Posted in novel writing, writers

Sometimes You Seek the Story….

…and sometimes, through no effort of your own, it seeks you.

Last Friday, for my monthly guest gig at Working Stiffs, I wrote about the guy I knew from high school who is currently incarcerated for murder. The post earned some good responses, but I was surprised at the number of people who contacted me privately about murderers they know. I was equally surprised when someone suggested I write a book about the ten years it took for Connie’s disappearance and murder to be solved. I don’t write true crime, so that nixed that idea. Also, while I knew both the killer and the victim, I was long gone when they were married and their troubles began. My connection to them was from happier times.

This is not the first time someone suggested I turn a blog post into a book. It happened when I wrote about Dr. Earl Bradley, the Delaware pediatrician who has been called the worst pedophile in American history. His is a tale of violence, sickness and evil that might serve as a cautionary tale about people trusting figures of authority too well. But I have no connection to that case, other than living in Delaware when his arrest and trial went down. In writing the blog post, I read enough gruesome details to know I don’t want to spend a year of my life delving into the dark side of a very dark story.

My same feeling applies to the story of Patrolman Chad Spicer, who was killed in the line of duty one night two years ago. Officer Spicer was a small town Delaware boy serving on a small town Delaware police force. He had a small child, a loving family, a wonderful reputation. Is this a story someone should share? Perhaps. Is that someone me? No.

How does a writer know when a story is theirs to tell?

As evidenced above, I find a lot of blog posts to share from the news or personal experience. In my fiction writing, I steal from my family. I’ve done well by that. I’ve been awarded a couple of arts grants to record portions of my family history in south Louisiana. I feel connected, so I’ve devoted time and work to creating a fictional version of my own aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Their experiences are based on true events, though told as fiction rather than memoir. I researched to make the town and time accurate to the times. I had to do world building, but the world is based on my own genetic and cultural one. I didn’t experience or witness the events, but I molded them into my version. My story.

When you are a writer, people suggest stories to you all the time. Most of us have no problem coming up with ideas of our own, but you never know when a spark will happen. It happened to me not long ago, on my daily walk through the neighborhood. I walked by the home of someone on my street, and I thought about the rather tragic events going on with them now. And bam! I wanted to write their story, but told in my way, through a rather tragic event of my own. By the time I got home three miles later, I had a full outline brewing in my head.

The story sought me like a heat-seeking missile. I have no personal connection to it other than witnessing what went on with a family on my street, but in an hour I had made it mine. It has spoken to me.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Some stories speak to you. Some don’t. Consider that you have to spend a year of your life, at least, to devote to a novel, you want a story that reaches out and grabs you like a beast from hell and won’t let go.

Seek and ye shall find, the saying goes. Sometimes, for a writer, it’s the opposite. There are a lot of stories out there. Some of them are yours. Why write one that isn’t?

Ramona

Posted in craft article, writers

Jobs, Well Done

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Steve Jobs –Stanford University commencement speech, 2005

It’s ironic that, in this quote that bounced all over the Internet, TV and newspapers after Steve Jobs’ death last week, he never called his work a job.

Work, career, calling, employment, profession, occupation, vocation, trade—all synonyms for that thing you do which–in theory–pays your bills, feeds your family, secures your future and–even more theoretically–satisfies your soul. On behalf of the many, many people who currently don’t have one, I recognize that a good job is precious. I am lucky. I found a vocation that does the bill paying and soul satisfying at the same time. Over the past week, I’ve come to truly appreciate that.

I was on Facebook when the death of Steve Jobs was announced, and the resulting chatter was awesome, both in volume and in content. For a little while, the world seemed to come together to show respect for an innovator who did great work. He was mourned, lauded, and quoted.

The above quote was the one that stuck out for me. It has stayed in my head this past week. Great work. Not job. Work. How do I–and you, my fellow writers–do great work?

I think it starts with respect.

