How to Paint Layers into Your Writing

After watching my wife work on a couple of her oil paintings, I’ve  come to realize that producing a work of fiction is very similar to creating a painting. Too many new writers have unrealistically low expectations about how good a first draft can be due to an overabundance of writerly advice that suggests fixing everything in editing. They finish their “always bad” first draft, and surprise, it’s actually bad. Looking to doing everything in the latter stages of editing instead of the entire process allows mistakes to compound. Final editing is then grueling and perhaps, impossible. As a result, writers sometimes either quit before they’ve actually done the required work to make it great, or they put out unpolished stories thinking that they’ve finished them.  Editors may not tell you (or understand) what you need to add to bring your work to its completion. Agents almost certainly won’t bother.

Writing a long work of fiction, such as a novel, requires multiple things to happen. You must create compelling characters. You must build an evocative work that is detailed enough to stimulate the brain’s memory of all senses, and you have to balance that with not providing so much detail the reader gets bored. You must understand the plot, focus on the story, and fill in gaps in logic. You must keep the reader attuned to your story without adding superfluous details that lose them.  You need to add sufficient emotional content that your reader wants to finish the book because they are invested in what happens. And, you have to do all of this while eliminating errors that take them out of the story.

Think you can do all of these things at one stroke? Perhaps on your best days you can, for a time. But just as even jugglers have limits, writers can only concentrate on a few aspects of writing at a time. Some days, I am very lyrical and alliterative. Some days I’m creative and imaginative, even making up words that fit the piece better than the ones my thesaurus suggests. On most days, during a first draft, I’m so focused on getting the story written down before it leaves my head like last night’s dreams, that I don’t have time for any of the other bollocks. Unless you are a magical genius, you aren’t going to write like Shakespeare one moment and Faulkner the next, with Asimov’s emotionless narrative churning out your story, all at the same time.

So what’s the solution? Layering.

Before we talk about layers, wherein you add steps to your first draft, let’s discuss what a first draft means. I want to pull out someone’s hair (just not mine) every time I see someone talking about a first draft as though you’re supposed to write in one direction every day without backtracking. That’s not writing a draft; that’s making a mess. If you write one-half of chapter six on Saturday, do you really think it’s a good idea to write the second half on Sunday without reading to see what you said and how you said it? Spoiler alert: NO! Yes, people will say, “Don’t read it. It’ll just discourage you and first drafts are supposed to suck.”

Well, no they aren’t. First drafts aren’t supposed to be polished. If they honestly and truly suck, you’re doing something wrong. I agree that you shouldn’t let clunky writing bother you. That’s what the layers are for. Focus instead on, “Did I tell the story? Are my characters developing?” If you’re telling the story smoothly, your first draft will be good and the rest of the process will be a joy. Editing should be the fun part, not the painful part.

That said, let’s talk about layering your writing.

First Draft:

Planning the Piece – This is the step that many writers want to skip. In my opinion, it’s also where there’s the strongest parallel with painting. Painters who start painting without sketching first fall into two broad categories: those who produce intuitive, abstract pieces or those who are skilled and experienced and can, frankly, produce a good piece based solely on their having a strong enough process to do so. These are very, very rare artists. Similarly, if you jump straight to writing, deciding to figure out where you’re going later, your work will be more abstract than if it doesn’t. You don’t have to plan and sketch every detail of your work in advance–I do sometimes; sometimes I don’t–but you should have a rough outline of what happens in your word painting and which pieces go where. Sure, you can clean up stuff in editing, and it’ll be just as easy as changing Mona Lisa’s frown to a smile or substituting sunflowers for poppies in that master work you meant to paint. I’d advise not making unnecessary messes. You don’t have to adhere to your plot, but it will help if you have one.

Preparing the Canvas –  If you jump into a painting without correctly prepping the canvas, what you’ll end up with is crap. The paint won’t adhere properly and you won’t get out of it what you set out to do. Prepping, in writing, means doing the research you need to do before starting. There may not be much, or any, but if there is, get it out the way. If you’re writing a historical piece, you’ll need to have researched the basics of history in that period. If it’s sci-fi or a police drama, there are things you should decide before you start in order to make it believable. Don’t overdo it or get in your own way, however. This is meant to give you a confident edge when you set out. I’m not including here things like having your writing environment (computer, music, quiet place, etc.) because that’s your studio and I’m assuming you have one or you wouldn’t be writing.

Blocking In – This is the primary function of a first draft. In painting, the objective of blocking in is to decide on dominant colors and tones and to roughly paint these areas on the canvas. Then, you can gradually refine the shapes and colors and add more detail as needed. Even modifying tones can be done in the blocking-in phase. In writing, your first draft fills in the rough details of your story. Your characters are these people, with this background who do these things in this order. The plot is blocked in and you decide what the proper sequence is. You color the story with the intended emotional tone–funny, tragic, suspenseful–and try to ensure your draft reads the way you intended. Like blocking in painting, you need not and should not try to do this all at once.

Block in a chapter or a segment of a chapter, and before you block in the next, go back and read it. Write only as a reader here, and see if you said everything you intended. If not, add it. If things don’t belong, you can set them aside someplace and see if they should be added somewhere else. Your overall “tones” blend together when you do this, because you will have your last section’s style in mind as you write the next section. Not only will you remember what you said, but how you said it. This is a simple way of ensuring  that you don’t make one-half of chapter six poetic and lyrically funny, while the second half is dry and serious. Don’t be your own worst critic; be your own best ally.

Details and Background – Here’s the tricky part and the part where you can make the process fit your personality. In painting, some advocate doing details first and then the background. This requires bringing  the detailed parts of the painting up to a workable state (nearly finished, in some cases) and filling in the background around it. In subsequent steps, you can go in and fix any mistakes you’ve added. The writing equivalent, in my opinion, is focusing on your writing style during the draft, making sure it all sounds right. You would then add missing plot details later. This sounds sketchy to me.

