Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Should You Write?

This is the question that every writer has to answer eventually.

When a writer first begins work, that writer seizes upon whatever idea fascinates or seduces the creative machinery inside the writer's mind. The writer isn't thinking about career at this point. The writer simply has a story that must be told. At this juncture, the writer isn't even thinking about the audience because the writer is the audience.

I think that's truly the beautiful part of beginning to be a writer. You simply get to write for yourself. You don't worry about whether not people are going to like it, because you're in love with it. This is your baby. How can anyone not love your baby?

This is the most innocent stage of a writer. This is the child at play. But like all children, the writer child has to grow up at some point.

Usually other children grow up according to their parents' wishes, not necessarily as their parents would have them grow up, but on a schedule that their parents have in mind. Usually this growing up involves trading off childhood for responsibility and increased freedom. Theoretically, a son or daughter who turns 16 must then begin to act more adult.

In our society as it is at present, most parents have a tendency to baby their children. We now have what is called extended adolescence or emerging adulthood. Specialists disagree on what to call this time period. But they do agree that the time period it takes a child to grow up is now somewhere around 25 years of age.

Parents allow their children a few extra years of childhood, yet they also give them the perks of adulthood. An example is a car and insurance and gasoline. I see this happen all the time because parents feel like they owe their kids an easier life than they had. Generally, the parents these days had a fairly easy life. At least, the ones who can afford this extended adolescence or emerging adulthood for their own children.

However, some children willingly trade off their childhood to begin assuming the responsibilities and freedoms of adults. I started working when I was 13 years old. By the time I was 18, back in 1976, I had a car and a motorcycle that were paid for and $2000 the bank. That was a lot back then. Especially for a kid still in high school and living at home.

I traded my childhood off to get ahead as an adult.

Writers don't have anyone to force them to give up their childhood. So they negotiate with themselves as to when they're gonna stop "playing" at writing and get serious about it.

Sidenote: at this point I have seen several writers get waylaid not by their own fears or frustrations with writing, but by family and friends. So often family and friends undermine a writer's confidence and ability to learn. It's hard to learn to be solitary while working on a story. People tend to be social creatures and want company, or they want to be able to share what is important to them. Family and friends often tell writers they're working too hard at something that will never result in any kind of success. If family and friends can't persuade the writer to give up this "addiction" to writing, then they will either shame the writer into giving up or bribe the writer into staying away from work so long that the passion wanes.

Giving up your writer's childhood is hard. You have to put away your toys and begin thinking like an adult, which means you have to see some measure of success in your writing. Too often writers forget that they're still learning the craft. They start expecting themselves to be adults and be successful.

But if writing is something you love to do, like a child at play, you never truly learn everything about it. I've been a professional writer for 21 years now, have sold over 150 books, and I still learn something -- if I'm very lucky -- every day. This isn't frustrating for me. It's exciting. It's like going to the playground and meeting a new friend who has new ideas about the things you can do there.

I believe that's how writing should be for everyone. Always something to learn, always something new to do.

Many writers don't agree with me. They believe a writer should learn what they can do best. They believe a writer should learn to be a mystery writer, or western writer, or suspense writer, or romance writer. I believe that if you truly learn to write, you will know all these things. I have written books in every genre except westerns, and I know how to write one and want to, but just haven't had the opportunity yet. I grew up reading Louis L'Amour and in backwoods Oklahoma.

Some writers like to play it safe. They only want to write what they feel comfortable writing. Or maybe they only write what they think they want to write. Back in the pulp days of the 1930s and 1940s, writers had to learn to write everything if they were going to make a living. They would write a mystery story, slip a new page of paper into the typewriter and begin a science fiction story, then knock at ranch romance or a horror story by the end of the week. That's how these guys worked. They couldn't afford to accept self-imposed boundaries or boundaries that someone else gave them. J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was rejected nearly 40 times before was published. If she had given up in there anywhere, she'd still be waiting tables and the world would not have this boy wizard.

I believe writers should be that way. They need to learn anything and everything they can. Writers should write fiction, they should write reviews of books and movies or anything else they may be involved with, they should write for free if someone will give them the opportunity, and they should try to make a living out of writing any way they can.

The sheer opportunities to write, especially if you're getting paid for it, is going to make you a better writer. Writing allows you to chip away the fat, the insecurities, the awkwardness, and the lack of focus you have when you first begin writing. Pursue these opportunities however you can. Any kind of writing you do is going to make you a better writer.

I believe that anyone can write. I believe that anyone can do surgery, with enough training. Most people won't elect to do surgery. They won't like the blood, they won't like the hours, they won't like the idea that someone else's life is in their hands. And believe it or not, not everyone wants to be writer. Sure, there a lot of people who would like to write, but very few are willing to sit in a chair for hours out of days out of every week out of every month out of years to learn how.