1. Respect the language. For writers of English, we know our language is complex, nonsensical and difficult. Crazy rules. Weird constructions. Nevertheless, a person who wants to use language as a tool of his work must master it. In other words, grammar matters. Spelling counts. Technique is vital. There’s no excuse for someone who claims to be a professional writer to confuse hear/here, your/you’re, bare/bear, it’s/its, or misuse forms of punctuation. From an editor’s point of view, it tells me the writer is careless and lazy and doesn’t mind if I know it. It reflects your work ethic, right there in black and white. If you want to do great work as a writer, respect and master your language. It is the foundation of story. You can’t build a good story without a strong foundation.

2. Respect the craft. Storytelling is an art that connects the world and records its history. Storytellers create new worlds that help us examine and understand this one. This is no small thing. Erase the word “just” from your vocabulary when speaking of your work. Some writers use just to justify doing a mediocre job. “It’s just fiction.”  “It’s just entertainment.” Really? You spend day in and day out at this, and you can belittle it? The lightest comedy can make a person laugh in a time of unhappiness. A juvenile mystery can give a kid a sense of power and control. Does “just” apply to that?

3. Respect the reader. When I work as an editor, I form a mental bond with the manuscript’s imaginary readers. I use “we” in comments to explain to the author why a scene isn’t working or why another one is delightful. I advocate for the reader as well as the writer. So, when “we” see a typo or factual error, we become unhappy. Don’t you, the writer, respect us enough to do your homework and get the facts straight? Don’t think that “just” because it’s fiction, you are not obligated to show an accurate reflection of police procedure if you are writing a mystery; or getting place names correct if you are using a real setting; or you can fudge on historical details if you are writing about an actual event.  I’m your reader. I trust you to tell me the truth in this story. I expect you to work hard and get it right. When I see mistakes, I lose my trust in you as a writer and my respect for your work.  It’s that simple.

Does “great work” as a writer mean you must produce a masterpiece that will be read through the ages? No. It means you will use language correctly and efficiently; you will tell a story that is logical and entertaining; and you will create a product with parts that do their jobs accurately and well.

After all, if Steve Jobs had worked as a writer, don’t you imagine his stories would have been daring, innovative, well-crafted, and fun?

Whatever your genre, put your energies to creating something that is worthy of the word story. Create a product that works efficiently, that meets a need, and entertains, and you’ll have done a worthy job.

Great work. Go do some.

Ramona

Posted in book reviews, writers

As Inspired By….

If May Sarton were alive today, I bet she’d have a blog.

May Sarton—poet, novelist, journal keeper extraordinaire—published numerous works over her long career. I’ve read many of her novels  and enjoyed her volumes of poetry, but May’s lasting legacy to the writing world lies in the dozen journals she published.

In those journals, May Sarton addressed both the craft of writing and the challenges of a writer’s life. She wrote about a writer’s need for solitude. She wrote about her garden, her cat, her house by the sea. She confessed her worries about growing older, her heartbreak when her long-time partner began to suffer from dementia, her own recovery from a stroke. When a book review was disappointing, she wrote of its sharp bite. She shared stories of the students who visited her and the obligation she felt to answer when a letter came asking for advice. She expressed frustration when her writing life took up more of her time than her writing, but also joy in realizing that those demands came from people who appreciated her art.

Writers are often inspired by the memoirs or advice of other writers. I am grateful that May Sarton graciously shared so much of herself. Despite many reads, each time I open and read her observations, I always find some new insight.

Thank you, May Sarton. If you were indeed alive and blogging, I would follow you.

I have long wanted to express the above sentiments. A few weeks ago, after a comment on  How Many Pages Did You Write Today? about the impact a particular writing book had on the writer, I decided to do my May Sarton blog. To honor her  generosity, I’ve invited some writing friends to share their thoughts on books that inspired them.  

~ ~from JULIE LONG, on Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott:

I’ve read some great books on the craft of writing, but the book that has impacted me the most is one on the psychology of writing. Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott. It came to me at a time when I didn’t think I was on a writing path at all, when I thought life and self-sabotage had detoured me horribly off-course (again). The book revealed that I was actually on one of the seven steps and showed me how I could continue the journey.

(Julie blogs more about it here…http://julielongwrites.com/2011/02/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-those-revisions/)

~ ~ from BARBARA ROSS, on Stephen King’s On Writing.

