Monday, January 23, 2012

Be Different! Or The Value of Finding the Unique Angle

I'm a published writer.

I'm writing this post for the beginning writers out there--this one is for you. Maybe you have been trying to secure an agent, or perhaps you've been submitting articles, essays or short stories to magazines. I wish you luck, and I have tremendous respect for you and your tenacity. Believe me...I know what you're going through. It isn't easy to break through and get that first publishing credit.

But it is possible. I know it is, because I'm a published writer--and you can do it if I can. I'm not upset if you are thinking the same thing after reading my blog--in fact I'm hoping you realize that I'm not blessed with any special talent as a writer. I didn't get my first publishing credit because I was a great writer--it came because I came up with a good idea that caught the editor's eye.

My essay (the second essay I'd ever written) was published in the May, 2006 issue of Traverse  magazine, a regional travel magazine covering Northern Michigan. I submitted it to the editor on a Friday, and they bought it the following Monday. Later, I found out that they had rejected over five-hundred essays before choosing mine for publication. Most of the rejected essays were written well, a few of the rejected essays ended up going back into the slush pile for future consideration, but most of them were rejected outright.

Most of those rejected essays did a great job of describing the region--they described the sugar-sand beaches of the Lake Michigan shore, the sun dappled, azure blue water, the fiery glow of a Northern Michigan sunset, or the beauty of the fall foliage, as seen from a log cabin on a hillside overlooking the bay. All of those subjects were covered--multiple times, with every descriptive adjective known to man dressing up the writing. The only problem was that the editorial staff had read it all before--many, many times, and none of those essays stood out because the editors get five hundred of them every month.

My essay was about an abandoned railroad bridge. There was no sugar sand beach, no sun dappled shoreline, no azure blue water in sight anywhere. In fact, the bridge itself was gone, and only the stone abutments marked the spot in the forest where it had stood. I told the story of that bridge. My essay about a lost bridge on an abandoned railroad stood out because it was different--but it also stood out because it told something about the region and the people who once lived there, and the editors were starving for something besides the usual, "My trip to Michigan" essays they received every month.

That's what it took--I didn't know anything about the publishing business at the time, but I'd stumbled onto a basic truth of the writing market. Editors and Agents see the same thing constantly--and your travel essay might be well written, but it doesn't matter if it's the same old thing. The fiction book market is no different. I can only imagine how many vampire novels are pitched to agents every month, and it makes sense that most of them are D.O.A. unless the vampires are different in some way from the rest of the bloodsuckers in the agent's slush pile.

Maybe I should think about writing another novel--one where the handsome vampire (I think I'll call him Edward) lives under an old railroad bridge...near a sugar-sand beach and sun dappled, azure blue water. There's this girl he likes (I'm thinking Bella is a good name for her), and she lives in a log cabin on a hillside near the water, and she goes to the bridge late one afternoon to watch the fiery red sunset....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What If...

I've been seeing a lot of James Patterson on TV. He's been promoting his new book, Kill Alex Cross by appearing in a commercial for the new Nook tablet. His previous books have been promoted on TV quite a bit--more than any other writer I can think of.

Other writers works occasionally pop up on TV, and there are always movies and TV shows based on books (or based on a character from a novel). It hasn't happened to me yet, may be a while.

But what if it did happen? I've often imagined winning the lottery and doing a national ad campaign (including making a TV commercial) to promote Judgment Tramp. I wonder what would happen--would I vault to the top of the New York Times best seller list? Would a certain Mr. George Clooney play Eb Maclean in the movie?

I'm not holding my breath, partly because Eb Maclean has more of a Daniel Craig face in my imagination...that sort of ugly-but-good-looking persona--and Daniel Craig may even be too much of a stretch. Maybe I need to approach Larry the Cable Guy once I'm counting my millions.

The big question is whether the advertising would work or not, and more to the point, would the book be good enough? Am I that undiscovered gem waiting to be unearthed? Or am I the writing equivalent of "genuine cubic zirconium"...or even worse, am I destined to be stuck in the middle with you? (No offense intended...and by the way, I love that song!--but wouldn't life be easy if we were all either great or horrible at everything we tried? It would be so easy to make decisions.)

All of this "what if" stuff leads me to two different conclusions: 

a. I am perfectly willing to be a guinea pig for an elaborate marketing study. Don't get me wrong--I'm not cheap...but I can be had....
I don't drink, so the mini-bar in the hotel room will be safe when I'm on my all-expenses-paid, 48 state book tour. Just promise me you will pick out the red M&M's before delivering the candy to my suite and we will get along famously...and remember that I don't take a lot of ice in my diet Sierra Mist. I need the diet soda because I just finished stuffing my face with M&M's. Thank you.

b. It is much more likely that I will have to market my writing on the cheap. I'll have to write a blog, and be on Facebook and Twitter. I'll have to attend craft fairs and distribute handbills. I'll need to sell books at my music gigs. I will be forced to talk my writing up at every's tiring just to think about it! I may even have to release my books as e-books and distribute them on Amazon. (Judgment Tramp--Available Now In Kindle Format--only $2.99!)

Option b. is very sad, because it sounds like a lot of work. I wonder if I can sucker someone else into doing it for me? Hmmmm....

Monday, January 9, 2012

Crisis of Confidence

I don't usually have writer's block. I have so many different ideas running through my head--and sometimes they come one after another. Sometimes I can't think clearly because of all the ideas. It's almost like having writing A.D.D....

