Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gravity and the Magic of Writing

"Gravity cannot be held responsible for people falling in love." -- Albert Einstein

Albert, my friend, I think you may be wrong.

The universe is tethered to our galaxy. Our galaxy to our sun. Our sun to our planet. Our moon to our planet. Our planet to the people, and the people to each other.

Grand Universe by ANTIFAN-REAL --

The force that binds the heavenly bodies is gravity.

What do we call the force that binds people together? Humanity? God? Love?

The connection is an orchestration of the kind that we may never properly understand.

I don't know what does the magic -- but the magic is real. And this magic goes far beyond connecting the obvious: people, nature, the oceans, the animals, ...

Think of a song that transports you in both time and place. A song that you heard twenty years ago in a place thousands of miles away. And in one instant, that tether is there, reminding you of the connection that was established so many years ago.

Think of your favorite novel. What tethers you to that book? Was it the story? The character? Or one obscure little line that forever altered your world?

Those of us who have elected to sink deep into the magic called writing, we realize that it really is magic. What else can we call it when one line sticks to you, latches on to you forever. What do you call it when words that were generated in my mind's eye are transferred to you, and you see the same thing--you experience the same vision? And years later when you think you've forgotten all about it, it hasn't forgotten you. For when you least expect it, that magic, that gravitiational pull will pop up.

I don't know what we call this force, but maybe it is gravity. And if it is gravity -- a form of it that we can't measure or test, yet -- then maybe gravity has a role in love as well. Maybe it can't be held responsible for falling in love... but maybe it can be held responsible for remembering, holding on to and not giving up on that love.

What made you love that song, that book, that person?

"Love lingers." -- Michael Koryta, The Cypress House

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beware: Writer in the room

I am one of those guys.

I observe you... you... how you touch your earlobe...
...notice how you sip your wine...
...amazed at how you smile when your eyes betray you.

It's my job. It always has been. I study people. Always have... always will. And now that I've declared myself a writer, I am even more attuned to your every move.

For me, it started very early in life. I was three and I imitated my brother, mother, father and anyone else that had a tick that made me tack.

By the time I was seven, I had discovered art. I was a caricaturists. You know--take a real person, identify the one or two things that stand out (nose, hair, ...) then exaggerate it. I was quite good. Many thought I'd be an artist.

Definitely an actor.

I had a knack for transforming myself into that person. My classmates loved it, my teachers watched me in horror as I imitated their voice, their stance and mannerisms... some that even they hadn't noticed.

This was before I discovered how to use words.

I've mentioned in the past that my grandfather was an author. I haven't done him justice. He was a Shakespearean trained actor. He was a stage actor for 25+ years, wrote half a dozen books, hundreds of poems, and thousands of articles. These are what was published. Don't bother searching for him. He was a giant amongst Armenians, and for some time, he was considered one of the great ones -- he singlehandedly translated Shakespeare's plays into Armenian. No small feat.

When he explained that I can use words to create engagement, something altered in me. Although I did not take on writing as my passion until later in life, it was always there, tapping it's feet. But my innate way of being--ever observant--never faltered.

My wife and I love people watching. Wherever we may be, we are observing, listening. We may be talking to each other, when one of us will whisper, "Did you catch what just happened on the table at 3 o'clock?"

It is for these reasons that I take characters seriously. I love authors that make the characters come to life. And in my stories, my characters are everything. It is their story.

So if you know me personally, I apologize upfront. You are--in one way or another--in my novels. I have captured some of your personality, some of your quirks, or the way you lie and think you've gotten away with it. I am a recorder. But I no longer do a stand up routine. Instead, I combine you with others and create a new character for my novels.

To me, my characters are real. Because you are real. When I read my dialogues, I read them out-loud, and guess what? The voice I use... it's yours.

When you read my work, if something tingles at the back of your neck, and you wonder, "Is this me?" please remember, it's not done on purpose. You are there, because I don't have a choice.

As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way.

Fight the good fight!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is your book better than it sounds?

I've quoted this man many times before. I will quote him again. From Seth Godin's blog:

Better than it sounds

Mark Twain said that Wagner wrote music that was better than it sounds.
It's an interesting way to think about marketing. Is your product better than it sounds, or does it sound better than it is? We call the first a discovery, something worthy of word of mouth. The second? Hype.

I often feel that way about the great things I've come across. When I get excited about something -- be it a book, a movie, a lecture, whatever -- I try to explain it. My words collide into each other, meaning is lost, and the barrage of adverbs and adjectives must be nauseating. But in my excitement, the person listening wants to find out why Ara is so flippin' excited about this 'whatever it is.'

This is a typical issue of mine. Which is why I have been struggling with my query letter--never quite happy with it. Just to be clear, this is an internal struggle. I am never happy with what I do--not completely. I am certain I can do better. I push and push until I'm proud of the work. As for the query letter or synopsis, it doesn't seem to capture the excitement I have for the story. I feel that I don't do my main characters and the story they go through justice. One person who has read my manuscript and provided feedback on my query letter said the following, "You are totally underplaying the story, the characters and the connection they have."

This issue is greater than just about the query letter. It's an all encompassing phenomena. It's about how we talk about our craft and our work with others.

