Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why peculiar?

If you're wondering why I'd call my blog THE PECULIAR LIFE OF A WRITER, I'll give you some hints.

In general, most writers are peculiar.  I used to think it was only me until I joined a writers' group who met every two weeks in downtown Houston.  Later, I ran into many more writers at writers' conventions.  I discovered I was not alone in my peculiarity.  Every single writer I met was in some way or other peculiar to some degree.

Most writers are solitary, some sedentary, and many are eccentric.  I am all three.  It's not something I have any control over.  I must be solitary to write my novels.  I'm sedentary when writing and when reading, so that takes up a lot of my life.  And I'm as eccentric as can be.  The funny thing about being eccentric is that you don't know it unless someone points it out.  You think you've just as normal and average and pedestrian as anyone.  Being eccentric is like being schizophrenic in that there's no way in hell you know it without outside references.

My daughters finally told me how eccentric I was. I argued, no, I'm not, what could you be talking about?  You're not like anyone else, they said.  In what way, how am I so damn different?  Lots of ways, Mom.  Lots.

I had to sit back and ponder this.  I had to do what I do when I write characters in stories and novels--stand back at arm's length and look over this eccentric character carefully to make a truthful determination.  It didn't take me long to realize my daughters were right.  I was not at all like most other people.  I wasn't gregarious.  I didn't gravitate toward groups, participate well in conversations with others, or seek out companionship.  I am always content with solitude.  People, on the whole, get on my nerves.  I can be with them for a while, but there comes a point when I want to get away and be alone and not hear any other voice.  If given a choice between meeting someone for lunch or going for a short walk to photograph trees, I'll choose the latter.  It isn't that I don't like people.  I just can't take them on any extended basis.  I suspect that's because my inner life is so rich already that I don't need a lot of stimulation and interaction from others.  Or maybe it's just because, yes, I'm eccentric. 

Failing to be people-oriented might be the least of my eccentricity.  I'm so stubborn and bullheaded that it's almost a joke.  Early on as a writer with one of my first agents, I  was treated to a phone conversation from him that caused me to stiffen up.  He wasn't crazy about a book I'd sent him, called WIREMAN, which turned out later to be my first published suspense novel.  He wanted me to write something "softer," something...well, like THE THORNBIRDS by Colleen McCullough--a book on the bestseller list at that time.  I tried to explain that I wasn't interested in romantic sagas.  I was interested in psychopathy, the insane, the criminal without a conscience, the serial killer, the abnormal, the weird, the strange.  The agent kept pushing and pushing, saying I really should try another genre.  I hung up the phone, went to my electric typewriter, which is all writers had at the time, and began a letter of dismissal to my agent.  "You don't get me,"  I said.  "You have no idea what I'm doing." 

Now I needed an agent at that time, I needed him badly.  But I didn't need one that was so out in left field he was past the bleachers.  A more cautious writer, especially one unpublished, might not have immediately fired what was otherwise a perfectly good and legitimate agent.  I had to.  That kind of stubbornness is probably unique to eccentrics.  Come hell or high water, you mean to do it your way or it's the highway.  I eventually landed with an agent at William Morris who LOVED my book, loved my work, understood what I was doing, and who sold the book post haste.  Thank God there was never a THORNBIRDS in my future.  It would have been a catastrophe.

There are many other times when I took measures concerning my writing and my career that seemed so willful that my actions bordered on craziness.  And every single one of them worked out well for me.  I trust myself and my instincts, for after all who else can we know?  I knew when the work was good, when it was correct, and when to fight for it.  One writer in one thousand might have done some of the things I've done--firing agents, refuting agents, withdrawing books from editors clamoring to buy, ignoring some editorial advice, refusing writing club members access to critique my work.  I expect this mindset has a lot to do with being eccentric.

Eccentric people lead peculiar lives, therefore this blog will be in some ways about this one peculiar writer.  I hope it will be about other things than myself, for I find myself pretty boring to tell you the truth.  So I'll post about books and publishing and other writers, so on and so forth.  I just thought it might be good to explain my blog's title and get it out of the way.

How peculiar am I?  Keep reading this blog and you may find out.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Evolution of Reading--From Caveman Walls to E-readers

Reading, for some people, has become reduced to text on a cell phone. Or sometimes, in the form of blogs, news bites, and opinion pieces on a computer connected to the web. Newspapers are closing their doors and the ones with spunk moved everything to the internet. I'm willing to bet social networks get more reading in a day than paperback books.

