Zigzagging in Writing and Life

I walk in the desert, sometimes on straightaways, sometimes on hills. I learned something from the hill walks: she who goes up, must come down. And sometimes “down” means a very steep grade. I discovered that it was much easier to get to the bottom of these steep hills if I zigzagged from one edge of the path to the other. By descending diagonally, I can cut the steepness of the hill and am able keep my footing.

This seems to be a good metaphor for plot. While writing, we zigzag down an increasingly steep slope, never quite letting our readers know what direction they are traveling, but always keeping them on the path to the end. Or perhaps they are going up a hill, but the point is still the same: zigzagging.

I sent More Deaths Than One to hundreds of agents and editors, and the consensus was that my writing style was too matter-of-fact for the overly complicated plot. This from people who never read more than a few chapters. (Luckily for me, I finally found a publisher — Second Wind – who read the whole novel and understood what I wanted to accomplish.)

It could be that as readers head down the steep slope of my story, zigzagging from side to side, the plot does seem complicated, but when they reach the end and look back, they can see that the story is very simple. A straight path. A man discovers that what he knows about himself is a lie, and he sets out to discover the truth. Very simple. All the complications are simply the zigzagging path.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Rebelling Against Life

Early in the twenty-first century, I set out to fulfill a lifelong dream to be a writer. I wrote a book that was so terrible, I packed it away and never looked at it again. I kept writing, though, and I studied the craft of writing along with the art of getting published. I wrote a book I was proud of, and set out to find a publisher. When I racked up too many rejections, I took a break and went back to writing. Wrote an even better novel, and when it was finished, I sent out query letters and proposals to agents and publishers. Still no takers. So I wrote another novel and then another.

By the end of six years, I had four solid novels (including my magnum opus) and more than 200 rejections. So I went back to writing. But this time I decided to forget trying to write something readers would want to read, agchainents would want to agent, or publishers would want to publish. I decided to write something silly and unpublishable as a rebellion against the system.

I wrote half of this new novel, and then things changed. My mother became ill and died. My life mate/soul mate kept getting weaker and weaker. I got a computer and the internet, and learned blogging and emailing and various new ways of querying agents and publishers, racking up even more rejections.

During all this time, my silly story just languished. There was too much real life going on (if either death or the internet can be called real life), and I had no time for foolishness. I finally found a publisher who loved my books, which started a completely new focus for me — editing, promotion, Facebook, networking. And then my life mate/soul mate was diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, and “real life” took on a whole other meaning.

My silly story continued to languish. What use is whimsy when my world had collapsed? Why rebel against the system when life itself seemed to be rebelling against me? I could barely smile for more than four years during his illness, his death, and my grief let alone be able to see the humor in the world coming to a fictitious end.

I still don’t see the humor in life, but I am beginning to sense the stirrings of rebellion. I don’t much like this brave new world of publishing where anyone who strings a few unedited words together can publish their scribblings and call him or herself an author. I don’t like spending so much time on the internet hoping to attract readers (though I do like getting to know people). I don’t much like the real world, either. I don’t like sickness and death. I don’t like loneliness and heartache. I don’t like . . . well, there’s no need to make a list of the things I don’t like. The point is, I am feeling that same rebellion I felt when I started writing my silly story.

Oddly, until this very moment, I thought the emotion driving the story was whimsy, when in fact it was rebellion. I’m not in the mood for humor or wit or looking at the absurdities of life because the realities are still too strong. But I can do rebellion.

And I will.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Makes a Novelist?

All it takes to be a writer is to write, and going by the proliferation of blogs on the Internet, almost all of us are writers.

Being a novelist is something completely different. You need to be a writer, certainly, but you also need to know the elements of storytelling, how writingbto create characters that come alive, how to describe a scene without losing the momentum of the story. And then you need to put it all together into a cohesive whole that engages the reader’s attention.

But most of all, you need to actually write the novel, to put your idea into words and get it down on paper or into your word processor. That takes discipline. So does rewriting the same novel perhaps a dozen times until you get it right. Because, as we all know, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.

You do all that, and then one day your novel is finished. You’re proud of yourself for having accomplished something many people only dream about, then the terrible truth comes crashing into you with all the force of a linebacker’s tackle: no one cares. Perhaps your family and friends will care, but even from them you will hear the same self-absorbed comments you get from strangers.

