, the situation, the people. Same can be said for stuff that’s going on in your own life. I can use an example from my second novel for this one.
Last Man on Campus was another slow burner that existed in the back of my brain since my college days (it used to take me decades to finally put these ideas into story form - I’ll write more about my own problems and limitations in this space soon). I knew it was going to be a scary story about some kind of conspiracy running the show at a college campus very much like the one I was attending. That thought alone was enough to drive me to figure out the plot aspects of the book and eventually forced me to expand it into *spoiler* a larger universe that will spill over into at least one more novel. But at the center of it all was that core story about a guy trapped on his campus by forces beyond his understanding, which in turn was inspired by my own creeping meanderings around my dormitory hall and considering its story value.
It can be as easy as simply looking around yourself and coming up with a story that maybe has always existed there, but it took your writer’s eye to see it. I’m not sure that this advice would work well for somebody trying to craft a more out-there genre type book; only you can know what a space lazer should look like if you’re writing a Sci-Fi novel, for example. But on the whole this can be a great way to access those feelings and to start putting together a story.
So far this all seems pretty basic, right? “Look at your surroundings, dig deep within yourself to come up with the story, find something you’re passionate about.” But as simple as all of this sounds, it will take a long time to hone them into a career. I’ve got two published books under my belt and yet I am still struggling from idea to idea when it comes to my next work. Thankfully, since I keep my mind and eyes open to the possibilities around me it has become much easier to attune myself to the ideas when they arrive. It also helps to get the new ideas down into writing as soon as you can: either with a notebook or online using Google Docs like I do. The important thing is that you realize and understand the useful parts of the ideas: those things that will propel the story in unexpected directions that you may not have thought of at the time, but will someday realize that’s where it was headed all along.
The most important part of all of this is being able to access that within yourself. Part 2 of this essay will attempt to look at that aspect.
I feel that as we creep through this bizarre, snow-less Minnesota December I can unequivocally state that 2015 was the most difficult year I have faced in my 32-year shuffle around this mortal coil. The year had its fair share of ups and downs, but the overall tenor of these 365 days was one of finally learning how to be a grown-up in our current world and the depressing inability of many others to do the same. I thought I’d hit the major highlights (and low-lights) of our year and then try to string together a few lessons for those who make it through to the end.
Spring - This season was spent mostly dealing with our apartment situation. For those who don’t know, the building manager at our previous place seemed to place the highest priority on making money from rent and then wasting it on pointless “upgrades” to our building in order to entice younger (and dumber) Millennial-types who don’t know how much landlords are able to take advantage of certain people in this city. From refusing to repair the walls properly, to allowing our windows to leak like a sieve during one of the coldest winters in recent memory, to attempting to (illegally) create some kind of moronic lobby area, this company and its representatives put on a master class of how to lose long-time tenants.
Since I had cultivated some decent contacts at City Hall through my local journalism work, I was able to ask some important people with Minneapolis whether or not this activity was permissible, and ended up having a few city inspectors take a gander both at our apartment and the lobby area. What they found was in fact illegal, and the city took steps to force the company not only to repair the issues in our unit (including a bathtub drain that was literally dumping water into the building’s foundation) but halted construction of the lobby area due to (d’oh) lack of filing for a permit. It was unfortunate that it took this much work on our part to get our building manager to simply do his job, and this was a hard lesson for my wife and I to digest. Ultimately we decided the place just wasn’t a good fit for us anymore, and we ended up vacating in the summer to a much better apartment and rental company. But I’ll be honest: for a few months during this battle neither of us was sure what the outcome was going to be, and we certainly were never sure that this company would finally be forced to clean up its act. Major lesson learned: good things will sometimes come if you can wait through the bleak times to get there.
Summer - This season was the most emblematic of our year of extreme highs and lows. After the apartment debacle my wife and I found the best apartment I’ve ever seen in this city, located just three blocks away and in a different neighborhood. I wrote about the implications of such a simple change for our local newspaper the Hill & Lake Press, but for now I will say what a wonder it has been to live in a complex where the management company actually cares about our well-being. The building itself is very well built, keeps us far warmer than we ever could have dreamed last winter, and is a place I can see us staying for a long time to come. This incredible feeling was dashed a month later when I found myself terminated from my employer of seven years in July.
Those who have been following this blog since the beginning have read about my employment travails enough, so I’ll give a brief overview of this unfortunate incident. Essentially I was let go for supposedly not doing my job well enough, which led to a month of unemployment and figuring out what I was supposed to be doing with my life, which led to (among other things) starting this blog documenting everything that was occurring in my life. After pursuing some different career paths, including almost becoming a reserve teacher, I found employment at a great used book store that my wife and I already frequented quite a bit. I have since passed my two month evaluation and they seem to trust me with a lot of responsibility, so I would say things turned out quite all right. I still make less than I did at my previous job, which leaves us with some financial issues, but on the whole it’s nice to finally say, for the first time in my life, that I have a job which I enjoy going to every day. We also took a very relaxing mini-vacation in the middle of all this that really helped me, and which I also wrote about for this blog.
