Friday, February 27, 2009

What Does The Crown Conspiracy and iPhones Have in Common?

The Crown Conspiracy has sold out due to sudden high demand. Amazon.com as well as its many market places reports themselves “out of stock,” as does Barnes and Nobles and Borders online stores. This has caused the resale price of the book to abruptly skyrocket with one vendor using the unavailability and high demand to sell the book in excess of $60 for a novel normally priced at $11.95.

I have contacted my publisher and been assured this is only temporary. It appears that a sudden increase in popularity and demand has caught the distribution channel by surprise. Normally content to ship small quantities of the book to various resellers, the demand appears to have jumped well above normal. The reason for the sudden rise in orders is unknown and could be the result of increased efforts on such sites as Goodreads to promote the novel, or something as simple as word-of-mouth hitting a critical junction. The increase coincides closely with the upcoming release of the second book in the series, Avempartha, due out in one month, which could also be helping to drive the sales.

Orders already placed with online stores will be filled and sent out just as soon as stock arrives. In the meantime, if you are desperate to obtain your copy of the book (perhaps you have a book club set to discuss it in a week or two), I still have copies on hand which you can purchase through my website—at the same low price as always.

I am not certain whether to be concerned or elated at this turn of events. It is nice to hear demand for the book has risen, and yet what good is that if people can’t read it? I will try and keep you posted on any further developments in this area.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Happy Endings

A tractor-trailer arrived at a fairground with a police escort. On the side of the truck, five foot red lettering declared the promise, “We Rock Your World!” Around the slogan brilliantly painted images of explosions against night skies illuminated upturned faces with open mouths.

Police formed a parameter, asking people to please move back. The back doors on the truck burst open and eight huge men in sweat-stained jumpsuits hauled out a long black draped shape, moving it like a coffin. A great hydraulic power-lift lowered the men and their mystery to the dirt. A crowd gathered and children sat on the shoulders of parents.

Using a heavy metal litter with reinforced wheels, the team in jumpsuits ushered their ominous charge to a great earthen mound outlined in circles of red and white paint. Blinding high-intensity arc lamps flooded the prepared field with white light as the last of the sun’s rays faded from the summer sky. Reaching the mound, an electric motor whined, massive gears clanked and the great behemoth beneath the drape tilted up. The drape fell. The crowd gasped.

A rocket fifteen feet in height stood majestically upon the red and white painted target. Torpedo shaped and thick as an oak tree it gleamed with a blue metallic shine. Three yellow, razor-sharp fins circled the base. A matching yellow cone capped the summit. And along its sleek length ran the legend: Starmaker.

The men in jumpsuits retreated with their litter and a new team took the field. Three men in silver foil suits with full hoods. They took a moment to check the seals on their asbestos gloves then attached the long fuse. They wheeled out a propane tank and assembled a torch at the end of a literal ten-foot-pole.

“Please stand back!” a muffled voice from within a hood shouted. The police pressed the line condensing the viewers.

The torch ignited with a pop. As his associates watched from a safer distance, one of the men in silver stepped toward the fuse—toward the rocket that waited in ghostly silence. Carefully, tentatively, he reached out the torch and lit the fuse. Immediately all three ran behind a concrete blind as the fifty-yard fuse sputtered and popped, a hissing, sparking serpent that raced across the field, rushing, charging madly and irrevocably at its target.

The crowd quieted—a silence broken only by the cry of a baby whose mother threatened to smother the child in her haste to muffle it. All eyes focused on the fuse and on the shining rocket, whose metallic skin reflected the sparks of the nearing fuse end. Above, the heavens filled with stars, below no one breathed. The fuse ran true. It reached the base and in that moment brilliantly flared. There was a brief pause, just half a beat of total silence.

Then it happened.

The cone at the top of the rocket popped off and a flag popped out displaying the word “boom.”


So my question here is—have you ever read a book like that? Have you ever read a novel that begins with a killer premise, and a great mystery that grows deeper rather than shallower, and builds suspense and tension with each page only to fizzle at the end?

I have too.

In the middle of reading my first novel, a woman made the comment that I was a contender for replacing her favorite author—so long as I didn’t screw up the ending. I wasn’t concerned, but I knew exactly what she meant. This got me thinking how many books I read that let me down.

