Time For Us All

A friend wrote me yesterday to tell me that after many years he had at last picked up the first chapter of a novel I had sent him and wanted to know when I would send him the rest. This had been an unusual novel for me in that it was very autobiographical, which had made it very difficult to write and, in the end, impossible to publish.  I loved the story, but was simply too devoted to it in way that is not healthy if you are trying to share something with the rest of the world.

But my friend mentioning it sent me back to have another look at the manuscript. Writers often set a manuscript aside for a few weeks or a few months between drafts so that they might have a fresher perspective during the rewriting. If only we could set manuscripts aside for a few years. Rereading my old novel, I remembered why I had felt so protective of it, but it seemed so silly now. It was just a story.

Time is such a fantastic teacher in this way. It levels all experience like sand. I used to fear Time for this reason. Its indifferent march forward seemed to render all my ambitions meaningless. Time would always win in the end. But Time’s indifferent march forward is in fact its greatest gift to us all.

Life is never about what has happened but what is happening, a fact about which Time reminds us with every single passing moment. Some of our greatest misery comes from believing something that once happened has power over us still. Indeed it cannot unless we allow it to. It’s like standing with our hands in the air because someone on another continent claims to have a pistol pointed our way.

So perhaps I will revisit this old book. It was a story about an event I was certain at the time of the writing had defined me. I still like the story, but I decline the idea that I could ever be defined by anything that has happened. For this to be possible I would have to be frozen in time, and Time will never permit that.

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The Right Time

Eric Barnes felt the most challenging aspect of writing and publishing was how long everything took. Agents and editors take a long time to read manuscripts, books take a long time to be published. If you’re impatient, he felt, writing might not be for you.

As a young man, I thought patience was overrated. It felt like an excuse to do less than you could. I had a lot do in my life, and the sooner I could get it done, the better. The wheel of life, it seemed to me, could turn a little a quicker if only people would find the urgency in their step.

But this is no way to make friends, and no way to write books. You can write a book in three months or in three years, but either way, writing and publishing a book requires patience. And ironically, impatience cuts you off from the very energy source required to propel events most rapidly.

Patience assumes that what you need most will come to you in time. Not in a long time, and not in a short time, but merely in time. The right story will come to you, the right word, the right agent, the right publisher. Impatience assumes that nothing worthwhile will come to you unless you demand it does, that there are limited resources, and that life’s spoils go only to the luckiest or the quickest amongst us.

And yet, if you are racing impatiently ahead of where you are to something that could be or ought to be, you are in fact ignoring all the opportunities—all the words, stories, agents, lovers, homes, dinners—that are the only actual source for what you need. Everything you need is always right here; it is the only place anything can be. Patience is not about waiting, but about seeing fully what is before you.

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Toward Life

I was a watching a thriller the other night in which our hero and his family were being threatened by a group of irredeemably evil bank robbers. Things were looking more and more desperate for the good guys until a climatic final scene during which, not surprisingly, the hero killed the lead villain in hand-to-hand combat. What was surprising, to me at least, was that the credits began rolling not one minute after that killing blow was struck.

This immediately brought to mind the challenges that writers of different genres face. In the case of the suspense story, the writer begins, usually, with the compelling question: Will our hero survive? This question will keep many readers turning pages and many viewers in their seats. The challenge then for the suspense writer is to not allow whether the hero lives or dies to become the only question his or her story answers.

Even the most cynical Hollywood producer, if pressed, would probably concede that he does not rise from his silk sheets every morning merely to not die. Life’s meaning does not derive from avoiding death. This is not to say that stories should not be written in which the protagonist’s life is threatened – but the question I would suggest suspense writers ask themselves is from where does the value of that life that is being threatened come?

The answer is almost always learning. In the case of the movie I watched, nothing had really changed for the protagonist—he was alive at the beginning of the movie and he was alive at the end. A sigh of relief and we’re done. It is always more compelling if the hero must learn something in order to survive, then this survival becomes symbolic of his or her release of a long held fear.

Most of us will never have our lives threatened by murderers, but all of us will live with fear that we may or may not overcome. If you want to connect with your readers on the deepest level possible, remember that the visceral need to simply survive is movement away from death, while the desire to live without fear is what inspires us toward life.

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The Real Tragedy

I am a father of two, and though I know better, I still fall for the typical parent trap of wishing my children will lead very boring lives. If they suffer no heartbreak or failure my wife and I will have succeeded in our parental duties. I would not, for instance, wish upon my children or friends any of the miseries I visit on the characters in my stories.

It’s a strange thing to wish.  When I was schoolboy, my friends and I had an unspoken competition to see who could tell the best story.  Any misfortune I endured was quickly spun into a tale, and the greater the misfortune, the greater the tale. My favorite involved my first girlfriend leaving me for a middle-aged man. It was disorienting and keenly tragic at the moment, but oh what a story.

We all know that stories begin when the conflict starts, and end when the conflict resolves. Every day when we sit down to write stories we are sitting down to heartbreak, misfortune, misunderstanding, loss, disease, and death. Misery is the heartbeat of fiction. Yet most of us, writers fully included, dream of a life free of it, believing even that our own tides of unhappiness are somehow an indication of our failings as a human being.