When Ramona asked me to write about why I love Stephen King’s On Writing, I found I had trouble articulating it. So I pulled the book off the shelf–and was immediately sucked back into it. I could have re-read the whole thing. That’s how compelling it is. The book is divided into three sections; the story of how King was formed as a writer, guidance on how to write, and a final portion, written as he recovered from his catastrophic injuries after being hit on a country road by a van, called “On Life.”

On Writing is highly entertaining, but King takes himself, his craft and the reader seriously. We all need to imagine a writing life, and he helped me immensely in imagining mine.

(Barb shares a Maine connection with Stephen King. She can be found hanging out at the Maine Crime Writers blog.)
~ ~ from GENIE PARRISH, on “Write Like Hemingway” by R. Andrew Wilson, PhD

Despite the title, this is not actually a book on how to write exactly like Hemingway, but rather on how to learn from him and write better. A quote from Papa might be: “Keep them people, people, people, and don’t let them get to be symbols.” To this, Wilson adds: “Should the writer find a character too perfectly fitting into some artistic ideal, he should remember all the contradictions of human personality.” He gives exercises, as most “how to write” books do, but then adds “What’s the Point?” in which he explains exactly why the exercise can help you develop your skills. As Wilson says in his introduction, “Let us see what Papa has to teach us.” He leaves it to the reader/writer to decide what she wishes to learn.

(Genie is participating in her own adventure this summer, traveling across the South to hear veterans’ stories: http://www.swrnn.com/2011/07/31/lake-elsinore-four-women-journey-across-america-to-hear-veterans-stories/)

~ ~ from HOLLY GAULT, on Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions:

Most writers choose Lamott’s Bird by Bird as her influential writing book and it is wonderful. I probably remember most her constantly running inner radio station, KFKD, and how she has to pull the plug on the radio. To me, Operating Instructions is where Lamott put all her self to work, heart and soul. She writes of recovery from drugs and alcohol, the birth and early years of her son, and the wrenching death of her best friend.

Anne Lamott writes honesty. She slices open her chest so we can see what makes her heart beat. She turns on those bright lights of the OR so we see every crevice and wrinkle, the weirdities and absurdities of her life. She then sews it all up and we can all breathe easier.

(Find out more about the multi-talented Holly at HOLLYGRAPHIC ARTS.com)

~ ~ from KATHY WALLER, on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way

A dozen years ago, experiencing burnout on both personal and professional fronts, I consulted a therapist. He said, “Write.” But with two degrees in English, I had no idea how to begin, and several dozen books about writing didn’t show me. Then I happened upon Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and stepped into a new world. Instead of learning how to write, I would open myself to my own creativity. I embarked on Cameron’s twelve-week program, did morning pages, artist dates, became reacquainted with myself, my dreams, my strength, my faith. In the process, I changed. I became a writer.

(Kathy blogs at the aptly named to write is to write is to write.)

Have you been inspired by a writing book, a memoir, a journal? Tell us about it.

Ramona

Posted in conferences, professional organizations, writers, writers groups

Seven Questions about Writers Groups

Yesterday at the Chestnut Hill Book Festival in Philadelphia, I presented a workshop on Starting a Writers Workshop. Below are some of the questions asked by the group to me, or by me to the group, on the topic of writers groups.

What are you looking for in a writers group?

This is ground zero for a writer seeking the group experience.  Some self-examination is crucial before you begin the search for an existing group or dive into forming one of your own. Are you looking for feedback on your work? Are you searching for like-minded people to discuss the writing life? Do you want some help in sparking your creative processes? Do you want a spiritual rather than hands-on experience?

You can’t address your wants and needs if you do not define them, first to yourself and then to others. Ergo, the first thing to do is to complete this sentence, “As a writer, I am seeking a group that will ___________________.”

What are different types of writers groups?

These are my own names and definitions, but here’s an idea of various group types:

CRITIQUE GROUP: writers meet to exchange and evaluate one another’s work.

WRITERS GROUP: a support or inspirational group that meets to discuss aspects of writing: the craft, the state of the business, the state of your writing, opportunities for publishing.

WRITING GROUP: meets to write. Members can do specific writing activities using free write prompts, exercises, themes and so on, or members can meet and do quiet writing on their own projects.  

