Want to be a Writer? Don’t Have a Backup.

Tell your parents you dream of being a successful writer (or actor, artist, filmmaker, etc.) and, after they hopefully give some encouraging words, you’re bound to hear, “That’s great, but you should have a backup.”

We all know what that means. Few people make a living pursuing a creative career, they’re thinking, so you better have an alternative career path lined up when you inevitably fail.

But I’m here to tell you that you can’t fail at any artistic pursuit. Your first or tenth novel might never see the light of day, but if you keep honing your craft and putting words to the page, you’re allowed to put “writer” on your business cards. That means you don’t need a backup!

Now, I want to be clear, that doesn’t mean you don’t need another job. A backup is something you do after you fail at your first pursuit. A job is something that brings in money and other positive benefits while you’re a writer. (If it doesn’t, you should get a different job!) There’s nothing wrong with that. Many successful writers have held down other jobs. Kurt Vonnegut still worked as a car dealer after publishing his first novel. Philip Glass was a plumber while he composed music. Many successful writers continue to teach. A second job can provide community, inspiration, and interesting characters. It can keep you sane and get you out in the world instead of insolated in your home with your cat and laptop your only friends. Spending 40 hours a week writing is likely to make you crazy. You don’t want to end up like Jack Torrance, do you?

So, when you’re working on a report for your boss, serving up coffee at Starbucks, or suiting up as a professional wrestler instead of working on your next book, embrace your situation. Your job isn’t a backup, it’s a lifestyle choice.

Happy Writing,

Kelee

 

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The Five Stages of Critique Grief

What does a writer want in a critique? Be honest now. I know deep in my soul that what I really want is to be told I’m an incredibly talented writer and that, other than a couple of minor revisions, my manuscript is perfect just the way it is.

I know I’m not alone in this because I often see that unacknowledged desire in other writers. I don’t know how many times I’ve read an independently published novel that begins with heartfelt thanks to a legion of beta readers, only to struggle through a book that’s poorly written with too many spelling and grammar errors to count.

The first step in accepting a pull-no-punches critique is to acknowledge that we need to go through the five stages of grief after our child is pummeled and left bleeding on the ground.

Denial

That reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

He doesn’t understand the genre.

It’s good enough. I can’t rewrite it anymore.

My boyfriend liked it.

Anger

The reader is an idiot.

She’s probably jealous she can’t write as well as me.

Julia Quinn said I showed a lot of talent.

I won a literary award in middle school.

Bargaining

I’ll show it to my mother. She likes romance.

Maybe if I just change this one scene it will fix everything.

I should take that other novel out of the drawer and worked on it for a while.

Lord, make me a best selling author and I’ll give half my income to the poor.

Depression

Why did I ever think I could be a writer?

I should go back to accounting.

I wonder what’s on Facebook.

I need a drink.

Acceptance

Maybe she has some good points. Time to get back to work.

Happy writing!

Kelee

A New Year’s Resolution for Writers: Chuck Your Computer

Thanksgiving was a delicious, inspiring holiday this year. My family attended a potluck heavily populated with writers and artists. Even more memorable than the vegan stuffing were the evening’s conversation.

At one point, we were discussing our writing regimens. A fellow author at the dinner table just received a rave review of his latest book in the New York Times. (I’ll let him remain anonymous because I haven’t asked permission to share his writing discipline.)

He lives with his husband in a large, rambling old farmhouse in upstate New York. They have three empty bedrooms, any one of which could be turned into an office. Instead, he decided to build his own, Henry David Thoreau-like cottage at the back of their property. It’s far enough away from the house that he can’t pick up the wifi. Not that he could use it. He doesn’t bring his laptop or phone to his writing sanctuary. Instead, he uses composition books and a favorite pen to write the first draft of his books.

According to my dinner companion, he found his writing became more emotional and unfettered when he worked this way. Plus, writing by hand made it difficult to edit what was already on the page, so he just kept moving forward forward. The technique was liberating for him, and he never looked back.

He still uses a computer, but not until the second draft. The process of typing his hand-written draft into his laptop forces him to consider every page, every paragraph, every word. It’s obligatory deep editing.

My New Year’s resolution is to use this technique to write my next novel. I don’t have a shack in the woods, so I hope I’m disciplined enough to stay away from my phone and other distractions while I write. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Kelee

The Importance of Raising the Stakes in Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of independently published romance lately. I’ve noticed a common problem – not much happens in too many of these novels. That’s not to say nothing happens. Girl meets hot guy, they get together, something keeps them apart, but they end up living happily ever after. The problem is, there’s seldom much at stake for the hero or heroine. If she doesn’t land the guy she may cry a little, but she’ll be fine. Instead of these books keeping me on the edge of my seat, they make me nod off.

Stakes are all about your main character having a goal, and what she has to lose if she doesn’t achieve it. In romance, that goal always includes a guy. (Or sometimes another girl.) If the main character doesn’t have a goal, whether it’s getting laid, getting married, or saving the family farm, the reader has little reason to stick around and see what happens. And if there’s nothing standing in the heroes way, then scenes become about as exciting as figuring out what to make for dinner.

Stakes are relative. Your heroine doesn’t have to save the world from an incoming asteroid to make for dramatic reading. Marty, the classic 1955 film (based on the 1953 teleplay) is a perfect example of this. Marty meets Clara one night at a dance. He likes her. She gives him her number. But when his mother and friends object to her, he decides not to call her.

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Imagine if Marty was your typical romance hero. He’s good looking, with smoldering eyes, a confident swagger, and an interesting job. If he doesn’t call Clara, it’s no big deal. We know it won’t take long for him to find another girl.

