Why writers need face-to-face contact

For the most part, writers are solitary beings. We live in a world where we invent many of the people we spend time with. We dream up our characters’ homelands and families and careers. We give them romantic interests. We pit them against each other. We put them in life threatening situations. Sometimes we even kill them. It’s all in a day’s work.

But what happens when that work day is over? Sure, most of us have families; spouses willing to run errands when we’re short on time, teenagers who’ll (albeit begrudgingly) help us solve our latest computer crisis so we can keep writing, a sibling who’ll take Mom to her doctor’s appointment if we can’t. But how many of us have close personal friends we can talk to about those very family members when we need to vent? How many of us know our neighbors well enough to request a favor? Facebook and My Space are great for connecting with others who share our interests across the country and the world, but few if any of those people actually exist in our everyday lives. In that respect, they’re similar to characters in our books. We can’t ask them to pick up our kids from school if an emergency arises, or to come by and take care of our cats when we’re out of town for the weekend.  

The computer age is great in many respects. Chances are, if you’re 30 or under, you can’t imagine life without all of your electronic gadgets. But clearly, society is losing something along the way toward this latest form of social modernization. We no longer feel the need to reach out to others on a face-to-face basis. It’s easier, faster to just sit in front of our computers and fire off an e-mail. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. That’s why today I’m offering up a personal thank you to my neighbor, Katheryn, for being, well, a great personal neighbor and friend. Katheryn has been terrific since Jody and I moved in nearly 8 years ago—always willing to reach out and lend a hand. Or, as was the case on Monday, her vehicle. My car had a flat tire and I needed to be somewhere. Hard to imagine someone on Facebook stepping out of the computer and handing me their car keys.

E-mail and social networks are great venues for connecting with others. Let’s just make sure we don’t make them our only connection. As Streisand sang in Fuuny Girl, People—people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.

Writing is like a rose garden

Off hand, it might be hard to imagine what roses and writing have in common. If you have a rose garden you personally tend to, however, I suspect you know exactly what I mean. It’s a love – hate relationship. As a longtime gardener, I’ve grown hundreds of different flowers over my lifetime, but none more gorgeous than these thorny creatures. And make no mistake, they ARE thorny. Last year I cut open my lip while trying to snap off an inner branch at exactly the right spot. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they make a conscious effort to hurt me. And to thwart my loving efforts. I spray to prevent insect infestation and black spot takes over. I prune away bad growth and white flies attack. I could go on and on (but fortunately for you, I won’t). The point is, no matter how many hours I spend slaving away in the hot sun to care for my persnickety roses, I still feel it’s worth it in the end.

And I feel that way about my writing, too. Every writer I know spends countless hours revising, pulling out his or her hair, and revising some more. Sometimes we can spend half a day reworking one sentence—a sentence we might end up cutting completely when all is said and done. But when we get that sentence right and we know it, a feeling of euphoria spreads through us. We no longer care that we spent half a day getting to that point because its beauty is overwhelming.

Similarly, we may spend years writing a book that will never be enjoyed by its intended audience because agents or editors don’t find its first three sentences breathless enough for them to spend another five reading the entire page. Fair enough. It’s a business, and every writer who has survived their first rejection letter understands this. The point is to keep slaving away at the keyboard. Keep the ideas flowing. Write, write, and write some more. Eventually, be it by traditional or self-marketing methods, you will connect with readers who enjoy your work. It’s at that point you’ll realize all the hard work you’ve put in to make those roses bloom was more than worth the effort.

The Tenth Gift: Examining stereotypes and Editors’ Choices

Guest Blog by Sylvia Fowler

In an effort to understand the considerations of a top market editor who loved but ultimately hesitated to accept my memoir, The Red Sea Bride, for her house, I am reading a book she accepted.  The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson, is about an Englishwoman who finds a treasure left by a 17th century Cornish woman who was abducted by Moorish pirates.

I’ve been to Morocco six or seven times; it would be a pleasure to revisit, especially in the Renaissance.

It took me well over 200 pages, with a lot of what W. Somserset Maugham called “the fine art of skipping” to get “into” the book.  When did I finally bond with Johnson’s story? When the Cornish female prisoner starts teaching Berber women higher skills in embroidery.  That part is believable for me because I met many Moroccan women during the travels I made with Malik in North Africa.  I also embroider.

