The gift of originality

The one thing I don’t want to do in these posts is to come across as some sort of smug writing guru, dispensing criticism and advice from on high. I hate that kind of thing. It’s why writing has gotten all tangled up in such issues as point of view, genre and “write what you know.”

If I happen to pontificate about writing, I’d like to think I’m approaching the topic as an avid reader — nothing more.

Furthermore, I don’t care all that much what your point of view might be, and you don’t need to claim a genre to be invited onto my reading stack.

What I want is to learn something. Tell me something I don’t know, or tell me something I do know in a way I haven’t heard before. I had a creative writing teacher in college who would give his students an “A” on any paper that contained an original thought. One original thought, no matter how clumsy the rest of the piece might have been. He didn’t give out many “A’s.”

Sadly, the creative arts — writing, music and art — have all too often fallen into the same trap as that of politics. You take a survey to find what people want you to say, then you say it.  That validates what they’re thinking, so they want you to say it again, and the whole cycle repeats itself. In the process, true creativity withers on the vine.

I think most of us are willing to be jolted out of our comfort zone, but we need help. There is a little voice in our head that whines “Play it safe. You don’t want to take a chance on that, because what if you don’t like it?”

When we scan a restaurant menu, we look for food that won’t surprise our taste buds. When we stand in front of a juke box, we’re hoping to find songs we’ve already heard. But maybe we taste the less familiar food on someone else’s plate, or we hit the wrong button and play a song new to us, and we discover that we like it.

Take a look around the Amazonian landscape. Browse a bit. In fiction, you’ll find literally thousands of books about lost love, detectives, vampires, zombies, serial killers and people with addictions. It might be nice to try something else.

But even if you gravitate toward the herd, you can still be original. Make your serial killer unlike anyone else’s. Craft a love story that’s unique. Make someone addicted to popcorn or cotton candy and use that as a metaphor. Put a new spin on the vampire legend.

How can you do that? Because you’re different. Let’s compare you and me. We probably grew up in different cities, certainly in different houses with different parents (as far as I know — I’m an only child). We went to different schools, learned from different teachers. We probably listen to different music and watch different TV shows and movies, although there may be some commonality. We’ve had different friends. Our background ethnicity isn’t quite the same. You’ve traveled to places I’ve never been, and I’ve traveled to places you’ve never been. We have different pets, like different foods, follow different religious paths (or no religious path). We may well disagree politically, or maybe not.

The point is, you have a lot that you can teach me, if only what it’s like to be you. All writers have a whole palate of colorful experiences and descriptions that we can work into our writing, yet so many of us settle for black and white.

If you’re a fiction writer, it’s your book. So find a place for that great story you’re always telling at parties, or the weird friend you had in high school. No one else had that experience, or knew that person in quite the same way. Use them.

Listen, really listen, to the next TV political ad you see. Chances are it will be wrung dry of passion, originality, and soul.

I will listen to you, the man or woman in the business suit says. I will serve in accordance with your values (leaving that intentionally vague, so it can apply to everyone), I won’t raise your taxes. Blah, blah, blah. Hardly anyone ever says: “I’m a unique person, and this is what I will bring to the table if you elect me.”

And that’s a shame.

The devil and the details

I was once told that it’s impossible to simultaneously edit a piece of writing for grammar/spelling and content, and I tend to agree. It’s a left brain, right brain issue.

But we all try to do that on occasion, and the risk is that our critical, nit-picking mind will override our thoughtful side.

When I was writing newspaper columns, I used to get notes or e-mails from people who would say things like, “I read your column today, and you misspelled the word ‘calvary.'”

(Unfortunately, I almost always did that. For some reason, I tended to spell it like the site of the crucifixion instead of a bunch of soldiers on horseback).

When I got notes like that,  I always thought: OK, but what did you think about what I wrote? Isn’t that the important thing?

It would be like having a blind date with someone and rejecting them simply because the clothes they were wearing didn’t match. The devil can, indeed, be in the details.

Don’t get me wrong — spelling and grammar are important. They are to writing as the proper key is to music, and it can be jarring when they’re off.