One of my favorite stories about writers was told me by friend of mine who writes books. He got a B.A., then got a master's in professional writing at Edmond, Oklahoma. His mother had a party to celebrate his first novel. She invited a lot of her friends and many of them were doctors. During the course of the party, one of the doctors told my friend that he always wanted to write a book and was thinking about starting to work on it on some weekend. My friend replied that he had always thought about being a doctor and figured he could work in a little brain surgery on the weekends. The doctor didn't understand that he had insulted my friend by denigrating the work and time my friend had put in to learn the craft.

Everybody thinks writing is easy until they sit down and have to do it. So writers often don't get any real respect until they get to be millionaires and public icons.

Another friend of mine is a professional artist. I griped to him at one point about some bad reviews people had given me. He pointed out that I was lucky because people had to actually read my books, spend hours at it, before they could render an opinion. He told me his work was evaluated in a handful of seconds. I realized that I had the better deal.

So as you leave behind the childhood of the writer, you have to decide to continue following your heart and write what you want to, or study the market and see if you can learn to sell what seems to be selling. The really tough part is that you generally don't have anyone to guide you in this endeavor. No one can tell you that you're dragging your feet, and no one can warn you that you're not ready. No one knows who you are or what you can do at this point. Least of all you.

Next time we're going to talk about writing what you want to versus writing what the market will bear. And whether not you should reinvent the wheel.

In the meantime, get published. routinely publishes reviews on just about anything. Books, movies, gardening tools, underwear, just take a look at what they're selling and you'll find something to review. If you haven't been published there before, try to get published there before I do my next post. Write in, let me know you've been published, and send me a link to what you've reviewed. I've become a top 500 reviewer there simply because I wanted to keep a list of books that I bought so I wouldn't keep buying the same ones over and over again. Now I get free books from publishers to review because they like my reviews, and I've gotten to be known as a reviewer in some places. I even got interviewed by the New York Times because of a review I had written for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I'm actually a character in the third book in the series, and the author, Jeff Kinney, wrote a nice acknowledgement to me that he didn't have to do.

Go out there. Get successful. Tell me about it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why Are Storytellers Important In A Society?

I've been writing professionally for 21 years, and I've been teaching writing classes for almost as long. Currently, I'm teaching at the University of Oklahoma and I've got students in classes asking me questions that I was asking when I was their age and finally ended up creating answers for myself.

The caveat to this blog is that I don't know everything, and even worse, I'm convinced that I know some things. Over those years I've learned that thinking you know something can be very detrimental to your development as a writer. But if you're not confident about what you're doing, how can you do it? So that process alone requires a lot of give and take.

With the recession going on right now, people are again screaming that the death of the book is upon us. Bookstores are closing, sales are down, people don't have time to read because they're working two jobs. The funny thing is, when I got into this business professionally 21 years ago, people were saying the same things. And that was before the cable TV reality show explosion and the succession of video games over Hollywood movies as the largest grossing entertainment field.

So that begs a couple questions. Number one, why--when there are so many other entertainment venues--do people continue to read books? Number two, why--when there are so many other jobs that pay better, offer better hours, and and don't offer rejection so personally--do people still want to write?

To me at least, the answer to the first question remains the same as it has always been when regarding reading stories. Although stories can be read in groups and even discussed, stories lend themselves best as a gestalt between a writer and a reader. Working together, a writer and a reader create a unique experience.

John D. MacDonald was one of the most prolific and best writers I ever read. I grew up reading his stuff for enjoyment, then went back to re-read it as a writing professional. I loved his Travis McGee books for the first person narrative and action that MacDonald always included when I was a teenager. But it wasn't until I read them as an adult that I understood how much of himself MacDonald put into those novels.

He had a theory that he called Creative Trust. By this, MacDonald said that a story wasn't balanced until the writer gave 50% and the reader gave 50%. He believed that no matter how hard a writer worked, he couldn't present the whole story. The writer depended on the reader to build sets, cast characters, and work the special effects. No matter how good the idea, it didn't work until the reader provided the energy to make it move.

This is why, MacDonald said, every reader can have a different experience with a book than every other reader. Movies aren't that way. Generally you see what you get. Some emotions or gags may affect one viewer differently than another, but so much of the work is done that all the viewer has to do is simply take it in. The same is true for video games. The game is laid out level by level, and the player knows what must be done to achieve the different goals that the designer established.

Not only that, but the sheer driving pacing of movies and video games prohibits most deep thinking about the characters or the subject matter. You're simply along for the ride, not a component, not a part of, simply a consumer.

Music often digs more deeply into a listener's heart and soul. In three or four minutes, a song can touch emotions and memories, unlocking experiences that the listener can imagine or has already experienced. But three or four minutes isn't enough to fully engage a person. Also, music is a purely auditory thing, unless you count the percussive part that vibrates through you. Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers definitely slams out the percussive delivery.