I did appreciate the wondrous descriptions of Moorish décor, of the pirate ship, etc.   I take my hat off to Johnson’s skill and talent.  She did a lot of research and carefully worked in historical details which only left me somewhat scratching my head :   “Qasba des Oudaias—begun by the Almohad sultan Abd-el-Moumen in the twelfth century to defend the area against attack from the sea. His son, Yacoub el Mansour, continued the work, creating these great ramparts around an existing convent—hence the city’s name of Rabat, which means ‘fortified monastery’”(p.220).[1]

This was familiar territory.  What jarred and still does (I am on page 286) are stereotypical comments that undermine true understanding of Islam. For instance, yes, ignorant Muslims think dogs are unclean because of their extremist interpretation of a comment made by the prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but those same societies barely read. My husband Malik had a dog when he was little.  Malik’s father was a doctor and read voraciously. Malik told me how much he, his sisters, and brothers wept when the dog died giving birth to a litter.

Tragically, many Muslims are ignorant.  Reading, in Muslim lands, is not what it once was. ( Sadly, the same thing is happening in the West.)

The Turkish nobel prize winning writer, Orhan Pamuk, wrote a brilliant chapter on Muslim attitudes  towards dogs, narrated by the illustration of dog.  I laughed like crazy because he knows and I know.

I am finding that Johnson’s book just keeps on promoting the same old stereotypes.  She does it so beautifully, I could cry.

1 In one of the stories from Under a Crescent Moon, author Julia Simpson-Urrutia also describes a rabat; it is not a word for a convent but a place where widows or single women without means can live together around a courtyard, usually from the charity of others. There has never been any convent in Saudi Arabia. It is difficult (if not completely absurd) to believe that El Mansour found a convent in Rabat in the 12th century to build ramparts around.

How Publishers May Be Contributing to Illteracy

Joseph Conrad, British novelist

Illiteracy, if it may be interpreted as inability to write grammatically coherent sentences, has been growing in America.  I should know, having taught remedial and college entry level English writing in Sacramento and Fresno these past ten years[1].  According to recent Fresno State statistics, “More than 60% of first-time freshmen need remedial English programs [and] that figure has inched up over the past five years”[2].

Naturally the overall problem impacts the number of potential customers of books. I’m sure that relationship can be supported: if people are not themselves versatile writers, their ability to grasp the meaning of sentences composed by writers of meaningful fluency (with larger vocabularies than most) will be limited. Some writers think they should dumb down their manuscripts in order to be marketable.

Does this, in fact, really happen? Editors of large and small publishing houses, being most often very literary creatures, will bristle. How would they feel if I were to suggest that the publishing houses themselves have promoted illiteracy?

Sure, cell phones and internet chatting have hugely contributed to the overall inability to spell or compose anything other than sentence fragments. However, human beings have been multilingual for centuries. Joseph Conrad, author of Lord Jim, wrote his way to fame in his third language, English. (His first was Polish and his second, French.) Yes, films and video games have taken consumers’ precious time away from reading and writing. Still, a good deal of writing got published, causing wave after wave of youthful aspirants to dream of being writers, while TV was in its first flaming decades of success and children snuck into movie theaters with or without tickets and popcorn. How many of us hoped to become the new Rod Serling or Ray Bradbury?

Publishing houses are commanded from the top, and the orders sent down are for money and lots of it.  Today, one good writer, hugely promoted, can bring in far more money than five hundred equally good writers, lukewarmly printed and symbolically distributed.  No argument there. When publishers go for the gold (bullion), the chances for young or maturing writers to make a living in the publishing world diminish significantly.

No wonder illiteracy is increasing. Why won’t publishers see the most voracious and devoted readers are those who see themselves as writers? If there is no (financial) point in writing, why read?

[1] Since returning to the States from Saudi Arabia

[2] http://www.fresnobee.com/2010/03/17/1863183/fresno-state-students-get-high.html?storylink=misearch

Downhill Skiing and the Writing Life

While Connie was watching the Lakers on Tuesday, TV5Monde caught my attention with a report on the fear of downhill ski world champions. I have long been fascinated by downhill skiing; to hear European champions admit fear and insecurity as openly as they did was as riveting as their masterful, hell-bent maneuvers down glacial runs.  (Gee, they don’t look scared.)

Footage of various accidents over years of world cup competitions took my breath away. One contestant admitted having no recollection of an accident that left him in a coma for days. “He is lucky to walk,” said a winner from the 70s, a skier who also once sustained the kind of injuries from a fall that left him wondering if he would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. Now, gray and healthy, the former champion waits with the crowd at the bottom of the run to watch the contestants fly down faster (due to technological advances in skis themselves as well as the simple rule of competition) than he or his rivals ever skied.

