Memory: Building Materials for a Story

building materials

Like most writers of fiction, I have struggled with that old chestnut: Write what you know. For one thing, much of what I know as a former prosecutor has been done to death. Even Law and Order has to rip plots from the headlines. Beyond that, to write what you know means to expose yourself, to dig deep, to remember things that happened, things you did, and to relive those feelings. That’s not always comfortable.

In a post on Writer Unboxed, author Robin LaFevers noted that “[a]s writers, we are utterly exposed the moment we put pen to paper.” She goes on to say that “even when we don’t intend to put parts of ourselves into our books, … pieces of ourselves still find their way onto the pages.”

Robin’s post got me to thinking about an essay I recently discovered in the Atlantic  by author Bret Anthony Johnston who said he counsels his writing students, to their dismay: Don’t Write What You Know. And in the essay, he provided me a new way of looking at writing about something we’ve experienced. He said that he doesn’t try to recreate events in his past when he writes but, instead, he uses small details to evoke a time and place. As he wrote, “Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete.” That makes sense to me. Instead of writing about one’s past experiences, a writer can evoke details, memories, sense impressions from his past and then let imagination take flight.

Or as Bret put it: “Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say.”

That notion freed me to write a story I thought I’d never write – because it’s scary, y’know? – a story I’m hoping to publish. It’s about a high school student in the 1950s who gets polio and how the narrator, a boy who has a crush on her, reacts to her disability. I had polio in the ’50s but the story is not about me. The character was a senior in high school when she was stricken. I was about to start kindergarten. She lost the use of her legs. I didn’t. But I was able to remember a lot of my feelings about polio as I grew older, my concerns and my fears, and this allowed me to create this character. In telling the story from the viewpoint of a boy who loved her, an older narrator looking back, I imagined how these events shaped his life in later years. It was thrilling to me to use bits and pieces of memory as scaffolding for a story borne of imagination.

Anyway, the story is out there. I’ll let you know if it gets picked up.

 

 

My New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with New Year’s resolutions and haven’t made any in recent years. When I have made them, I’ve seldom kept them and, in fact, have often forgotten what they were. But this year I’m trying again. 2012 was 2013 calendara good year in many ways but difficult in others. In March we lost a dear friend to a heart attack, a loss that broke many hearts. At the end of October, we lost many possessions and incurred damage to the lower level of our home due to Hurricane Sandy.

So I cannot help reevaluating my life or at least the determination with which I pursue my objectives. As a result, here I am making New Year’s resolutions. If you are reading this post, I thank you, although I cannot imagine why anyone would be interested in my resolutions. I am posting them in an effort to keep myself accountable. Here goes:

Write every day. I want to work every single day on my novel in progress, a story I’m working on, or a blog post.

Submit, submit, submit. I have stories I want to finish and get out into the world. Can’t let fear of rejection hold me back.

Blog more regularly. I’d like to post once a week but will try to post at least every other week.

Exercise daily. Go to the gym at least 3 or 4 days a week. If I lose this pace, do yoga at home. I want to keep up with my strength training. This isn’t about losing weight, although that would be nice. It’s about health and aging gracefully and staying strong.

Declutter my home, one drawer, one shelf, one closet at a time. We were literally forced to get rid of mountains of possessions, soaked or destroyed by the ocean surge that entered our home. But the purging effect felt great and I want to spend some time each day cleaning out a drawer or a shelf or a closet. I’ll give stuff away, especially clothes, to organizations that will distribute them to those in need. I want to keep only what I really wear, only what we really need. I want to simplify my life.

Be kind to someone every day. If I can give lift someone’s spirits or help them out in some way, I want to do that. Every day.

Be grateful every day. This one is easy because I am.

So it’s the first day of 2013 and I am ready for the new year. A year of love and friendship and reading good books and accomplishing my goals. If you have ideas to help me stick to my rezzes, would love to hear them. Happy New Year!

 

Writing vs Author Platform

How much time should the unpublished writer spend on platform? In April, I analyzed that debate in a post that led me to conclude that a new writer must do both, but in balance. I thought I could do both. I wanted to do both. But I’m also a realist.

I don’t know if my experience mirrors that of other writers, but each time I think I’m working on a solid revision of the novel I’m writing, something happens that causes me to reconsider. It could be a critique from a beta reader, or a sudden idea in the middle of the night about my plot, or that horrible sense I sometimes get that what I am writing is plain awful. But at this point, I am attached to this project and to my characters. I need to spend more time on this work.

