Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm a Liar

Some months back I served on jury duty.

For those who may not know what that is--"it's your civic duty, son." At least that's what I've been told.

In a nutshell, it's where a large number of unhappy people come together in a poorly-lit hall, where unhappy county employees treat them poorly, and a judge hopes that the unhappy people are ready to participate in the legal process of determining ones innocence or guilt.

I was on the panel for a criminal case (gang related stuff... fun). Not a lot of pressure. Rival gangs, where the life of a 22-year-old sat on the balance. Like I said, no pressure.

The judge and attorneys started with some basic questions. What is your occupation, have you served on a jury before, etc?

When they got to me I said I had two jobs. By day, I set information technology strategy in the entertainment industry, but by night, I write novels.

(By the way, you better learn to say it with pride and power. Use your words to remind the universe that this writing thing is real. Your muse will hear it if you believe it)

Honoré Daumier 018The next step was where the attorneys asked different questions of the potential jurors, with hopes to select the best fit and to eliminate the worst.

The defense attorney, a scary looking guy, who could have been a gang member himself, suddenly turned to me.

"Juror number nine, have you lied before?"
"I lie all the time," I said.
He flinched. Literally took one step back. "I write novels," I continued. "It's my job."

Somehow I was selected for the case, and I must say it was exhilarating, depressing, scary at times, but in the end, I felt good about what we had done.

At the end of the case, we all had a chance to talk to the lawyers. The attorney in question approached me.

"That thing about being a liar... that was a first. I had to tell my wife about it," he said.

I know I was grinning.

The job of a fiction writer is to create a world where the reader finds herself living in that town, with those people, in that time period--but the place never existed. We create characters that you want to believe could be your best friend if you ever met them--but they were conceived in the author's mind. We create situations that make you feel like they could absolutely happen to you--but they never did. We can also take seemingly innocent questions like, "Where were you?" and turn them into a 90,000-word story.

We are liars. We don't make excuses, nor apologize for it. We lie because we can. We lie because our readers expect it from us. We lie, because the truth of our world is sometimes scarier than the worlds we create on the pages you read.

But when it comes to the stories we tell, we never hold back, we never take the easy path--there we always tell the truth. The people, the places and the situation are all fabrications. But the message and the sincerity by which we tell the story is true. We find the most painful or exhilarating emotions in our lives and transpose them to our characters. These fake people become the vessel to tell our truth. The only truth we know.

Those who know writers will sometimes wonder why we're a bit moody sometimes, or seem hurt or even sad. It's because, when we write, the worlds and the people we create are real. They carry our truth. We are vested in the story, in the characters and their outcome. These lies need to feel true to us, otherwise our readers will never believe us. And that would be a crime worthy of a judge and jury.

"Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all... so long as you tell the truth." 
-- Stephen King, On Writing

Fight the good fight.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Figure Skating and the Subjectivity of Writing

I recently spoke to a fellow writer who was, to say the least, confused.

Let's assign a name to this writer -- Paul. Eighteen months ago, Paul landed an agent. In fact, three agents were interested in Paul's manuscript. He received accolades like, "brilliant," and "original," and "would be honored to represent."

He selected a reputable agent and they spent three months polishing said manuscript. The agent knew exactly who would love this story, and the agent was right. The editor at imprint of major publisher said "yes" and all was golden. Edits, proofreads, the whole nine yards.

Shake up at publisher, editor leaves, and the manuscript is now an orphan. Publisher is no longer interested because a) they already have titles slated for release similar to Paul's manuscript, and b) the shakeup is because they want to exit that genre anyway... so, best of luck.

No worries, right? After all, this thing is solid. Agents wanted it, and the first editor approached gobbled it up. How hard can it be? Nine months later, Pat is hearing things like, "the conflict isn't big enough," "I'm not connecting with the characters," and similar phrases.

Paul's a good guy, highly skilled at story telling, has written an excellent story, and I am sure it'll get published (if he doesn't then I worry about my own chances).