The world we live in is constantly filled with visual and auditory stimulation. We see stuff every day without really seing it, which is a lot like movies, television, and video games. I don't know how many times I've been playing a video game and had to call my wife and son in to help me watch what was going on because I didn't see it all. And since we've added DVR, I tend to hit the rewind button liberally because I wasn't paying attention. And, honestly, a lot of television's offerings don't need close attention.

So a song on the radio doesn't leave much of an impression either in the long run. Think of how many conversations you've had at the job, at home, or over the phone and simply coasted through them. Later someone may bring something up to you that you discussed, and you can't even remember it. Unless it had a driving bassline like "Ice, Ice Baby."

The written word is and always will be (no matter what form it may take, from printed page to Kindle or some other cyberbook) the last bastion for a reader to sit down and match wits with another party while having enough time to think about what is being said. That's why so many readers consider favorite writers as their best friends. The reading experience always touches on subjects/experiences/beliefs near and dear to both.

When you read a book, there is no frantic auditory or visual stimulus that spins your mind into overdrive. There are no restraints on your imagination. You're only limited by how talented you and the writer are together. Readers who love books often find that reading is the most relaxing thing they do all day. Even when it's spent with a page churning Jeffrey Deaver suspense thriller, a James Lee Burke mystery, or a Stephen King horror tale.

It's this experience, this sensation of being an equal in a totally involving, submersive production, that draws readers back again and again. In the early days of storytelling, storytellers basically had a captive audience. Maybe they had to compete against guys who learned how to do really cool shadow puppets on the cave wall (maybe early video games? my shadow puppet sabertooth against your shadow puppet mastodon?), but it couldn't have been really interesting without a story.

I mean, it would be interesting watching shadow puppets scamper across the cave wall, but wouldn't it be more interesting if there was a reason for all that scampering? Suppose that a shadow puppet man had a shadow puppet cow and a puppet dog and maybe a few other shadow puppet livestock. Then some evil shadow puppet monster came by and started eating shadow puppet man's livestock. Shadow puppet man would have to find some all important shadow puppet magic ring or shadow puppet magic sword to defeat the shadow puppet monster.

Or maybe a lonely shadow puppet man spies a lonely shadow puppet woman in a lonely shadow puppet forest...and that story could be a romance story or a Letter to Penthouse.

You get the idea. Stories just make things work better.

Robin Dunbar, in his excellent book Grooming, Gossip, and The Evolution Of Language, pretty much acknowledges that storytelling is the glue that holds a society together. Stories provide a cultural heritage, goals and ideals for a group to move toward, and the concept of social responsibility.

In my opinion, a storyteller's primary value lies in remembering what has gone on before for everyone that cares to read, to find words to express emotions and values that individuals in societies need, and to think sideways about decisions that are rendered or could potentially be rendered within that society.

As a storyteller, writers are charged with providing education, entertainment, and empathy for readers. Oral storytellers told tales to teach young hunters, young fishermen, young builders, and others ways to do certain crafts. They also offered stories that told what not to do based on experiences that they themselves or others had had before. And they have to do this in a way that does not alienate the audience. In other words, they have to be good at their craft.

How often have you as a parent, or as a friend, stepped away from simply telling someone else how to do something to illustrating the lesson through a story about another "friend?" And isn't it weird how many times you can help someone by simply telling a "story?"

If you take a stroll through best-selling nonfiction, you're going to find that a lot of those books are told as stories, not presentations of fact. Many readers that don't like fiction still love stories, which is why they read these nonfiction books that are set up to read as stories. This is why true crime readers come back again and again to the writers they love who present truth as fiction. Story is not fiction. It's a process, a way of laying out ideas and events for readers to grasp and enjoy.

I don't think writers are born. I think writers can be made by anyone who desires to learn how to do the craft. But, I also believe that there are few people temperamentally suited to this job. Unless you love writing, you're not going to take the time to sit down and learn how to do it. It's a self-correcting field. A lot of people claim to want to write, but give them a piece of paper or a computer with a blinking cursor and they just get too lonely or bored or intimidated to stay there long. True writers are people who can imagine the audiece on the other side of that page.

A lot of people get the gist of stories. They know how stories are supposed to work. They know what characters do what things in the stories, such as the hero and the villan. So often in college, I see many students who have this grasp of story, that they have no grasp of the craft it takes to bring that story to life. They read for enjoyment, but they don't learn to read closely enough to figure out a writer's skill set. Every writer that really learns the craft has a unique skill set. No one can pass that skill set around. No one can teach that skill set to someone else. It's only learned through long and serious practice.

For me, and other writers I've talked to, I never imagined being anything but a writer. That's the way it is for editors I've come to love working with. Writers and editors are a lot alike. Both love the idea of story and how it comes to life on the page. The difference is that writers bring story to life on the page and editors midwife it. The love is the same, but the skill sets are vastly different.

I think there'll always be a need for story. And since there's a need for story, there'll always be a need for writers. The end product may change, maybe paper will be as dead as the dodo one day and books will take on a different form, but the job the storyteller--the need for the storyteller--will never change.