Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm a bookless writer, how pathetic!

Photo: Tracy Cavelli Trussell, Christian book author at a signing in Arizona.

I just read a cute essay in the latest issue of Foreword Magazine about being bookless. Lisa Romeo hit every hot button of being a writer who has not produced a book. It is probably why I always hesitate to describe my work as writing. I'd almost rather say 'housewife' than writer. I expect to be dismissed as a 'housewife.' BORING!

But when I say, "I'm a writer," it opens up a whole line of questioning that I'd rather forego.

"Ohhhh you're a writer? What books have you written?" It is like an inquisition. I need to prove I am a writer. When my husband says, "I'm an accountant." No one asks him for verification. No one asks what accounts he has balanced, what software he's proficient using, or whether he's saved the company millions of dollars. They just accept that he is a professional and unless he's talking to another accountant, the conversation usually stops there. I think maybe 'accountant' is as boring a title as 'housewife.'

But writer. I cringe as soon as the word is out of my mouth. I want to add. "Don't ask me what I write or what I've written. Don't ask me where I get my ideas. If I knew where I got my ideas I would go there more often. Because frankly right now I am idea-less. Not a single thought or gem or nugget. I think about what's for dinner. That's about as creative as I get these days. So I imagine I will remain 'bookless' for quite some time.

For years my husband indulged me. I devoted time to scribbling on pages and he was okay with that. Did he think I was a writer? No. Did he care? No. What he cared about what us being a couple and me being happy. We were, I was.

Then I started making money with my writing. No one could have been more surprised than I was -- unless it was my husband. His view of me changed. Income producing work was a good thing. He bought me a pen. The next year he bought me a computer. And eventually an ergonomically correct chair. I probably earned enough in each of those years to pay for each item. But still no book.

Now my dear husband has come to expect income from my writing. And he has come to accept that I'm not an author. But I made the mistake of having friends who have written books, got six figure advances and he'd like me to do that. I would like that, too.

Is this the year I push past the blockage and just keep writing even if it is crap until I actually have something resembling a book? If so, I might even head to the next class reunion. Nah, let's not get carried away. That would require dieting AND publishing a book.

I hold out hope that my sons will publish. Both have books in the works. Hopefully they will succeed where their mother has failed and instead of facing people and admitting I'm a writer without a book. I can smile and reply, "I'm a mother of an author...."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Books that make you hurl

Sometimes a book is so bad I want to throw it across the room. In fiction it is usually the amateur writing mistakes or lazy attention to detail or grammar or spelling. The stilted dialogue, the poor descriptions, the characters acting against type or out of character also drive me nuts. Or gratuitous scenes or elements that are there only because the author was not strong enough to kill of his or her darlings.

In nonfiction I tend to start tossing books that don't get it right. A recent read caused me to hurl (the book) when the author solved all of the world's problems in less than 200 pages including global warming, overpopulation AND the ongoing discussion of religion vs science. It was not at all what it was marketed as. It was in fact an old man's rant. An end of life attempt to get his say in while he could still say it. Yes that sounds harsh. I realize I should respect my elders and that some day I'll be where he's sitting. I want to be heard, too. I could have accepted it much better if he would have marketed it as what it was -- a rant!

Today I worked on a book review for a book of fiction where the author got it wrong. She, a perky, lean, blonde of unending enthusiasm wrote about a woman of obese proportions. Or as the author likes to refer to her character and all women of similar body types -- fat women. I keep thinking about (and grinding my teeth) the fight people with disabilities waged and continue to wage to be seen. Can you not see that is a man in that wheelchair? A father? A brother? A person who has been wounded and yet he gets out of bed every day and lives his life just like the rest of us? That is to say 'he lives the best that he can.' So why is this woman any less deserving of being seen despite the layers of fat that envelope her? Why is she first of all fat? Where is her heart? Her pain? Her motivation? The cause and effect of her situation and her image?

Yes, I'm royally pissed at the treatment of this fictional character because the author has chosen to make her inert and unloveable as a fat woman but suddenly transforms her into a loveable, interesting, selfless human being once she loses the weight. Stereotype! Perpetrating a myth to the detriment of all who must live it.

So, what is the author's responsibility to get it right. Should she have researched the causes of morbid obesity? Should she have delved into this character to understand what conspired, even in her childhood, to lead her to the choices that she made? Should the author have done more than talk to a bunch of women and conclude that she knew all she needed to know about the subject? Should she have written a solution to the woman's obesity was simply that she stopped eating? Would she have written a book about an anorexic girl who was saved because she ate more? Rather simplistic.

I'd like to write about alot of topics. But I want to get them right. I want to know everything I possibly can before I create a character and I hope to all the writing gods that I do not ever make such a pathetic one-dimensional character as I just read in this book that I shall not name because I don't want anyone to purchase the book or help this author make money on the backs of every woman of obese proportions!