The case of 20-year old Austrian Gernot Reinstadler, who died the night after he flew into a safety net (at fifty miles per hour) during the 1991 World Cup, exemplifies the uncertainty expressed by   one of the World Cup contestants in the TV5Monde reportage: “When I wait at the starting gate, I sometimes realize I could be dead in four minutes.”

There is a parallel to writing that will not take anyone’s breath away, but which is nonetheless significant.  Every writer, at the starting gate of his/her career, has no way of knowing whether his writing will be read/remembered at the end of the run,  perhaps forty years on.  A writer can be eloquent, profound, gripping, witty and even prolific, and his entire life’s work may all sink to the bottom of the sea.  Or dissipate into outer space. Or be deleted with one computer meltdown.

So is it worth it? Yes, say the skiers. The flirtation with death is worth the adrenalin rush and the mastery of a sport.  Likewise must the writer say yes, the years or lifetime of contemplating the human spirit and translating that via words and story is so compelling, he or she could not have done otherwise.

Thus do skiers and writers share the pulse that keeps their blood moving, and they do it knowing full well that more people lose than win. The truth is that somehow the losing really isn’t.

If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

While watching the Lakers – Kings game last night, I had an epiphany. It came about when Coach Jackson inserted little-used Adam Morrison into the lineup. Morrison came to the Lakers in a trade last February. Originally drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats with the overall number three pick in 2006, Morrison came into the NBA with high expectations. He was known as a scorer in college (led the nation with 28.1 in 2005-06). Unfortunately, his game hasn’t translated well to the world of the pros. He battled a knee injury early on, but injuries are part of the game. Great players rehab and return. And others, like you-know-who (if you don’t know who, see my previous articles on heroes), play on.

Morrison still might prove himself someday, though I doubt it will be with the Lakers. While watching the poor guy run around the court last night, totally oblivious as to what he was supposed to be doing, it struck me that he has lost faith in his game, and thus, himself. He passes up wide open shots because he doesn’t believe they will go in. He passes the ball to teammates, most of whom are not wide open, forcing them to take bad shots as the shot clock winds down. He doesn’t want to be responsible for missing a timely shot so he leaves it to someone else.

On the other side of the fence is Lakers’ guard Shannon Brown, basically a throw-in with the Morrison trade. Brown, drafted by Cleveland with the 25th pick in 2006, spent the majority of his time on the bench in Cleveland, Chicago, and Charlotte. Now he’s an important piece on a Championship team. Why? Because Brown believes in himself. Every time he gets the ball, he looks to make a game-changing play: pass to an open teammate, drive the lane for a one-handed slam, or soar through the air to block an opponent’s shot. Brown makes the most of his time on the court and that time has steadily increased because he has no doubt he is good enough to be on the court with All Stars Kobe Bryant and Pao Gasol.

As writers, our job is to convince readers our books can be game changers. That every book we write has a shot at becoming a bestseller. A lofty goal for sure, but I wonder who among Shannon Brown’s teammates in Cleveland, Chicago, or Charlotte believed he would be the seventh man on a Championship team.

A day in the life of a writer

Most people who know writers from a distance think we live exotic lives. What could be better than sitting around all day talking in different voices, pretending to be people we aren’t? Why shucks, it’s almost as good as being a movie star! Writers get to “play” all day long. Our publishers send us on vacations all over the world so we gain firsthand experience of the gorgeous locales we plan to use in our stories. We spend our evenings reading adoring fan mail, doing interviews on radio and TV, and dining at the finest restaurants free of charge. We are some of the luckiest people on earth.

For a small number of writers, the above might actually be true. (If I had to venture a guess, I’d say a couple of hundred at most.) For the rest of us, our everyday lives are filled with the same mundane tasks our co-workers and neighbors attend to: cooking, cleaning, shopping, children, pets, bills. Fortunately for me, I no longer have a full time job outside of the house or children who need raising. But I’ve been there, done that. When I was writing my first published book, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and the American Dream, I lugged my black and white Toshiba laptop with me to work every day. Occasionally I was able to get some writing done between my office manager duties. On evenings and weekends, I stuck a notebook in my book bag so I could jot down ideas for the next day’s writing while attending student band concerts, plays, and track meets. (Katie and Carrie have since forgiven me.)