Authors who are exceptionally good writers, people who can titillate and form massive expectations, often compound the problem. They raise their own bar so high, no prose athlete can vault it. You can sometimes see it coming. They offer a stunning situation with only a few possible explanations, the first few you dismiss as too dull and pedestrian to be the answer and you are left with three exciting possibilities. Then one—the one you most expected—is eliminated and the excitement rises. Two left—which is it? You wonder, you debate, and then in a shocking revelation, both possibilities are declared false. As a reader, you sit with your mouth open, consuming pages in desperation to see what truly marvelous explanation the author is going to reveal. What magic trick did he pull that you were so completely taken in? Then you reach the end and discover there is no trick, no magic. The conclusion is one of those dull, expected answers. The cone pops off and the flag flies—boom.

In a way it is like buying a product that doesn’t do what it adversities. Some are very long books that can consume days or weeks of reading, always holding out that promise of a bang. Sometimes the writing of the body of the novel is so strong I don’t even mind if the end fizzles, but most of the time I do. I hate bad endings and wonder how they happen. Maybe it is merely a perception thing. Maybe because I am a writer I’m more critical, maybe I plot ahead as I read, finding what I think is a better solution and feel disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Or maybe it is that the writer didn’t know how to end it? It often feels that way.

Sometimes novelists begin stories without any idea where the story is going. They plow ahead going where the words take them and hope inspiration will strike in the end. It is an often-debated approach—to outline or not. I never used to. When I started writing, much of the allure came from discovering as I went along where the story would lead. In a way, I was as much reading as writing. Sometimes I didn’t find an ending and lost interest, wasting months of work. All too often, I found myself in a proverbial locked room trapped by my own logic walls. The only way out being to take an axe to hundreds of pages of beautiful stuff—again months of work lost. This gets old fast.

I discovered, with just a little forethought, I could avoid such train wrecks. More importantly, by knowing where I was going, I could gauge the approach. Like landing an airplane, you don’t want to come in too steep or too shallow, and when writing a novel you don’t want the beginning and middle to overshadow the climax. If you don’t know how it will end, it is easy to keep shoveling it on, stoking that furnace of anticipation until it is white-hot, only to pour lukewarm water on it in the end, because you don’t have the nuclear fission you promised.

Even with outlining, I’ve gotten near the end and realized the punch wasn’t good enough. It makes sense, it stands up, it satisfies, but…and then I have to ask myself, if it didn’t matter how the logic works, how would I love to see this turn out. I purposely think of the most outlandish ideas, find one that makes my heart race and then check to see if there is any way to make it work. I’m actually pretty good at that and I can usually pull plot threads together to weave a logic strand strong enough to take the weight. Then I stand back and grin. That’s when I know the book will fly.

I try very hard to deliver with my endings, to make them live up to the promise, to make them the best part of the story, to have them make sense, but always a little surprising, a little unexpected. I just like gripping beginnings, enjoyable middles and happy endings.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tastes Great, Less Filling

The Crown Conspiracy is an appetizer.

I am surprised I have not attracted more opposition for The Crown Conspiracy. Most reviews have been very positive. I suspect this has more to do with it not being a bestseller than anything. The amount of money an author makes appears to be inversely proportionate to the degree to which fans are critical. There appears to be a certain resentment if an author is successful. One comment I read was that, “JK Rowlings doesn’t deserve to be richer than the Queen of England.” Does any writer? Does the Queen of England deserve to be as rich as she is? I suppose it is the same sort of frustration one might feel when they see a young actor winning his third Oscar knowing that many of the legends—perhaps their all time favorite actors—never won one. It doesn’t seem fair. As much as I would like to be despised for my insane success, at this stage it is nice that I have received such positive attention. I am certain this will not always be the case. Should I begin making money, should my books become a sizeable presence in bookstores, so that they edge out others, I am certain negative reviews will pop-up questioning why this book deserves recognition. It will not matter that the price per volume has remained the same, or that the story is formed of the same words as when it was praised.