Maybe painting people as freaks sells books. Maybe that is perfectly all right. But I pray never to be guilty of such a crime. And if I do include an outcast in my book, I intend to understand why she's outside of the norms of society and make sure my readers understand, too.

In all fairness, I will add that this novel does not suffer from the usual hurl-causing deficiencies. It is well crafted. Just not well thought out.  

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Rule of Fiction Writing: Be Authentic

One of the most endearing and perhaps the greatest strength of fiction writer Ann Hite's Black Mountain series is the authentic voices that Ann has given to her characters and narrator. They are so real it is as if they are standing right in front of you. I wanted to shake their hands upon introduction.

As Elizabeth Berg says, "The people who are the most irresistible are those who are most themselves."

We can actually 'feel' when they are not being themselves -- in real life and even on the page. You've met people who made you antsy, made you feel as if you are both sharing a secret and you've just met them. The secret of course is that you both know this person is not what he or she appears to be, or tries to appear to be. Of course this cover-up can make for an interesting plot development as the reader sees their 'persona' slip and eventually the character reveals his true colors.

But if this is not a plot device, then reader and character are both uncomfortable in this shared lie.

Berg says the best thing to do is to write naturally. "Using your own voice, try to think of what you are doing as dictation. Put down onto the paper the words you are hearing in your head -- literally."

For me that means writing in first person. When I begin saying 'he said, she said, and describing scenes with an omniscent voice, the distant widens to a deep chasm dividing me not only from the characters, but from the reader. I even feel isolated and removed from the scene.

Today I rewrote a scene, not a bad scene, but a ho-hum scene from a first person perspective. I chose one of the women in the room as my eyes and ears and let her tell what happened. It surprised me at how stilted some of the descriptions sounded now that I saw the scene through her eyes.

So first step in finding your authentic voice, is finding your narrator. As soon as I could 'see' my narrator, I could put perception, focus, and personality into the scene. It still isn't good.

Now I have fallen into the trap of reportage.

Trust me, anyone who has reviewed very many manuscripts or reviewed books whose authors have paid for the service are familiar with the amateur mistakes. The glaring amateur mistakes. Not so easy to spot is how the writer overcomes this awkward writing. But, just like authenticity, you know it when you see it and can relax and enjoy. Trust builds with an author who writes with 'authority' and 'authenticity.' Maybe that's why we're called: AU-thors!

Writing this bloggy advice, I see that it appears to be leading writers to an attitude of 'be more concerned with each word you write and be careful of reportage and stilted writings and to scrutinize each word placed on the page.'


Just the opposite.

Set the editor aside. Forget what everyone has told you about writing and for this first draft, this first romance with the page, just let the words flow. What I do advocate is getting to know your character so well that she speaks through you. As Berg said, "... dictation."

That is my mistake. I sit at my desk looking in through the window at my characters. I can't hear them very well from out here. My focus is distorted by the thick layers of glass between us. I can't use any other senses. I don't smell their perfume or musky odors or bad breath or the scent of the room. I can't taste Alma's homemade cookies or Rita's cherry jam. I need to open the door and move inside. Smile at the room full of women and see how they respond to me.

Getting to know characters may involve writing a long detailed history. Not only the parents' names, but the grandparents, where they were born, raised and which wars they fought in -- personal and militarily. It also means that you know if they are right or left handed, what their birthstone is and if they like having that birthstone. What scars do they have? Inside and out? What makes them stop and admire? Who attracts and repels them?

This also requires putting the editor out with the morning trash. Do NOT. DO NOT invite that editor back in until the first draft is completely written. Send that editor on a trip around the world. And while she's gone write. Write as fast as you can. And while you're writing visit with your characters. Get to know whether they prefer cherry jam to ham sandwiches or what their smile looks like. Get to know who is shy, who is bold, who is angry, who is frightened, who is carrying a heavy burden, keeping a secret, and who is just so happy they could sing.

It isn't only journalists who should be asking who, what, where, when, and why. Every writer, especially fiction writers need to ask. And don't forget how.

Diana Gabaldon (you knew I'd have to insert her in here some way) likes to tell the story of driving her daughter to soccer practice and all the time her mind was on her characters. She sees Jocasta reach for a cut glass goblet and watch her man servant push the glass just an inch so that her fingers close around the glass precisely. It is at that point that Gabaldon has the epiphany that 'Jocasta is blind!' and misses the turn off to soccer practice. Even in her anecdotes about her writing, Gabaldon has great timing and understatement. I admit that some of that was lacking in her latest book -- along with alot of other things I found endearing about her Outlander series. But I digress.

For me, at this moment, writing in first person works. Even if the final version moves back to third person, I will get to know my characters, remove stitled descriptions, and get rid of the barriers between me and the action through my narrator who is now my best bud!