Saturday, August 10, 2013

Five Reasons Your Loved Ones Lie to You . . .

 . . . when it comes to critiquing your writing.

  1. Your mother loves you and doesn’t want you to feel bad. Again. (She’s never forgotten that little “incident” back when you were in grade school. The look on your face! Sigh.)
  2. Your friends are being (kind of) honest when they say what you wrote is great. (It is, compared to what they would write. It may not be, compared to what a professional would write.)
  3. Your family may not have actually read what you wrote. (You: “Did you like it?” Them: “It was awesome!” You: “What was your favorite part?” Them: “Buh . . . everything!”)
  4. Your good buddy/dear, dear friend fears jeopardizing your good buddy-ness/dear, dear friendship.
  5. Family and friends, less skilled in language than you are, may struggle for a polite way to say “stinks” or “blows” and so may just give your piece a hearty thumbs up. (A thought which now gives this author pause because his family and friends have given some of these blog items a hearty thumbs up. But they meant it. He can tell.)

A family member, friend, editor, or fellow writer who will offer you an honest, intelligent and informed opinion is worth more than his or her weight in chocolate-chip cookie dough.
Writers or not, we all need to cultivate the delicate art of telling a loved one the truth . . . gently.

Just keep writing.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Everyone Has a Backstory

Within the span of a few days not too long after my wife Monica died, two strangers told me to smile. No, not told me. Commanded me. And not just “smile.” But “smile!”

The first was a fellow I passed in a hallway at a retirement home. The second was someone at church handing out Sunday bulletins after Mass.

I had thought, all things considered, I was doing remarkably well during that initial crush of grief.

After each man spoke, I lifted the corners of my lips and pointed my face at him.


Shut up and leave me alone.

I don’t blame them. Apparently, I had looked “too” sad or serious and — ho, ho, ho! — everyone needs to smile more.

Well . . . yes and no.

Yes, generally speaking. I suppose.

No, not all the time. I’m sure.

As a novelist it can help you to keep in mind there are reasons your characters do what they do when they do it. Some writers create a short biography for each character, figuring out his or her backstory. Others writers “discover” those motives as the story unfolds and the characters themselves reveal bits of their past. (Yes, this sounds odd/spooky/nuts if it hasn't happened to you as a writer. I don’t think it’s uncommon. It is odd/spooky/nuts, and I speak from firsthand experience.)

Either method, or a combination of both, can work well. Learning the better way, or proper mix, for you is a matter of practice. Of writing. And that’s what you’re doing.

And when you’re not writing . . .

It can help to keep in mind that family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors and strangers have their backstories, too. Better to be a little slower to judge and a little quicker to show compassion. Even among those we know well, we don’t know it all.
Just keep writing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ten Things the 'Gift of Writing' Will Never Do

"You! You have a gift, my friend! Yes, you do. You do."
It could be others have noticed you have a gift, a natural talent, for writing. You may know that's true. (What a pleasant thought!) What you may not know, realize, or care to admit is that your gift, your natural talent, will never:

  1. Automatically make you a good writer.
  2. Make writing a breeze.
  3. Eliminate the need for you to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Or self-edit. Or rewrite. Or just toss the whole stupid thing out and start over.
  4. Guarantee you'll get published or paid for your writing.
  5. Make writing a less solitary -- less lonely -- endeavor.
  6. Take the place of a good editor or trusted friend who will give you an honest  -- and very helpful -- opinion.
  7. Let that nagging little inner voice ("You should be writing!") shut up . . . when you should be writing.
  8. Make you creative enough to come up with a valid excuse for not using this gift.
  9. Tell you why this gift was freely given to you.
  10. Be a substitute for wisdom or virtue or grace.
The truth is every human has multiple gifts. It's just that some of those gifts are more visible to the public.(The ones having to do with the arts, entertainment, or sports, for example.) Just as there are unsung heroes, there are a lot of unsung virtuosos in parenting, teaching, plumbing, counseling, health care, car repair, family caregiving, and on and on. Thank God for their skills and the time and effort they put into developing and using their amazing -- and much-needed -- gifts.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

'Ooh, baby, I like your . . . writing . . . style!'

No one has ever looked at how I'm dressed and said, "Ooh, Bill, I like your style!" (I write this wearing blue jeans; a short-sleeved, button-down dress shirt (with a pocket for pen and scratch paper); and a zip-up sweatshirt purchased in 1989. (Time flies.) The sweatshirt may be back in fashion. Or it was back but it's gone once more.)