Still I am surprised that so many have accepted my book without complaint. It breaks nearly forty years of fantasy tradition, and yet to date only a couple of people (that are vocal enough for me to hear of it) have balked. A number of people have even praised the changes leading me to believe that there are more readers out there, like me, who felt a change was needed.

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON
While a great case can be made that fantasy is the oldest form of literature beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and followed by the Odyssey and Beowulf, and the Arthurian legends (perhaps the first successful series of fan-fiction ever,) modern fantasy did not begin until the nineteenth century. While many people see Tolkien as the father of fantasy (still referred to as fairytales in his early days) he did not invent the genre. Fantasy began in the 1850s with the likes of George MacDonald, (who you might consider the forerunner of CS Lewis as his books dealt with people entering into different worlds,) who wrote “fairytales for adults.” But it was really William Morris who created the first completely alternate world (Tolkien’s forerunner and acknowledged influence) that started the genre.

Most fairytales were directed at children’s markets (as some of the most innovate still do today,) with the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan—stories complex enough for adults. Then in the 1920’s pulp magazines like Weird Tales became popular and launched several careers such as HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Then in the thirties and forties Tolkien and Lewis took the stage. They borrowed greatly from MacDonald and Morris, not only in plot devices but also in the dramatic/romantic language of the prose (although greatly toned down.) What the two added to the recipe was world-building and book series.

Tolkien’s success in the sixties (when his books came out in paperback) established him as the benchmark for all future writers in the genre. Some writers like Michael Moorcock rebelled against the new authority with anti-heroes, but most followed the master. Some a little too closely as Terry Brooks did with his Sword of Shannara, however, the success of his novel proved someone other than Tolkien could be successful in fantasy.

Like everyone else, I revered Tolkien’s work. I read it in the early seventies when little else like it was on the shelves, and I read Terry Brooks like everyone else, hoping to find the next Tolkien. I never found him. I began reading books in other genres, The Stand, Dune, Watership Down (still fantasy true, but not elves and dragons fantasy.) Then when in the eighties new authors appeared standing before the Tolkien Throne, attempting to draw Sting from the stone, I went back to read them and was disappointed. For me it was as if I had gone to war in Europe and returned to the farm and found it dull. The home I once loved felt so much smaller.

As time went on, as Eddings handed the baton to Jordan, Goodkind and Salvatore, the books got thicker, the series became longer, but the sword remained in the stone and the throne was looking shabbier than ever. A new kind of tradition had grown up while I was gone. Born out of Tolkien’s books this new consistency ordained that fantasy novels needed to be a thousand pages long. They required a vast cast of characters, whose personalities suffer from want of individual care. A world so detailed and elaborate that I felt I needed to take a course in it before reading the book. Romanticized prose, so stiff and backward, that reading becomes a challenge rather than a joy. Books starting desperately slow, humorless and plodding, ending in exciting cliff-hangers that left me cursing for two or three years. An unending series of novels that carry the usefulness of characters beyond their time, or merely repeat a formula. Lengthy prologues that delay the start of the story, but have become a staple fixture of the genre just as consistent as prophesies of young boys of dubious heritage growing up to be the savior of the world against the plans of a dreaded dark lord.

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
This is what I found when I began reading fantasy again, and why I decided to break with the established form. In my mind, I went back to the basics. It was not Tolkien’s elaborate world, or romanticized language that I found appealing in his books, it was how from the moment I began reading The Hobbit, I was drawn into the story. His books were inviting and compelling. I was never aware that I was learning about a vast world of complex systems, cultures and landscapes, I was just reading a fun adventure. It was simple, exciting and easily understood. When I got to The Lord of the Rings, the story became a bit more complex, but I already knew the basics and I wanted to learn more, and still the story and characters were strong and central.

With the new established trends in fantasy, the joy no longer existed for me. None of the books on fantasy shelves offered any hope. I randomly opened novels and read the first few pages and found them all so disturbingly similar. Then beginning with Rowlings, I started reading in the young adult section. There it was! The joy of fantasy! So many great innovative stories of strong, fun characters and imaginative plots. That’s when it dawned on me. The Hobbit was a young adult book too!

