Let me write a little something and see where it takes me.
Have you ever started down a path in a woods and not known exactly where it will lead? It’s a daunting adventure, and something I’ve tried very few times. Yet, often when I write I do this same thing, figuratively. Like Forrest Gump, who without a plan just started running after his precious Jenny died, I decide I’m going to begin writing, and I just write. Forrest put one foot in front of the other slowly and then gathered speed. He wasn’t sure where he’d go or when he’d stop; he just knew he had to run. Writing can be like that. Sometimes, you don’t have a destination in mind, or know exactly what your message will be, or how you want the words to flow, or whether you’ll be poetic or prosaic. You bang the keys to see where it takes you. You can always go back and edit just like you can always pivot mid-trail, retrace your steps, and follow the other road, not chosen at the fork.
When I embark on a fabulous trip, I think I need to write about it. But when I return, I can’t come up with anything unusual to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before by some other scribbling wayfarer to that same far-flung land. On the other hand, sometimes in a mundane place, I’ll hear a snippet of insignificant conversation or see someone do some ordinary thing that inspires me to put pen to paper. It will give me a theme. Akin to looking at cloud formations and espying different animals, I will detect a message in some quotidian observation that might not, on the surface, be readily apparent.
A person must always peer beyond the words to interpret the meaning of them. Sometimes that’s hard to do when the speaker is invisible, and you’re merely gazing at letters on a computer screen or in a book. You can’t hear the tone of voice or gauge the facial expression or infer what the body language conveys that accompanies the words. All you have are symbols. The other day, my dad told me a government agent brought him back here, back to my house. Now, if you saw that dialogue on a page as the first sentence to a novel and didn’t know the context, you’d think that some police drama or FBI investigation was about to unfold. Here’s the real story: My dad is 93. My brother-in-law returned him to me after Dad had spent the summer in Chicago with my sister. My sister’s hubby is a robust 6’4” guy and drives a black Lincoln. Dad forgot who the driver of the car was and after studying him from the back seat, he deduced his chauffeur was a government agent chauffeuring him somewhere.
My point in my little segue here about my poor dad, who like others his age, has outlasted his memory, is that Dad was trying to determine what was going on from clues. In his delusional mind, he inferred correctly. He was a passenger in a car with a rugby-looking man in a suit behind the wheel. Yet, in reality, he got things mixed up. Sometimes, words confuse us, too. Sometimes we don’t understand the intentions of others and jump to conclusions that the words aren’t meant to suggest. Part of it can be faulty writing on the part of a scribbler, who has not been clear. Then again, the writer may be purposely an unreliable narrator, which one often finds in fiction. Unfortunately, though, words, whether spoken or written, can tell lies. They can be propaganda. So then again, we have to discern the truth by other senses. We have to find out whether we are intentionally being fibbed to by a manipulative journalist or accidentally being misled because the scrivener himself is not privy to the truth. Maybe someday everything will be revealed, and we will know for certain who spoke true in this world and who was a false prophet. Also, we may realize that we deceived ourselves on purpose because we wanted to believe something different from what was authentic. Like the battered woman who returns to the abusive husband because she wants to believe things will get better, we delude ourselves by wanting to think things are the way we have constructed them in our mind’s eye. Therefore, we conclude someone with an opposite viewpoint is wrong. To harbor the idea that someone who is ideologically opposite to us could be right and we the mistaken fool is sacrilege to our ears.
Therefore, my friends, it is our duty to analyze what we read carefully without jumping to conclusions and to write as lucidly and coherently as we can.
When I first sat down to compose this essay today, I flirted with the idea of penning an article about my visit to Pompeii and what I discovered there, but instead this piece is where my fingers led me, which is to a treatise on what is real and what is not. This message could apply to religion, politics, or for that matter any human interaction.