At the same time, there is another imp on my shoulder crying “Platform! You must have an author platform!” There seems to be no end to those voices in the industry, or those who work in social media, insisting that the moment you start writing a book, you must begin building your platform. If you wait until you’re ready to query agents, it will be too late. Gah. And so I started this blog.

What I didn’t realize is how much time it would take me to write what I hoped were worthwhile posts and how jealous the novel-writing side of me would be of the time I spent working on my blog. I want to do both without sacrificing the quality of either.

But something’s gotta give. As Donald Maass pointed out in commenting on a post by Jane Friedman in Writer Unboxed, your writing is your platform. As he put it succinctly, “Platform’s just a lump of concrete until you’ve got a rocket to launch from it.” And so I feel a need to work on my rocket, er, my novel. It means too much to me to let it slide.

I am not abandoning this blog. It’s my baby, too. I deeply appreciate my followers and all those who take the time to like or comment on my posts. But I will post less often for awhile as I work on my “rocket.” Throughout life, we have to set priorities, decide what’s important, understand who needs us most, or what we need most to be doing. I struggle with those choices constantly. But I make them.

Encouragement, anyone?

Recent Blog Posts That Inspire The Writer In Me

We writers all have those days when we wonder if what we’re writing is any good. I once thought that such huge, dark doubts

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

only descended on newer, unpublished writers like me. But three blog posts that I read in the past week remind me that we all have doubts. Better yet, those posts have inspired me to keep going. You may want to read these posts, bookmark them, print them out, and have them on hand for days when you’ll need them.

This post struck a nerve. In it, Steven Pressfield discusses why he hates to talk about projects he’s working on and how recently, when he made an exception, the reaction of listeners was “snooze-o-rama.” I know that feeling. I have answered the question, What is your novel about?, and gotten an “oh (sorry I asked)” type of response. Well, Pressfield explains why a negative response does not make him consider giving up on the project and how he engages in self-reinforcement. I love what he says, basically that no one else has your idea and no one else can imagine how to carry it off.

Seeing a theme here? In this post, Jody Hedlund describes moments of self-doubt about her writing. She concludes that nothing pushes her to a high level of good work as much as discouragement does.

In this post, Rachelle Gardner reminds us that there are times when we need to take a break. She lives near Colorado Springs and her firefighter husband has been on the front lines of the devastating fires in that region. She discusses how humbling it is, but how necessary at times, to realize that you have limits.

My name in lights! (I mean in print)

This week, I wrote a guest post for Beyond the Margins entitled How Writing the Query Letter Helped Me Finish the Novel.

And The Rusty Nail published Rose Tattoo, a tiny excerpt from my novel in progress.

What inspires you to keep writing when the doubts settle in? Would love to hear from you!

Odds and Ends

geese crossing the street

Why I stopped my car the other day

Reading Three Books At Once

I knew this day would come. There would be so many books that I am dying to read that I would find myself reading three books at the same time. It’s not that any of the three is failing to hold my interest. It’s just that, well, I’m not really sure how it happened. So now I am partway through Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Canada by Richard Ford, and The Red House by Mark Haddon.

These three novels are very different. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is almost a moment-by-moment account of a ceremony during a Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas to honor a group of American soldiers who survived a brutal firefight with Iraqi insurgents. Canada is about a young brother and sister whose parents, uncharacteristically, committed a bank robbery and went to jail. The Red House is an unflinching look at family, a brother and sister long estranged but reunited by the death of their mother. What these novels have in common is incredibly good writing, strong character development, and — in each case — tremendous empathy by the narrator for these very different characters, all struggling to make sense of their lives.

My Week With Marilyn

It’s been a long time since I have wanted to sit all the way through the credits at the end of a movie simply because I didn’t want to get the feel of the movie out of my bones. That’s how I felt at the end of My Week With Marilyn. British actor Eddie Redmayne plays a young film assistant who has a brief relationship with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) during the filming of a movie that starred Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). There is not a lot of plot, just the making of a movie plagued by all the things we have already heard about Marilyn Monroe, that she was often difficult to work with, late to the set, and abusive of pills and alcohol. But the movie is not unkind to her. As someone says on the set, at a time when Marilyn is holding everything up, “When Marilyn gets it right, you don’t want to look at anyone else.” Michelle Williams captures Monroe’s luminescence.

In watching movies, I often look for ideas that might help me write: in the way the movie is structured, point of view, setting, dialog, and the like. As I watched this movie, I was struck by how much emotion was conveyed in the faces of the actors, Eddie Redmayne and Michelle Williams, in particular. In many scenes, wordlessly, their simple expressions conveyed sadness, love, admiration, and vulnerability. I kept wondering how I could write a scene that would come close to describing in words what they so simply and subtly expressed without them. It would be a gift to write like that.