I wanted to cheer him up. But more than cheer him up, I wanted to explain something regarding the nature of this industry. Granted, what do I know, right? I don't have an agent, I don't have a deal... but I read a lot, I talk to a lot of insiders, and I know the nature of business--the machinery, the cycles... Because, after all, that's what I do when I don't write.

I asked Paul, "Do you watch figure skating?"
"Figure skating."
"As in, guys in very tight pants spinning on ice?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Yeah, I guess I've seen one or two competitions during the Winter Olympics. Why do you ask?"
I felt like Master Yoda. I whipped out my iPad and found what I wanted on YouTube.

But before I played it, I gave Pat a bit of background about Torvill & Dean. During the 1994 Olympics, they were no spring chickens. They were both in their mid-thirties at that point, competing against teenagers and others who were in their prime. This was a story book return for Torvill & Dean. They had won Gold in 1984 in one of the most electrifying performances the sport had seen. Perfect 6.0's across the board. Back in '84 they were it. Could they repeat in '94 after a ten year lay-off?

We watched and Pat got the beauty of their performance. "That was beautiful," he said. "But I don't get it. What's your point?"
"Everyone said Torvill & Dean were the best that year, that they recreated the sport, that they raised the bar for beauty in figure skating. Yet..."
"They got the Bronze medal."
"Yup. The judges claimed they wanted the dancers to go back to the 'traditional' and what Torvill & Dean did, included an illegal lift. Of course, no one was able to actually point out when this phantom lift occurred but that was not the point."
"What was the point?" he asked.
"30 million people saw one thing and cried over the beauty, but all it took was two judges to change the history of the Olympics."

The sport of writing is objective on all levels.

Good writing will eventually find its way. It may not happen today, or this year, or even this decade. But we all understand--must understand--that writing is a marathon. There will be false starts. There will be moments of unadulterated joy, and years of face-on-the-asphalt pain. That's how it goes.

Most people get hung up over the miracle stories. Sometimes writers get lucky and all the stars align--more power to them. But the reason we hear of those cases (example: first novel written was picked up with a three book deal and movie rights optioned, blah, blah, blah) is because they are so rare. Those are the carrots that lure so many people into this world of writing, but only the few will last the marathon.

It is a statistical improbability that anyone reading (or, alas, writing) this blog will have that type of fortune. So what? 

Do you think I would stop because of a rejection? I certainly hope you know me better than that. I hope I know myself better than that. But who knows, right? We are all human.

When the moment of truth stares me in the face, I hope I have the mental and emotional fortitude to smile, learn from it and go back to my next manuscript. Because I have stories to tell. And I will face many judges who will say no. One day, a judge will say yes, and I will keep the same cautious optimisim I have today. Because Torvill & Dean were objectively awesome, but the subjective nature of the game they played in, gave them bronze.

Fight the good fight!

BONUS - 1984 Winning Performance

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gordon Ramsay and Writing

"Have some f@%&ing pride!" Ramsay said.

For those who don't know Gordon Ramsay, he is the revered chef who owns and operates some of the finest restaurants in the world, He also hosts some of the most entertaining cooking reality shows.
Courtesy of LA Times

I work from home often, and when I do, I watch Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America as I eat lunch.

If there's one phrase to define him is "Quality without compromise."

He is a fanatic over the quality that goes into the food. The attention to detail is unparalleled (editing). He focuses on the customer (reader), and the appropriateness of the food given the clientele (genre).

In Kitchen Nightmares, he enters restaurants that are struggling... no, I'm being kind. Some are atrocious and you wonder what it will take to turn them around.

He satars by ordering the signature dish... and nearly vomits. Then he observes the kitchen in action--the management, the leadership, the effectiveness of the staff. He studies the competition, then looks at the menu. He has a multi-faceted approach to turning around nightmares into dreams come true. And if they listen to him, they will succeed.

The one thing that always shocks me is that he is there to guide the chef/owner--he is their master Yoda. He points out, in painful detail, what needs to be done. And invariably, the chef eventually reverts to their stupid ways of being.

The fundamental element in Ramsey's approach is quality control.

As I ate Nutella for lunch (don't judge me! and don't tell my wife) I watched an episode where Ramsay went off the rails on the owner/chef.