Like most writers, I have wanted to tell stories since I was a boy of nine; I was an excitable boy who wanted to tell exciting stories.  But it was not until middle age that my stories became truly exciting, as that was the point at which I accepted that the suffering necessary for good fiction was just as necessary for life—even mine, even my children’s.

Everything in life teaches us, and in my own life I have suffered most when I have resisted what events were trying to teach me. We call certain events tragic, yet what makes a tragic story tragic is not the death—because everyone must die—but that the hero did not learn what the story was trying to teach him until his death.

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Promote Trust

More often than not writers—particularly writers at the beginning of their career—are largely responsible for their own promotion. Because Author is in part another platform for the great book promotion engine, I have spent a lot of time lately looking at how authors, both emerging and established, deal with this part of the business of being a writer, and have arrived at the conclusion that the rules for good relationships apply to good promotion—namely, be generous.

The number one platform for writers is the writer website. Here readers are likely to learn a bit about the author’s biography, where they will be appearing, perhaps watch or listen to a short interview, and, of course, be given an opportunity to purchase the author’s books. Nothing wrong with any of this, but in the end there is nothing on these sites for the visitor other than to learn about the writer. The best author websites are those that give something for free, with nothing expected in return. Most likely this comes in the form of advice about writing or the subject about which the author is most knowledgeable. By offering something for free, you let your prospective readers know you are as interested in their well being as you are in your own, and trust that all you give will come back to you in time.

Another common vehicle, especially lately, is the promotional video. These are short ads for the new book, often filmed similarly to movie promos. Many of these videos have very high production values, with original scores and tightly edited sequences. Still, in the end a commercial is a commercial. How do you give something to the audience when the point of your video is to induce them to buy your book?

This is the question my wife and I asked ourselves when we produced such a video for her first children’s book, Violet Bing and the Grand House. Our answer was to create a piece that would be interesting whether anyone had read the book or would ever read the book. In short, make it entertaining in and of itself.

Obviously, we wanted people to buy the book, but when making the video we tried to forget the fact that it was an ad and treat it as a short film, thus giving something to the viewer. Whether you’re writing a book or promoting it, you’ve got to trust. You’ve got to trust that what you have to say is worth reading to someone beside yourself, and you’ve got to trust that by showing the world you are first willing to give, you will in the end receive.

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Say Yes

Jean Reynolds Page had a somewhat unusual career before becoming a fulltime novelist: she was a dance critic. It did not matter that she was critiquing dance and not fiction, her role remained the same -she had to publicly express an opinion about someone else’s work. Although she felt an obligation to her readers to be as honest as possible, she admitted to being a gentler critic than she might otherwise have been had she not been pursuing her own art as well at this time. Who can blame her? Every artist spends much of his or her career contending with The Critic.

The Critic, in psychological terms, is an archetype, which means we’ve all got one. The Critic can only ever say one of two things: I like this, or I don’t like this. It has been my observation that many critics are looser and even more gleeful when critiquing what they don’t like. That is because it is impossible to be wrong when you say you don’t like something.

Every word, every note, every brush stroke is a choice. And every time an artist makes one choice, he has chosen not to make a thousand other ones. When a critic finds an artist’s work unsatisfying, the criticism often boils down to: wouldn’t it have been better if the artist had done this? Possibly, but we will never know, because the artist didn’t. Much riskier for the critic is to praise a work, for now they are like artists themselves, having fixed their desire upon an actual choice as opposed to a theoretical one.

When listening to your own inner critic, heed what he or she dislikes – The Critic is helping you winnow down the myriad of choices you might make at any artistic turn. But understand that it takes infinitely more courage to say yes than it does to say no. Your job as an artist, as a writer, is to yes over and over and over again. Seek what you love without judgment. A critic may wish you had chosen differently, but in the end the world is made of Yeses, while Nos are consigned to the dust of what might have been.

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A Better Story

I made a little mistake recently. I was waiting to find out whether or not something I thought would be helpful to me was going to happen, and without intending to, while I waited I began slowly believing that if this thing happened my life would be substantially better. This has always been a very seductive idea to me – the arrival of The Great Event. It’s exciting, and imbues life with a heightened sense of meaning.

Of course, this thing did not happen. I was disappointed at first, but I quickly saw that I needed to make a decision. My disappointment, I decided, was not because something did not happen, but because of how I had portrayed this event in my imagination. I had allowed some idea of happiness to become fixed upon a single point, in this case an event.

As writers, we are always waiting for news about this or that event: the event of the agent, the publisher, the advance, the review, the movie deal. If we allow ourselves to becomes fixated upon any one of these, our life and all its meaning is squeezed into some spot on the horizon, as if we were all marooned on an island, scanning the empty sea for the first sight of a ship.

On the day I learned that this thing would not happen, many other things happened to me, all of which contained potential for still more things to happen. In the end I decided I was lucky that things turned out the way they did. Had I gotten what I thought I wanted, I might have traced any future happiness back to this one event. Nothing in the world is worth that narrow view of life to me. I would never write a story about a character whose happiness depends upon one love, or one job, or one decision—why then would I want this story told about me?