I never intended to get published, so it never dawned on me to try and fit in with the established form. I wrote what I wanted to read. I wanted a fantasy tale that was as compelling as a modern thriller. I wanted realistic characters I loved as friends that I could root for. I wanted a world that appeared before my eyes without the effort of reading about it. And I wanted a series, because one book is never enough when the story is really good, but I didn’t want the series to be sequels—a repeat or an add on. I didn’t want a new story, I wanted the old story to continue. I didn’t want to meet new characters, I wanted the main characters to grow. I didn’t want new mysteries, I wanted the old ones to deepen. But I didn’t want to be left on a cliff.

A few people have suggested The Crown Conspiracy is too short, that the main characters are not fleshed out enough, that they have been left wanting more. Certainly, fans may disagree with my choices, but these are not mistakes, they are intended by design. I went to great effort to resist the temptation to reveal the background and nature of the main characters, the world and the mysteries. By the end of the series readers will know the main characters as well as family members, their lives from birth to present, their hopes, dreams, quirks and failings as well as what made them what they are. But how often do you get this close to a person upon first meeting? Such relationships take time. A trust must be established.

The Crown Conspiracy is merely the appetizer to a six-course meal. It is designed to be a light and tasty course to merely awaken your appetite for the rest of the meal. It is an introduction, a deceiving trap, the hole I want readers to fall into, to plummet helpless into this new world, a far more thrilling entry than a dogged uphill trudge. The second book will also not satisfy the reader as it will not answer all the questions. Like the soup course, it will be warmer and more filling, but still leave the reader hungry. The meat of the meal is a long way off, but the wanting will make the main course much more satisfying, and yet those on a diet can stop at anytime and feel they got their money’s worth. It is my hope that when the meal is done, readers will be so full and content that they could not eat another bite. That they will lean back happily, dreamily remembering the whole meal and smile as they realize how it all worked together to form one flavorful, unique and effortless experience.

And yes, all six books are done, so you won’t be left holding the check before an empty plate.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tools Of The Trade

Occasionally people ask me about my writing background. Usually this question comes from aspiring writers, who I think, see my book as a completed Rubik’s Cube and they want to know how I did it. Not just how I got a publisher but how I learned to write. What school I went to, what books I read, what techniques I employed. They always look disappointed when I tell them the answer—I never learned to write. That is I never took a class in writing or English, beyond those required in high school. I never read a book on creative fiction. I never went to a seminar. I never even took a correspondence course, (something my older sister once did years ago.) What I know about writing I taught myself.

I’ve done that a lot. I hear kids learn how to use a computer in high school now. In college, they offer courses in Photoshop, Word, and Excel. To me that sounds as incredulous as discovering Harvard is offering classes in Halo 3. I started out trying to be an illustrator because I was good at drawing and because a career in writing was impossible, due to my inability to so much as spell the word “grammar.” Friends who read my stuff claimed it was written in “Sulli-speak” something they took pride in being able to decipher. I still wrote, but I did not take it seriously—it was just for fun.

I did go to school for art, which was less than useful. I had an art scholarship to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, but it ran out just after my first year. I didn’t have the money to pay the tuition, so that ended that. It wasn’t much of a loss, I wasn’t learning anything. Art schools, I suspect, often attract instructors who merely “like” art a lot. I got a job as an illustrator/keyliner and that abruptly ended my college career. Kids came along and my wife made more money, so I stayed home. I was twenty-three.

What was I going to do? Clean the house, watch the kids, sure, but that still left a lot of time. The idea of trying to write a publishable book rose to the top of my conscious about the same time I bought my first computer with a wonderful invention called “Spell-check.” Even armed with this new magical weapon, I knew all I had was my imagination, and that wasn’t going to cut it. I was good at making stories, good at laying out plots, good at timing, good at developing characters, but I hadn’t a clue about how to write.

At about this time my wife and I moved to the remote northern corner of Vermont, literally over a thousand miles away from everyone we knew. We lived on thirty acres where we could see mountains, but couldn’t see our neighbors. We were two hours from the nearest McDonalds or shopping mall, and there wasn’t a Walmart in the state. We couldn’t get cable, and only managed to pick up two clear television stations, and one snowy one. The Internet didn’t really exist as we know it yet, the nearest library was an hour away and I wasn’t allowed to check books out as I didn’t live local enough to get a card. From Thanksgiving until St. Pat’s there was always a minimum four feet of snow on the ground, and the temperature stayed lower than twenty below zero for a solid month. It was in this self-imposed isolation that I began learning to write.