He was yelling, nearly spitting in the guys face. "Have some f---ing pride!"

As a writer, who aspires to be a published novelist, I take his point to heart. I have printed these words (without the f'ing part since my eight year old may be curious and my wife will kill me) and have hung it on my office wall.

We must have pride in what we do. We must play this game all out or risk living life wondering what went wrong.

It is harder than ever to get published. What would have been acceptable lapses in the past, is now your nail in the coffin. Assume that the current state of your manuscript is exactly how it would get published. Would you be happy? Truly happy?

If you tell yourself, "the editor will help me out with this problem," then you've already lost. If you second guess a scene, but choose to ignore it, then you might as well uninstall Scrivener, give your books to the nearest library and focus on your day job. You need to produce the absolute best product you can create.

Yes, it is a subjective world, and what I may think is great, you will think is an appropriate toilet paper substitute.

But your perception of your work must be as objective as possible. No compromise.

If you have a doubt--a nano-second of hesitation, then please do yourself a favor and address it. Know that you did it all, everything within your power to make it happen. Because if you do, then you can rest your head on the pillow knowing that you did not compromise yourself, your story and your characters. You were true to your craft.

You showed pride.

Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BadTip PubTip Tuesday #2 - Skip the Proofreading

BadTip PubTip Tuesday

You want to get published? You want to stay published? Check back every tuesday for groundbreaking advice!

Disclaimer: This is a joke. Don't sue me.

Skip the Proofreading

The world has changed and so has publishing. The modern writer needs to get ahead of the ball in order to make it. Proofreading is one of those old-school concepts that should be buried with yesterday's underwear.

The problem with Proofreading is two-fold:

RelojDespertadorFold #1 

Proofreading takes time. A lot of time. You may be able to write a novel in 30 days, but this proofreading, and editing, and other nonsense will take months, maybe years.

I have one word for you: time to market. -- okay, fine... it's one phrase.

Advantage #1 -- You get your book out there as soon as you are done!

Finish fast, publish fast. That should be your motto.

Don't sit around waiting, pondering, improving. You writing is a work in progress. Get it out there... which leads to the other advantage...

Fold #2

Writing of the 21st century needs to be collaborative.

Once you've proofread your manuscript you have effectively excluding your customer from the process. Dear writer, who is your customer? The reader.

People finally understand that Social Collaboration is the most powerful way to connect with your customer.

Imagine how wonderful your readers will fill if they find your mistakes.

Imagine your reader informing you via Twitter: "Page 1, Par 3, Sentence 3 -- You wrote *beat* instead of *bet*"

Then you thank them, maybe even retweet it.

Your reader will feel connected to you and your writing. They will be your fan for life.

Don't be selfish. Share your work and the process with your fans.

Advantage #2 -- A personal connection between reader and writer

You have a choice. I've shown you what's behind the door. It's up to you to walk through it, or pretend you don't know the truth.

Now, go and write!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

BadTip PubTip Tuesday #1 - Lead Characters are Passé

Welcome to the first issue of "BadTip PubTip Tuesday."

You want to get published? You want to stay published? Check back every tuesday for groundbreaking advice!

Disclaimer: This is a joke. Don't sue me. 

Lead Characters are Passé

Let's face it, strong lead character are boring and predictable -- they always win.

Who needs the rugged and handsome hero like Dirty Harry or the sharp and badass heroine like Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy? Not agents, not publishers and certainly not readers.

Even George Lucas learned the error of his way. In the original Star Wars he had a central protagonist, Luke Skywalker. The story was his. In fact the trilogy was about him. What a stupid move!

Thankfully, a couple of decades (and many soy lattes and Perriers later) uncle Gorge corrected his mistake by releasing the first prequel, the Phantom Menace.

As articulated by Red Letter Media (check out the video below), George made it abundantly clear that you don't need to have a leading character to make billions of dollars.

Quiz: in the Phantom Menace who was the Main Character? ... yeah, I didn't think so. Proof positive! You do not need a leading character.