But all is not lost. People are still working on all the skills of reading that make them literate. When readers tire of texting, socializing online, and paragraph surfing on the web, there is always the book. It might be on an electronic device now, one that is the shape of a book and portable, or displayed in a computer program, but a book nonetheless. Libraries are not as popular as they used to be, but bookstores both physical and electronic, are still going concerns.

The problem with books is they are intimate and modern societies are moving away from the intimate to the group-shared as in videos, movies, and social networks. Reading books takes a little effort. Reading isn't an activity that is passive, the way watching TV, video, and movies are. Reading is interaction between reader and author, asking the reader to participate with his imagination. Reading requires a little quiet, even if for only a while.

On the other hand, books are patient. They never sound alarms or nag at you. Lying still and solemn, the book awaits your attention without fanfare. Books are all about rewards on a personal level, and the rewards for those of us who love books, are usually higher than for other entertainment activities that take less work.

Storytelling is as old as humanity. The first man who walked upright turned to his companion and told him a story about his day's activities. Bored cave men took up stones and scratched stories in pictures on cave walls. We tell one another stories in order to understand our lives--our own stories. Mass market books are a way for one story to travel among many. Ideas are disseminated, shared, tested, passed on or killed off.

If the book ever truly and really dies..if it disappears, in whatever form, forever, if stories end in the favor of "reality", then the human race would have lost an important part of itself. A good and needful part.

It is necessary to move forward and change, for technology to take us into the future, but we do not have to allow the reading of books to languish in favor of frivolous techie delights that in the end are transitory. Just like in the dawn of human history there are stories worth telling, worth sharing, and there always will be.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to Know a Book is Good Enough to Publish on Kindle

There is quite a lot of interest in publishing books on various e-book platforms, mainly the Kindle.  I'm sure there is a mad dash from unpublished writers hoping to see their book in e-print since no one stands in the way.  No editor, no agent, no publishing house.  In many ways this is a very fine thing.  Today it is more difficult to find your way into print by the major publishers than it has ever been.  And it was always difficult.  Always.  I believe in the year my first novel was published, 1984, there were something like only 286 first novels published that year.  I imagine there were thousands upon thousands of submissions for those 286 slots.  I felt very lucky.

I don't know what the number is today compared to the number of submissions, but suffice it to say becoming a published novelist never has been and is not now easy.  Nothing easy about it.

Which brings us back to publishing in e-book form.  Now that's relatively easy.  There is one thing all writers must keep in mind--your book is not only competing  with other books by first novelists.  It is competing with many backlists and new works by established, proven authors.  That's what happens when you submit a manuscript to print publishers, too.  If your work isn't at least as good as the worst of the oft-published writer then your work has no chance whatsoever.  And there are very few agents who will handle a book that is only as good as someone else's worst.  And precious few editors who will buy a book of that sort.  Yet anyone, with any book, can format it and put it up on Kindle. 

Here's why it shouldn't be done.

I read a blog regarding this topic recently and the author said rule number one when wishing to publish on  Kindle was to have a GOOD book to publish.  We cannot use lazy thinking or magical thinking, and say that "good," like "beautiful," is only in the eye of the beholder.  It is not.  There are standards that tell us what is good.  How do you know your book is good enough to publish?  First of all you must be a reader before you are a writer.  A voracious reader.   In this way you acquire the ability to know good from bad.  Then you have to take off the blinders.  You have to stand back far enough from your ego to decide if what you have written is at least as good as the worst of the published novels you have been reading.  This takes clear thinking, putting aside of ego, and a willingness to be honest with oneself. 

When my first novel was finished I did this right away.  I read over the completed work.  I knew right away it wasn't up to par.  It wasn't good.  I had steeped myself in novels all of my reading life and reading my own first novel I knew it was poppycock and poodlypoop.  It just wasn't worthy.

It was not an easy truth to face, but I was serious about my career and I didn't want to embarrass myself.  I put the manuscript away and began again.

Before, during, and after writing the second novel, I kept reading the very best books in the field--psychological suspense--that I could find.  I'd already spent years reading the masterpieces of fiction, both novel and short story.  By the time I began writing my own books, I concentrated on reading the kind of books I knew I wanted to write.

The second book was not so bad, I'd gotten out all the autobiographical junk that had made my first novel attempt so bad.  But the second novel wasn't quite good enough either.  It did get an agent, but it couldn't be sold and was rejected a few times.  I withdrew it and put it away.  (Later on this book was revised and sold.) 

