A Useful Rewrite

I rarely write about the novel I published some six or seven years ago. In fact, until very recently, I would have preferred if it had never been published. This was the third novel I had written, and I got an agent for it very quickly. In fact, this agent called me a week after I put it in the mail, called and told me that she had read it on only three hours sleep and despite being exhausted could not put it down.

I was thrilled. She was a good agent with contacts at all the major publishing houses. She represented a number of bestsellers. And almost as soon as I hung up the phone with her, I decided that she didn’t count. I would only know if the book was really any good, and therefore if I was any good, when a publisher said, “Yes.” Unfortunately, even as she was sending emails explaining to whom she would be submitting, I could not imagine the book selling. It felt no more real than me winning the lottery.

And so it didn’t sell. Editor after editor said, “Good, but not for us.” This made perfect sense to me. This is what I felt I deserved. Finally, she was out of editors to send to and I found a tiny, tiny publisher whom I convinced to publish it. It was a terrible experience. They were a year late publishing, the final product was filled with typos, I had to beg for my two author copies, and I was only paid half of the pittance I was owed. And yet this matched exactly how I felt about the book. I didn’t believe it was really any good, and so the book received the treatment I felt it deserved.

However, at this time, if I read anything at all I read only The Greats. I did not read my peers, the other men and women doing their best to write and publish books that were not perfect or canonized but were worthy of being read. Recently my wife pulled that book of mine from our bookshelf and said, “Hey. Look at this.”

So I did. I had not read a word of it since it had been published. But on this day I sat down with this old thing and read a chapter or two and discovered that I had been wrong: if that book had come across my desk now I would have wanted to interview its writer. I returned the book to its spot on the shelf feeling relieved. How nice to rewrite an ugly chapter of my publishing history. And how reassuring to see once again that the world gives you exactly what you ask for.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Frightened Monsters

Anat Baniel said something quite brilliant during our interview. She pointed out that the condition we call autism is not behavioral, it is perceptual. That is, although the children on the autism spectrum behave strangely, often dysfunctionally, these behaviors are a result of their perception of the world. Or, as Anat put it, you can’t do what you don’t know. Therefore, if you are working with a child on the spectrum, one’s goal should be to expand that child’s perception, not train their behavior.

But really this truth extends far beyond children on the spectrum. Everyone behaves according to what they perceive to be the truth. If you perceive a dragon coming down the street, you’re probably going to run from it, whether that dragon actually exists or not. Indeed, you would be foolish not to.

Unless, of course, you question its existence. This is simpler with a dragon on Main Street, where our Logical Brain could, with sound paternal reasoning, remind us of the difference between storybooks and Reality. But dragons take many shapes, and sometimes that Logical Brain itself builds such monsters out of what it calls Evidence – the piles of rejection letters, the closing of bookstores, the rise of e-books. Now reality becomes the monster, and since reality is everywhere, so are our monsters.

I have learned that my Logical Brain is incapable of expanding my perception in any meaningful way. All expanded perception is a reaching for love, and all contracted perception is a retreat into fear. The Logical Brain does not perceive love; it merely serves its desires. Moreover, fear is actually a kind of yearning for love, and to answer that yearning, I must silence my thinking mind for a moment so that I might perceive what I have forgotten.

This is not always so simple. I lean on my thinking mind often, rooted as it is in the physical world, in all that has happened and all that I can touch and see. What I yearn to perceive exists beyond the veil I have cast over my world. My mind believes that veil marks safety’s edge, and to step through it is to step into the abyss. But step through it I must. How restless I become in this narrow, frightened world I’ve made. How small and ugly it seems without the light I crave to illuminate it.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Service

My brother works in Hollywood, which in certain ways isn’t all that different from publishing, but in one way is significantly different than publishing – money. I’m not saying you can’t get rich writing books – indeed I’ve met many writers who have – but success in television and film almost always translates to a level of financial wealth not known by every successful novelist.

Money is great, but its potential can sometimes distract you from the job at hand, which regardless of your medium is always telling the story you most want to tell. The other night my brother was playing poker with a new group of pals. It wasn’t going well. The stakes weren’t high, but he was in the hole and playing poorly. After another bad hand, he realized he wasn’t even enjoying himself. Why bother if there’s no pleasure?

He got up from the table for a short break. As he stood outside he realized he was only playing for himself. He was only playing so he could walk away with twenty extra dollars, so that he could win not just cash but these men’s approval. It meant nothing. So he told himself a story. He decided he was no longer playing for himself but for his new girlfriend’s children’s college fund. He sat back at the table and was immediately dealt a near-perfect hand. Before long he was back in the black.

He did not know it at the time, but he had discovered a fundamental truth of all artistic endeavors: that every work of art, that every story ever told, should be in service to something greater than the Small You, the you who needs a roof over your head and the approval of others. And by service I do not mean the sort of altruism my brother concocted that night, though that is fine; rather the understanding that you write to share whatever you believe is of value.