"What's your book about?"
                      "What do you write about?"
                                               "Where do you get your ideas?"

Back to Seth--this is not about being a better marketer or a salesman. Because obvious marketing comes across cheap, planned, with lack of honesty behind it. This is about releasing any and all judgement you have about yourself, your work, and your passion. It's about trusting your work and letting it sing. Maybe even generate music that last the test of time. Sort of like Mark Twain, Wagner, and Seth Godin.

Remember this, it is YOUR responsibility to make your book's pitch consistent with what it is. No one will sell the 'hook, book and cook' for you, better than you. You may chalk this off as, "I'm not the business man, I'm the creative one." Selling is not a bad thing. It's the way we clarify the value to someone else, so that they also get the benefit. It is using words to convey the story we're trying to tell. Who better to do that, than writers?

Fight the good fight!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Harry Potter + My Son = Showing vs Telling Lesson

My seven-year-old is supposed to read 15 minutes every day. This is called homework at his school. He's in second grade. We've had luke-warm success so far with this. What I mean is that he does not go and get one of the many books available to him and just read it because he wants to know what happens next. He completely sees this as a task from school -- i.e. not fun.

Last week we agreed that he will start reading  J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, the Sorcerer's Stone.

This time, I took a different approach. I don't care if he reads for fifteen minutes. I care about what he understands in that span of time. Don't care about the number of pages, I care about the learning that takes place. I want to hear his interpretation of what he reads. He's a very good reader--don't get me wrong. But he's a mechanical reader.

I want him to appreciate the little details that go on in writing. I want him to appreciate the magic of words.

This is what we do: He reads a couple of paragraphs and then starts explaining it to me. I must say, it is the cutest thing. He gets a bit theatrical about the whole thing. At times I just watch him trying to explain it to me.

So I do what I hope most would. I ask him, "What do you think the author's trying to tell you?" or "Why did she say that?" or "I don't understand what he means. Can you explain it to me better? With your words?"

In that, a great lesson was learned. The lesson was not for my son, but me. What stuck out was one particular line:
Professor McGonagall pulled out a lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes beneath her spectacles.
I asked my son, "What's happening here?"
"She's crying," he said.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Because she's doing what someone who's crying would do."
"But the author didn't say cry," I argued.
"But she showed me with the thing that the professor did to her face."

BINGO. This, in a nutshell, is the age-old conversation of showing vs. telling. It's really that easy.

Ms. Rowling could have said:
Professor McGonagall cried.
Boring. We got some much more color with the actual text. She uses a "lace" handkerchief, not a cowboy bandana! She dabs, no trombone honk!

Often I wonder, "Will my reader understand what I'm trying to say? Maybe I need to be obvious."

My seven-year-old got it. Anyone can get it.

I've been fairly savage about eradicating "tell" scenes when I see them. I am sure, I still have some in ACES and in my new novel. Every time I see them, like a cockroach that won't go away, I zap it.

My story is better, my writing is better, and most importantly, the reader sees the images, depth and texture that I see.

Fight the good fight!

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Dream Agent? Martin Short

A few days back I wrote the following statement on Twitter:

I've been doing the query thing and I had an epiphany! [Enter singing birds and opening of gates]

Querying agents is sort of like going to nightclubs trying to find your spouse. "Hey, I'm an Aries. Wanna get married?" Tough sell.

The person on the other end holds all the cards and all you hold is hope. You must approach the person of interest hoping for the following:
  • You showed up at the right time
  • Person of interest is in the right mood/state of mind
  • You have used the right words
  • You've delivered the pitch in 10 seconds
  • You don't make them vomit (okay so maybe your query won't make anyone vomit... but you get the point)
Don't get these right and... yes, my dear friend, Form Rejection.

In summary, the query letter is like your best pickup line. And for those who have observed people delivering pickup lines, they make for great entertainment, but they don't get you a spouse.

True story: many moons ago, we heard the best (meaning worst) pickup line in the world. There was this guy with a very heavy accent at the bar. He turned to the girl next to him and asked, "Hey Angel, you vant to meet the devil?" result? Form Rejection.

The brilliant marketing guru Seth Godin covers this in his book Permission Marketing. You need to build a relationship, a trust, a bond before you can actually ask for the next big step. It is hard to do that at a nightclub or in a query letter.

But if the query letter has a good hook, you can move to the next step, then the next, and over time, you can build that relationship. So, to close this loop, I am not one who will complain about query letters. There is a method to the madness. Honestly, if I can't sell my novel with a strong hook, who can?

On the other hand, if you want me to talk about Synopsis, man I have a lot of complainin' pent up inside. But that's for another post.

Having said all that, it is a fun game (no, not night clubs -- querying). Yes, I'm a bit odd, but I like games. This game can result in a huge payoff -- you may find your dream agent.

Which leads me to one of my favorite movies of all time. The Big Picture with Kevin Bacon. If you haven't seen it, shame on you. Get it now! It captures the challenges and curves on the road towards breaking into Hollywood. It rocks.

So, I leave you with the scene where young, just-out-of-film-school Kevin Bacon is meeting with an interested agent, played by Martin Short.

I wonder if Mr. Short accepts query letters...

Fight the good fight!
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