Still, I don’t think they are as important as what a story or article is saying.

Recently, I sent a “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” proposal to a writer in South Carolina. It was late in the day, dinner was on the table, and I was just trying to do one more thing before shutting it down.

The writer responded with a list of typos he found in my e-mail. Nothing was said about what I was offering him, or whether he was interested. It was more important that he strut his stuff.

Awhile ago, I would have fired off an irritated response.  Instead, I just replied: “You must have caught me on a bad day.”

The next day, he responded by expressing interest in the project.

Here’s my point. When this project starts in May, I have it arranged that the first five or six books covered will knock your socks off — everything will be on pitch, the grammar and spelling flawless, the story compelling. We need that to establish credibility.

After that, though, I will occasionally include some work that is anything but flawless. The key is, it will have to be someone who has something very important or very different to say. And the flaws can’t be so glaring as to make the book difficult to read.

Not every one is a member of the grammar police.

I don’t like the idea of being a just another gatekeeper, but somebody has to do it. And there will be times when a writer will submit something as a potential “Snowflake,” and I will have to say: “I’m sorry, but I think this needs a little more work. Here are a few suggestions.”  In other words, the value of this work won’t, in my opinion, outweigh its flaws.

And if it’s already been put out by a self-publishing outfit that doesn’t worry about grammar and spelling, I probably will never use it.

There was a time when the only way to get a book published was to go through a traditional publisher, most of whom had rigid rules about what was and was not good writing.

Now, the pendulum has swing completely the other way.  Almost anybody can get something “out there,” often in too much of a rush.

What I try to do is read for comprehension first, the details later.

The devil can wait.

Taking us down, with style

Why is it that so many gifted writers provide us with work that is so mind-numbingly depressing?

And why do the rest of us read it?

Last night, I spent a sobering two hours in my recliner, switching back and forth between “The Animals,” by Christian Kiefer, and “The Splendid Things We Planned,” a memoir by Blake Bailey.

Both were exceedingly well-crafted, and as a writer, I enjoyed seeing how they had built and polished  their narratives.

The problem was, when I finished reading, I felt like I needed a drink as badly as one of Kiefer’s dysfunctional characters.

This is what Kirkus Review says about Kiefer’s novel: “Eloquent and shattering, this novel explores, in gritty detail, how penance sometimes does not lead to redemption, a modern take on the story of Eden. Kiefer is a master wordsmith, and his dense and beautiful language intensifies the pain and isolation of the main character… Devastatingly beautiful. This novel embodies why we write and why we read.”

OK, fair enough. But to me, this was in the same vein as a lot of other brilliant but dismal fictional dirges, books like Russell Banks’ “Affliction,” William Kennedy’s “Ironweed” and Larry Brown’s “Fay.”

I’m about 100 pages into the “The Animals,” and it seems obvious that the protagonist, Bill Reed, is on a collision course with disaster. Chances are, he’s going to take the lovable inhabitants of his animal refuge down with him. Everything that surrounds Bill is dark,. gloomy and, yes, “gritty” — his trailer, his friends, his memories.

Maybe I’m just too sensitive.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s memoir is about his drug-addicted brother, who has also been placed firmly on the path to destruction by page 20. You know that this is not going to end well, and I found myself wondering: “Maybe it’s cathartic for Bailey to recall how his family spiraled downward, but do I really need to read about it?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all novels and memoirs should wear happy faces. That would be boring. Nor do I necessarily demand happy endings.

Recently, I’ve finished a couple of novels by William Hazelgrove, a writer you probably never heard of. One was called “The Pitcher,” the other “Real Santa.” One has a happy ending, the other just sort of ends.

The point is, these books dance across the lines between problem and resolution, humor and pathos. They aren’t all dark, and found myself feeling good when I finished them.

Hazelgrove challenges his characters, but he doesn’t seem compelled to torture them.