But Marty is the complete opposite. He’s a butcher, not very attractive, and at 34, likely to be a bachelor for the rest of his life. The stakes for Marty are very high. We want to jump out of our seats and thrust the phone in his hand. We want to tell him he’s found a kind, sweet, wonderful girl, and he better not louse things up. It’s a simple story, but it’s great drama. That’s why it won four Academy Awards.

Try this. When you’re rewriting your novel, look at what your hero has at stake. Then sit down and write 25 alternative possibilities for what she might risk if she doesn’t achieve her goal. You might find a gem in there that will elevate your novel from so-so to something readers can’t put down. Don’t be afraid to go all-in. You won’t regret it.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Using Character Growth to Add Depth to Your Novel

Character growth is one of the most powerful tools you can use to hook your readers, deepen your characters, and add drama to your narrative. Almost everybody wants to change something about his/her character, whether it’s to be more generous, or mindful, or to stop gambling compulsively. But it’s a very difficult thing to do given the relative immutability of our personalities. Seeing a fictional character change makes us feel hopeful about our own lives, and gives us a character we can root for, even if it’s someone we wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life.

Not long ago I saw the movie Dallas Buyers Club. It tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo cowboy and small-time drug dealer who contracts HIV. Ron has a certain charm, but overall he’s a dislikable character, until he goes through a great deal of growth following his diagnosis. The way the movie portrays that change offers a wonderful example of how to approach character growth in your own story. Here are some of the key lessons.

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Give your character a long road to travel. At the beginning of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron is as macho and homophobic as they come. He rides bulls, he and his buddies make gay slurs, and he sees women as only good for sex. After his diagnosis, he’s forced to interact with gay characters who also have HIV. He’s repulsed by them and won’t even shake their hands. His personality flaws seem insurmountable, which heightens the drama as he’s forced to change in order to survive.

Character growth takes time. A Christmas Carol is a beloved classic, but Scrooge’s overnight transformation from selfish miser to generous benefactor doesn’t happen in the real world. Ron takes a long time to accept that he needs LGBT persons, for economic self-survival and as friends so he’s not completely isolated by his disease. It’s a struggle for him, and it keeps us glued to our seats as we watch him slowly see them as human beings. Which leads us to…

Your hero should be dragged kicking and screaming towards character growth. Changing our character is painful. Even if we want to do it, the process is long and difficult, with many setbacks. Ron has no desire to change. He begins interacting with LGBT persons so he can sell anti-HIV drugs. He is forced to bring on Rayon, a drug addicted, HIV positive, trans woman because he needs a partner whom the gay community trusts. It takes much longer for Ron to accept Rayon and other LGBT persons as friends, people he cares about it a way he never could with his macho buddies.

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Offer clear signs that a character is changing. There are many of these in Dallas Buyers Club. One of the most memorable for me is when Ron first turns away two gay men who don’t have enough money to buy into the club. But he becomes increasingly concerned with helping people instead of just making money. We see this when the two men return. This time he tells his assistant to give them the drugs for free.

Character Transformation Should Never Be Complete. I believe we all can change, but we will never turn into completely different people. The same should hold true for your hero. While Ron goes through a remarkable transformation, we still feel like his old character traits are there. In the dramatic courtroom scene at the end, he argues for the legal right to take Peptide T. Yes, he wants all AIDS patients to have access to the drug, but we also recognize that he has a strong motivation in getting it and selling it himself. At the end of the movie, Ron has overcome many of his character traits, but they haven’t entirely disappeared. We know they will stay with him through the rest of his short life.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you when you’re developing your next hero or heroine. Good luck and remember, anybody can change.

Best wishes,

Kelee

 

Lucia Berlin: A Master Class in Prose

I like working in Emergency – you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays…Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays…The first jockey I met was Munoz. God. I undress people all the time and it’s no big deal. Takes a few seconds. Munoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec god. Because his clothes were so complicated, it was as if I were performing an elaborate ritual.

Wow, was my first reaction when I read that passage. If I had read that description in a romance novel, I would be hooked on that author for life.

Lucia Berlin‘s writing is so compelling because it can be passionate and romantic, but it’s also achingly brutal. Berlin’s life was tough, and it’s on full display in her short stories. She was an unrecovered alcoholic for much of her life. She also suffered from scoliosis. She wrote sporadically, publishing seventy-six stories in her three decades of writing, mostly in smaller literary magazines.

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I would never nominate Berlin as a template for how a writer should live her life, but I wish more writers had her gift for vibrant imagery and surprising use of language. I very rarely see that in romance and other genre fiction, which is why I sometimes get bored with them. Perhaps most readers don’t want to be challenged, but it’s what I enjoy most. I find unflinching honesty is often be the best way to approach a love story.

Here’s another favorite passage of mine, from Berlin’s story, “Melina.”

Beau had been a sandwich man in San Francisco…One day he had pulled his cart into an insurance office and he saw her. Melina…She was very tiny and thin. But it was her skin, he said. It was like she wasn’t a person at all but some creature made of white silk, of milk glass.

Beau didn’t know what came over him. He left the cart and his customers, went through a little gate over to where she stood. He told her he loved her. I want you, he said. I’ll get the bathroom key. Come on. It will just take five minutes. Melina looked at him and said, I’ll be right there.

I was pretty young then. This was the most romantic thing I had ever heard.

For a fascinating lesson in how to write amazing prose, I’d highly recommend picking up the newly published collection of Berlin’s stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. It moved me, and I’ve learned a great deal from it. It’s certainly challenged me to reconsider my own style, and how I can touch my own readers in surprising, compelling ways.

Best wishes,

Kelee