Neither of these first attempts, the second without major revision as it turned out years later, was good enough to sell to a print publisher.  If I were a new novelist today and wanted to sidestep print publishing in favor of e-book publishing, I would do the same thing I did back then.  I'd shelve those two first books I wrote.

You have to be strong enough, brave enough, objective enough to look at your own completed work and decide whether to publish it or not.  Is it really as good as works you have seen in print?  Does it measure up to books you have read and liked?  It doesn't matter if your Aunt June or your Cousin Joe or your Grandma loves your book.  If doesn't matter if your husband, wife, best friend loves it.  You have to decide for yourself if what you are publishing on Kindle is the right thing to do.   If you begin badly, you could end up badly, and no one wants that to happen.  If people read your work and hate it, you won't see them back for seconds.  If the reviews are horrible, that won't help much either.  When you give a book to the world it's a gift and you have to hope the gift is gold, shiny, brilliant, and desirable rather than torn, ratty, and useless. 

So despite all the hullabaloo over the e-book revolution and despite how easy it is to get in on the gravy train, my advice is don't do it until you're sure, absolutely sure, you can't do better and the book can stand up in a crowd of books similar in genre. 

Also, don't ask me to see my very first novel.  Even if I could find the old manuscript pages, I wouldn't foist it on my worst enemies.  Even though it took a year of my life to write, it just wasn't good enough.  Make sure yours is. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How Old Do You Have to Be to Be a Writer?

First of all, there is no correct answer to this question.  You can be twelve when you decide to be a writer or you can be eighty-two.

A very young person, say of thirteen, is usually no more a writer than the man in the moon.  BUT the thirteen-year-old can be a writer-to-be.

I was thirteen when I knew for certain that I wanted to be a writer.  I have my little plastic blue diary, the kind that used to have a key for locking it, to prove it.  On one page of the diary is a single sentence.  "I want to grow up to be a writer."

I cannot now remember what precipitated that entry or why I decided that writing was going to be the life for me.  Yet there it is as testament to a dream deep in a young girl's mind.  

By the time I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen I was writing short stories.  Not good short stories, but then I didn't really expect them to be good.  I always knew that becoming a published fiction writer would take some work.  Quite a lot of work.  And, of course, I was right.  I didn't expect the first stories I ever wrote would be especially good.  What I did know was if I kept at it I would eventually reach my goal of being a writer, a published writer, maybe even a respected writer, and I would spend my entire life doing it. 

Off to college, I majored in English, believing it was the only path to my future career.  It's true that choice helped a bit, but some of the courses in college that probably helped even more were philosophy, history, sociology, even art.  And one day I realized that it wasn't the education or the courses, the major or the grades that would make me into a writer.  Mainly it was going to be the people I met, the life I led, and the understanding I was able to master about the human condition.  Certainly it takes a good, solid education in the English language in order to write well.  But to write something interesting and compelling?  It took much more than learning where to put a comma or what verb tense to use.

It would not have mattered if I had decided to be a writer when I was thirteen, or after college in my twenties, or in my mid or later years.  What helped me, however, was that I was focused and dedicated so early on.  I had all those years to get to where I wanted to go.  Not that a successful writing career can't be created at any age, I believe it can.  But I just had so many more years to concentrate on it.  The stories got better, the novels became stronger and more unique to my voice, the ambition grew and helped me persevere, and finally, at age thirty-four, I sold my first novel to a major publishing company.  It's possible I would have published earlier had I not combined marriage and children in the mix.  But that brings us back to what I said about what it takes to be a writer.  For me life wasn't going to be separated from the work.  I meant to live the life and do the work at the same time.  If you don't live and experience life,  there is not much to write about.  I wanted the marriage, the love, the children, and I didn't intend to put that part of life off to chase my dream.  My dream had to come along with me, as it had since the age of thirteen.

If you are in your later years, my life's pattern may seem discouraging to those of you hoping for a writing career.  Please don't let it.  You've lived the life, you have material.  That's more than I had to start with.  I believe in all possibilities and I know there is always hope for the creative mind, no matter how old it is.  Age is only a number.  It means nothing unless you let it.

If you are young, you may be encouraged by knowing how young I was when I knew what I would be.  If you are a young person, then I suggest you spend every year going forward working toward the goal of writing.  Every class you take, every book you read, every conversation you hear is a chance to pay attention and learn.   You have years, but you have to know how to fill them well.

I have one of my suspense thriller novels just out in a Kindle edition.  If you are interested in my work, please check out BAD TRIP SOUTH.