The alternative is to block in the background first–just tell the story, and do the detailed stuff after. I advocate a version of this. Write a chapter, focusing on advancing your plot and framing your characters. Here is where the old “action-reaction” plotting goes. When that’s done, re-read the chapter and add-in details you’ve missed, including fixing clunky language. Don’t nit-pick. We aren’t doing proofreading here. This is simply to ensure it sounds coherent and reads the way you generally want the book to read.

Now, there are other things here in painting, like whether you sketch everything first or if you should try alla prima, wherein you paint it all at once while the paint is wet. But sketching belongs under prep work, in my opinion, and alla prima works pretty damned well for stories under 15,000 words, but for a full novel it’s unlikely. Your mind’s chapter-one paint will dry before you get to chapter fifteen.

Editing

Adding Darkness – Full disclosure: here, I’m following the technique of painters like Michael James Smith. Others may disagree on the order or terminology. So, you have your painting blocked in, and you’ve added detail. Hell, this thing is starting to look like a painting. You’re psyched. However, something’s bugging you. The painting is good, but the tones are flat. There’s no depth. To fix it, you go back to your sketch or the model. Look at the dark tones, where they are and what colors they are, and add them in. When you’re done, there’s depth. It’s three-dimensional now. It’s starting to look real.

The same works in writing. Here, the “dark areas” are your emotional content. I’m not writing about darkness in terms of gloominess. Rather, I’m discussing depth–emotional depth. The second draft of my book is where I’m reading for emotional content. Does it resonate? Was it funny where intended and tragic where it must be? Do the characters respond to events in a way that actual humans react? Is my descriptive language evocative? Do I add suspense when I describe the protagonist walking through the alley toward the bad guy? Will the reader care? If they won’t, either it needs editing, or it doesn’t belong in your book.

Fixing Detailed Work – This is self-obvious because of the name, but touching up the details should be done at some point, usually towards the end. In writing, I put it here because I think making sure your language flows is the most important step, and so, should be last. Don’t add detail just to do it. Add it only if needed. In fact, if there’s too much detail, consider painting over some of it. Sometimes, less truly is more. (Just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it wrong.)

Adding Highlights – The flip side of adding darkness in painting is adding highlights. The dark areas create depth and the light areas draw attention, making it seem real and alive. In writing, highlights, in my opinion, are language. You’ve added details that create emotional connections with the reader, now you use your actual show-off-writer’s skill to do the same thing with words. Are you saying “whisper” fifty times when susurrate will make the sound you want them to hear? Do your words dance in their head? Do you even want them to? Are they distracting and make you sound like a douche? Fix the language before you send it to proofreading.

Final Edits / Proofreading

Fix Mistakes / Fix Your Paint – In painting, the last step before you sign it is fixing any minor thing you may have missed or that needs touching up. After you’ve let it sit for a few months, you then go over it and add oil and varnish to fix it. Same thing applies in writing. Go through your piece one last time, only fixing mistakes. Be very circumspect about changing anything else. Often, at this stage, you’ll only make it different, not better. Then, and this is important, get someone not named you to proofread it. They are your fixer. You won’t sell the piece if you don’t. And even if you do, reviews will make you wish you had. Think it’s fun having a reviewer tell others they found your typos? No, it is not fun. Eff typos.

There are probably other steps I missed, but my eyes are blurry and I have to get back to my day job of not blogging. Psyche, I don’t have a day job, I’m retired. But I’m also sick of working on this, so …

The End. May you write happily ever after.

Part 1: The 40 Best Tips from Successful Authors & When to Ignore Them

Due to the length of this post, it’s being presented in 2 parts. Part 2 (numbers 21-40) is presented here.

For longer than I have been writing, I have been reading quotes from writers on writing. Some are clever, some schmaltzy, a few invaluable, and quite a few utter bollocks. I’ve decided to spend part of my evening weeding through some of my favorites (and some loathed ones) and share them with you. After having written a half-dozen novels and two short fiction collections, I’ve seen my writing improve enough that I feel qualified to at least comment on the advice given below. Take a look and then decide which ones you can use and which ones you can discard.

01. “As Kandinsky says, ‘Everything starts with a dot.’ Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it.”

Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art

One of the great fallacies is that there is such thing as a writer’s block. This isn’t just excuse-making; it’s more a mistaken belief that you have to have a good idea to start. You don’t. You only need a start. As an example, I had four rough ideas for novels I want to write, but no decent plots that would allow me to start. Rather than continue to mire in inactivity, I decided to sit down and just start writing whatever popped into my head. Within two hours, I had turned four vague ideas into plot outlines and actually wrote the first chapter of a fifth book I’d not even considered. The point is that creativity starts when you remove self-doubt and allow it to start.

02. “Ignore every current trend and movement; pay no attention to what is presently most admired or most mocked; beware fervent admiration of any writer, however lauded, or any style, however praised. Think only of how you can make your writing most perfect, and most perfectly your own.”
Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

We writers are sheep. Sadly, however, there are no longer any good shepherds to herd us in the right direction, toward literary fame, and in truth, there never were. Around nine of ten books published via traditional publishing never turned sufficient profit to even cover their writers’ advances. The idea that there are great agents, publishers, critics, or even public trends that will accurately foretell which book will be next great success is ludicrous. Writing trends are about as rare as truly viral videos, and have about the same shelf life. Don’t waste time trying to master Toni Morrison’s poetry or JK Rowling’s magic. We’ve read those books and want something new to read. Try writing that.

03. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Stephen King – author of All The Books

“To use adverbs [to modify the verb ‘said’] (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
Elmore Leonard, author of Fifty-Two Pickup

The road to bad writing is thinking that one guy’s inability to use a portion of the language with precision means that you can’t. Dear Mr. King, hush. Mr. Leonard comes closer, by stating that adding adverbs to “said,” as in “’Go quickly,’ she said, emphatically,” should be avoided at all costs. In truth, he’s right. It’s just lazy writing, and most of the time, readers won’t even know what the hell you mean. Saying someone “answered obsequiously” isn’t nearly as powerful as describing what the speaker was doing.