I started by reading books. I went to the local general store (yes, just like in Green Acers,) and looked for the books with the golden seal indicating, Nobel, or Pulitzer prize winner. Not the books I would normally choose to read. At the time, I was into Stephen King, Issac Asimov, and such, but I was trying to learn—so learn from the best, right? I also read classics: Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, For Whom the Bell Tolls, even Shakespeare. I purposely forced myself to read widely, especially the stuff I hated. They were the ones that always won the awards, the abysmally boring novels with paper-thin plots and elaborate prose. What I ended up doing was reading several books by the same author, and then writing in their style, trying to emulate what they did. I didn’t just write a short story—I wrote whole novels. In doing so, I discovered something in each of the writer’s style, or technique that I could appreciate, and taught myself how to do it. In a way, I was like Siler from Heroes stealing powers from other authors and adding them to my toolbox.

From Steinbeck I learned the transporting value of vivid setting descriptions. From Updike I found an appreciation for indirect prose that could more aptly describe something by not describing it. From Hemmingway I discovered economy. From King, his ability to get viscerally into the minds of his characters…and so on. In addition, I wrote in various genres, mysteries, science fiction, horror, coming-of-age, contemporary literature, etc—anything and everything.

I did this for ten years.

My writing improved tremendously. After seeing the same words come up on the spell-check, I learned their correct spelling. I began studying grammar, which I learned is like trying to use a pile of yarn a cat’s been playing with for a week. Then just as I felt I was really getting it, it became too much. Ten years is a long time to achieve nothing. Ten years, ten books, a ton of rejections and not a single reader. It was time to give up and get a real job.

We left Vermont. The kids were old enough for daycare and I went back into advertising, vowing never to write another creative word. Then came the problem with my daughter’s reading and the fateful day I started reading Harry Potter and rediscovered once more, the joy in books that did not have little gold seals with Pulitzer and Noble written on them. These parts of the story are already detailed in a previous article on this blog, but suffice to say I started writing again for the fun of it.

I threw aside all that I learned and wrote for sheer enjoyment. I wasn’t writing in anyone’s style, I wasn’t imitating, I was done learning. I was done trying to make the great American novel. I just wanted to enjoy making something I would like to read. Still the lessons were there and when I wanted to paint a vivid setting, Steinbeck was whispering in my ear. When I hunted for a special turn of phrase, Updike lent me his hounds, King gave me a road map into the character’s heads and when I wrote a run-on sentence, “Papa” scowled at me.

The work was good enough to get an agent, but like the fruits of any island, I soon discovered there were holes in my education, things I never knew. My agent promptly, and politely pointed out my inconsistent PoV, my passive sentences and my indirect way of “telling,” rather than “showing.” Like missing pieces to a near complete puzzle, the moment they were pointed out I was appalled at my own blindness. How could anyone miss that! And I began seeing the errors everywhere—not only in my own works, but in the works of very successful authors.

I went back and heavily edited the novel with my newest tools, then hired an editor, to look over the work. She responded with extensive comments on grammar, and explained them—more bright and shiny tools to play with. Freshly cleaned and polished, the book, originally entitled “Heir to the Throne,” was renamed “The Crown Conspiracy,” and went back out and was picked up by Aspirations Media, Inc.

I still haven’t read a book on writing, but I do attend several writer’s groups and I did win a seat at the Jenny McKean Literary Workshop at George Washington University. When I mentioned my dire lack of literary education, the instructor—who is an award winning published author in her own right—suggested that might not be such a bad thing after all.