WRITERS WORKSHOP: members meet for classes or courses, taught by other members or by guest speakers, on craft, promotion, publishing, etc.

How long are you committed to a group?

As with the above, there are different answers to this question. Groups can meet indefinitely, or for a specified time. This most often applies to critique groups. Some options:

LONG TERM:  This group meets for as long as the writers want to participate, with no set ending date or goal. I like to call this an Infinity Group.

PROJECT SPECIFIC: This group meets for a specified amount of time, to help writers critique a particular work. For instance, four writers with completed manuscripts may meet once a month for a year, to critique one another’s manuscripts. At the end of the year, the group may disband, or start all over again with a new project and timeline.

BOOT CAMP: This is a project specific group on speed. Small group of writers meets over a few weeks or a couple months (often in summer) for an intense review/critique period.  

How do you find existing groups?

Seek and you shall find. Try the library, professional workshops, writing courses, bookstores, universities, arts organizations, professional genre organizations, online groups, word of mouth. Go where writers hang out and ask around.

Joining an existing group has pros and cons. Pros are that the rules are set and you join and follow them. Like anything else, joining a group as a newbie can be a challenge.

How do I start my own group?

First, ask yourself the question above: What do you want from a writers group? After you’ve answered that, start hunting for fellow writers. Before the first official meeting, have a planning meeting to decide the details: How often will you meet?  Where will you meet? Do you want peer level members (meaning, everyone is published, or everyone is new) or is a mix okay? How many members? If you submit, how many pages, how often, how will the pages be distributed? Will there be a leader?

What destroys a writers group?

The devil is in the details, as they say. Good groups are destroyed by not having a set meeting time and place; by not having regular attendees; by not having a time monitor so a group may spend 45 minutes on one story and 10 on another; by an overbearing or a difficult member; by members who want different things from the group; by members who won’t, or can’t, critique work in different genres; by having too many members. This is why being upfront with your expectations is important. If a new group has a planning meeting and everyone is in sync about what they want and how meetings will be run, and the members respect that, you can have a successful, helpful group.

What about online options?

Many writers participate in online support groups, and/or manuscript exchanges with writers they’ve never met in person. Lots of professional organizations (Sisters in Crime, SCBWI, Pennwriters, Romance Writers of America) have list serves for discussion and critique programs for their members. Do some research in your genre.

If you are looking for a writers group, there are many out there. Be assertive. Understand what you want and seek out like minds. Good luck!

Posted in novel writing, writers

Faulkner’s Human Heart

“The world’s gone mad,” was my mother’s response to the news that the heads of two mummies from the King Tut era had been torn off by protestors who broke into the famed Egyptian Museum this past weekend. This was a sad statement from a woman who was born in rural south Louisiana during the Great Depression and who, in the past  five years alone, had witnessed her home state get massacred first by a disastrous hurricane and then by a disastrous oil spill.

In times of such madness, it may seem silly to write stories. I spent part of this week going back and forth with a client, discussing theme. Specifically, how a writer makes a story bigger and more meaningful by addressing a big, meaningful theme. What sort of subjects touch and move readers? Continue reading “Faulkner’s Human Heart”

Posted in conferences, grants, short stories, writers

Advice Among the Accolades

Last week, in jest, I posted about Helena Bonham Carter’s  mismatched shoes at the Golden Globe Awards.  This week I invoke HBC again, because her daring choices remind me of a nugget of writing advice that has both bothered and benefited me. It came via an anonymous judge for a writing fellowship, and I keep it posted on a yellow sticky note stuck to the side of my desktop:

“This writer should resist clichéd thinking that forces a story into a contained shape.”

Continue reading “Advice Among the Accolades”

Posted in novel writing, writers

The Author Known as Anonymous

That wily writer known as Anonymous is at it again. In just a few weeks, his new book, O: A Presidential Novel, will hit bookstores. No one knows who has written this new story of O, but the guessing is becoming fierce. In fact, if the author is not unmasked by the publication date, I, personally, will lose ten bucks.

O: A Presidential Novel is a roman a clef, which means readers will have the fun of recognizing “characters” and “scenes” in the story as real people and real events. For those not familiar with literary terms, roman a clef is French for “you can’t sue the author for this unflattering portrayal because you are a public figure.”

It’s about time that Anonymous has come out with a new book. His last big seller (not counting the AA Bible, which is Anonymous’ greatest work, in my opinion, and a perennial good seller) was Primary Colors in 1996. Primary Colors is also a roman a clef and it skewers the Clinton administration in a devastating, though amusing and affectionate, fashion.

Primary Colors’ author was outed. He acknowledged his authorship soon after the book came out. I won’t reveal his name here because I want to honor the spirit of anonymity, and because everybody already knows it’s Joel Klein.

The two above novels were marketed as fiction– roman a clefs, political commentary, social criticism, too, but still fiction. Fiction with a message is still fiction.

Which brings me to one of Anonymous’ other greatest hits.

I was in the sixth grade when Go Ask Alice was published. Needless to say, I didn’t buy a copy hot off the bookstore stands, as it was not appropriate reading for a 12-year-old (then) and I was attending a Catholic school that featured a nun who confiscated my copy of Love Story because it was racy and inappropriate. Yes. Love Story.

I read Go Ask Alice a few years later, when I was at a public high school and was blessed with an English teacher who wasn’t scared of controversial books. For those unfamiliar, the book was marketed as the true diary of an anonymous teenage girl who fell into a life of drug addiction. The title is a reference to the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit.” In the book, the narrator never gives her name. Her drug experiences begin at a party, when her drink is spiked with LSD.

From the reading perspective of a 14-15 year old in a small town with no personal contact with anyone who used illegal drugs (as far as I knew), my take on the story was as follows. One minute this girl is sipping a spiked drink, and the next thing you know she’s giving daily BJs to a pimp named Big Ass. (Hey, it’s in the book.) For an impressionable girl, the line “Another day, another blow job” was much more effective phrasing than Just Say No, but you can’t put that on a billboard. Although, at this point in the war on drugs, maybe we should.

My point is, for me, Go Ask Alice worked. I was sure this girl was real; I was nowhere near her world, and I was glad for that, because her world scared the living bejeezus out of me.

So imagine my sense of betrayal when I learned that it was a hoax.

The reveal came several years ago, after I overheard the following conversation in a bookstore.

Customer: I need to know the author of Go Ask Alice.

Employee: The author is Anonymous. We have a copies over here—

Customer: I have a copy. I need to know the author’s real name.

Employee: Ma’am, it’s Anonymous.

Customer: Fine. I’ll look it up on the Internet.

Silly woman, I thought, the author is Anonymous. You can’t find it on the Internet. But of course, I went home and immediately looked it up on the Internet and found out the author’s name. Go Ask Alice was not the real diary of a real girl who drank one spiked drink and fell into a life of fear, degradation, sadness, pain and abuse. It was a “based on” a real person and a “compilation” of incidents.

I was crushed. I admit it. I re-read the book and felt more crushed. As an adult, I saw the manipulation. As a writer, I recognized that the voice was not true to a teenager. As an editor, I noted the glaring bits of author intrusion.

But back when I read it, initially, all I saw was a real girl whose life scared me, made me worry and made me cry.  I believed that diary. I felt every word of it. I felt tricked. Duped. I don’t like feeling duped. Years have passed since I learned that Go Ask Alice is a work of fiction, but I still feel duped.

When writing for a young audience, authors are advised not to write down to them. Be honest and respectful of the reader while acknowledging the level of reading skill. I’ve written for children and understand this challenge, but I would also add to that writing advice to play fair with the reader. Especially a young reader.

Unlike Joel Klein and the soon-to-be-outed-author-of-O, the Anonymous who wrote Go Ask Alice was purposefully deceptive. Which burns my grits.

And yet.

I can’t say that Go Ask Alice is the sole reason that I, to this day, have never even indulged in a puff of mj, but it contributed. Would I have connected to the character as strongly if I knew she was fictional? No. My heartfelt response to her was because I believed she was real. So I wonder. For Go Ask Alice, did Anonymous’ ends justify the means?

Tell me what you think.

Ramona