But . . .

Folks do say "I like your writing style." (God bless them. Such discriminating taste.) I wrote about tone and voice -- about style -- in How to Write Your Novel in Nine Weeks (Week Two, Day 5):

One big reason there’s an annual Hemingway write-alike contest is that Hemingway wrote like Hemingway. He didn’t start out that way. If he submitted some of his very early attempts as contest entries, the judges would say, “Not even close! Well, okay, a little close but not close enough.”
Hemingway became Hemingway by writing. Ditto with Chaucer, Emily Bronte, Dr. Seuss and every other writer who has a “voice.” Whose writing has a certain “tone.” Yours may already have that. And it may not. The only way I know to develop that voice and tone is to write, write, write. You can read a lot of writers, you can read a lot of books about writing, but . . . . there’s no substitute.
Over time, your own style will emerge. Choices of words. Sentence structure. Punctuation. Yes, all within the rules—more or less—but with your particular spin. (In other areas, it’s what makes “your” golf swing your golf swing or “your” home-baked chocolate chip cookies “your” home-baked chocolate chip cookies.)
The good news in today’s message is you don’t have to do anything to develop your voice (or strengthen your voice) except write and that’s what you’re already doing. Yes, writing is always hard but, I suspect, by the time you finish the novel that your writing now, it will be a little easier because it will be easier for you to use your voice to say what you want to say in the way that you want to say it.
Easier more often. Not always. Never always.
In the first twenty years of my full-time freelancing, I had about two dozen books published. Some fiction, some non-fiction. Some for kids, some for adults. Some serious, some humorous. Some prose, some poetry. And the occasional play. (Apparently, I have trouble focusing, eh?) By then my voice was my voice. In a serious book, there likely was some humor. In a humor book, there were a few serious points.
This may sound like bragging and that’s not my goal here. (I take great pride in my humility.) I like my writing voice but it wouldn’t have happened without those very early books. The ones I did long before I had anything published. (Not to discourage you, but I wrote ten books before I had one published. You probably won’t need that many. I know that if I had quit after number nine, I wouldn’t have published any. And to encourage you: One of those first ten was later published and sold well.)
Consciously (“Ooh, I like the way that sentence sounds.”) and subconsciously (“I wrote that? Huh. That’s good.”), you’re developing your voice and like that golf swing or those cookies, it’s a lovely thing to have.
Just keep writing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Widowhood and Writing

It was a tough morning. I had to go get a head shot (mug shot) taken for the national column I write. Several months ago an editor there had told me they were updating all the columnists' photos but I kept putting it off. He recently sent me a reminder.

First, I'm not a fan of having my photo taken in a studio. ("Lean this way, look that way, put your chin up, sit up straighter, big smile, come on, big one!")

And, second and much harder, I would be alone in this picture. For more than 20 years it was my wife, Monica, and I who were the coauthors. She died of uterine cancer in January. The photo that had featured both of us was being replaced.


As a widower, I know more about dying, death and grieving than I ever wanted to know.

As a novelist, I know that knowledge may very well help me better develop a character facing those powerful experiences.

In a similar way, your good times and your hard times can help make you a better novelist. They can enable you to add a tone or voice that rings true because, on such a personal level, you know that truth.

Just keep writing.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Q & A on Writing and Such

Thanks so much to  for running an interview of me yapping away about writing and The World's Funniest Atheist.

It was interesting for me to answer their questions. Made me think about my influences, habits and such. I notice that my answers tended to be brief. Just like my novels.

They didn't ask and so I remained mum on The Role of Chocolate in an Author's Life.

Probably just as well.

Just keep writing.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

When You're Hit by a Brick

Yesterday I was reading Betty Rollin's "Here's the Bright Side," which is subtitled "Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce and Other Bum Raps." (I chose it because my personal "bum rap" is my wife Monica died of uterine cancer in early January.) One of the many stories Rollin shares is about a friend who was hired to be in a Woody Allen play and then was canned during rehearsal. She says:

"But Annabelle is a writer as well as an actress and knew instinctively that certain brick blows to the head might give you emotional concussions but that emotional concussions, to a writer, are Material."

A while later, Annabelle wrote a book about folks who have been fired and what that was like for them.