So that is how I found the tools that fill my writer’s toolbox, that’s how a storyteller learned to write…I’m still learning.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Avempartha Update

Just an update for those interested. I received the galleys of Avempartha, that is the book laid out in the form it will appear in the book. I spent a week going over it, proofing for any errors that might have slipped in, and sent it back out. The next time I see it should be when it arrives via UPS in a sealed carton with a glossy cover and crisp pages. So like the rest of you I am now waiting too.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Genesis

A few people have asked where I got my idea to write this series, or how it all came about. The genesis of things always fascinates people I think. It is often hard to answer that question because it wasn’t a light bulb moment, but more of a sedimentary layering of concepts that hardened into a cohesive idea. So if you like, please step into the Way-Back machine and I will try to explain.

Perhaps the most precise spark to truly ignite the Riyria Revelations was—of all things—Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the years I have watched less and less television, but these two shows were some of the last I really enjoyed. The thing about them that I found fascinating were the layered plots and the mixing of humor and emotional drama with great characters. B5 in particular was amazing in that the entire five-year series was mapped out before the first episode was shot. I think this might be the first, and only, time that’s ever happened. Yet it allowed for the unique chance for viewers to watch episodes and look for clues to the ultimate mystery in a way that no other show ever did. In addition, Straczynski—the show’s creator—layered his plots, something that was mimicked to a lesser degree in Buffy. This really impressed me. I saw it as a revolution. I was certain I was seeing the future of television, the medium raised to an art form equal to a symphony. I never saw the maniacal bus, that is reality TV, coming.

It is always presumed that movies are better than television, that the little screen is inferior. In thinking about it, I came to the opposite conclusion. At best, a movie can only present a four-hour long story. This isn’t a lot of time and is why so many books made into films are truncated. But television can present hundreds of hours. TV is the novel to movie’s short story. Television can take the time to develop characters and settings, to weave plots and build foundations to erect skyscrapers on. The problem is that until Babylon 5, no one thought to do it. Instead of creating novels, producers opted for flash fiction in hour or half-hour standalone episodes. The most they managed was a weeklong mini-series always adapted from a book.

What I began to envision was, like I said, a symphony, a blending of themes set in movements. Not just one plot, but several woven together and blended into a complimentary harmony. I began to imagine that if I were a powerful producer trying to think of a new idea I would make a series where each one hour weekly show would be like a chapter in a book, except that it would have its own complete plot, a beginning a middle and an end. That way first time viewers could always enjoy it. In addition, I would weave in a season long plot, something that each week you could tune in to learn clues about and talk to your friends discussing what you think is really going on. And just about the time the season plot is ending another is already starting. And finally there would be the series long plot. This too would develop, but slower and more profoundly. This multi-layered plot concept I felt would be very exciting, so much more than watching a series where writers are making new stuff up each week based more on what fans think than on what a good story would be, struggling to squeeze every last drop of creativity from an idea.

Having thought of this, and still pretending to be a producer, I had to ask myself, ok, but what kind of show would it be. That’s when I realized there’s never really been a successful medieval fantasy television series. There hasn’t even been many attempts. Those few that were made, like most of the movies in the genre, were horrible. Either the characters were stiff overly dramatized caricatures spouting awkward sounding heroic dialog, or they were inane, silly clowns playing in a slapstick farce as if the producers are saying, “yeah we know this fantasy stuff is ridiculous too.” So I began to think how could it be done right?

Fantasies always seem to be about overly serious characters who never laugh. Why not have the main characters be able to make jokes but not be silly. People always make jokes, usually in the most inappropriate times in order to alleviate stress, so why not? And rather than have them be haughty, serious, self-righteous people who speak like rejects from a bad Shakespearean play, why can’t they be…well, normal. Maybe even a bit better than normal, how about cool?

I remembered old westerns, and Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies, I used to watch as a kid. That’s the way those characters were. They weren’t stupid, arrogant, or morose, filled with some consuming, robotic sense of duty, or desire for ultimate power. They weren’t kids reluctantly being groomed to be the savior of the world either. They were cool. The kind of people you’d like to have as friends. The kind of people you know you would get along with. The kind of people you grew to care about.

I began thinking that if I could bring those kinds of characters to a TV series that used the layered plot technique and the complete, say, six-year story arc, it would be great. I would also keep the magic and fantasy creatures to a minimum. Dragons, magic etc, have a tendency to come off as hokey, and such things are better kept understated in order to build a greater sense of mystery, fear and suspense. People’s own imagination works the best for such things. Individual viewers won’t picture something in their own mind that is silly to them. The more I thought about it the more I became depressed that it would never happen.