In other situations, adverbs can be used effectively, particularly in passages where you’re purposely choosing efficiency over detail. We don’t need four words to understand an unimportant part of your story if a single adverb conveys the thought. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ADVERBS. Okay?

04. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
George Orwell, author of 1984, party pooper

Oh, boo fricking hoo. If writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, take up photography or knitting, for Chrissakes. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. (Or, you’re a pretentious git who’s trying to make himself sound like a martyr.) Plus, personally, when I sit down to write a book, I am attempting to tell a truth (or a lie) but damn if I don’t at least hope to make some art. Here’s a hint: art isn’t always Rembrandt and Swan Lake. Sometimes, it’s Banksy and Footloose (or Shabba-doo, if you’re my age).

05. “If your characters decide to play up by going silent on you, take them for a walk. Mostly, by the time you get home they’ll be chattering away to you again. Walking refreshes everything and chances are you’ll be running to get back to the manuscript to continue with their story!”
Kate Hamer, author of The Doll Funeral

Yes! A thousand times yes. My favorite book to date, a mystery starring my lead Eddie Daley, I wrote almost entirely during my daily two-mile walks around the neighborhood. Now, it’s almost impossible to walk without starting writing in my head. Thank goodness my wife wants us to walk 3-4 miles daily.

06. “Set a goal each week for your writing and work to reach it. Wake up every morning and treat it like a job. It’s all about regularity. Read back what you’ve written and ask yourself, ‘Do I enjoy this? Does it work?’ If you’re stumbling over something as you read it, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!”
Sharon Grenham-Thompson, author of Jail Bird

Here’s the secret to success in life: Success is not determined by what you do best. Success (or failure) is determined by what you do most often.

07. “First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone. Just remember that the first draft is as bad as the book is ever going to be, and if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful.”
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

There is a general consensus among authors that first drafts suck. They kind of do, and they’re supposed to. However, adjacent with statements in that regard are often statements that claim one shouldn’t attempt to edit during a first draft due to risk of impeding your ability to get the story out. I disagree. I’ve had the most success by tweaking whatever passage I wrote the previous day before I begin the next day’s writing. It tunes the work and ensures that I am in the same rhythm and flow throughout.

Additionally, I don’t start writing Chapter 2 if Chapter 1 stinks. I keep at the first chapter until it’s right and can set the tone for the rest of the book. A bad start gives you permission to suck all the way through. Just remember, you aren’t looking for perfection; you’re looking for “This is what I was trying to say.” Those are two different things.

08. “Read! Read! Read! It’s vital to fill that well of creativity within you. Otherwise you’ll simply run out of words and ideas. By reading other authors’ books, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, absorb new words, trigger new ideas, and above all immerse yourself in the world of writing. A writer who doesn’t read can never be an author!”
Chris Bradford, author of the Bodyguard series and Young Samurai series

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
P.D. James, author, queen of crime novels

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King

Okay, here’s where I lose some of you. In my opinion, this is bullshite. The idea that you can learn to write by reading someone else is absurd. My reading Toni Morrison didn’t make me poetic anymore than reading John Milton made me blind. The reason to read is that you like books. The reason writers tell you to read is so that you buy books. Theirs. True story.

Instead of “just read” I would partly agree with Ms. James. Read, but read good writing, if only so you know it when you see it. Don’t read to learn how to write. There are too many kinds of good writing for that to work, and good writing is situational. What works in one place is wrong for another. Besides, the person whose writing you should read the most is yours. Put it down for a month or six. Read and re-read. See if you’re getting better. Don’t compare your style to anyone else’s; instead, compare the reading experience. Did you laugh with your work? Cry? Were you in suspense? If not, revise and WRITE. You get good at writing by writing. Reading makes you good at reading.

09. “I think writing is a lot like acting, or role-playing. You need to create an environment that lets you get into that headspace. That might be about sitting in a comfy chair, or listening to the right music, or burning a scented candle, or whatever, but you can only do your best work in surroundings that support it.

“The most important thing you can do while writing is to spend time absolutely and completely NOT writing. The cliché is taking long country walks, which definitely helps, but so does playing a video game or watching a really stupid movie. Your unconscious brain needs time to process what you’re thinking about. I’m pretty sure my unconscious wrote most of the best bits of Boy Made of Blocks.”
Keith Stuart, author of A Boy Made of Blocks

You can’t write effectively if you’re not alive. Go live. And for the record, the subconscious does most writing, full stop. That doesn’t mean your active mind is disconnected. It means that your brain handles multiple levels of activity simultaneously. It’ll still be writing while you’re out there doing stuff, so sitting there staring at your desk is self-defeating. Just remember to come back in and write down what you’ve come up with (or at least take notes) before you forget it.

10. “Write down everything that comes to you in an adrenalin rush in the small hours, and on waking up. About one-half – truly – will turn out to be useful and it sets you up for the morning’s work.”
Laura Cumming, Observer art critic and author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
Will Self, author, journalist

“Always keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. No matter how much you convince yourself you’ll remember that brilliant idea in the morning, you really won’t. Write it down because sleep has a way of giving you ideas and then stealing them right back.”
Swapna Haddow, author of the Dave Pigeon series

These  are at least partly true. If you awaken with an idea, write it down right away. In fact, anytime you get a good idea, write it down. You will forget it later. It’s how the brain works, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get it back. Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever written anything and then later wondered who the hell wrote that? Same process.

11. “When you know your characters inside out, when you know what makes them really ‘comfortable,’ throw the exact opposite at them and observe how they cope. It’s only when we are met with challenges that our true self comes to the fore, and this is the really interesting stuff, for it’s simple and honest warts-and-all reality.”
Tracey Corderoy, children’s author

I hate this kind of writing, but if you’re in the Game of Thrones School of Torturing Characters, go for it. I won’t read your book, but a lot of people will. Yes, characters should be challenged and they must grow. But no, that doesn’t mean your whole plot needs to be torture. Show how they deal with success  too. Nobody loves a loser, and success is harder than people think.

12. “Do listen to songs. Some poems need to sing.”
Alison Brackenbury, poet – latest collection Skies

Write to them too. Your lyricism may surprise you.

13. “Fill your life with love and joy and pain. Then fill your books with each of them. All creative acts are acts of love, and vice-versa. Fill your books with love and the act of creation comes easily.”
Christopher Jory, author of The Art of Waiting

See? Joy and pain. Both. Not just pain.

14. “I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
Roald Dahl, author with more than 250,000,000 copies sold

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
William Zinsser author and journalist

The first quote is almost certainly not true, unless he meant “just as long as he buys the book”. We want to be read, and then we want them to fall in love. Mr. Zinsser is right. We care what readers think, because we’re human. Just don’t go arguing down reviewers on Amazon. It’s bad form and will backfire.

15. “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

This will take some negotiation. Isolating yourself on your private island is cool, if you have one. (Can my wife and I borrow it?) But if not, talk to your people about your job, writing, and set up some realistic time allotments. Also be prepared to come out of your cocoon to interact with the HooMons from time to time too.

Dying alone sucks.

16. “Think of your book in layers. The first layer will by its nature be rough – it’s just a sketch – so don’t get frustrated if it feels too light or is badly drawn. You’ll add to your story as you go, layering more character, deeper plot, better description, and twists and turns; and painting in light and shade.”
Abie Longstaff, children’s author of How to Catch a Witch and others

Yes! Writing is best likened to painting. The first draft should be good, but mostly focused on setting the tone of the book and getting the story in place. You can do wordsmithing, filling holes, and adding detail layers later.

17. “Don’t give up. Take rejection on the chin. My first picture book [was] almost 21 years old by the time it [saw] publication. And two of the poems in my collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, are pieces I wrote over 30 years ago, when I was still at school. One of them was rejected by the teacher in charge of the school magazine for having, apparently, ‘no literary merit.’”
John Dougherty, author and poet

Don’t know what to tell you. I’m still working on this one.

18. Growing up I believed only certain people were allowed to write books – namely, fancy literary heirs who had gone to the right school and university. Not people like me. But of course, anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.
– Julie Mayhew, author of Mother Tongue and others

I’m not an elitist, but NO. Some people shouldn’t write books, mainly those who don’t know how to write. If you don’t, learn, get good at it, and venture to books once you’ve developed skill. Talent is imaginary. Real people have skills. Skills take time and work. And rework.

19. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Purity and other novels

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” —Zadie Smith author of Swing Time and others

Um, no, and don’t use a typewriter either. Instead, develop self-discipline. The internet is great for looking up needed references. If you don’t want to be distracted, don’t be distracted. I have ADHD. If I can do it, I promise you that you can.

20. “Don’t share too much of what you are writing with anyone else – until it’s finished. Every comment or remark potentially derails you and who is to say that anyone else is right? Keep writing, keep focused (without constantly going back to the beginning). Once you have reached the end of your story, then re-read it yourself and be self-critical. After that invite other people’s comments, and listen hard!”
Victoria Hislop, author of Cartes Postales From Greece and others

Everyone should have a first (or prime) reader, the one person they really write for. But don’t invite anyone to give you criticism while you’re still in creation mode. Hell, even after that, but certainly not during. Get it out, get it right, and then get critiques.

Part Two Mañana!

Profiles in Moi

The gracious Ngaire Elder has profiled me with the Police  on her blog. Stop by and check it out if you’re not too stuck up so inclined. Just click on the picture to be magically teleported to her blog, like a Leprechaun Boss.

Thanks!

(It’s the weekend. I need a nap, some whine wine, and some cheese. Laters.)

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Check Out My Profile on “Dropped Pebbles”

This is just a pointer to a profile fellow author and blogger Dyane Forde pulled together of moi. (*curtsies) I hope you take the time to check it out, as well as some of Dyane’s other stuff. The link to her feature on me is below.

http://droppedpebbles.wordpress.com/featured-artists/bill-jones-jr/

If you’d like to check out her other work, you can reach her main blog page, “Dropped Pebbles” here: http://droppedpebbles.wordpress.com, or connect with her on Twitter at @PurpleMorrow.

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Why be an Author?

Why would anyone in their right mind be an author? I’m not referring to being a writer; that’s different. There is only a single reason to be a writer — you were born that way. Sure, it may take you a while to notice it, as it did in my case. But the writer is always there.

I remember being absent from school for a couple of days in the 3rd grade. When I got back, the teacher informed me the class had spent the previous 2 days learning to write poetry. I had exactly an hour to catch up. Now, in my many days in front of our in-home library, I’d spent hours reading and re-reading children’s poetry. I figured, “How hard could it be?” In my ignorance, I knocked off a poem about birds in fifteen minutes. I turned it in, and to my teacher’s surprise, it wasn’t bad. My mom carried that silly poem in her wallet for decades.

Still, I didn’t notice I was a writer. I had no imagination, you see. The first time I really began to see the writer within was when I turned 20. Despite being an accounting major, most of my friends were either musicians, artists, or poets. The latter group used to pen poems and recite them to African drums. Sometimes, I’d accompany them, just for kicks. But I wasn’t a drummer, or an artist, because I had no imagination. In private, however, I thought I’d try to write some poems, because, “How hard could it be?”

Most sucked, a lot. But 5 of them got selected and published in a small, New York City poetry journal. So, I decided, maybe I was a poet. By then, I understood that I was a writer, because I could no longer stop writing. I’d never thought myself an artist, unless you counted the fact that I had a camera in my hand from age 12 on.