You know the comments I mean:

  1. I could have written a book, but . . .
  2. I always thought my life would make a good book . . .
  3. I wrote a book: My diary.
  4. I’ve written a book; it’s all up here in my head, I just have to get it down on paper.
  5. So? I’ve written a hundred books; they’re all packed away in my closet.

Taking their lack of support in stride, you send out your opus to find you’ve reached another level of indifference. On this level, you are not the only person who had the discipline, the ability, perhaps even the talent to have written a good novel; you are one of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. And the agents and editorial assistants who have to plow through those mountains of words don’t care; they haven’t the energy.

If you are lucky, one day your manuscript will be on the right desk at the right time, or maybe you’ll decide to forget the traditional publishers and self-publish. And then you really hit that wall of indifference because in this new world of the published, every single person has written a book.

Being published does not make you a novelist. Even the most rudimentary novels can be published nowadays so there is no special accolade to being published, no special sign that you have passed into the realm of being a novelist. Nor does becoming a success make you a novelist since some of the most execrable fiction on the market — bad writing, paper-doll characters, and scenes that hang lifelessly in the background like dusty drapes — make their authors a fortune.

So what does make a novelist? Maybe caring about the craft. Maybe caring to get it right rather than just writing something and throwing it out there in the hopes that no one will notice the lack of skill. Maybe writing the story only you can write and not setting out to be a King/Koontz/Clancy clone.

Maybe just . . . writing.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Another Great Blog to Bookmark!

If you haven’t checked out the Second Wind Blog, you’re missing out on a treat. With more than fifteen writers posting articles, there is something for every taste, from Noah Baird’s hilarious take on life to JJ Dare’s more philosophical bent, from Sherrie Hansen’s inspirational articles to Norm Brown’s blend of mysticism and reality. Here you can find contests, interviews and excerpts. You can even find me occasionally!!! So what are you waiting for? Stop by Second Wind Publishing Blog and check it out. Here are a few great articles to get you started:

DO YOU GESTALT? by Nancy A. Niles talks about role playing to get to know your characters.

Traveling Thoughts by Mairead Walpole talks about the magic of the Florida sun.

Top of the World at Just the Right Moment by Norm Brown talks about a stunning moment when he was in the right place at the right time. And check out his classic Do Not Lean, which was “Fresh Pressed” here on WordPress.

The Trouble With Birthdays by J. Conrad Guest is a celebration of life, baseball, and summer. And If the Novel is Dying, What’s That Say About Imagination? is a celebration of reading.

Writer Beware–POV Confusion/Character Overload by Juliet Waldron explains the dangers of too many point of view shifts.

Chemistry and Subtext by Lucy Balch tells how writers can enhance the budding romances in their books.

How living in Germany Helped Me Become a Better Writer by Coco Ihle talks about the importance of detailing subjects familiar to the author, but possibly unique or unconventional to someone else.

The Joys of Lying to Children by Noah Baird I had a hard time choosing which Noah Baird post to highlight, but lying to children is perhaps even funnier than Vasectomies For Beginners by Noah Baird. Or not.

Compelled to Compare by Sherrie Hansen talks about appreciating what she has, both as a woman and a writer, but my favorite is Don’t Keep Me Hanging Too Long!

Are You Happy? by J J Dare talks about being happy and feeling heated rush the assassin feels right after he pulls the trigger. Um, yeah. You’ll have to read the post. Or this read this one instead: Goodbye, Mr. Phobia by J J Dare.

Writing what you know by Nichole Bennett talks about writing what you’re comfortable with and researching the rest.

On Butt Glue, Diplomacy, and Lying: Lessons Learned by Laura Wharton talks about the lessons she learned in her first year as a published writer.

Isabella’s Smile and the Miracle in Dakota Park — by Calvin Davis is a delight parable for writers and everyone who needs a bit of assurance that sometimes the impossible is really possible.

Excuse me? What? by Dellani Oakes talks about the ways in which writing is like childbirth. If you’re an author, you will probably agree.

Killer Cocktail Events in Minnesota by Christine Husom talks about the Midwest Booksellers Association annual trade show. Be sure to stop by and tell her about trade shows you’ve gone to.

Interview With Deborah J Ledford, Author of Snare and Staccato

Excerpt From “School of Lies” by Mickey Hoffman

and don’t forget the Second Wind Short Story Contest!! The deadline is December 31, 2011, so you still have plenty of time to enter.