I began to think of two characters, nobody special, just a couple of guys who work as special agents for the rich. One a thief the other ex-military, just trying to get by in a tough economy, staying out of everyone’s way, using their specific skills to do covert jobs. In what I imagine, Hollywood-Speak would translate as: Ocean’s Eleven meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Middle Earth. Then the hook—they are setup to be the scapegoats for a government coup d'├ętat. I thought it was a good idea. Familiar themes in an unfamiliar setting, with characters viewers would like to spend an hour with each week. It was really a shame I didn’t know anyone in show business.

Then it hit me. I could do the exact same thing…in book form. A series of six books, each like a season of TV. Yes, I thought I could do that, but at that time I had sworn off writing. I had put that dream away and locked it tight. I hadn’t written a creative word in nearly a decade and I was going to keep it that way. I had wasted too many years trying and failing. What good could come from it anyway? Another five years working on a series that, like all the others, would be dumped in the trash unread by anyone but me? What was the point? No, that was all behind me.

I forgot about the idea, stuffed it in a mental cardboard box in the back of my head, and moved on. Still, occasionally I would be walking the dog, or cleaning the dishes and think to myself: So if I did write it how would it start? Like any TV show I would want to begin with a nifty preamble, the kind of thing that would run before the title and lead credits, the intro that sets the tone. Something like that first part of Indiana Jones, or the murder you see before you first meet the sleuth in a show like Monk, or Murder She Wrote. And then? And then they go on the job that nails them and off the story goes. I pictured it from time to time, the two of them scaling the tower in the dead of night, whispering complaints back and forth like real people do when they are trying to be quiet. Then I would stuff it all back in the box, reminding myself there were more constructive uses of my time.

Years passed, and my daughter was struggling in school with reading. She’s dyslexic, which makes reading difficult. Not being good at something, means it isn’t very fun. So I got her books, good books, books I loved. The Hobbit, Watership Down, Narnia Chonicles, Chronicles of Prydain and that new book that I was hearing about, that thing about the kid who was a wizard or something…Harry Potter.

It was sitting around on a table one afternoon. Beautiful brand new book—I’m a sucker for a pretty book. I cracked it and started reading. It was great. So easy to read, so fun. Maybe I—no! It is a waste of time, you can’t get published, no one will ever read it! But what if that didn’t matter? Can’t I write it just for me? For the fun of making it? So what if it goes in a drawer, it’s already in a box in my head. Maybe my daughter would read it? I could even put it on the Internet for free and people could read it there and leave me messages saying if they liked it or not. I could do that couldn’t I? Couldn’t I?

I was starting to feel like Gollum/Smeagol. I won’t spend too much time on it, just when I’m bored. Just as something to do. I wrote the first book in less than a month. The second one took even less time.

I posted it online and a few (very few) people did read it. Some even commented. They liked it a lot. I showed it to my daughter. She looked at the stack of eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch manuscript sheets and turned her nose up. “What’s this? I can’t read that. It has to be a book, you know, bound with a cover. Trying to read that would drive me crazy. It’s just—I don’t know—too weird reading it that way. If you want me to read it you have to get it published.”

No, precious, no don’t trust the publish! No Luke, that way leads to the dark side. Good grief, Lucy was holding the damn football again! “Com’on Charlie Brown, one more try! This time will be different, I promise!”

Who knew Lucy could be trusted?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Writers vs Storytellers

Having recently moved to Washington, DC, certainly one of the more literate cities, I have taken advantage of the plethora of literary organizations in the area and joined a number of reading and writing groups. This wasn’t an option when I lived in the tranquilly remote northeast kingdom of Vermont, the industrious city of Detroit, or even in the technological Raleigh-Durham area of NC. By contrast, DC feels like one giant college campus—given the number of colleges in the immediate area that might have something to do with it. So many sport a backpack over a shoulder and a book in their hands. Everyone is reading something. They read on the Metro, at the bus stops, at lunch counters, in parks. There’s also a lot of aspiring writers.

