Hypnosis

October 31st, 2014

A storyteller’s first and most important job is to convince his reader that there is a problem. Without a problem there is no story, there is no conflict to be resolved, no obstacle to be overcome, no mystery to be explained. But not everyone looks at the same situation and sees a problem. For instance, every four years we elect a President, and approximately half the country sees an immediate problem they hope will be corrected in another four years, and the other half of the country does not see a problem—at least for a day or two.

I once wrote a story about a young man whose girlfriend had moved away. When I shared this story with a writing class, half the students did not understand why her moving away was a problem worthy of the kind of existential woe the protagonist was experiencing. He was just a teenager, and she was just a girlfriend. This was the first moment that I understood that as a storyteller I had to teach these people to see the world through a lens distorted by my character’s pain.

In this way storytelling is a kind of hypnosis from which I will eventually help my readers to awaken. Ironically, in my story of the boy whose girlfriend had moved away, this awakening would return half the students to their original state—namely, a world where girlfriends moving away isn’t a problem. If I had succeeded in hypnotizing them, they would be grateful for this awakening, just as we sometimes take long and tiring journeys only to remember how much we love our homes.

But for the other half the class, the ones who needed no convincing, the awakening would be a little different. These folks had hypnotized themselves long before I shared my story. They are on the exact same journey as the author: to see the world as it was before the story began. This is a story we’d been telling long before Chapter One, and what we call fiction becomes a reminder that our reality is only a story we are telling ourselves.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Target Audience

October 30th, 2014

Here’s a book marketing story: Once upon a time there was a writer named Daniel James Brown who had written a book called The Boys in the Boat. It was his third book and his publisher was very excited about it. But how to market it? The usual bookstore appearances were scheduled, and while his launch in Seattle’s University Bookstore was fantastically attended (350+ people), his very next appearance at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC was not (6 people). Such is the hit-and-miss nature of these things.

So someone had a new idea. The book was about rowers. Well, actually, as any writer will tell you of his or her book, it was about more than that—it was about brotherhood, and teamwork, and the Nazis, and hope—but it was also about rowers. So Brown was sent to rowing houses to talk to young rowing enthusiasts. This is what is known as a “niche market.” Rowing, you see, used to be as popular as baseball. Not so much anymore.

The young rowers bought the book. They loved it. Then an interesting thing happened. Those rowers’ mothers read the book. They loved it too. So they shared it with their book groups. The book groups loved it. And since it was about young men and Nazis, these women shared it with their husbands. They also loved it. Now it became a great book to give to men as a gift, thereby solving many a Father’s Day and birthday quandary. The book, with its niche market, eventually reached #1 on the New York Times list. The end.

In marketing, we talk about our target audience. Ideally, our target audience is humanity. After all, we’re writing stories about other humans. But as Brown’s story illustrates, it is usually a good idea to begin with those humans who most resemble your story’s protagonists. It will be easiest for these people to see themselves in your story.

But if your story is about something universal, about love or forgiveness or charity or hope or courage, it may find its way to other humans who maybe do not resemble the story’s protagonist in form but are identical to them in spirit. There is no formula for achieving this kind of expanded readership other than to write the best book you could possibly write, to tell a story from that part of yourself that is deeper than your age, or your gender, or your history, or your family, or your race, that part of you most recognizable to everyone and perhaps also to yourself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Problem Free

October 28th, 2014

In preparation for his GED, my son and I have been going through a number of math problems, most of which involve rules and formulas with which he is unfamiliar or has forgotten. He is very clear how he feels about this activity. “I hate this,” he said at the end of a particularly complex problem. “I hate math. I’ll never use it.”

I understood his point of view. I doubted there would be many times in his life where he’d have to find the median and the mean of the volumes of three cylinders. But I’d also seen him find a little pleasure in solving math problems he did understand. With these problems, he could go inside himself to find the solution. With the other problems, he had to turn to me, he had to look outside of himself, and there was very little pleasure for him in that experience. That was what he really hated: not being able to go inside himself for what he needed.

It is odd to me that we call these math questions problems. A problem is something that must be corrected or fixed. A math equation does not need to be fixed; it only needs to be understood. It is already correct. The mathematician is merely learning to perceive what is missing. That is only a problem if the mathematician believes there is something wrong with him, that he is not perceiving quickly enough, or that he might never perceive, and that a better mathematician would.