Badtip Pubtip of the week  Forget about a memorable lead character. The ideal characters in a novel are random, with no real purpose nor direction. Things should happen to them and around them. And if they win or defeat the enemy, it should take the reader entirely by surprise. Readers love to be surprised this way -- it tests their ability to guess at the author's creativity.

Now go and write!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Conference, On People & Withdrawal Symptoms

The Conference

This was my first official writer's conference. I was innocent. Now I'm corrupted.

The conference was the Southern California Writers' Conference in Newport Beach. I didn't know much about the conference but their site made me feel a bit warm and somewhat fuzzy. And when I saw that they had "Advanced Submission Critiques" given by agents, editors, and writers, then I knew that this would be good for me.

Like most writers, you never know if you're good enough. I needed to know if my style of writing was sellable. If my story was good enough. If this story had a chance. I set up advanced meetings with three agents, an editor-in-chief of a boutique publisher and a freelance editor/award winning author.

The conference lasted three days, but I have a suspicion that the impact will last considerably longer.

The People

It's always about "who." In all endevours of life, the Who always trumps What. With the right people, a horrible event will be memorable.

I was surrounded by writers, some like me--trying to break in--others who have broken in, and some who are stuck in the middle. The profession of "writer" is a tough one. Success can be measured in many ways. But one thing is for sure, it's a lonely endeavor.

Fundamentally, we're all the same. We've all chosen to tap into our imagination to produce words that generate sentences, which propel paragraphs into works that we hope to share with the world.

One of my longtime friends was going to attend. When Aline Ohanesian told me she'd be there, at a minimum I knew that I could hang out with one cool person.

But I was also committed to experiencing this conference fully. And that meant meeting and fraternizing with the citizens. I would not hide out in my room (not that hiding out is my DNA... but you get the point).

And from the first moment, I came across amazing people.

I met Mark Koopmans of Hawaii. With his badass Irish accent, I immediately liked him. He's co-writing a memoir of an opera singer who should have been the next coming of... but life took different turns.

I met my tweeter "friend" Tameri Etherton (@TameriEtherton) in person. That was great in and of itself, but also discovered that she's an awesome person to boot.

Laura Taylor
I met Gayle Carline, now a Tweeter friend (@GayleCarline), who was as down to earth as it gets.

It turns out that most writers are very cool and funny. They're also good at telling stories.

Then there was author/editor/lifetime achievement award winner Laura Taylor who rocked my world. One of these posts, I'll share more details... 

I was embarassed by editor extraordinaire Jean Jenkins over the course of a workshop and then four different conversations. It seemed unreal that she would want to help me--a nobody. She didn't have to offer but she did.
Gordon Warnock

Also, literary agent, Gordon Warnock of Andrea Hurst who gave me hope in the industry and the process. Down to earth, intelligent, and actually read my submission with care. He recalled specific passages and gave me the type of encouragement I needed.

But the thing that stuck with me were two people that seemed dismayed and ready to quit.

This is a subjetive business. Which means that most will hate your work until one person of influence doesn't. 

It broke my heart. I don't like it when people give up on their dreams. Maybe they're not good enough. But maybe they are. And all they have to do is keep at it until the right champion emerges.

I had a long chat and hope that the dream hasn't vanished. Dreams are always worth the fight.

Withdrawal Symptoms

I found validation at this conference.

Validation that my writing is good. In a subjective world like writing, if a handful of professionals agree, then that's the fuel I need to keep me going. I have work to do, we all do and always will (remember the best of us will remain rookies until we die). But I am more confident today then I've ever been.

Validation that the industry is not a complete mess. It is a mess on many fronts. But there are some that believe in the power of words, and believe that great writing can be discovered at a conference. I applaud those agents and editors who are not jaded and take the time to help and encourage the next generation of writers.

Validation that if I keep at it, good things will come. As Stephen King said, "it was my time."

Now, I'm suffering a bit. I loved the conversations with the editors, and agents, and writers. Being in that world for three days highlighted for me how much I really enjoy that world.

I want more of it, but for now, I will play the game and never lose focus over what's possible if I just keep on fighting the good fight.
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