My problem isn't in figuring out what to write--it's writing in a way that does justice to the vision in my head of the finished story. My real problem is that I sometimes lack the confidence to transmit the ideas into words.
Do you have those days--those times when you are crippled by the fear of being dishonest when you call yourself a writer? Surely I'm not the only writer who goes through this. There are times when I feel like a complete fraud; I convince myself that I am the worst sort of poser (my Canadian heritage popping out...sorry), and it can be a crippling fear that compels me to question everything.

I make my living as a musician. I play in several different bands, and I also teach piano. Sometimes I have the same crippling fear when I'm playing or teaching--but there's a difference because I have more of a resume as a musician. I've also played music my entire life, and I usually get more immediate feedback when performing music.

There are obvious differences between music and writing, but there are also common elements. Music is a form of art, but it is also a craft that can be mastered with hard work and discipline. Writing isn't much different, and in some ways writing is more of a craft. Writing is all about that aforementioned hard work and discipline.
Good musicians learn their craft--but great musicians have extraordinary gifts...perfect pitch, or what I call "relative" pitch--the ability to instantly discern the interval between two different notes, or to know right away whether a note is sharp or flat. Some people have a highly developed ear for music, and some don't (even though almost everyone has a better ear for music than they long does it take for you to figure out that a singer isn't any good?). It's the same type of natural gift as a photographer's good eye for composition. But talent isn't everything, and I know I would be a better musician if I practiced more. I'd be a better teacher if I studied more...and that's a goal of mine (it is the new year, after all!).

Writers vary in talent just like photographers, or musicians. But everyone can learn to be good at some form of writing. We can't all be poets, and not everyone has the ability to be a great storyteller, but there are many different ways to make a living with the written word if you master the craft of writing.We are not all destined to write something as brilliant as "To Kill a Mockingbird", but we can all improve, and that's the thought that invariably pulls me out of my funk when I have my moments of terror--I can work my way toward legitimacy.

My crisis of confidence is real, and I never will be able to fully escape its crippling effects, but I know a few things now that can help me fight back. I don't think I'm unusual--I think all writers deal with the same demons I endure, and the secret is in working through the fear and trusting that the work will lead to a good result.
I know I will always be better if I allow myself to be me--I can't be Harper Lee, or Ken Follet--I just have to be satisfied with being J.D. Currie. Beginning writers are often told to imitate the style of their favorite writers, and it might be good advice...but eventually writers have to develop their own voice.

I get into trouble when I try to predetermine the destiny of my stories, and that's a sure-fire sign that I'm not confident. My best work always grows from within itself. I don't over-think my writing when I'm going good--I create an interesting character, and then I put that character in a tough situation and allow the character to lead me through the story. It might not work for everyone, but it always works for me. There's nothing wrong with a strong plot, but the characters shape the plot when I'm writing my best.

That's why I write from beginning to end. Maybe someday I will craft a great ending to a novel before I write the rest of the book, but it doesn't seem to work that way now. I start at the beginning, and I go on to the end, and then I stop (sorry, Lewis Carroll). And that's another lesson--it is tough to admit that you started a book in the wrong spot. Is the beginning of your book or story really the beginning? Or did you just write forty pages of fluff before getting into something that will hold your reader's interest? If you screwed this up it's okay--just make sure you understand that you haven't written a book at this point--you've written a first draft of a book. Don't be afraid to admit that you made a mistake. Starting a book in the wrong spot is a sure sign that you aren't listening to your characters. They write the story.

That's my epiphany--I'm flawed and I know it. I'm not Harper Lee, or James Joyce (thank God!). I'm just me...and I can only succeed by working hard, staying positive, and by learning the lessons my writing is trying to teach me. The rest of it--the degree of my success, is out of my hands, and it is silly to fret about it. I don't always keep this in mind, but at least now I can read this blog post when I feel like a poser.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ignoring the experts--a published writer stays true to her work

I have always found tales of success in the face of a naysayer particularly inspiring. At some point in our lives, most of us have had an idea, endeavor, or passion that someone else didn't agree with or understand. That's at best. More likely, we also have had people who told us outright, perhaps even with best intentions, that we were going down the wrong path, our goals destined to remain in the realm of day dreams, our path clearly the wrong one. 

When I read a story about someone who persisted and followed their own path despite a naysayer (and a so-called "expert" at that) and met with success... well, it gives me a little more hope, and a little more pep in my own step! Today, as the new year approaches, I thought I would repost a blog post by an author friend of mine, Nancy Bilyeau. Nancy has followed the traditional publishing path and her first novel, The Crown, will be released here in the U.S. on Jan. 10, 2011.

The Crown has been receiving rave reviews despite an "expert" writing instructor's opinion that historical fiction just might not be the genre in which she should be writing. Reading her blog inspired me, and I hope you will feel the same way. I, for one, plan to continue to learn and grow in 2012 while pursuing the path that feels best for me.

Every writer has to choose their own path, and sometimes well meaning advice has to be ignored, or at least tempered with the writer's unique perspective of what they want their work to express. Nancy made the right choice, and this post is proof of her courage. She understands the golden rule: writing is a deeply personal affair--and every writer must be the final judge of his/her work. No teacher or critique group can understand the work like the writer.
A Bloody Good Read:Where writers and readers of historical thrillers talk shop: Confessions of a Genre Writer: In 2006, in my first online fiction workshop, I submitted two chapters from the historical thriller I’d begun writing. My fello...