Fall - Our tumultuous summer led into fall and the release of my second novel, Last Man on Campus. This was a much different book than my debut, and I’m still not sure how it struck people. The book launch went very well, but my events were hit-and-miss. I stuck with doing them a lot longer than I did last year, and will be wrapping up my final book signing for the year next weekend (see my “Events” page for more). While I do think this book was enjoyed by some, it left me worrying about the direction of my fictional pursuits and ultimately pointed me toward my major goal for 2016, which I hope to write about before the end of this year (and it does connect with what I’m supposed to be using this blog for, the series on how to write and get published).
Winter - I saved the easiest season for last, as not much has befallen us aside from the eerie implications our precipitation-lacking winter has for the future climate on this planet. But I digress: winter has been wonderful so far. This leaves me with more space to delve into some other terrible things that happened in 2015, including a most unfortunate family situation that I can’t really write about but is truly awful, and a really fun case of dermatitis that afflicted my hands (sort of my primary tool in this writing endeavor) that I am just now getting under control.
I can honestly say I have never wanted a year to be over so much. Usually this is the time of year to reflect over the past twelve months and to look at our successes and failures. And for those of us with the luxury of time to consider such things, we also tend to catalog the year’s best music, film, books, and other works. I will not be doing any of that in this blog post, but rather attempt to draw some tenuous conclusions about humanity from our year of growing up.
So there you have it: some acerbic life lessons from your local journalist/author/bookseller person. I trust most of you had a much better year than we did; if so feel free to tell me about it in the comments. And check this space soon for my intentions for 2016 as I have some good stuff planned. Now go out there and enjoy the rest of 2015 while you still can, because it’ll be over before you know it.
It’s Monday and I thought it would be a good day to write another piece about the writing process. My previous (lengthy) post on how to write was an overview of the entire process, so now it’s time to delve into a few of the main points a little deeper to figure out how we can all find the motivation to continue our journey.
Motivation is funny - a lot of it resides in one’s head, yet it’s one of the toughest things to tap into when you really need it. As it stands today, I’ve found the motivation to not only write two novels but to continue working on a third, crank out a series of (unpublished) short stories, and create some local journalism. So how did I do it? I wish there was some kind of magic wand I could hand out to everyone who wants to continue down a similar path, but the fact of the matter is you’re going to have to figure out a lot of this on your own. All I can do is discuss my previous efforts and hope that they may be instructive.
Writing is damn difficult. Let’s get that out of the way right now. If you are going to commit yourself to a project of considerable magnitude, make sure your decision is final. If you find yourself waffling over the project a month into it, you haven’t dug deep enough to ensure this is what you want. What helps me the most when I sit down to write is simply knowing this is what I’m meant to be doing with my life. True, I do a lot in my life, including work at a bookstore, but when it comes right down to it, telling stories has become “my deal.” Make sure you understand your own, and that you really want to do it. Why is this important? Because you are going to run into roadblocks starting with the first day, and they aren’t going to get easier. Just writing the story is only one part of a much longer expedition to publication, where you will find yet more rejection but hopefully some success, too.
So once you’ve committed yourself, how do you keep at it? I wrote before about having a daily goal - this is very important. It doesn’t have to be a huge goal, especially if you’re just trying to get started. Pick a number you’re comfortable with - 500 words may seem like a lot but really isn’t; once you are able to crank out that many words each day you can raise it to 1,000 which is a pretty decent daily goal to stick with for a while. Finding the actual motivation to sit down at your desk is another thing - first I would say eliminate as many distractions as possible. If you happen to share a living space with another (lovely) human like I do, invest in a good pair of headphones for those times when she is watching HGTV in the next room. Make sure you have a clock somewhere that isn’t distracting, and a good writer’s drink like coffee, and that you have enough time to crank out your writing goal for the day. Planning your writing schedule out in advance is also a good idea - the night before a writing morning I always try to affirm to myself (and my wife) that this will be how I plan on spending that morning. Since I only have a few hours in the morning on the nights that I close, I try to get all the errands and chores I need to do out of the way in the hour before I sit down at my desk, and then don’t leave that area until my goal is accomplished. Most word processing programs have a “word count” option that will help you see how far you have left to go.
