Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who are you rooting for?


1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.     Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

In one draft of Henry on Fire I decided to really bring out Henry’s anger issue. I think I was angry about the fact that the rest of the world did not realize that I had written the next great American novel and in doing so redefined the American literary landscape forever. My angry Henry was mean to his friends. He thought about wacking the old man, Papo, with his walking stick. At a critique group, having only read fifteen pages, a guy said he hated Henry, my main character.

Wow! That was a wakeup call. He not only wasn’t rooting for Henry he hated him. I think we all want to know that someone is rooting for us. It saddens me when I discover parents who aren’t rooting for their children. Yes it is good to be honest about our children’s abilities and inabilities in the world but that doesn’t mean we stop rooting for them. No matter what, parents need to want their children to rise to the fullness of their potential and even beyond, if we won’t root for our own children who will.

I am also bothered by employers who don’t root for their employees. I want to see the people around me excel. I have more than once had interns tell me that their efforts were at least as good as mine. I tell them my goal is to make them better than me. If I knew starting out what I know now, the good lord only knows what might have happened. I in no way want neither my abilities nor inabilities to be a defining limit on those I get to mentor.

We love the star quarterback and we stand up and cheer for the come from behind person who overcomes tremendous obstacles, but there are a whole lot of people in the middle who we need to root for also. That is where most of us live. I’m going to start rooting for the guy who holds up the line while trying to get the exact change out of his pocket. Or the one who meticulous sorts and packs his groceries in the self-check line. Or the person who just can’t quite figure out how to merge onto or off the interstate. Maybe they’ll root for me also.

In my story of Henry I hope you cheer for the girls when they put an end to the boy’s jalapeno eating contest at the school dance. And I hope you cheer for Henry when he puts his all into climbing that rope that I never made my way up. I hope you will root for Anree who so envies Henry’s life in suburbia. And I hope you will root for all kinds of people who are currently part of your life.   

3.     Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.     Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.     Start as close to the end as possible.
6.     Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.     Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Monday, March 18, 2013

When Writing Don't Waste People's Time


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101
1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.     Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.     Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.     Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.     Start as close to the end as possible.
6.     Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.     Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. Though deceased I speak in the presence tense because as long as writers are read they live on shaping and forming the world. I am not sure what that says if you are still alive and people have stopped reading what you wrote.

If you search you can find a youtube of him stating these eight points. I thought that over the next few weeks I would look at each of these points and how they inform my writing.

Vonnegut does acknowledge that there are many great writers who violate every one of these points and yet succeed at greatness. There will always be exceptions. 

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This is an unspoken and hopefully unenforceable contract between the writer and the reader. The contract is forged by the information we provide on the cover, in our bio, on the first page or in a synopsis. The issue is that this material must be authentic to the rest of the story. If my cover promises this is to be the new great American novel I better be ready to deliver. If I claim this story will change lives, I better be ready to change some lives.

With this introductory material I let my reader have some insight into what they are in for. Am I offering them a laugh out loud experience or a page turning drama, is this romance or adventure. Early in writing Henry on Fire I couldn’t answer these questions. I didn’t want to answer them. I didn’t want to box in or limit my story. After all I was writing the next great American novel, the second coming of Harry Potter.

In reality I had written a story that just poured out of my pen and I wasn’t sure what it was. Through critique feedback, rewrites, some learning about writing and even in selling the printed book face to face I came to see that Henry on Fire is a middle grade boy adventure where through experiences in middle school and the alternative world of Altara Henry figures out who he is.

I can only wonder how the story would have turned out if I had realized this before I published instead of several months afterwards.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Royalty Check Came


How exciting. I got a royalty check yesterday. Well I didn't really get a royalty check. I got a notice that a royalty had been deposited in my designated bank account. I love the feeling. This is maybe the third time I got that notice.

I can't help but think of the scene in the Beatrix Potter movie (Author and Illustrator of Peter Rabbit) when she asks her banker if she might have made enough off of selling her little books to buy a small place of her own.  Her banker informs her that she has more than enough to buy herself a large estate in the country. She ends up buying Hill Top Farm in the lake country. Throughout the years she bought additional land and committed herself to conserving the landscape of the Lake Country of England. Her legacy lives on not only in her wonderful books but also as part of the Lake District National Park.           

I find my fellow authors reluctant to talk about how many books they have sold. I understand. It is a little like asking how much money do you make. I just want an idea of what an average number of sales are. What's an average number for a mystery book or a romance or a middle grade boy fiction?

We all dream of being J K Rowling, Stephen King or Beatrix Potter but in reality we know we are not. We are people who love to write. Love to tell stories. Who love to read and who love to talk about books. We are people with real and virtual shelves full of books.

So my great royalty distribution was for $9.40. About enough to buy a nice potted plant. To date I have sold about 125 copies of Henry on Fire, which is available for Nook or Kindle and available from amazon.com. It will also be available this Saturday at the Garfield High School Craft show in Woodbridge Virginia, where I will be talking about writing, reading, books and especially about Henry.