It can help you as a writer to remember that a subcategory of "write what you know" is "write what you never wanted to know, but you do."

Just keep writing.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

It Ain't Learnin' vs. Livin'

I came across this article in The Atlantic magazine (when I was trolling the Internet looking for places to plug my books) titled "Live First, Write Later: The Case for Less Creative-Writing Schooling." The author's argument is a published-writer-to-be can spend too much time in school and would be better off getting out there in the world and living! And then writing from the knowledge gained there.

Well . . . yes and no. We don't learn to write on our own. (Or read, either.) At the very least, we pick it up from books. I had a handful of teachers in grade school, high school, and college that helped me tremendously. I can still think of some specific rules, tips, and advice they gave me that I use today. (Including "it's okay to break a rule if you know you're breaking a rule.")

Most of the commenters on the Atlantic article blast the author and point out all humans, you know, live and when they sit down to write they have a ton of experiences. (And one commenter said "buy my book." Tacky little salesman.)

A writing class, a writing group, a tutor or a mentor may help you tremendously. I remember reading a quote from one graduate of Iowa's writing program that said eventually he could have learned all of it by hit or miss but going to school there made that happen much, much faster. (I had a mentor, a publisher, who really helped me learn how to write humor books. He was great.)

Keep an eye out for how you can learn more about writing, but remember it's not a substitute for writing.

Just keep writing.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Speechless . . . uh . . . Wordless

I was filling out a question-and-answer form yesterday for an upcoming book review and article when I realized I'm not a very good choice for some of the questions. I had no answers.

What was the process you used to write your novel? What shaped it? What did you learn about yourself from writing it?


I did learn, or was reminded, from the Q & A that I'm not very introspective. I don't want to go to a cabin by myself and think deep thoughts. (I want my cabin to have a PlayStation and some good shoot-'em-up games.)

I say this, confess this, because you may be hesitating to attempt writing your novel or feeling you can't complete your novel because you aren't a great thinker, philosopher, or analyzer.

No worries, mate.

Just write the bloomin' story.

Trust me.

Just keep writing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Crash of . . . Symbols

I came across these quotes the other day and really liked them. It's Ernest Hemingway on symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea:
"There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is sh*t. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."
"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things."

The lesson for you, and me? Don't get caught up trying to cram symbolism into your novel and don't think you can't write a great novel because you aren't able to cram it with symbolism.

Here's Little Willie on that:

Just keep writing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'Only the Spoons'

Fortunately, writers -- and all other humans -- can be "tricked" into doing something they don't want to do. Often, writers don't want to write.

Oh, yes, you want to be a writer and you want to have written today's word count and you want to be a novelist but . . . write right now?

Oh, man . . .

If it's any consolation, the same is true with other kinds of writing. I like being a columnist but there are times when, right now, I don't want to write a column. And, at that moment, I have to write a column. (Yes, one gets paid for writing newspaper and magazine columns but they come with deadlines. Start missing those and, very soon, one is no longer a newspaper or magazine columnist.)

The trick? I suppose I could call this"Only the Spoons." When our kids were little and one of them had to wash the dishes (no automatic dishwasher here) there was the usual amount of whining and moaning ("whoaning"?) and pointing out that life wasn't fair and whoever was the last one to wash dishes didn't have as many dishes to wash and why did . . . ?

And so on.

I would tell that child to wash only the spoons. Oh. That was doable. Then only the glasses. Just the glasses. You get the idea. Soon more was washed than unwashed. And then there was a race to the finish.

It's the starting that's hard. (I'm reminded of a how-to writing book by Anne Lamott titled Bird by Bird.)

If 500 words seems overwhelming, sit down and write only 50. That isn't so bad. Doesn't take long. Then, most likely, you'll just keep going and complete the day's count. Or . . .

Sometimes, with a 600-word column, I'll tell myself I'll write only 300. And then I take a little break, realize I'm halfway there and know I'll feel better getting the whole thing done. So I go back and finish it.


Finish it.

Your daily word count. Your novel.

Your novel.

Just keep writing.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Your Daily Resolution

Now that New Year's is long gone (it seems that way, doesn't it?) and some of those resolutions of four days ago have slipped away, consider making a daily resolution.

Every day.

"Today, I'll write my daily word count."

(Okay, take one day off each week, if you like.)

Those daily counts quickly add up to lovely weekly counts, amazing monthly counts, and a book!

Your book.

Just keep writing.