Beware of Twitter Spam

We have all seen it: the direct message that seems entirely out of character for the person sending it to us. I’ve gotten the one that says people are saying terrible things about me. Then there is the one promising dramatic weight loss without dieting. And this week I got a new one in which the sender said he was laughing so hard at a picture of me that his friend found.

Each of these messages comes with a link that, if we click on it, will likely unleash a virus or worm or some other equally horrible computer invader so, if you get such a message — no matter how tempting — don’t click on the link! My advice is to let the sender know that he or she may have been hacked. The sooner they know, the faster they can correct it.

So how’s your summer going? Any movies, books, or odds and ends to share?

The Sandusky Trial Through a Writer’s Eyes

The trial of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, is underway. scales of justiceSandusky is charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse involving ten boys over a period of fifteen years. Sandusky has consistently maintained his innocence.

A case of this type spotlights all the issues involved in prosecuting allegations of child abuse in which the incidents are alleged to have occurred many years before the trial takes place. These issues produce conflict, the type of conflict that – if you understand the issues – can energize any trial scene that you may seek to bring to life.

Here are some examples of the conflicts posed by such a case:

Credibility of the victims. It is standard fare in any trial to challenge the credibility of the opposing side’s witnesses. In a case like this, there are some unique areas to explore: the failure of the victims to report the alleged abuse, often until years later; inconsistencies in any prior statements, such as statements made to police, to prosecutors, or to a grand jury; a witness’s financial interest in the outcome of the case. It has been reported that some of the witnesses in this case have retained civil attorneys, possibly intending to file civil suits at the conclusion of the criminal trial.

A key factor in a case like this is the difficulty witnesses may have in testifying. Trials are public and victims of sexual abuse often feel humiliation and embarrassment when revealing intimate details about what occurred. In this case, the witnesses may have denied to themselves, and possibly to others, that anything like this ever happened to them. The defense will argue that a witness’s lengthy silence bears on his credibility.

A point in the prosecution’s behalf: strength in numbers. The witnesses are relating factually similar accounts of what happened and the accumulation of such detail will be hard to overcome. On the other hand, the defense is sure to argue that the accounts are similar because, they will assert, the witnesses were coached.

Victims vs. Accusers. It is not unusual in any criminal case to hear prosecutors refer to the “victim” while the defense attorney refers to the same person as “the complainant.” Already in this case, in opening statements, the defense has admonished the jurors to view the witnesses as “accusers” rather than “victims.”

Use of victims’ photos. In murder cases, defense attorneys often try to prevent the prosecution from showing the jury a photo of the deceased on the theory that what the victim looked like is irrelevant to the defendant’s guilt or innocence and that the intent of the photo is to generate sympathy for the victim.

In this case, the victims were children at the time of the alleged offenses and are now adults. The court allowed the prosecution, in opening statements, to show the jury photos of these witnesses at the ages they were when the crimes are said to have occurred. The defense acknowledged that fighting these charges will be like climbing Mt. Everest.

Vulnerability of victims. Not only were the victims in this case young at the time of the alleged abuse, they belonged to an organization called Second Mile, a nonprofit established by Jerry Sandusky to help underprivileged youth. The prosecution will undoubtedly argue that the defendant used this organization to troll for victims. The defense will counter that the accusers loved the summer camps, the gifts they received from Sandusky, the tickets to Penn State games, and other perks, and are now seeking to reap financial benefit as a result of the charges against their former benefactor.

Lack of physical evidence. When a victim promptly reports an act of sexual abuse, the police may be able to gather all kinds of physical evidence including DNA, hair and fibers, fingerprints, shoe prints, etc. In a case like this, where the alleged acts of abuse were not reported until years later, there usually is no physical evidence, or at least no scientific evidence to support the charges. This is where witness credibility becomes the crucial factor in the outcome of the case.

Mental defense. There is evidence that the defendant wrote letters to some of the witnesses when they were children, and kept journals about them. The defense is seeking to introduce testimony of an expert to say that Sandusky suffers from histrionic personality disorder, that is, a need to be the center of attention. It is said that this particular disorder affects only 2 to 3% of the population and that it is not associated with pedophilia.

If the court decides to allow the defense expert to testify, you can expect the prosecution to produce one or more experts to debunk the theory. A trial can be enlivened or deadened by a battle of the experts.