I discovered several writing workshops. Places where people submit bits of their work—often for the first time—to the eyes of a diverse group of equally brave amateurs. Since obtaining the Holy Grail of the budding novelist—getting published—I have also been asked to read a good number of manuscripts, or excerpts of stories of total strangers seeking feedback. The quality ranges, but a pattern is emerging. For the most part, there appears to be two kinds of aspiring authors—writers and storytellers.

Writers are those who study the craft and diligently develop their skills. There are far more writers in the writing workshops for this reason. They are the ones who are quick to point out when a submitted piece is “telling” rather than “showing,” when the POV changes incorrectly, the improper use of a comma or semi-colon, or the fact that the page is merely too dense and needs more paragraph breaks. These are the folks that read books on writing, who attend seminars and take classes in creative writing. They are the masters of skill and craft.

Storytellers, by contrast, often can’t even spell. They don’t take courses in writing, or read books on the subject and as a result have never heard of the “show” and “tell” principle and have no idea what POV is. They can’t tell you what the difference is between a metaphor and a simile, and they aren’t even interested in finding out. But they create wonderful stories. Wildly imaginative, captivating, enthralling stories. Storytellers often lack skill, rarely have the tenacity to keep with any project, but they drip talent. Plots, characters and setting are clay they mold with effortless ease.

The problem is, that taken separately, neither is sufficient to produce results, and rare are the two found residing in a single person. I have read perfectly constructed prose that lay like a beautiful stretch of road in a field—leading nowhere, and I have struggled through great stories buried under hideous construction, like one of those movies where the beautiful starlit is made to look ugly with bad hair, glasses and sack-like clothes. You can almost see the jewel that might lie there, if only.

Being a writer has more immediate benefits in that, a certain degree of competence with the written word can manage to get you published. I have read a few books that were written by pure writers. They are the ones with amazing, poetic prose and no plot or characterization at all. They are dull, and often pointless; the kind of book you want to say you have read, rather than the kind you want to read.

Storytellers, I think, have the advantage. They can always learn to be writers. Writing is merely a set of skills that can be taught and acquired with practice, but the ability to invent, to create, to imagine is a talent that cannot be bought or developed. A natural resource bubbling within the boundary lines of a human mind, requiring only the necessary equipment to mine, refine, and transport to market.

You might imagine that a team of a writer and storyteller would be great, the Ira and George Gershwin of literature, but it doesn’t work that way. It is not enough to conceive of a plot and characters and hand it over. The storyteller must write, for details spark new life. Like splitting atoms, often the greatest power lies in the minutia. Tiny, irrelevant comments designed to add a dash of color frequently open unexpected doors to huge possibilities and for this reason; the storyteller must be there to unlock it. The writer will type right by, happy with the dash they added. The storyteller has the ability to throw the door wide and perceive a new landscape.

As such, it is a wondrous, yet very rare thing, to find these two residing in a single person. I strongly suspect this is what publishers look for in submissions—well that and a marketable book. Let’s face it, if Jack Torrance’s haunted book of the single repeated phrase was guaranteed to sell a million copies, it would find a home instantly.

The real problem is that storytellers, the true gem, are often overlooked and invisible when standing side-by-side with a writer. The writer’s work always appears far more polished, more professional. The storyteller perceive themselves as hopeless and usually see the writer as the superior talent—the master of the craft—never realizing their own immeasurable worth, their potential to soar. It doesn’t help that writers tend to see themselves as the talent, building bulwarks against “pretenders.” This posturing frequently results in a self-gratifying pretentiousness, a proclivity to pat one’s own back, and the backs of those who agree. The result is critically lauded “masterpieces” of self-important novels that leave the average reader feeling disappointed after the hype and wondering why it was so touted by so many. Usually the lay response to such works begins, “it was very well written, but…”

Meanwhile, the storytellers are turned away, cast off, and ignored. Instead, they often content themselves with marvelously vivid and exciting daydreams shown in the privacy of their own minds. They are the ones on buses and subways, staring off without focus who abruptly smile, or laugh for no apparent reason—the natural wizards, born with the magical power to create worlds—the gods among us.