When I went to Pompeii, I wanted to discover what happened to that lost city so long ago by the hand of nature. You know what I discovered there? I found the kindness of a woman who soaked her handkerchief in water to give me to put on my brow as I baked woozily in the hot August sun; the friendliness of strangers who shared a bench with me when I felt that I couldn’t walk over one more cobblestone; the concern of my husband who carried my heavy camera bag and took the photos I wanted taken when I became too enervated to point the lens and shoot. On every trip, you learn something, but often it morphs into a different take-away message from the one you sought. When you sit down to write, sometimes what emerges is a startling discovery, like a chemist who mixes up a concoction and finds that the medicine he thought he was brewing turns out not to alleviate the symptoms of the common cold but instead contains a delightful flavor that quenches thirst. Come to think of it, wasn’t Coca-Cola created like that?
So, write and never worry where the essay is taking you. Like water down a mountainside, it will make its path. Zoom along on that flume ride.
Yeah, I'm going to disparage the mainscream, uh, mainstream publishing industry again. Surprise, right? But you have to admit, they've got it coming. Again.
True, I have not been approached by any mainstream publishers. But before you go sniffing around for sour grapes, amigos, let me remind you I've never approached them either. I'm not reacting to rejection letters … I'm sending one.
I'll lay it out for you. Writers can write, even thrive, artistically, without publishers. Writing is a noble endeavor in and of itself. But what can publishers do without writers? Sell apples on street corners, that's what. So why are we artists turning cartwheels and displaying our pretty pansied panties just to get their attention? Why aren't they groveling before us? Okay, maybe 'grovel' is too much. How do you feel about 'kowtow'?
We're the writers. We provide the product. We create the content. We should wield all the power, right? So, why are we letting publishers make us do all the work they traditionally get paid for? Why have they shifted their burden onto our shoulders? Why isn't this shift in responsibilities reflected in royalty schedules? I'll tell you why. We're plum stupider than publishers. Harsh, maybe. But where I come from, if the shoe fits, we put it on.
Today, publishers will only accept a manuscript that is 'publication ready'--because they fired all their editors so they can make more money. Today, publishers require us to do much of our own promoting--in advance--because they've lopped off their own marketing arms so they can make more money. Think I'm exaggerating? Does anyone believe Ernest Hemingway would get published today if he didn't already have a robust Facebook presence? In a pig's ocular organ.
For my money, publishing houses have ceased the practice of publishing. At best, they've become disinterested printers with attitudes of entitlement. Put another way, they're lazy and greedy scoundrels. No, I amend that statement. Lazier. Greedier.
Publishers used to perform a trusted public service. They combed through the influx. They identified, nurtured, and encouraged burgeoning talent. They proudly preened and presented their best prospects to the American public. Houses actually competed for the rights to publish unknown authors--based on little more than a whiff of talent and a hunch. But those days are long gone.
Oh, I don't mean to discourage you from seeking publication. Actually, my intention is quite the opposite. Write. But don't write for the James Patterson Novel Manufacturing Company, or any of that ilk. If a publisher expects you to write, but tells you your name will appear under someone else's, grow a bronze pair and put them on vivid display. No one pays attention to the second name, dammit. And, based on my reading, nor should they. Of course, if you can't write rings around James Patterson and play a sitar raga at the same time, 'second name' might be all you should aspire to.
Publisher-chasing has evolved into something akin to ambulance-chasing. Someone is bound to emerge bloodied. Rarely, is it the ambulance.
Sadly, I can't endorse the 'self-publishing' route, either. In my experience, the best and the brightest don't self-publish--but everyone else does. Jump into that quagmire at your own peril.
Yeah, I'm a font of good cheer, ain't I? Surprise.
Will the protagonist win his/her love interest? Will the six-year-old save the world from alien attack? Will the teenager find refuge from the bully? Despite these possibly riveting conflicts, if the reader doesn't care about your characters, their ensuing tribulations are wasted.
How does one create a character who connects with the reader? Dump the cardboard placeholder and breathe some life into him. Make him a distinct individual. How?
Give your character a meaningful appearance. Does the yearning young lover have a monumental case of stress-induced acne that’s undermining his self-confidence and keeping him from attaining his stress-relieving goal? Is the space aliens’ nemesis a runt with coke-bottle glasses? Does the bullied teenage girl dress “funny” for a reason no one in school knows about?