Advice to Aspiring Writers

I just got an email from my high school, requesting my participation in a Q&A for a magazine that goes to parents and alumni. The question they want a response to in 60 words or less is, “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Of course I said I’d participate. The only hard part is distilling ten years of research and experience into so few words.

I could go with a single word: “Write!”

I could be cynical and say, “Don’t write unless you have to. It’s a heartbreaking business.”

I could be business-like and say, “Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion, and publishing because the competition is fierce – millions of people have written a book want to write a book. But no matter what happens, keep writing.”

I could be philosophical and say, “Start with a single word. That’s how every book through the ages was written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.”

I could be more story-oriented and say, “Ask yourself: what story do you want to write? Why? What do your characters want? Why? How are they going to get what they want? Who is going to stop them getting what they want?”

I could plunge into the action and say, “Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise a compelling scene, so plunge headfirst into action. Write fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.”

So, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? What was the most helpful advice you ever read?

On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

On Writing: Ruling Passions

I once read the whole of Danielle Steele’s oeuvre as a research project. I wanted to see what in her books made her so popular. It was the most excruciatingly painful reading experience of my life. Her writing style is surprisingly amateurish, her characters are not well drawn, she tells and explains instead of showing, and she repeats herself as if she can’t remember from page to page what she’s already said.

But I did learn her secret. Her characters are passionate. They never like or dislike anything. They love and hate, but mostly love. “She ate a piece of cherry pie, and she loved it.” “They had sex, and they loved it.”

She also picks issues people are passionate about, and wraps her story around that, so not only do her characters have a ruling passion, so do her readers. When passions are all consuming, as they often are in her books, they create collateral damage. Maybe that is what makes her characters compelling — readers keep waiting for the train wreck.

And yet  .  .  .  all-consuming passions are not the only way to tell a story. Most of my characters aren’t particularly passionate about their ruling passions, but they do have strong motivations, such as a need to discover the truth, whether their particular truth or a more universal truth.
In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, all Kate wants is a good night’s sleep, but first she has to deal with the death of her husband, and then she has to contend with a state-wide epidemic. Although the forces that drive her are fairly tame, many of the characters in that book have stronger passions. Jeremy is consumed with getting out of quarantined Colorado. Pippi is first passionate about Jeremy, then passionate about escaping with him, and finally passionate about returning home. Dee is passionate about helping the homeless. Greg is consumed with the need for truth. The villain is passionate about his deadly little organism. Turns out the only non-passionate person is my heroine! Yet the story revolves around her.
In How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey tells us that our main characters, both the hero and the villain, should have a ruling passion. Alexander Pope, perhaps the first person to use the term “ruling passion,” wrote: “The ruling passion conquers reason still.”

Seems like an interesting conundrum here — a character must have a ruling passion, and a character should be smart  (or at least working to the best of his or her abilities) yet the ruling passion overrides that. Should make for a good inner conflict.

(This article was compiled from comments I made during a live chat. If you’d like to see the entire discussion, you can find it here: Ruling Passions — No Whine, Just Champagne Discussion #146)

On Writing: Family

If a character has well-defined family members – that never-satisfied mother, that demanding great-aunt, that silent father – then we authors don’t have to create that character. The family does it for us.

The family of Mary Stuart in Daughter Am I truly helped create her. When Mary found out that she was the heir of grandparents she never knew existed, she had to find out who they were so she could find out who she was. Once I set the family dynamic, that determined the character of Mary. Her father was close-mouthed, wouldn’t talk about why he disowned his parents or why he told his daughter they were dead. He also bonded more with his daughter’s fiancé than with her. The mother seemed to be mostly a shadow of the father. Because of this, it was inevitable that Mary got engaged to the guy they liked, and it was also inevitable that she dumped him when she became her own person. And even that “own person” was created by family — turns out she was just like her dead grandfather, with his set of values, a desire to build his own life despite social conventions, and an intense loyalty. Even her “adopted” family helped create her. As she followed her quest to learn about her grandparents, she accumulated a crew of travel companions — all friends of her grandparents — who become a new family of sorts.