Writing can be seen as a problem, too, if we let it. A blank page becomes a problem the moment I forget that I need only look within myself to answer the question, “What comes next?” The moment I forget this, writing holds no pleasure for me whatsoever. Now writing is a problem, an incomplete puzzle that must be finished so that I am allowed to enjoy life again. How I hate this puzzle that stands between happiness and me. How quickly I can find myself in prison simply because I am looking in the wrong place for the freedom I already possess.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Seeing Castles

October 27th, 2014

Writing is about creative selection. You may see the whole castle from which your imaginary king and queen rule, but you must select those few, delicious details that suggest its complete majesty or decrepitude. Your details are markers for the reader’s imagination, which, if stimulated, rushes in to decorate your world and bring it fully to life. It is easy, however, when rereading your own work to imagine the whole from which you chose your parts and believe the reader sees this whole as well. Which is why we sometimes share our works in progress with a friend or editor or fellow writer. A reader’s innocence can be invaluable to help us see where our details suggested an incomplete world.

But it is not always easy to hear what is missing from your stories. And so time is another kind of beta reader. After enough time you have forgotten the whole from which you selected your parts, and you read the story as if it were someone else’s. And it is, in a way. If enough time has passed, you have changed in ways small and large, and this new you can read the story and not be hurt by what is missing.

Life, meanwhile, remains a story we are telling ourselves and telling ourselves. If we have been alive long enough, we have been telling this story for quite a long time. It is hard to put this story down, however, but fortunately life provides fresh eyes again and again to help us see the story new. These are called children. The old – myself, unfortunately, included – always assume it is their job to teach the young. It is exactly the other way around. Children do not come in knowing the story we have been telling and telling, and they always see the holes that we have not.

Who wants to hear what your story is missing? When we are told what is missing from our story we call children ungrateful or naïve. They’ll learn the truth. What they learn is what we have learned, to summon within us the simple courage to express that portion of the truth missing from the story we tell about life. And as this picture is completed, the castle is revealed, and we see the home in which we have always lived.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Support

October 23rd, 2014

I’ve been athletic since I was a boy. I ran track in high school and college and continued to run through my adult life even when there were no more races to win. I eventually added pushups and pull-ups to my workout, as well as crunches, though my wife would periodically peer in on me and comment, “I don’t think you’re doing those crunches right.”

She was correct. This past summer, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I bought T25, a “total body workout.” Like a lot of workouts, Sean T., my indefatigable virtual trainer, focuses much of the training on my core, that band of muscles between my chest and waist. No, I do not have a “six pack,” but after four months of side planks and leg lifts and sitting Vs I feel as though I am living with a kind of permanent back brace that snaps into form the moment I bend to lift anything. It’s awesome.

It is such a new feeling that it seems sometimes as if I’ve created muscles through my core that simply didn’t exist before. It’s not true, of course. Those muscles have always been there; I’ve just never paid such close attention to them. Now that I have, they have awakened and are eager to help, and I always appreciate help.

This is true of storytelling as well. When I teach I begin by reminding my students that nothing new will be learned in our classes. Stories are the muscles and sinews and bones of our consciousness. Everyone knows stories and tells stories and lives within a story called their life. Not everyone pays attention to those stories, however. When I do not pay attention to these muscles, life appears to me not as a story but as a thing already made to be endured and accepted.

But to tell stories deliberately is to awaken to what I am, to see life as something that supports me as I direct the focus of my attention toward what interests me and excites me and moves me. Life always responds to this attention as the body responds to my desire for movement. The only thing to be endured are the stories I do not want to tell, and the only thing to be accepted is my role as sole author, editor, and publisher of my life.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Ending The Story

October 21st, 2014

Sometimes it is as hard to end a story as to begin one. And I don’t mean find the ending; I mean acknowledge that it is over. It is not just that you must surrender that story to the rest of the world, where by the magical combination of language and imagination it will belong as completely to anyone who reads it as it ever belonged to you. This is difficult enough in its own way because hopefully you loved that story. Hopefully you were delighted to find it and looked forward to joining it every day at your desk no matter how often it seemed that you and this story were incompatible.

It was love that brought you to the story and love that helped you tell it. There was nothing else to keep you there. Everything you might hope to gain from it—all the money and accolades and platform-building—all of that would come later if it came at all. Love, meanwhile, would be there for you in every moment of the telling, if you but turned your attention to it. There is no better, or really, other companion.

But the story must end. No matter how much you love it, it must end. And you end it not because there is absolutely nothing more that could be done with the story. You could always do more. All endings are in their own way artificial. Instead, you end it because it is no longer in service to you. There is nowhere else for you to go within this story. In fact, you have already begun thinking about the next story.

It is a little hard to believe as you close that book that it is over. It consumed your thoughts, both waking and sleeping, while you were in the middle of writing it. Your moods rose and fell with each day’s work. Sometimes removing or replacing a single word felt as weighty as picking a president. Now, it is a little hard to remember why it felt so important. Now, you feel something prickling in you, and it’s got your attention in such a way that you’re not sure if you’re actually forgetting that other story, or remembering the pleasure of discovery.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Rewriting

October 20th, 2014

I was a member of a writing group for a short time. Like most writing groups, we shared our stories and some wine, and went around the room critiquing those stories. We all wanted to tell the best story we could possibly tell, and we were all there to help and support one another in this otherwise lonely endeavor.