See, I’d never put the pieces together. I’d always been an artist, just not practicing. You are born an artist or a writer. It’s an innate part of your personality, whether you give it voice or not. You can certainly ignore it, but I promise, that will be to your detriment.

Being an author, however, is completely different. Being a writer (artist) is a personality trait. Being an author (painter) is a vocation or avocation. Anything that can be done as a career is a choice. You can do it, or do something else. But if you chose to be one, do so with eyes open. As an author, let me warn you: you probably won’t get rich. Some do; most don’t.

William Faulkner is considered to be one of the most talented authors in history. In fact, in my survey of the 100 Greatest Writers in History, Faulkner came out 2nd, behind the unreadable James Joyce.

Faulkner
Faulkner, all 5 feet, 5.5 inches of him. (This photo actual size)

Even so, he couldn’t make a living as an author. In order to make ends meet, the creator of such classics as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! worked in Hollywood for years, penning 6 credited screenplays, including “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep,” two of Bogart’s best movies. This, from the eventual winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and 2 Pulitzer Prizes. See, it’s damned hard to get noticed. Without Faulkner’s friendship with Howard Hawks, for whom he penned 5 of the 6 screenplays, he may have never gotten enough visibility to achieve the fame he did.

That’s not to say you won’t either. However, it is to say that fame and fortune isn’t the reason to pursue any career, whether its author, painter, athlete, or lawyer. The reasons to do so are simpler than that: because you find the work enjoyable and because you are willing to work hard enough to be the best at it that you can be.

“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” – William Faulkner

It took me a while to answer my inner question of why I write. I used to have different answers, but they were never the reasons I gave my friends. The real reason is simple. I want to create characters that people never forget. In the not distant future, I will die, and cease to be. My daughter will have children, grow old, and die. Within the span of fifty years past the end of my life, few, if any, will remember me. Almost none will know the details of my life, because few know them now.

But maybe I can perfect my quirky, silly, brilliant, sexy and open BacallDeschanelHepburn iconic female lead. Perhaps I’ll get her right one day, and you, and your children, and their children will never forget her. Maybe I’ll stumble across a new male heroic lead, one who doesn’t shrink from a fight, but who neither is threatened by knowing the girl is smarter and maybe a bit braver.

Perhaps you’ll read my female lead, pursued in romance by her best friend, a woman as different from her as the stars are from the sea, and maybe you’ll root for them to vanquish their foes and fall deliriously in love. Maybe it’s Roxx or Trint. Or maybe you’ll meet a stranger to this planet, in physical form for the first time, discovering what it means to be a woman. Maybe Luce will be the one you don’t forget.

To be honest, I know I haven’t written that character yet. My writing is still improving enough weekly for me not to think it’s good enough. But that’s why I’m an author … because I’m determined to reach good. At the end of my life, I may have never written a character I’d love to have seen Bogie play, and maybe “Baby” was always too cool for any of my female leads, but dammit, I’m going to die trying.

Humphrey Bogart - in Casablanca, playing chess with Peter Lorre
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, playing chess with Peter Lorre

Because I’m a writer; I may as well use it for something.

Writer’s Site of the Day

Good writing is all about having the proper tools. An important part of your writer’s toolkit is having access to good writing, grammar, style, editing, and usage tips from experienced writers. I will be featuring a few good sites I’ve come across periodically. The first such site is Daily Writing Tips.

Rather than give you a long diatribe on what’s there, I’ve copied below the links from their main web page. I would advise stopping by and browsing. I’ve found helpful info, and sometimes just amusing posts, including my favorite, “50 Incorrect Pronunciations You Should Avoid.” (Did you just say, “pro noun ci a tions” in your head? If so, you really should read the article. It’s “pro nun ci a tions.”)

Daily Writing Tips

Categories

 

21st Century Support

Support is relative

As an artist/writer, I have been thinking quite a lot about support lately. I’m not talking about the kind where  you depend upon the kindess of strangers friends to meet your daily needs. I’m not even talking about the emotional support (attaboys, etc.) that all who endeavor to share their creations need. I am talking about tangible support from family and friends as we put our secret selves out for public display.

Can I preach for a moment? That’s a rhetorical question; if you know me, you have already learned that I will irrespective of whether anyone is listening. So, yeah, I’mma preach for a spell.

Art is fucking hard. If you’ve ever done any, you already know what I mean. Bad art is easy, I will agree. But see, we artists have a name for bad art. We call it a first draft. And first drafts are just what they sound like – a beginning. Art takes time, revision, hair-pulling, self-doubt, critique, and a spectacularly thick skin.

At its best, it involves sitting in a quiet space, adding whatever devices the artist has learned will free his/her imagination, and then closing the door, and letting all the demons out. Sometimes, they paint the canvas brilliantly, and we sit back  and thank whomever substitutes for the creator for the gift. More often than not, however, we stop, disgusted, and wonder how such a perfect idea could have turned into such shit when it hit the page.

But we are driven, we artists, or obsessed, if we are successful ones, and so we chip away at the damaged block we chiseled out of our hearts, and attempt to make it sing. And yes, I do realize I just mixed 3 metaphors, but I’ve done so on purpose. That’s what art is like. You start on one path, a simple one, trying to sketch what you see. But then it takes a turn; the work decides it needs more dimensions than your simple piece, and suddenly, it’s a sculpture, for which you didn’t bring the right tools. And, after months of crying blood and sweating laughter, you finish. But it isn’t right, because your sculpture is a song, and you forgot the words.

It never works; it’s always wrong.

And then one day, it isn’t. You finished, not because you’re done, but because you can no longer make it better; you can only make it different.

And these, my friends, have all been the fun parts. The work, you see, is no more than becoming that whom we were born to be. The rest – the magical, horrible unveiling, that is the hard part. So, we do – we finish, and, gods help us, we share. And you know what we get from friends and family?

Nothing of importance.

You see, I’ve learned that support in the 21st century is no longer a tangible thing. Instead, it has become commercial support, or a reality TV almost-real thing. They buy your books, and they want “hard cover” but first, you must “sign it.” Know why? Because they have no intention of reading your book. They aren’t going to frame your sketch and put it in the office to enjoy. No, instead, they are giving themselves a gift on your behalf. They are enabling themselves to feel they know an artist, or believe they are helping support you, without doing the single thing the artist wants them to do:

Care about the fucking art.

We don’t want you to buy the damn book. We want you to want to read it. I don’t give two shits how long you’ve known your artist friend/lover/spouse, if you’ve never read their work, you don’t know shit about them. That’s because the work is where they live – the inside part, that secret part they want you to see, but can only explain through their work. When you tell them you bought their book, but don’t, they know. They know, because as soon as you tell them, they check their sales numbers so they can always remember which one was you. But it doesn’t click over, because you never bought it. And when you do buy it, but never bother to read it, they know that too.

And do your artist friend a favor, if you see their art, but didn’t like it, consider being honest enough with them to tell them it wasn’t for you. Then, continue to wish them well. They didn’t make the art for you, so they only hope you like it – but they are well aware perhaps you won’t. They won’t die from your honesty. I can’t say the same about your lack of interest, however. Those little cuts don’t heal very well.

So, yeah, I’m preaching tonight. I’m preaching because I’ve written 5 books, and none of the people in my life – the ones really in my life – gives a shit. I’ll be truthful, of all the friends and family, exactly 4 have ever read a single book. Now, understand, my family calls me or emails, crying as they read blog posts or poems I’ve had published. But no one reads the books. Is it because they suck? I don’t think so; I’ve only ever gotten 1 bad review, by a clown who confessed he didn’t read the second half of the book.

No, they don’t read because that would require actual time. And time, my friends, is thicker than blood, which is only marginally thicker than water.

Thank God the interwebs are thicker than time, so I do get support. However, being an artist has redefined whom I consider friends. Those who tell me they will buy my book (and don’t) or are waiting for signed (free) copies, wait on. I care about you and your 21st century support even less than you care about who I really am. For clarity, if you’ve never read my work, or share 50% of my genetic code, we ain’t really friends. We’re still cool, but friends support each other.

At least, that’s what my ex-wife, who suffers from daily migraines but still read my 1st book, and is the cover model for my latest one tells me. Support is a real thing. Gestures are for middle fingers.

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As a P.S., here are some rejected covers for the latest book, The Juice. Just so you can see that revision, revision, revision is the only way to achieve art.

Initial Take (and name)

My Life, Part 1

I was never much of a child.

I wasn’t a bad kid; quite the contrary. Adults always seemed to love me. They thought me well-mannered, soft-spoken, articulate, intelligent. You see, I was one of them. It was the other kids who did not like me. My mother always used to joke that I was born 40 years old. I suppose that is true, in a way. I have been stuck at 40 my entire life. Now that is a good thing.

Not so much as a kid. My earliest memories are from living in northwest Washington, D.C., at three years old. I know the timing, as I remember being in a walk-up apartment with my parents, my sister, and at least one cat. My parents broke up not long after the death of my second sister (she died of SIDS) and by age four, the sperm donor was effectively gone from my life. But here, at three, he was still around. I remember the kid-sized table and two firm chairs that just fit my sister and me. My father took one of the rare photographs of me as a kid, sitting with my one-year-older sister, in our chairs. I recall the photo, and his taking it, though he is not in the memory. He was like our cat – he came, and went, didn’t poop on the carpet, but I can’t picture his face.

I remember a conversation my mother had with her friends when I was three. She was teasing me about the birthmark on my left leg. It is high on my thigh now, but in those days, it hovered around my knee. She asked me, to her friends’ delight, how I got the mark. I told her it was because a truck ran over me.

Unsurprisingly, her friends all laughed, led by mama. I was annoyed, and a tad embarrassed. I knew there was no maliciousness; mama adored me. Teasing was simply part of her humor. My annoyance was caused because I felt deceived. At age almost four, I remembered it was my mother who told me how I got the birthmark when I asked at age two. She told me my toy truck ran over my leg, causing the “injury.” I had taken her word as bond. Though I no longer remember the two-year-old’s conversation, I certainly remember being pissed that she and her friends were laughing at me for believing some stupid tale she had rigged.

Even worse, they all thought I really believed a truck ran me over. How stupid did they think I was? Despite my protestations, I was abandoned to the “isn’t that cute” ranks of childishness. I stood, gathered what was left of my three-year-old dignity, took my Tonka truck, and went to play somewhere else.

By four, we were living with my great-grandmother, whom we called Nanny, and her second husband, whom I remember as Mr. Cheek. As a kid, I had a profound habit of never calling people by their names. So, I don’t remember what I called him. I have no memories of ever uttering the word “daddy” for instance. I do remember, verbatim, the conversation when he announced he was leaving my mom, and her imploring me to beg him to stay. I did, but my heart wasn’t in it. I only did so as I was still very protective of my mother at the age of four. She had lost a baby, and I was the only one who seemed to notice how decimated it left her.

My sister and I ceased being close at this point. Perhaps it was because I could no longer fit into her lap for protection from my mother’s scolding. It think it was because I was a shepherd, and she was not. People would come and go, see the two little kids, and of course, invite us to go wherever they were going. My sister, ever the extrovert, always said yes. I, on the other hand, decided to be an introvert. Decided, yes. I would answer, often dressed in my little suit, “No. I want to stay with mama.”

The people would shrug and leave, denigrating  me as a shy mama’s boy. I was neither. I was her shepherd, and shepherds don’t leave. They don’t. fucking. leave.

So, around the house I would stay, with mama, and Nanny, and Mr. Cheek. In the mornings, Nanny would walk us downstairs, in her sideways, I’m-really-too-fat-to-go-down-the-stairs way, and make breakfast. We were the light of their lives, especially Mr. Cheek. He would sneak us sips of coffee, which I found delightful, because, as you know, I was grown. After breakfast, Mama would command us to get dressed. (She is a former Army brat, and knows how to command quite well, thank you very much.)