Rubicon Ranch, the collaborative novel I’m doing with some other Second Wind authors, is all about family. The birth family who’s been searching for the girl and who fall prey to con artists, the couple who wanted a child so bad that they kidnapped one, the old man who suspects his son of the crime, the woman who suspects her father, the boy who is being abused by his father, the sleepwalker who is still haunted by his dead sister, the woman who is grieving for her dead philandering husband. It’s interesting how the theme of family has evolved in such an extemporaneous project. We never planned this theme, but each of us separately chose to deal somehow with family skeletons.

The family of Bob in More Deaths Than One certainly helped create him, especially since that was the basis of the story. He comes home from an 18-year sojourn in Southeast Asia to discover that the mother be buried before he left is dead again. He goes to her funeral and sees his brother, but they had never been close, so he doesn’t make contact. Bob also sees himself, but a doppelganger isn’t really family, so it doesn’t have any part of this discussion.

Lack of family also helps define characters.

In my just-published novel Light Bringer, two of my main characters found each other when they were searching for their birth parents. Those characters were truly a product of their upbringing and their birth. That is the whole crux of the story — who the characters are and why they were birthed.

How does your character’s family make her who she is? (Or make him who he is.) How do they bind her? How do they set her free? Do they add to her conflicts, either internal or external, or do they help her on her life’s journey?

Searching for a Blog Identity

The best blogs are those with a single focus, or so they say. At the beginning, I blogged about my efforts to get published. When my books were accepted for publishing and before they were released, I concentrated on having guest bloggers. After my books were published, I blogged about writing, promotion, and the progress of my current works (or rather the lack of progress). Then, about a year ago, my soul mate died, and this blog developed a dual personality — the almost dry articles about books and writing and the very wet and weepy articles about grief.

Now I need to decide where I want to go with this blog, to figure out what I want to say. Grief is still a part of my life and will be for some time to come, but I don’t want to be that woman — the one who hugs her sorrow and doesn’t seem to be able to move on. (To a great extent I have moved on. Only you and I know how much I still hurt.) Nor do I want to go back to focusing solely on writing and other literary matters. I’m not sure I have anything to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before by people far more literate (and interesting) than I.

Even more than having a single focus, the best blogs are written by those who have a unique slant on a subject, who write what only they can write, who chronicle life’s journey in such a manner that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. But . . . it isn’t necessary to be a great blogger to get the benefits of keeping a web log.

In the past couple of years I’ve developed an interest in photography. I have a separate blog for photos — Wayword Wind — and I joined 365 Project, committing to taking a photo every day for a year. This project has helped to turn my focus outward. While walking, I tend to let my mind wander, and it generally wanders to what (or rather who) I have lost, so searching for that special image each day makes me more alert to my surroundings, to what is rather than what is not.

In the same way, blogging helps concentrate my thoughts, makes me more alert to my inner surroundings. Sometimes it seems as if I’m too full of myself, my posts a bit too pedantic, and yet it’s all part of my journey. Like this blog, I seem always to be in a state of flux, searching for some sort of identity . . .  or at least a focus.

If I ever find where I’m going, either with my life or with this blog, I’ll let you know.

Why Write?

A fellow Second Wind author posted a bloggery today about Keeping the Faith as a writer despite lackluster sales. It’s a concern so many of us published writers have. The percentage of novelists who actually make a living at writing is ridiculously small, and to make matters worse, the top one percent of writers make more than all the rest of us combined.

When you consider how few writers ever make enough to quit their day job, (and this includes some writers who hit the bestselling list), the word “success” when it comes to writing needs to be redefined. Seems to me if writing brings you pleasure that makes you success. So does having your book chosen from thousands of submissions to be published. So does your willingness to write another book despite dismal sales figures. This puts you in a rarified group. Sure it would be nice to make money, but if we were really in it for the money, we wouldn’t be writers. We’d be lawyers or accountants or even sales clerks.

There are good things about writing not being a paying job: we don’t need to write to deadlines, don’t need to worry about wordcount, don’t need to fulfill anyone’s expectations except our own. And that is reason enough to write.

Someone once said that the best thing a writer can do when they’ve finished writing a book is to write another. I thought that was silly advice because if you can’t sell one book (or three), what’s the point of writing more? I now know the point is writing. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words. (I’m only halfway there.) So write. Your next book might be the one that captures people’s imaginations and catapults you into fame and fortune. Not writing another book guarantees you will never will reach that goal. It also keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

One thing I know for a fact: sales do not make a writer a writer.  Of course, sales are nice, but in the end, writing is what makes a writer a writer.

So, let’s all keep the faith. And write.

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