By contrast, consider “Affliction” (and, to be fair, Russell Banks is a wonderful writer, some of whose work is not depressing). It’s not enough that his main character hates his job, hates where he lives, hates his father and only barely tolerates his girlfriend. Or that he gets snowed and rained upon for most of the book. Or that the story slowly and depressingly drags its way toward an awful conclusion. On top of all that, Banks gives his unfortunate protagonist a toothache that periodically afflicts him.

I read the whole thing, thinking: “Wow, he;’s a good writer, but geez …”

Is this just me? Or do a lot of people like depressing books because it makes them think: “You know, my life sort of sucks sometimes, but it’s not even close to being as bad as that.”

My two cents on publishing

OK, I’ve published three books in my writing career. Two were self published, the latest — my first novel — was put out by a “real” publisher, but under an agreement called “hybrid publishing” (you kick in a little money, they match it).

In other words, I’m not exactly an expert on the book business. My primary character flaw in these matters has always been a lack of patience. I probably could have found a publisher for one of my self published books, but felt that the information in it was fresh, and I didn’t want it to go stale while I waited to find my “sold mate.” Maybe it’s the newspaper reporter in me that thinks: “Just write it and get it out there before anybody else does.”

I have learned a few things along the way, though, And as I was responding to an e-mail from a friend who asked if I had any advice about publishing her in-progress “road novel,” it occurred to me that this might also serve as a blog post. So …

Dear Suzanne:

After having published my own first novel last fall, with a “real publisher,” I now find myself turning 180 degrees from my previous conceptions about writing and marketing.

Here are what I consider to be the plusses and minuses of traditional and self publishing..

REAL PUBLISHER

PLUSSES
1. If everything works out, they will pay for getting your book published.
2. They will plug your book into Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. BTW, that doesn’t mean most Barnes & Noble stores will actually put the physical book on their shelves, just that they’ll include it in their catalogue.
3. They will do the book cover for you.
4. They will edit the book.
5  They will pay to have the book distributed nationwide by Ingram.
6. They may help you with marketing, although I wouldn’t get your hopes up about that. The tendency is for publishers to be very enthusiastic about a new book for about a month, then drop them to embrace other new books. It’s like that Eagles’ song, “New Kid in Town.”
7. They will send you a royalty check every four to six months.

MINUSES
1. Your share of the profits from each book sold is very small. For example, my novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” is selling for $17, of which I get $2 and change. Plus, it’s hard to find out how it’s selling (or not selling). In fairness, I do get half of the proceeds from Kindle and e-books, which is not bad at all.
2. As I mentioned, you’re dreaming if you think most publishers are going to spend a lot of time promoting your book. You’re pretty much on your own.
3. You’re at the mercy of your editor. In most instances, that’s not a bad thing — they do that for a living, and they’re usually good at it. However, because anything creative is necessarily subjective, your worst-case scenario is an editor who wants to change basic things about your book out of personal preference — or simply because they can. (“Hey, instead of it being just a road novel, let’s throw in some vampires and zombies — they’re big now”)

SELF PUBLISHING

PLUSSES

1. Once you eat the initial cost, you get all the money that the book makes. If you’re in a situation where you have time to do a lot of promotion (social media, book signings, etc.) and you’ve correctly identified your primary audience and focus on it, you can make that initial investment back in a hurry.
2. The relationship is different than with a traditional publisher. With that arrangement, they are obviously in charge. With self publishing, you are.
3. You can still get your book distributed nationwide with something called Ingram Spark. And Amazon now takes self-published books.

MINUS
1. You have to pay for getting the book published, and it may not be cheap.
2. You may run into a reverse editing problem than with a publisher. In some cases, self publishing houses will simply wave at your manuscript and give it a pass, typos, narrative flaws and all.
3. They probably won’t promote your book very much, because they won’t make any money doing that. So that’s generally up to you.

I think the most important thing is that you write something you believe in and share it with the world. Worry about the money later.

Best,

Darrell

When first isn’t always best

Suppose someone e-mails you and asks: “Could you send me a sample chapter of your book?”

Do you assume that they want your first chapter, or maybe the first couple? That’s what the Amazon Kindle site shows to the world when someone clicks “Look Inside” on your book cover. That’s what a lot of writers promptly send out automatically.