The point is, writing is work. Hard, exhausting work. The writing itself is actually the easy part of the job. Since I began work on this blog in September 2009, I haven’t had time to do much but think about the next book I want to write. Julia and I spend, on average, at least a couple of hours a day updating our pages here on WordPress, writing new posts, answering queries, learning new techniques to draw traffic to our site. In addition, we are plotting other sales and marketing strategies. Doing whatever it takes to generate interest in us and our books.

Last month one of Julia’s friends asked her whether the two of us “hung out” a lot together. When Julia related the story to me, we both nearly fell over laughing. Yes, in between doing the laundry and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping, Julia’s job at City College and my tech support at my husband’s business, the five to six hours per day we work on this blog and marketing ourselves, we have oodles of time to go to movies, have dinner together, and go on weekend writing retreats to Hawaii.

Ah, the life of writers. It truly is exotic.

Advice from successful writers

The Guardian newspaper in England recently ran an  article on good writing. It is a treasure load of valuable

advice.   If I were going to memorize a few to recite in front of my class today, they would be the following:

From A.L. Kennedy:
Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly
and ­ irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you
remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

From Elmore Leonard: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

From Jonathan Frazier:

Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.


The Energy of Writers: a purpose in gathering

For those of us who feel as if we have been writers since we could first spell—at least phonetically– and draw illustrations in crayon for our stories—there is an electrifying shock of energy to be had when we open ourselves up to first-time writers.

I have been getting these surges channeled through a new relation named Randy, my daughter-in-law’s boyfriend.  His brother, Erik (whom I have not yet met) has written a book.  If you think of yourself as a writer, you may be muttering, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. . . . so what.  I’ve written/published several of those.”

Randy assures me Eric never thought of being a writer. Erik simply obeyed an urge to fictionalize the story of his family, and spent four years (and forty-odd chapters) doing it.  It is the energy and enthusiasm with which Randy narrates Erik’s experience that are consistently electrifying.  “I could never do something like that,” confides Randy. “I am not much of a reader. I have probably read ten books in my entire life, whereas my brother has always been a voracious reader. “

Erik’s plans?  “He told me he doesn’t have a clue what to do next, except revise before he sends the manuscript to a professional editor.” Randy and Erik’s mother loves the book—the seasoned writer may shrug.  Naturally.  Every writer’s parent(s) loves the book.  Randy and his daughters adore the book.  Erik is happy to have written it.

Each time I hear of Erik’s book, I come away moved by this enthusiasm so strong it emanates from a brother who says he doesn’t read much.  We writers tend to be isolated people, and our energies can be sapped by rejection, work, illness, the economy, need of new marketing strategies—even when we have known a fair share of past success.  What do we need? Energy.

Randy last spoke of Erik’s book at a little girl’s birthday party.  The place was rocketing with the energy of twelve excited little girls, playing together.

Writers need each other, be they seasoned or first-time. We need each other’s energy, ideas, enthusiasm, experience, appreciation and knowledge.  Blogging is an acknowledgment of this need, but physical gatherings at conferences, seminars and book signings are  just as important.  Energy transmits best in person.  In a struggling economy, there is no better time for writers to come together.

For writers, rejections are personal

I don’t know one writing friend or acquaintance who hasn’t received a form rejection letter. You know what I’m talking about. A few flatly worded sentences along the lines of “Not what we’re looking for at this time, but keep trying. Other agents (or editors or contest judges) might feel differently.” Writing instructors tell us we shouldn’t take those rejections personally. Agents and editors who speak at writing conferences agree. To which I say, fair enough. After all, how personal can something be when it begins with the heartfelt greeting, “Dear Writer.” (Your actual name might be inserted in place of “writer,” but rest assured, it’s a database program doing it. Thousands of writers have received that exact same letter, and I mean exact: word-for-word, including the punctuation.)

I could easily spend a few pages here going over the types of rejections I’ve gotten over the years: some cold, some neutral, and some quite encouraging. Unfortunately, even the latter are, in the end, rejections. But not to worry. These sources weren’t rejecting me as a person, they were only rejecting my work, right? The problem with that theory is, my work and my person are actually one in the same. My characters are all melting pots of my own thoughts and ideas. My feelings. How is that not personal?

The sad truth is, rejection is a part of life for everyone: students applying for grad school, workers sending out resumes, lonely people searching for that all-elusive soul mate. And yes, being rejected is personal. Very personal. The trick is to corral that intense feeling of personal rejection and transform it into a strength. For me, that translated into my creating this blog with Julia. For you, it might be continuing to submit your work the conventional way until it finds a home. Although rejection in itself is personal, admitting that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.