Once upon a time you were not a working writer. Once upon a time you merely loved to read. One day you read a book, and you were transported. What a gift! Why, it was as if the writer had told this story just for you. Remember how glad you were on that day that such a book existed? You are writing now, in part, to offer such a moment to another reader like yourself, another reader you will probably never meet. This is service. Do not doubt for a moment that the world is a slightly richer place when you offer it the gem of a story you discovered in yourself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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A Good Plan

I spent last week in the Bay Area so that my son could have the opportunity to work with Anat Baniel. Anat is the creator of the Anat Baniel Method, which is used across the United States to help children who have brain damage, cerebral palsy, or register on the autism spectrum, as well as adults with various physical challenges.

Watching Anat work is immensely instructive and strangely entertaining. Her expertise and comfort with her method is akin to that of a concert pianist’s relationship to the keyboard. While working she is love and intelligence in motion, something I can never see often enough, whether in a concert hall of a therapy room.

Her work has helped thousands of people, including my son now. These results are due in large part to the brilliant simplicity of her method, which works with the brain’s ability to adapt and change. She does a better job of explaining this method in our interview than I could on this page, and I encourage you to watch that video if you are curious.

However, as brilliant as her method is, I felt that her first and greatest gift – beyond her intelligence, beyond her intuition, beyond even her experience – was her optimism. No, not optimism: faith. She has faith in fundamental human potential. This is extremely important when working with children who cannot walk or talk or look you in the eye. This is also extremely important when starting a book or querying and agent. Belief in potential is where all projects must begin.

At the end of our first session, Anat sat my wife and me down and discussed her plan for Sawyer. “I don’t make guarantees,” she explained. “I never know what exactly will happen with any child. But he will change,” she said. “He will change. That is our plan. That is God’s plan.”

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Interesting

I spent last weekend at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Summer Conference, where, as is often the case when you gather a pack of writers in one space these days, the subject of marketing and self-promotion came up regularly. Though I do not consider myself an expert on these matters, Author is, technically, a part of the great publishing marketing engine, and as such I have gleaned a few useful tidbits.

If you have watched even a handful our interviews you may have noticed that we rarely focus on the author’s current work, particularly when the author has written a work of fiction. There are two reasons for this. First, I quickly discovered that listening to fiction writers describe their story – no matter how brilliant, how compelling, how revolutionary that story may be – is boring. This is not the fault of the writer or their novel, but of the fault of the medium. Novels are meant to be read, not summarized.

Instead, I talk about what is interesting – namely, the author. In my interviews I hope to create a platform from which the author can express what interests them most, frightens them most, turns them on, and turns them off. I hope to create a platform where a writer can talk about what they have learned and what they would like to learn still. In short, I try to create a platform where the author can talk about what it is to be human.

This will always be interesting to other humans. And in my experience when one human finds another human interesting they are sometimes compelled to buy a book that the other human has written. Maybe it will be as interesting as the person. And so, particularly if you are a fiction writer, your first and best marketing tool is a good book. Nothing can replace that. But your second best marketing tool is not your Facebook page or your twitter account, but you.

So go out in the world and find some means to share what interests you most. Share it in a blog, in lectures, in seminars, in tweets and posts and videos—share it, share it, share it. Your interests are interesting and so are you.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Realists

When I was younger and of the opinion that love was something one could find in the same manner in which a food enthusiast discovers new delights at exotic banquets, I dated an artist named Fishy. This was not her real name, but one she had adopted herself. This was a clue I ignored because I was in the habit of ignoring clues back then as they consistently interfered with my sampling of the female buffet.

Fishy was like a reverse superhero. By day she was an artist and an intellectual, who wore John Lennon glasses, spoke with a dry affect, and divided the world into those things worthy of her approval and those things that were not. By night she became just Lilly, a very wounded young woman, who was so fragile I thought she would crack in my arms. I had dated her because I was drawn to Fishy’s intellectual strength, only to discover I was actually dating Lilly’s frailty.

Before it ended, she asked me if I was an optimist or a pessimist. I told her I was an optimist, an identity a young intellectual like Fishy was not allowed to embrace, but which Lilly secretly yearned for. In retrospect, however, I was neither. I am actually a realist. I believe in reality, which in its fullness is better than the optimist’s best-case scenario. Reality, which is the whole of life, is beyond judgment, beyond suffering, beyond tragedy.

But it is also beyond my ability to perceive. Had I been able to, I would have seen past Fishy to Lilly, and would have seen past Lilly to that part of her that was incapable of being wounded. I came to understand that Lilly perceived me as someone immune to hurt. I wasn’t, of course; the little me stumbling around the world could feel just as wounded as Fishy. But Lilly must have sensed in me that which runs through all of us, that which perceives the pain but does not live it. She wanted to draw it from me for herself, but I could not give her what she already had.