If you’re good at writing dialect, use it to make your character’s voice distinctive. South Boston, Cajun, Aussie … they all work. Caution: if you don’t have a linguist’s (or musician’s) ear for phonics and cadence, write your dialog straight. Poorly, or overwritten, dialect is a turn-off.
Your character’s personality and behavior should have some quirks. Maybe your thug quotes (or misquotes) Shakespeare or Kant in a Southie brogue. If you make him an individual, he’ll garner interest and be remembered. Attitude and quirkiness are within reach of every observant writer and are sure winners.
Give your character strengths and weaknesses that matter to the story. Each protagonist must solve his own conflict. Some give lots of thought to the problem. Some meet it head-on with force. And some just stumble completely unwittingly upon a solution that works. Take the little six-year-old runt and the space alien. Perhaps the child is showing his new “friend” how he can burn a dry leaf with his eyeglass lens when he accidentally blows up the space ship. Can’t happen? Think about it. Maybe it can.
A character who connects with the reader—even an arch-villain—will instantly involve the reader in your story. Build a whole stable of them. No major character should be bland. And while strong characters won’t make up for a painfully thin plot or no conflict, they will definitely draw your readers eagerly on to your satisfying resolution.
Some days I’ll do anything to keep from writing. Even bathe the dogs that don’t like to be bathed. Even walk these dogs which they like, but I don’t overly much because I have to take along little plastic bags to scoop the poop up, which requires bending over, and I am lazy-stiff. I am sloppy too; yet, I‘d rather find my latest mission from Flylady and be directed in the missive to de-clutter my messy desk for fifteen minutes – just to avoid writing. Of course, there’s laundry to do. Always that. Don’t I need to run to the grocery store even though my pantry has enough stuff to survive Armageddon? Anorexia won’t claim me as a victim. Tumbling overstuffed pantry shelves will first.
I have a stack of books I need to read to keep up with what is selling, and then there are the craft magazines I should peruse so that I can master this pastime which I want to become a paying avocation. Of course, I also have my son’s wedding to work on, followed by my daughter’s a couple of months later. That involves composing engagement announcements, guest lists, checking out bands on the internet for the reception and scoping out hotels for guests, which reminds me: I’d better Google Crane Stationery because that is what is used for wedding invitations. Of course, I have an aged aunt to phone and friends whom I need to contact. And I need to shop for mother-of-the groom and mother-of-the bride gowns! Oh yes, airline tickets. Just now, as I gaze out the window, I see shrubs to be pruned and panes to be Windexed and, my-oh-my, just making a to-do list seems to be about all the writing I can get done for one day. Trash needs to exit the house and pups again need to find a sunny patch of grass to do their business, and isn’t there a program I love to watch tonight after I keep up with the news? Guess writing my opus will have to wait for tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” said a famous heroine, Scarlet O Hara, and look how much she accomplished!
Perhaps there are zillions of great stories that never get recorded because a writer’s mind hops from one tangent to another. How many of us are wannabe writers who attend writing workshops and conferences and have the best of intentions? Who hasn’t heard a fellow scribe critique a book claiming it mediocre at best? Why are some merely so -so tales preserved? It’s not always the quality of the story line which determines who becomes a published writer and who remains the unknown Emily. The tales that get read are penned by those folks who don’t delay, don’t make excuses, don’t clutter their lives with a thousand other things to do first, but instead they sit in the chair and plug away. They write first, and everything else comes second. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, never today, that’s what all the lazy people say” was a favorite maxim of my German grandparents.
Yet, I believe the reason many creative wordsmiths don’t write habitually is more complicated than being “lazy.” I think it is a stagnant folio of fear of failure, fear of success, not knowing where to begin to submit, not knowing if it’s worth the time, being risk adverse, etc. A psychologist most likely can give a slew of reasons why folks fail to give themselves the gift of doing something they really want to do.
Sometimes, it is that first baby step one must take. Personally, my two cents worth of advice is this: The first attempt at writing should be signing a check for a subscription to a writers’ magazine. Maybe that first subscription should be to Page & Spine. How’s that for a plug?
Page & Spine does not sell subscriptions, but we do gratefully accept contributions which go to pay our writers in this all-volunteer undertaking.- ed.