I would immediately put on my suit.

Mama would try not to laugh, and she understood that I was 40 (not 4) so she would gently implore me not to wear my good clothes to sit on the front stoop on 5th Street, NW, Washington, D.C., as it might get dirty. I would be disappointed, but I would change. I was a good boy. Invariably, changing meant putting on my cowboy outfit, complete with hat. That, Mama was fine with.

I suppose this story came to mind as I’ve been thinking today about my tendency to shepherd, wondering whence it came. Then, this bit of history came after reading a story about a little girl, her grandfather, a gun, and rabbits. The two, together, have given me my answer. I learned to be a shepherd by shepherding my caretaker. See, of my mother’s three remaining children, I was the favorite (as least in their opinions). In fact, she and my sister were estranged for a long time, caused by Mama’s memory of always being left by my sister, and my always there by her side, as she sat in the corner, looking despondent. She was only 24 at the time, and had lost her third child – the smart one. No, the smart one was not me.

After Lynn Marie’s passing, we both changed, Mama and me. I did not learn to talk until I was two, and then it was in complete (grammatically correct) sentences from the start. After my sister’s death, I only talked to Mama. Shepherds don’t talk, lest they lose sight of their flock. I learned to lead from the rear. I learned that caretaking and control are not at all the same thing; in fact, they aren’t really closely related. I learned that I loved the flock enough to keep them safe, but I had no desire to manage what each was doing.

I was learning, at age four, to be the man I would one day become.

They say you grow up to be the man your father is. My mother remarried, when I was 10. She married another shepherd, just like I had been at age 4. So I suppose the old adage works in reverse too. Life, and an unhappy childhood killed the caretaker in me for a long time. However, as soon as I reached adulthood, the same 40-year-old man I had been returned. I have been him ever since.

I wonder, if like me, we are born who we are meant to be. Perhaps we are taught to be something else, and spend the entirety of our lives fighting to get back to being that person. Maybe the quiet observer, the chronicler of histories, the gatherer of truths – that small shepherd in a brown suit, is who I have always been.

I am him again, finally, just without the suit. I do, however, still dress like a cowboy.

I Wonder

This is one of the days where I awaken, and I wonder if any of this means anything at all.I’m not referring to the big picture – God, life, the universe (or multiverses), the NBA playoffs … no, I’m talking about writing. It is lonely, most of the time, being an artist.

I can sense some of you, the very few of you who will actually read this, nodding your heads. Even so, I wonder if anyone gets what I feel. I mean, truly. I’m past the obvious bits – the stereotypical artist typing away in their lonely pit, scraping the words from the soles of their shoe. No, I’m referring to the loneliness that comes when you want to share the most important piece of yourself, but either they don’t care or they don’t understand.

I have a real life. I have a career, not just a job. I have family, of a sorts. I have friends. Of these, I know of 3 people who care even remotely about my writing. Two are my parents. The third is questionable. I have plenty of writer acquaintances, all met online. Realistically, none of these people really has time to give two damns about my work – they are too busy with their own. And rightly so. Which brings me to my point – the only thing at this stage of my life that I produce that really MEANS something to me, is my writing.

I have come to the conclusion that many artists are reclusive just so they can focus on getting the work done, and ignore the fact that they are being ignored. That doesn’t really work for me. I’m neither a recluse nor a natural introvert. Yeah, I probably spend more time alone that you do, and I’m likely better at it. Doesn’t mean I like it.

But alone puts me in company of the only other artist I know who gives a shit about what I write.

I hated literature in school. I despised it enough that all the way through 12th grade, I considered English to be my worst, and least favorite subject. Then an interesting thing happened: I received an award for Excellence in English. It still sits on the wall in my parents’ house. It’s there as a reminder – just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean you should avoid it.

See, I was constantly in arguments with English teachers, from grade 1 on. They “interpreted” poetry. They looked for hidden meanings and themes in prose. I told them, respectfully, they were full of crap. When a writer says, “He sat on the park bench, looking at his red Chuck Taylors,” he isn’t projecting his internal rage at the world onto his protagonist.  The bench is not a metaphor for the isolation of the modern man, his head bowed, downtrodden, facing his impotence and the ire it causes. No, the writer is saying, “I like red Chuck Taylors, and he’s on a bench because I’m sick of describing the stuff he sees.”

Artists aren’t deep. Bad artists are deep.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have levels – God knows, we have more than most. What it means is that the entire point of sharing art is to get others to understand what is inside. To see it, hopefully, to like it, and to share it with others. Without that, art is just so much mental masturbation.

As a writer, I am very simple, and my needs are simpler. I want this to be your favorite spot, curled up in your little piece of sun, like a cat, with my book. That’s it. Read it because you love it. The end.

Home

And that brings me to my second issue. I started blogging in 2005, and quickly got up to over 100 people per day reading and interacting with me. However, I quickly came to realize that the main reason people read my blog was so that I would continue to read theirs. See, here’s the thing: if you don’t like my writing, if I don’t say anything that inspires you, I don’t want you to click “like.” Don’t read it.

I’m not looking for someone to help me jerk off. I am trying to connect. And, increasingly, I’m wondering if that is even possible. I’m starting to wonder if literature is dead, and no one bothered to inform us.

I’ve been told that “modern literary theory” (aka, pile of bullshit) says that the interpretation of a work – the TRUTH of a story – lies not with the writer, but with the reader. Know why they say that? Because if they don’t, there’s no bloody reason for their teaching, is there? Instead of teaching intelligent people how the fuck to understand something they just read and understood, how about teaching them how to LOVE books. Why not make literature not about the meaning, but about loving the story, enjoying the alliteration, liking the use of metaphor, and, most importantly, how it made you feel, or what it made you think?

How about getting out of the damned story what the artist put into it?

No, I actually meant love.