Which is why I encourage writers to go toward their pain in their work, but not to write about their pain. Rather, learn in your work to see through your pain, to see beyond the veil of suffering, for it is in that space you will meet yourself, the reality you have always been seeking.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The Original Silence

I read an interview with the actor Anthony Hopkins this weekend in which he described teaching a class to UCLA acting students. Hopkins advised the actors and actresses to do as little as possible. He believed an actor needed to let the emotion happen as opposed to forcing it to happen by tearing up all the furniture. Try to be still, he said, and trust that the feelings are there.

How quickly advice within the arts dovetails together. I more and more feel that writing is the art of what is not said. The most delicious silence in the world is one filled with your audience’s own feelings. But how, one might ask, does a writer know when enough is enough? It’s fine not to overwrite, but who wants a dry, emotionally inscrutable story filled with chopped phrases and bare stage directions? Where is the line and how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

It is precisely because there is no line that writing is so valuable to the writer. Were I or any other writer able to define the exact perimeter of Enough, there would be no point to writing at all. That you must discover on your own where that line is drawn is the deeper reason you were led to write. Through writing you can learn the endlessly practical discipline of trust. You learn to trust because you are forever the judge and jury of all decisions in your life, and writing draws this fact into stark relief. You must trust yourself finally, or nothing will ever get written.

Strange with something so fundamental to our own well being that trust has sometimes received such a harsh review. Do not mistake trust for naiveté. One assumes an outcome before it arrives, the other assumes safety regardless of outcomes. Within that stillness Hopkins describes lays an abiding trust that all you need is present in this very moment if you listen carefully for it. And when a writer pulls back her pen she and says, “Enough,” she has granted her reader a chance to listen also, having found a silence original to her, but available to all.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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All That’s Left

I was at a writer’s conference once when I overheard a woman mutter, “If I hear one more presenter say to write your book from your heart I’ll just puke.”

I could sympathize. This particular piece of advice has been so often repeated its meaning has been worn as smooth as any cliché. Plus there is something naïve and toothless about it. Publishing is a business, after all, a business all we writers want to succeed at. Is this the advice you would give to an aspiring CEO or ambitious middle manager?

The trouble is there is no avoiding the fact that to participate in this business writers must write books. And if writers must write books, from where besides the heart would these books come?

Could you write a book from your head? The brain is a deep warehouse of ideas and memories. The brain can memorize and follow rules and formulas. The brain can tell an apple from an orange. Unfortunately, the brain cannot tell us whether we should eat an apple or an orange. So many words and ideas are apples and oranges, and so much of writing is deciding between the two. To write a novel from your head is to be paralyzed with indecision.

So perhaps we should write from our loins. Is this not, quite literally, our creative center? Have not the loins spoken to us, loudly, of preference? What book would not benefit from that carnal drive, that itch, that delicious yielding to temptation? Sex sells, and this is a business, and we want to sell. All well and good, but for all the energy the loins provide, they can still betray us, not because the loins are wicked, but because they are disconnected from life before and after The Event. The regret of a loveless, post-coital bed bears the same emptiness as a book written only from this place.

And so we are left with the heart. The heart alone knows what you prefer, from lovers to fruit, and the heart alone seems to bear no grudge if you ignore it. Strange that such a mighty and all-knowing instrument should be so forgiving. The pain we inevitably suffer from ignoring our heart, from writing from our head or our loins, is not the floods and pestilence of an angry god, but the cramps and contortions of a soul twisting itself into something it isn’t.

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The Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

He must have glimpsed in entertaining me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Human Reality

I’ll be going on vacation next week, and when I return I’ll be spending a day or so at the PNWA’s Summer Conference, including teaching an “Author’s Master Class” Saturday morning (July 21). I’ve always enjoyed the conference, which I’ve been attending since long before I started Author. I was only in my twenties when I attended my first conference to pitch the first novel I’d finished. I had exactly one appointment with one agent.

I had no idea what to expect. When I imagined this conversation, the agent was cruel and dismissive. She wanted to know why I was wasting her time. Didn’t I know who she was? This seemed very uncalled for, and so I delivered an imaginary speech to this imaginary agent about the real money I’d spent on the conference, and about the real value of every writer’s voice. When my speech was done, I thought, “That was unpleasant. I wonder how it will really go?”

How it went was she was very nice and interested in my book. I left the meeting reminded again of the difference between fantasy and reality. When we think of fantasy, we are usually referring to an ideal vision of the world, one arranged neatly for our success or pleasure. But fantasies take all shapes, including evil literary agents. We call these nightmares, but they are fantasies just the same.

Which is why I like writers conferences so much. Every year they ground me again in the human reality of writing and publishing. What a continuous mess my fantasies make of the world. What monsters those agents and editors become; what clownish parodies those other writers. And then I attend a conference and breath the reassuring air of human reality. No monsters or clowns here, only people.

Good to remember before I head back to my desk. My job now keeps me in more constant contact with those people called writers and agents and editors, but I can always use another dose of human reality. Good to see again the fullness of life in a stranger’s face across the conference hall. Good to remember and then feel it again in myself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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