After all, why not start from the beginning, right?

Well, not necessarily.

With novels, in particular, first chapters can be problematic. Generally, they come in two forms:

1. A setup chapter that explains the background for what is to come.

2. An immediate leap into the action, to hook the reader into the drama.

In the first instance, the setup chapter can be a bit complicated. Of all the chapters in my recently published novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” the first chapter is the one I like the least.  I felt like it was necessary, but I really had to work on it to prevent it from being tedious.

Often with a first chapter, you spend so much time trying to explain the plot that you don’t show much of your writing chops. And if you’re not careful, the reader will start thinking: “Geez, this is slow. I sure hope it gets better.”

On the other hand, the “immediate leap” chapter offers problems of its own.  True, these are sometimes ideal to send out as samples — but if the idea is to go for the jugular and worry about background later, you run the risk of leaving the reader struggling for context.

So wouldn’t that be the case with any later chapters?

Well, yes, but that can be fixed. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of sending out the chapter, or chapters, that show your best writing. Then, to avoid marooning the reader on an unknown island, offer a one-sentence explanation at the top: “In this chapter, Marcia — the main character — comes to a crossroads in her relationship.”

Think of your sample as akin to a movie trailer. Most trailers don’t really tell you about the plot, but they give you a good sense of what you can expect.

Sample chapters, chosen wisely, can serve the same function.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun with fiction

As a career journalist, the term “fiction” always made me a little uncomfortable.

After all, that’s the last thing you want to see beneath your byline in a newspaper or magazine, because fiction there translates into … lying.

Indeed, that was always my comeback to people who accused me of “making up” elements of a story.

“If I could do that, I’d be writing novels,” I’d say.

But I didn’t. I could never really see the point, although I enjoyed reading novels by other writers.

All this changed, however, one morning in 1993, when I woke up and decided to create a work of fiction about the newspaper business.

“Where did that come from?” I asked my unseen muse.

There was no answer. Still, I enthusiastically tore into the project. I spent a week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a writers’ retreat, and banged out 20 chapters, working 15 hours a day. And then, for reasons I can no longer remember, I hit a stoplight.

For 20 years after that, I would periodically summon this novel-in-utero from the womb of my computer, read those 20 chapters, and redo them. Then, a few months later, I’d do the same thing. It became like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Finally, in 2013, I had some health problems that forced me to the sidelines as a columnist for several months. Free time surrounded and enveloped me, and one day my wife Gail said: “Why don’t you just finish that damn novel?”

So I did, and it was a revelation.

I recently interviewed a successful novelist named Garth Stein who told me: “Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock up a hill. If you’re lucky, at some point you’ll reach the crest of that hill, and then you’ll have to run to catch up with your rock.”

He’s right, and here’s what I discovered — writing fiction is actually easier for me than writing non-fiction.

It reminds me of a song I always liked, from the group REM, called “World Leader Pretend.” The refrain goes: “This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend. This is my life, this is my time. I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit. It’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

How true. When I’d be stopped by walls while writing a newspaper piece, I’d have to put everything on hold in order to call more people or do more research.  With a novel, you just invent a solution.

Let’s see — why would that character mysteriously disappear for two weeks? Wouldn’t someone see him during that time? Wait! I’ll have him be abducted by aliens! Why not? It’s my book.

What I also discovered in writing “The Kudzu Kid” was that my characters became real people. I became less of a creator and more of a stenographer. When I put the main players together, they would talk to each other, and all I’d have to do was write it down.

In a way, it was like playing with Lego blocks as a kid. I created my own town, supplied it with a newspaper, and added characters. What fun!

Lest I be inundated by angry e-mails, however, I’m not saying writing fiction is easy. Sometimes those characters turn mute. all too often, the plot wanders into a dead end.

And there are reasons why everyone doesn’t write fiction. A lot of people simply aren’t curious, but see things more on a surface level. That doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, but they don’t feel the need to let their minds wander. They could no more write fiction than they could fly.

Those, of course, were the people who got A’s in high school while I sat at my desk and looked out the window. Now, at last, my propensity for imagination has become a plus.