I’m beginning to understand why so much written is crap. We have overanalyzed and killed dead writers’ works so much, living writers just want to put out a story and get paid. It’s the you-read-my-blog-and-I’ll-read-yours school of thought, adapted for commerical use:

“You write a basic story, with no lyricism, no heart, no life, and I’ll help you make it just like the other books I know people liked. If we all like and write the same stuff, no one will ever need to feel odd, or left out again.”

The alternate is to read only non-fiction, where the literary types have fled. We’ll sit around, sip tea, and feel so very educated.

Nah. I guess, all things being equal, I’d rather feel left out.

I know this is a rambling rant. I have ADHD; this is what I do. I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and I really wonder if fiction is as big a circle jerk as poetry. No one reads poetry but other poets. I’ve been in the middle of those circles, and trust me, it ain’t pretty. I wonder if anyone is willing to be different, to try and save the medium before it crashes into crass commercialism, and dies. I wonder if it’s too late to gain an audience for those of us who don’t know how to be like everyone else.

I wonder if I started writing twenty years too late. Maybe I shouldn’t have slept through every English class I ever took. I wonder.

And now, pretty flowers, because I really do believe in happy endings. There’s always photography, I guess. By the way, all the real photos I use on my blog are mine. Don’t steal ’em. The end.

Isolation My Butt, It’s Called Being a Douche

Not having the privilege of being a full-time writer, I am struck by the number of times I see (joking or serious) references to self-isolation. Roughly, they equate to “leave me alone, because I’m writer, and I’m creating.”

I imagine this is followed by a haughty fling of one’s writer scarf, as the writer sits in his internet cafe or in her hermetically sealed writer cave, pounding away. It is reinforced in cinema – Stephen King’s The Shining, for example, with Jack Nicholson pounding away in isolation in his haunted writing fortress.

Yeah, he was an alcoholic character, written by an alcoholic writer, perhaps exorcising a few personal demons of his own.

Maybe my bristling at this behavior is just jealousy. I haven’t achieved the success I want – which isn’t sales or acclaim , but reaching people organically, through the work. Maybe I just don’t get the artist’s sensibility, my being an ambidextrous, left-right-brained semi-analyst. I suppose if I were more worthy of the craft I would see the benefit of throwing up walls whenever the Muse arrived.

But see, I learned to write for money. And guess what is expected when you write for money?

1. Consistency. Write every day.

2. Schedule. Write every day because the end date doesn’t move.

3. Interaction. Write in teams, or interact with editors, publishers, other writers, and change your content in accordance with what the team agrees.

4. Organization. Try doing any of the above 3 without it. I double-dog dare you.

See, you don’t get to be isolated, and no one gives two shits about your artist’s sensibilities. It’s due when it’s due. Then, when your writing is done for the day, you go home, and have a life.

Now, I won’t pretend for a second that this kind of writing is as fulfilling as writing a novel, or a poem, or even a personal essay such as this one. However, there are some things that carry forward into creative writing from which I think others can benefit.

For instance, consistency, schedule, organization, and interaction. All of these things take place in “works-for-hire” writing because they need to be there. If you are on a corporate proposal team, you may very well find yourself writing in a room of talkers, plinking away on your little keyboard in your cubicle, with only your self-discipline and earbuds between you and success. Not as creative, but I assure you, the need for crispness, clarity, and readability is at least as great.

“Yeah, but we’re all different,? you say. “Not everyone could thrive in such a scenario.” I agree. In fact, I think you will do better in the works-for-hire sector if you are a little more extroverted, and a little less introverted. But, frankly, that’s true about society as a whole.

Here’s me, for instance. I have a 40-hour a week job, and it’s a pretty damned good one, frankly. At the average newbie-writer book advance, I’d need to plunk out a couple and a half novels a month in order to quit. Not rich by any stretch of the imagination, just the facts of where I live. Full-time-author Bill just ain’t happening. So, I need to balance writing and life, or quit writing.

I’m not quitting.

So, over the course of 2012, I will have put in around 1,920 hours at work, written a 100,000-word novel, written and published one short-story collection of around 60,000 words, edited three novels, published two, and maintained all my personal relationships – the ones I value, anyway. That doesn’t count the blog entries or the poetry or the 5,000 photos that I fit in when I can, nor the time spend trying to  stay abreast of other writers. Writing is a job, but SO IS YOUR FUCKING LIFE. When you meet someone you’re pretty sure you can adore, but you get ANNOYED when they reach out, do not be surprised if they are GONE when you emerge from your word cave.

The problem is NOT that they don’t understand how hard it is being a WRITER. The problem, my love, is that you don’t understand how hard it is being a PERSON. It’s constant, and it takes work. Writing – damned good writing – is the gift that flows from the loves in your life, the stress in your day, the empathy you develop from trudging through the muck with the world around you.

If you’re not in the world with them, why on Earth would they want to read your words? How could you … know? How can it be deep, and rich, and full of the stuff that makes them nod, and cry, and tear at the pages, trying to see how it all turns out.

How can your words weep, if you plonk them out in your cave? They can’t, that’s how.

See, I get frustrated with the  “I’m writing so I’m too busy to deal with you” nonsense. At the very least, the people in our lives deserve the truth. “I’m not really too busy to talk to you, but I think if I don’t spit out all the words at once, they’ll disappear. So let’s pretend I’m too busy, so you’ll be there when I decide to emerge from my hole.”

Kewl. Or, maybe we can practice a little structure – write a paragraph or two on whatever ideas you’re having before you try to turn them into chapters. If it’s all stream-of-consciousness, what the hell difference does it make if you stop to have coffee with the girls? Hell, the book will be based on whatever comes out next anyway. It’s not that hard, it really isn’t.

My advice to writers, trying to balance mundane life with being an artist? Don’t be a douche.

If your words don’t make you cry, tear them up, and call the girls. It’s time to smell the coffee.

Loves ya more than chocolate.