Of course, all the planning in the world won’t be worth much if you sit down at your desk and your mind goes blank. Writers’ block is something we all have to deal with, but it should never cripple your writing. Sure, some days there really will be nothing of value coming out of your typing, but that doesn’t matter. Consider that a LOT of what you’re putting down even now will be thrown on the cutting room floor regardless, and crank out what you can. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the writing of two books - you will get rid of a lot of excess that seemed so important at the time, but really did nothing to advance the story or reveal more about the characters. Even if as you’re writing it you think to yourself, “this is crap,” keep going. It’s wading through the crap that gets you to the good stuff.
Another idea that has helped me: at the end of each writing session, scroll down to the next blank page or two in your word document. Plunk down a few more sentences about where the story is heading and what topics you want to hit next. If your main character is going to run into somebody from his past in the next chapter, or the scary conspiracy is going to reveal itself in a new way during the next passage, jot down a sentence or two about the main points you want to convey when writing these next sections. I also find it helpful to put down a few “rules” or “themes” that I hope to follow throughout the entire novel: structural details, characters I don’t want to forget, or important settings. This way, the next time you sit down to write, you already have a page of notes for where the story is heading next. As I complete each of the notes, I delete some of them and add some new ideas until I get to the end (there will probably be some that never make it into the story, either). This is one surefire way I know to beat writer’s block - give yourself something to write about next time. Another way to do this, which I hope to spend more time on in another post, is to create an outline of your novel - that way you will always have a reference point.
These are some tips that have helped me keep going over the years. But really, the secret to motivation can only be found within yourself. If I watched more movies from the Eighties I would be able to insert some kind of snarky motivational quote in here, but suffice it to say that you can find this power in your own heart - you just have to know how to coax it into existence. Take it from me, the rewards will surely outweigh anything you gain from putting off your writing for yet another day.
After meandering through a few other topics on this blog it’s time to point back in the direction of advice for people who want to try this writing thing on their own. To wit, let’s start with finding a publisher.
So you’ve got your manuscript in fine form, and perhaps you even found the money to hire an editor to look over your work to find errors and make sure the tale is consistent (more on that in a future “process” post). You think it’s as good of a story as it can be. Where are you going to take this masterpiece? The first thing you need to do is consider your audience. Now this is something I struggled with at the beginning, as many new authors do, thinking that “everyone” is your target audience. As I wrote in my “finding your niche” piece, nothing could be further from the truth. Your target audience is out there, you just have to figure out who they are. Start by taking a hard look at your work, pondering who in the world would be first in line to read it. Since you are the main person who is going to know this, all I can do here is try to help fill in the gaps with my own experience in the hopes that it helps. For Our Senior Year, my first novel, I had hoped to direct it at high school kids and those of my own (ugh “Millennial”) generation. Unfortunately the book contained a good amount of the kind of stuff kids are into in high school, including drinking, drug use, and some casual sex. Between that and the copious use (again, by high school kids) of the F-word I had a difficult time getting high schools to even care about the work. I had better luck with people my age, as they were able to relate to the story. And I had even more success with those I hadn’t (but should have) considered integral to my audience: people who have gone through a similar experience with religion as the main character in the novel. I got the best overall response from these people, as they could attest to how true-to-life the situation could be. While these were themes that drove the novel from the beginning, I never thought that this would be a particular “audience” to drive the novel toward. Now I know to think as specific as possible when looking for a target group, and you should, too. Think of who is going to get the most out of this book. Will it be young children, adults of a certain age, pet owners, or literary fiction lovers? Whatever you decide, then make sure you push toward those groups with your marketing, book cover, and anything else that will gain attention. Once the target audience gets into it, others will follow (at least that’s the plan).
After you’ve figured out the target audience, the next step is to find a publisher to pitch the idea to those who deal exclusively with such a group. I’m going to keep this basic for now and assume I’m writing to people living in my own state of Minnesota. A simple internet search turns up a pretty good list of publishers right here in the frozen north. There are all kinds of niche publishers who preach to a dedicated choir, and you should be able to find one that fits your need. (I should mention here my own publisher, North Star Press, is not on this list - more on them later). What I would call the big fiction players would be Coffee House Press and Graywolf. How do you get their attention? Coffee House has open submissions once a year, which take place next March. Graywolf, having cranked out multiple National Book Award and Pulitzer winners, does require you to have an agent before you can submit. As I have yet to find an agent for my work, I regrettably don’t have much in the way of advice, but I hope to soon! Some publishers will allow you to submit work online or via email, as that’s how most of our business is done these days. Check out their respective websites to find out who they are publishing for, and make sure that aligns with your target audience. Make sure you have a word processing program that can create MS Word documents, and you will be good to go.