Sometimes, I think, we all get so hung up about how many books we aren’t selling or how much money we’re not making that we forget that writing fiction can actually be fun.

The thing to remember is, you’re not starting from Ground Zero. As I always tell other writers with whom I work, everyone is unique. No one who has ever lived, or ever will live, will have your combination of genetics, geographic location, parents, friends and life experiences. No one else has watched all the same movies or read the same books as you have. In other words, we all have our own window on the world, and that will make your writing fresh and different, if you let it.

My Mom once gave me a T-shirt that said “Be nice to me, or I’ll put you in my novel.”

“The Kudzu Kid” contained literally dozens of war stories from my long newspaper career, and all the characters were people I have known, or composites of those people.

And if my memory of those prior events is a little flawed, so what? It’s only fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technically incorrect

“Welcome, my son. Welcome to the machine.” (Pink Floyd).

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave.” (Hal, the evil computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against technology. The fact that it seems to have something against me is just another obstacle I need to deal with.

As I’ve often told people with Asian accents as we struggle together over a trans-Pacific phone connection, I’d like to think I’m trainable. The problem is, like too many others of my generation, I tend to be literal.

Whenever I deal with someone who is technologically savvy (and I include my son Jeremy, who has been a great help over the years), I always feel that I’ve missed a step in the instructions.

I don’t want to know computer theory. I probably won’t respond to jargon. Just tell me: “Hit this key. Then hit this key.” And so on.

I love it when something goes wrong with your computer and a message pops up that says: “Error No. 249.”

“Are you sure?” I want to reply. “To me, it really seems more like an Error 519.”

Of course, there is no one to reply to. That pronouncement seems to come from somewhere in deep space, perhaps a black hole.

Computers, to me, are like automobiles. I know how to use them, but I don’t know (or care) how they work, and I don’t know what to do when they don’t.

Unlike cars, however, computers require occasional upgrades. It’s as if you received a notice saying, “For your information, the Interstate highway system has now been upgraded, and your car will no longer be able to drive on it. You must buy a new car.”

The process of editing my first novel became grueling when my editor chose to use “Track Changes.” This software does seem kind of neat, and I was able to click on it and clearly see suggestions and corrections my editor had made. The problem was, my computer wouldn’t let me respond to these notes.

So we finished the edit in little chunks over a too-long period of time, me sitting at a computer in my local public library, surrounded by unemployed people checking the want ads. By the time it was over, my editor and publisher were ready to kill me, and I don’t blame them.

I needed an upgrade, but my computer wouldn’t let me.

Finally, I can’t get used to that subliminal sense of dread that always underlies any creative endeavor on a computer. Anyone who has ever had a story inexplicably wiped away (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave”) knows what I mean.

I envision this inscription on my tombstone: “Here lies Darrell Laurant. He wrote the greatest novel in the history of American literature, but no one ever saw it because his computer ate it.”

OK, so here’s my point, which I have taken a long time to reach. My wife Gail and I are taking a two-week trip this month, during which I probably won’t be sending any more posts. (I’m trying to upgrade my computer so it will watch the house while we’re gone).

This blog can be viewed at snowflakesarise.wordpress.com. The official launch of the “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” project will be April 17. You will notice that my blog is currently unadorned by anything remotely resembling graphics or art, and when we return, I will either try to dress it up or (far more likely) hire someone to do that.

In the interim, though, I would love to get any suggestions. What we will have is a page dedicated to a single book, hopefully (I think the word “hopefully” should be given a grammatical pass and welcomed into the English language, but that’s another blog subject) with pictures of book and author, a bio, a description of the book and “back story” on how it was done, a sample chapter, credit to the editor (editors never get enough credit) and information on where to find it and how to buy it.

I don’t need a video game with flashing, vibrating bells and whistles. I do want it to look nice, and any suggestions toward that end would be appreciated.

And if you look in the upper left corner at the brief description of the blog, you’ll see that the word “writers” has been oddly tagged on to the end. How do I make it go away? Nothing on the site tells me.

Sigh. Have a nice two weeks, Hal.