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Tortured Writer

The Tortured Writer is an archetype for a good reason. I have in my imagination a snap shot of a man (I suppose because I am man) looking up from his typewriter with an expression that says, “Why have you made me do this?” As if the world is demanding his art from him and he must wring it from his soul until he bleeds.

There is a romance to it all, of course, as perhaps writing is only this torturous because it is this important. Who doesn’t want to do something important? But you won’t get very far thinking your struggle is somehow more valuable to the world than your neighbor’s. Still, there is a reason we have come to view the writer’s struggle as unique, and it is worth considering as you do your work.

Unlike being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, or a chef, writing is an entirely inside-out job. There is no external crucible through which you can pass to arrive, officially, at Writer. Even MFA programs merely serve as a (hopefully) supportive environment for prospective writers to begin this solitary journey.

It is a journey that everyone must take eventually, but writers, and artists in general, often end up taking it earlier and unexpectedly. What began as something that was always enjoyable and for which the writer probably received praise as a young man or woman quickly turns into a journey toward the self. It doesn’t matter what you write, that is where you are headed. Because it will soon become apparent to the writer that in fact, despite all the classes and books and writing magazines in the world, in the end, no one can tell you what word to put on the page next except yourself.

Within all of us, I believe, is a tortured writer, that part of our selves that is periodically stunned at the degree to which we must go it alone. But the pleasure in writing is going it alone, that delicious discovery unique to you. We arrived at writing because we sought our most pleasurable means of this inevitable discovery. So if that tortured writer turns to you some days and asks, “Why have you made me do this?” take his or her hand and say, “Because you asked me to.”

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Another Boat

I notice the Daily Minutes this week dealt in one way or another with money. I have a number of artist friends for whom money is a constant worry, a perceived barrier, in fact, between themselves and a worry-free life.

Artists, of course, are not alone. I read once that money is often the number one cause of conflict in a marriage. And yet, when couples argue about money, just as when artists worry about money, it is not money we are arguing or worrying about, it is security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security is only one step less important than sleep, food, sex, and other bodily functions.

I am not going to pretend that it’s any fun to be wondering how you’re going to make rent this month, but I do know this: if you do not believe you can make money as a writer, you will probably not make money as a writer. Steven King sold stories to his classmates when he was in school. Yes, Steven King is a good writer and I’m sure he would have sold books eventually and so on, but at a very early age he established in his mind that people would pay money for what he wrote.

If it is your sincere desire to make money from what you have written, disavow yourself of the notion that it is difficult to make money from what you have written. It will not help. Plenty of people make money off their writing; that someone could be you.

This may seem like so much affirmative, pop-psyche pabulum to some, but there are extremely practical ramifications to shifting how you think about something like money. Opportunities present themselves to you constantly. You are standing at this moment in a never-ending stream of possibilities. One boat sails by, another is soon to follow. You cannot miss the boat, because there is not one boat, there are endless boats. However, do you recognize a boat when you see one?

If you do not believe you can make money from writing, then when an opportunity to do so presents itself, it is entirely possible you will ignore it. And then ignore the next opportunity, and the next, and the next, and then turn to your friend over coffee and say, “You see? It’s impossible to make any money at this!” You do indeed get what you ask for. Make sure you ask for what you actually want.

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Reaping and Sewing

Jean Reynolds Page said the greatest pleasure in writing is not the publishing but the process, that in the end getting her three good pages in a day is more satisfying than seeing her book on a shelf. I understand that for writers still waiting to see that first book in print this may seem like so much publishing political correctness, but I think it is perhaps the most important concept to hold in mind, no matter where you are in your writing career.

T. S. Eliot said, “Think not of the reaping but of the sewing.” This is what Jean Page was referring to, and what nearly every author I have spoken to reiterates in one way or another. It is about the process. First of all, the process is all you have control over. Agents, editors, readers, and critics will say and think what they will say and think, and you will suffer more sleepless nights dreaming impossible ways to control what other people think of what you have done.

But more than this, if you do not love the process for itself, in all likelihood, writing is probably not for you. It reminds me of something I heard the NFL coach Bill Belichick say about what he was looking for when drafting new team members. “I want football players,” he would say. Meaning, he wanted grown men who loved to play football. Seems obvious enough, but there is a difference between wanting to be an NFL quarter back, say, and loving playing quarterback.

I had a friend once who after seeing snapshots of coalminers standing outside their mines arm-in-arm, smiling sooty-faced at the camera, declared, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a coalminer?” “Sure,” I said. “Except for the part where you go into the coal mine every day.” Likewise, it might seem cool to be a writer. We’ve all written something, in our lives, wouldn’t it be cool to have other people read that and love it?

Indeed it might, but that is only a fraction of being a writer. Mostly what you do when you are a writer is write, everyday, by yourself, without applause, precisely as you are probably doing now. So rejoice. You already know what it is to be a writer. And if it’s enough, you needn’t worry about it anymore.

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