After the submission comes the hardest part: waiting to see what they think. In my case, I had to wait around a month before I heard back from North Star. But don’t give up if you don’t hear anything or if they respond in the negative. Just consider your target audience again, and peruse another publisher that might work better for your book. Hopefully in their rejection the publisher will give you some advice in this regard. And remember, we’re just starting with Minnesota here; there are a TON of publishing companies in New York City and elsewhere that will be much more difficult to get into but not impossible. I personally liked using a small local press because they worked with me at every step of the way and were a simple phone call or drive away if I ever needed to speak with them.
I came across North Star Press, through a writing workshop I attended in Chanhassen, a suburb of the Twin Cities. They had some information there about submitting, so I looked up their website and sent the first few chapters of my book. You can do the very same thing: just click “submissions” on their front page. They are also looking for contributors for an essay collection they will publish next year, so if you want to try out those writing chops you are more than welcome. NSP has been wonderful to work with and they have produced some outstanding-looking books for me over the past two years. If anyone reading this has something they think is ready to submit and would like more direct contact with them, send me an email and I might be able to work something out for you.
So that’s the basics of finding a publisher. What I didn’t mention in all of this is the incredibly difficult work of writing the novel and getting it edited, as well as doing the proper marketing work to ensure that the book finds success. We’ll have plenty of time to get into that over the course of the next few blog posts, but I wanted to make sure I hit this topic now in case there are people out there who have work ready to go and want to seek publication. We’ll get into the harder work soon.
Good luck to you burgeoning authors out there, and thanks for reading.
We all make mistakes. Some are huge, some are insignificant, and some you will never live down. I know I have made plenty in the past year alone. A good friend of mine who I’ve come to learn makes great critiques of my work recently pointed out a few mistakes in the first printing of my second novel, including a few odd name changes and a historical footnote that drove me even more crazy for my not researching it properly. This fed into other, more general worries I’ve had about the book and whether or not people like the story. What really got me down about it was the fact that if I had just paid a little bit more attention when I was running through the final edits I would have caught these errors. It taught me a lesson about making sure my final product is as flawless as it can possibly be. The other worries are not so easy to live down. I find myself racked with anxiety: am I doing the best work I can? Is it living up to what I’ve produced so far? Should I even be in this writing game or should I just hang it up in the face of so many other talented, popular writers out there? These issues are important, and it’s very difficult to put them aside, given my personality.
I’m somebody who is already nine-tenths of the way there when it comes to having a pessimistic outlook on my life. I’ve been this way for a long time, and it has caused problems at every stage of the game. I spent a good many years of my twenties unable to maintain a basic relationship with a partner. I was recently let go from a job because of perceived “performance” issues. I sent my first novel to a bunch of different places to be reviewed only to be turned down by every single one of them. A recent inquiry into selling my novel at a bookstore was returned with a simple “not interested.” As a writer, I know I should be expecting this kind of failure on a daily basis, but my stress and guilt about not being good enough is not always easy to deal with some days.
“Mistakes were made,” indeed. I was just a toddler when the Iran/Contra scandal broke out, but I have read that this was the smarmy colloquialism jostled about by our leaders in Washington at the time. It’s a funny phrase in how it acknowledges a problem but doesn’t go all the way in mentioning who is at fault, something politicians have enjoyed in the decades since Reagan avoided (a very deserving) impeachment. It could also be used in our own lives if we are seeking to escape accountability, either from our overbearing internal monologue or from those around us. But I’ve found that owning up to them makes for a much better outcome.
I did make those editing mistakes, and I am sorry if they were distracting or took you out of the scene. Getting over the fact that people may not like this book is a little tougher to deal with, but as I see it I have two options. One, I can consider it an assent to hang up my writing career, knowing that not everyone is going to like my work. Or I can accept that not everyone is going to like my work and keep at it, improving with every novel and piece of journalism I produce.
When it comes right down to it, our mistakes make us who we are. Sometimes I look over the stuff I was writing back in 2008 when I began writing online. It’s hardly stellar work, but I can see the writer I would become in those lines. I would not be where I am today without getting my start there. Therein lies the rub: there is no success without massive, and constant, failure. We are going to fail: at life, at relationships, at producing art. What remains is how we deal with it. I can either let my OCD-ravaged brain latch onto the (many) mistakes I’ve made over the years or I can see them for what they are: necessary corrections on the way to becoming a better writer. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, but in the end it will be worth it.
That’s advice I would give to anyone, since I’m supposed to be using this platform to dish some out. What matters is where we land on the other side of our errors. If you consider each screw up to be emblematic of a lifetime of failures, then you’re going to be right. But if you accept that these things are going to happen despite any success you may find, then you are well on your way to a great career. Owning the failure is something that must be done, however you find it within yourself to do it.
So go ahead and let mistakes be made. Just ensure that you know who made them, and what to do differently next time. At the very least, that’ll put you miles beyond the people running the country.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.