These groups have become a staple of the ever-growing writing community. Sometimes these groups are helpful to the members, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they help the writers better understand what they have created, and sometimes they become contentious ego-fests. Either way, the goal should be the same – to help the storytellers tell the best story possible. We may not agree on what a good story is or isn’t, but we all agree that we want the stories we read and write to be as interesting and funny and profound as they can possibly be.

I started Author and this column and now the Author’s Roundtable because I wanted to bring the same level of attention to the stories we tell about writing and publishing as we bring to the stories we offer to our critique groups. While writers can be meticulous in crafting the stories they send to magazines and agents and editors, they can be quite sloppy in the stories they tell about talent and intelligence and luck and rejection. These stories deserve the exact same scrutiny. These stories deserve just as much rewriting, and have just as many darlings that ought to be killed.

I would never walk into a bookstore and pull a book at random and read it cover-to-cover whether I liked it or not. To read that book is to live that book, to surrender my immeasurably powerful imagination to its reality. The stories I tell myself about writing and publishing are no different. To tell myself a story is to live it, to experience whatever limitations or cruelty or fairness or kindness it describes. My life is not some book pulled at random from the universe; it is a story I am telling myself moment by moment, a story I can write and rewrite as long as I remember that I am the one writing it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

War Stories

October 17th, 2014

In the course of our homeschooling, my son and I decided we should learn a bit about World War I. I knew very little about World War II’s less popular younger brother except that men still road horses into combat and fought in trenches and started using machine guns. I also knew about the Red Barron, gas warfare, artillery, and someplace called Verdun. I was always very unclear about why it started. I knew there was someone called Arch Duke Ferdinand, but I never believed his assassination was actually the reason the war started.

Turns out it was. Or it wasn’t, actually. My son and I concluded World War I was a very stupid war, which could be said of all wars, in a way, except this was the one where we in the West first understood this. From the sound of it (and you History Majors please stand down) the reason the war really started was a story, which went like this: Countries fight each other.

That was the story. The Arch Duke was killed and word went around that it was time to fight again. Everyone was ready to do it – the French were ready to fight, the English were ready to fight, the Germans, the Austrians, the Russians – everyone. Britain needed 100,000 more men for their rather small army. When they put out the call, one million signed up. Because countries fought each other. Everyone knew that. War was a part of being a human who lived in a country. That was the story and everyone told it and everyone knew it and so off to war we went. And then we fought this horrible, unromantic, muddy, bloody, ugly war and many of us did not like this story anymore. Not quite enough of us, but quite a few anyway, and so gradually the story began to change.

You may think the stories you write are of no real consequence. You may think you are only trying to help people escape reality for a plane ride, or pass an evening pleasantly in the company of a new literary friend, but we are all the accumulation of the stories we tell and are being told. While it is unlikely your stories will start or stop a war, they might bring peace to one person for one moment and serve as a reminder of what we actually are, and where we are actually going.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Bridge Builders

October 16th, 2014

I was at a writer’s conference this weekend when I fell into a conversation with an engineer husband of one of the attendees. While an avid reader, he was not a writer himself, though he considered himself creative. In fact, he had made a point of this when a writer-friend of his wife had expressed surprise that he had scored high the creative end of some personality test.

“Of course I’m creative!” he’d explained. “I’m an engineer. My page starts out just as blank as yours.”

He couldn’t have been more right. It is easy sometimes for the artist to overlook the creativity of the scientist or the mathematician or the engineer. As he said, their pages begin more or less as blank as the writer’s. Each problem the engineer solves has never been solved before. How is that anything but creativity?

There is an important difference between the artist and the engineer, however, a difference the artist must never forget. The engineer solves problems entirely intellectually. Emotion plays no active role in the putting together of jigsaw puzzles or building bridges or solving mathematical equations. I have sometimes sought relief from my own emotional life in the puzzles of the world, the Sudoku’s and video games and even the tax forms—anything to occupy a restless mind in search of a focus.

The creative writer, meanwhile, designs bridges from fear to love again and again and again. The intellect becomes the heart’s loyal servant, hefting the stones of logic and language and placing them in an orderly fashion. The intellect has no idea where the bridge began or where it will end. In fact, the intellect doesn’t even know why the bridge exists. Nothing you can hold in your hand or eat or measure is gained from it, yet look at everyone on earth crossing that expanse, look at every soul rushing through the gate only the heart can open.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unknown

October 14th, 2014

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter