In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right”.
While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!
My first time around the lake every Spring is always An Event for me. I’ve been pedaling in the basement on my bike for a chunk of winter, albeit on a friction stand.
Can you say, “Boring…”?
So Spring is an exciting time for me. Spring 2019 was no exception, and when I got on the trails this morning, much to my surprise, I discovered that they’d cleared nearly three meters of brush, branches, and trunks on either side of the asphalt trail!
What was most amazing was the view it gave THROUGH the forest. Something like this:
Without all the deadwood and weeds, I could see the actual bones of the forest, noticing game trails and paths, as well as the surface of the lake itself (it’s actually a swamp in the second decade of the 21st Century. The old map we found in a drawer in the house when we bought it 26 years ago shows the original lake to be MUCH larger than in 1956 when the land hereabouts was surveyed.)
What’s this got to do with writing advice?
Well, I just sold the longest story ever, for a shockingly substantial bit of money and the REASON it happened is that I’ve been learning to examine the bones of my story; clearing away the brush so-to-speak.
The fact is that I was startled by the end result of the story myself, even though I wrote it.
So what do I mean by “the bones of the story”?
In case you didn’t know, I’ve spent a substantial number of years of my teaching career (which began with my graduation from college in 1981 with a BS in Biology and after taking a several other classes, a license in Science 5-9) as a science teacher. I still teach a summer school class called Super Storms and Melting Poles that starts with a foundation in climate science then ends with “weather prediction”.
At any rate, I’ve been writing a series of advice essays using the book WIRED FOR STORY that, unsurprisingly, takes a look at writing from a purely neurological view. I “got” her concept immediately, and after absorbing the wisdom, I began to write with renewed excitement.
HOWEVER…(there’s always a ‘however’, isn’t there?), neurology wasn’t the only place I was weak in. While ideas, dialogue, and execution were my forte, building BELIEVABLE characters was my biggest weakness. I could do it and I’ve got a varied number of professional publications to show it, but the sad fact is that I only publish ten percent of what I write. In other words, I only rarely create a character an editor can connect with.
I can’t tell you how many characters I’ve created, but since 1990, I’ve submitted 1,126 times. Probably one third of those are distinct stories…so say I’ve created roughly 300 main characters; of which 106 saw publication (one of those characters, Candace Mooney, who lives in space, saw THREE stories about her). That’s not insignificant, but the return on the effort is small.
I guess on reflection, I’m not doing anything inherently “wrong”. But I can certainly get BETTER at doing what I’m doing! That’s what I’ve been pondering here. I can do it – but HOW did I do it?
Clearly Lisa Cron’s insight has made the process much easier to use. Since August of 2018 after I finished reading the book, I’ve written three stories, submitted two of them and sold both. But the main characters of all of them are “real”.
Carlos Bander (from the unsubmitted one, has been around for a while and appears in four or five “trunked” stories); Scrabble & Thatcher – an online veterinarian who is piebald and a genetically engineered, exiled Canadian soldier; and then an ensemble cast in which Larry Henry is unusable after this, but whose colleagues, Serena Ochoa-Noriega (Flight Director) and maybe Mayra Hernandez Hernandez (Mission Control Vox)…or in order to not to appropriate a culture, I may drag in one of the kids he alludes to early in the story…hmmm…THAT might be interesting…
Back to my metaphor of not seeing the forest for the trees – the thing is explained this way: “An expression used of someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole.” (Dictionary.com) So why don’t my characters spring to life off the page?
My simple answer is that I was taking too much time figuring out the details – what they looked like, what their qualifications were for the job to be done in the story (an conversely, I just realized I chose the wrong person to tell a different story I was working on…NOTE TO SELF: “Small Battles”), how I wanted them to act and react and not realizing that if I “cause a person to be born”, the person responds out of who they are rather than in the way I want them to.
And maybe that’s what I’m trying to say: when the foliage is cleared away, you can see the forest for what it IS. You can see lesions, marks, new branches, squirrel nests, antler wear, beaver gnawing, leaf litter, fallen trees…all the things that define the character of a forest that you can’t usually see because of the abundant leaves masking all of the details in waves of multiple shades of green.