Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What to Do? Thin

I find myself in an unprecedented situation, for me anyway: I cannot type with my right hand. Shoulder surgery last week has left me with the unusual complication of nerve irritation (that’s what I’m calling it, since the surgeon doesn’t know just what is.) For someone like me, who types many words every day, it’s frustrating and daunting. And downright scary—although I try not to go there. I’m choosing to think full function will return, and hoping for sooner rather than later.

People’s first reaction on hearing my dilemma is a breezy, “Oh, you’ll have to get some voice recognition software.” Easy for them to say. And I’ll definitely go that route if the situation continues. But I find the prospect disheartening. What this situation has made clear to me is that I think through my fingers, specifically through typing. I type fast, pounding out words as if they were eating up the pages. It’s hard for me to imagine switching to thinking aloud. (It might be a good idea for me to learn to think while I’m speaking, too—but that’s a subject for another day.)

Photo: Puttug my right hand to better use.

The question for now is, what to do while I perform the suggested “wait and see” function. Just before the surgery, I completed a first draft that came in at just over 100,000 words. To say I’m dissatisfied with it is a vast understatement. There’s an occasional scene that works pretty well and it’s an interesting, workable premise, but that’s about it. Characters, setting, action, plot, and motivation all need a lot of work. My usual mode of dealing with this would be to charge at the manuscript full bore, slashing hunks of prose and typing out replacement chunks to see how they work.

 Instead, I’m thinking. Instead of writing a lot of words trying to capture what I’m missing in a character, I’m picturing him going about his daily life, pondering what he thinks about when he first gets up in the morning, or when he’s overtired or stressed. Thinking about how he works and what he does for recreation. I’m musing about his regrets, his triumphs small and large, what’s really important to him, and how those things came to be.

 Over the years I have cut out articles on writing craft, flagged blog posts, and underlined passages in craft books. Somehow I seldom get around to reading them. I plan to take advantage of my enforced idleness to tackle some of these articles. Who knows, eventually I may come to see this time as a gift.

  And now I’ve written an entire post with my left hand—a hand I admire tremendously for stepping up its game!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Pigeon Theory

Have you looked closely at a pigeon recently? They are really pretty birds, with lovely markings, pink feet and interesting eyes. I can hear you now, “Are you nuts? Pigeons are a dime a dozen.” On the other hand, if you see a mountain bluebird in your area, you’re likely to explain, “What a beautiful bird!” Rare. In fact, bird watchers won’t cross the street to see a pigeon, but some travel long distances to see rare birds.

Now imagine that these birds are books and the birdwatchers are readers. The question a writer hoping to be published needs to ask herself is, “Am I writing a pigeon or a bluebird?” In other words are you writing a book very much like dozens of books out there, or are you writing one that will stand out?

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. After a long hiatus from trying to get published while my son was young, I decided when he was a senior in high school that it was time for me to get to work again. I promptly wrote a brand new book with a female detective protagonist working for an agency in San Francisco? Sound familiar? Yes, I wrote a pigeon. And sure enough, even though every agent I queried told me it was well-written and many of them said they were eager to read whatever else I wrote, all of them indicated in one way or another, “Ho hum, another pigeon.”

Then I took a weekend writing workshop organized by Sophie Littlefield and Cornelia Read. It was a great workshop, but the pivotal moment for me was when Sophia gave an impassioned speech to those of us struggling to find our writing niche. She urged each writer to reach deep inside and find something he or she was passionate about—something that only “you” could write. She said that’s what you had to do if you were serious about being a success as a writer.

I had heard the first part of that advice before, but this time I heard the second part as well—that this is what you had to do if you were serious. I was working on something else, but that advice kept nagging at me. So about two months later, I sat down to think—really think: what did I have a connection to in my life that no one else had, and that I hadn’t read anything like it. My grandfather and the town he lived in sprang to mind. I had written some short stories set in Jarrett Creek, Texas—even a couple of short stories featuring my grandfather.

The rest is history. The first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill took me only a couple of months to write—it was a book that had been inside me all along—I needed to recognize it. I didn’t know any other characters like Samuel Craddock, and at that time hardly knew any other mystery series set in Texas (one huge exception was Bill Crider).

So I urge you, if you are having trouble reaching an audience, ask yourself if you’re writing a pigeon or an exotic bird that people will flock (groan—pun intended) to see?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writing the Other

Last weekend I was on a panel at an afternoon of all things mystery at Kepler’s Bookstore in Palo Alto. My panel was entitled “It Ain’t Me Babe,” about writing a character who is not you. I write a series about a 60-something man in a small Texas town, an ex-chief of police who takes up the job again. He married a wealthy woman who collected art and grew to love modern art. Under the influence of his next-door neighbor he comes to enjoy a good glass of red wine. He also raises cattle.

It ain’t me, babe! I do like modern art and red wine and I spent wonderful hours in a small town in Texas where my grandparents lived when I was young—but that’s it. I’m noticeably not a man, not a cattle rancher and certainly not a chief of police, ex or otherwise. Sot the panel was just right for me.

But the first question threw me. The moderator talked about a woman who became head of the NAACP for a number of years, pretending to be an African American and asked if we writers were in the position of pretending as this woman was. I’ve been thinking about the question since then. At the heart of the question is the assumption that in order to write someone who is not like you, as a writer you have to pretend to be that person.

I don’t think that’s the case. You don’t “pretend” to become that person. In some ways, mentally, you actually become that person. When I am writing about Samuel, I feel as if I’m a camera, walking through his life, seeing through his eyes, recording events, reacting to them, having opinions about them. In some ways I think that’s what drives us to be writers, the fact that we have other voices in our heads that we channel. Not to be all woo-woo about it, it’s a bit of magic.

Is this what we mean when we talk about being “authentic” as a writer? Sometimes I have trouble getting into a character’s head and the character falls flat. It feels like an inauthentic rendering of his or her part in the novel. In order to come closer to the truth, I find that I have to slip into the skin of the character and mentally move through that world. I don’t know if that’s what other writers do. It’s something I’ve never heard anyone talk about. I’ve heard of writers producing biographies of their characters, but not mentally becoming the character.

I was recently asked if I thought I could write from the viewpoint of a 25-year-old man. Who knows? It feels like more of a stretch than writing an older man and I don't know if I have enough ability to "become" someone so young and with a different world and personal view. I'd like to find out

So I come back to the question. Is it “pretending” or “becoming” someone else? I’m curious to know what others think, and how other writers come to an understanding of the characters they are writing about.