What this means for writers. If you watch the reports of this trial closely, you will see how witnesses handle the stress of testifying in a case like this, and how they respond to rigorous cross-examination. There will be arguments among the lawyers on admissibility of certain types of evidence and, as I mentioned, there may be a battle of the experts. You may get to see the defendant testify and, if he does, the cross-examination will be extensive.

Each side in a criminal case – and this one is no exception – is crafting a narrative but with very high stakes: the witnesses are real and the defendant’s liberty is at issue. You don’t get more drama, more conflict than this.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether cases in the news ever inspire your writing.

Are Webinars For Writers Worth It?

In my earnest attempt to work at my craft, I have attended writing conferences and workshops, participated in critique groups, and read books and articles about writing. In the past year or so, I have participated in some webinars designed for writers and I have some thoughts to share about them.

laptop computer

© Fmng | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

First, though, some caveats: I have only taken part in a small number of writers’ webinars and am hardly an expert on the subject. But if you have never signed up for one, then perhaps my thoughts will help you decide whether a webinar is worth your time and/or your money.

How the webinar works

You’ve all seen the promos for webinars, I’m sure. Their subject matters range from straightforward how-tos, such as How To Set Up a Webpage or How to Self-Publish, to lectures on craft, such as How to Write a Best-Selling Novel, Putting Fire in Your Opening, etc. When you click in to a promo, you will get more information about who is conducting the webinar, what it covers, when it will be conducted, how long it will last, and what it will cost. Often, the speaker is a name you will recognize. If not, you can always google the name and decide whether to sign up.

After you register, you will receive a link to the webinar and further emails to remind you of the date and time. Most webinars are recorded and you will later be provided a link to the recording if you are not able to attend when the webinar is live. If the information about the webinar does not indicate whether you have the option to view the presentation later, there should be a contact who can answer any questions you might have.

On the date and time of the webinar, you simply clink the link in the email and you will be connected. The webinar itself generally consists of a power-point presentation, the voice of the presenter, and a small box on your computer screen in which you can write questions for the speaker to answer. In some webinars, if the speaker does not get to all the questions posed in the 60-90 minute time-frame, he or she may answer them in writing afterward and email the responses to the participants.

So that’s it: you basically sit at your computer for an hour or more and watch and listen.

Is it worth it?

From my perspective, that depends on your expectations. I have found the how-tos to be the most instructive, although the information presented is probably something you could have learned by going to another website’s FAQs and you wouldn’t be out $89 or so. Even so, you’re generally getting not just instruction but the speaker’s views based on personal experience on what works and what doesn’t. That alone has value.

Webinars on craft are probably more useful if you have not studied craft, gotten an MFA, or you don’t read about craft whenever you’re not actually writing. You may hear about protagonists and antagonists, conflict, three-act structure, and none of it may be new to you. At the same time, though, you will be getting the speaker’s unique perspective on these issues as an editor, agent, or writer – again, what works and what doesn’t. And I find that worthwhile.

Lately, I’ve been drawn to webinars that offer, in addition to the webinar itself, a written critique of your work by the speaker. For instance, an agent might critique your query letter and/or the first pages of your novel. You might get a critique of a summary of your novel. I am always eager to be critiqued by a professional so I think this may well be worth it. I have not yet received any critiques (they are generally promised within 60 days of the webinar) so I can’t yet speak to their value.

A word about cost

The webinars I have attended have ranged in price from free to $89. And you sometimes get what you pay for. I recently sat in on a free webinar that promised big results. For the first 50 minutes, the speaker bragged about his success and why he was uniquely qualified to present this information and, by the way, he wasn’t trying to sell us anything. I clicked off, as it was 50 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. The webinar was followed by successive emails that touted his “products.” I unsubscribed quickly.

On the other hand, I participated in a free webinar sponsored by the university whose law school I attended. The information was useful and the speaker impressive. She did mention that she provides a service for a fee: locating an agent for a writer and she claimed a high rate of success. When I sent her an email asking how that process worked, she candidly replied that she was very expensive and worked mostly with nonfiction writers, as fiction is much harder to place. I appreciated the honesty.

Are there advantages to attending a webinar?

There are downsides, as I’ve mentioned. You may not learn anything new. You might even get bored. You might feel that you have wasted time and/or money.

But I think there are advantages:

  • A webinar can reinforce your understanding of various aspects of the writing craft.
  • You may have the chance to ask questions of an editor, agent, or writer whose name you trust.
  • You will usually receive a link to the webinar so that you can see it at your convenience or view it again.
  • You may have the chance to get a written critique of some aspect of your work.

Have any of you attended webinars? What did you think? There are so many ways to stay in touch with craft! How do you do it?