How to be an Author

For years I have relied on two books regarding the craft of writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Stephen King’s On Writing. I have always known there are others, and have realized that I could learn a thing or two from them, but I’ve just been busy writing and applying the advice from these two that I haven’t sought more. Now, I have another.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is almost 20 years old. I read it this past week and the advice resonated with me on so many levels. It is truly a gift on honesty and insight.

While reading, I experienced the serendipity of finding numerous articles on the craft. These, along with Lamott’s work, and that of Goldberg and King have led me to a few conclusions about what it takes to be a writer.

 1. Mental Instability

I don’t mean this in a derogative way. I just recently commented to another author that I have always been “a little off my rocker.” It’s true, I’ve never quite fit in terms of how I see the world, how I perceive things. This doesn’t make me special, just someone who sees through a different lens. But it is this slant of vision that allows me to tell stories. It is the same off-kilter characteristic that pervades all of the books and essays I have read from authors, who try to detail just how and why they do what we do. Because it is an odd way to live–inside your head–telling stories that no one hears until you have them down in print. And that’s only if you let them. But the process hinges on this way of being, and it seems I am not the only one for whom writing is therapy.

 2. Meditation

Another word that has a certain connotation that may not apply. I’m not talking about sitting with legs crossed, eyes closed, measuring one’s breath. Although, I haven’t tried such, so who knows? What I mean is a certain receptivity to people and events that occur under the surface tension of everyday life. In short, we notice the little things others do not, and then we think about their meaning on a grander scale. I often get so lost in thought, while at work or home, that it appears as if I’m not paying attention to anyone around me. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I didn’t realized I had this trait until my wife pointed it out to me after high school. She watched me wend my way through the halls, my face blank. I used those moments for bad poetry. Today, I get lost, catching snippets for my novels.

 3. Routine

I don’t think this aspect applies to authors only. I believe every successful person–however you define such–will have a certain degree of entrenched routine. All of the writers discussed habits of turning writing into an automatic expression of thought by simply writing daily, at a certain time and for a certain duration. I didn’t fix on my time and duration until after my children were born, but I am locked in now. It’s not without sacrifice, though, and I think an unspoken element of routine is commitment. I do not enjoy going to bed an hour after my five-year-old, but to be up early and to have the consistency to write, I adhere. Monday-Friday mornings are alight with the sound of my keyboard in the silence of my home.

Sum of Parts

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, that isn’t the point. I merely hoped to showcase some of the criteria that seems to be swimming inside authors. If you find a loved one demonstrating these qualities, offer them some space and a keyboard or notebook. I think what may come will surprise and delight.

 

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One project at a time?

Sorry, I had to use a Tard image, because I love his grumpy face. Also, he answered the title question perfectly.

I am currently working on three projects, one of which I’ll provide a bit of a teaser for at the end, so keep reading. It seems insane to be working on three books at once, but it also is the only way to survive. I must be ahead of the curve and always prepared with new material. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to move form one intense world to the next. Here’s a peek at each.

First, my next novel, Dare Me, will be released in the fall by Running Press. I don’t have an exact date, but I do have a cover image (hint, hint). I have to complete at least one more pass of the manuscript based on my editor’s notes. Fingers crossed it’s only one. From inception to now, I’ve had two major passes that physically hurt. But the pain is worth it because the finished project, a story of YouTube daredevils going from daring to death-defying, will be fantastic. It is not as dark as Tap Out but the intensity remains. When it’s complete, I’ll offer some teaser excerpts.

Second, as I’m finishing up Dare Me, my agent is reading the novel I wrote this past summer and fall. It has a tentative title, and my first reader loved it. He was even surprised by the ending, which I think amazed both of us. But I cannot give away too much, because until my agent gives the green light, the manuscript is just that, not quite ready for the “novel” label.

Third, I am currently working on a novel that is far and away the largest departure from my comfort zone. Yet, also something I’ve always wanted to write. I’m researching as much as I’m writing and am having a great time watching this story come together. Here’s hoping I can see it through in the next couple of months.

Last year at this time I never would have thought I was going to be this far down the rabbit hole. But now, I find it to be the only place I want to be. I hope you continue to enjoy and share Tap Out, and I look forward to offering you more work so that you can continue.

*Teaser*

You made it this far, so here’s a tiny slice of the cover to Dare Me. Enjoy:

Dare Me excerpt

The Unique Aspects of Authorhood

Recently I went to another author’s book signing. When my eldest asked where I was going that evening and I told her, her face folded into a look of contemplation.

I said to her, “Honey, I’m not the only author around here, you know? There are a lot of us.”

She laughed and said, “I know that, but nobody else at school has a dad who writes books.”

I could only assent to this, knowing the families at the small school she attends.

She then said, “It’s just…” I swear I watched her pick the word out of her brain. “It’s…unique.” And she smiled a much broader grin, proud of her accuracy with word selection.

My smile matched hers, because it was nice for me to know the degree to which she understands the world, as well as because of the bit of perspective she provided.

Being an author is unique, in spite of the fact that there are millions of us. Each book is its own slice of life, a story within a story. I can remember so much about what occurred within my personal life via frames of reference to what I was writing.

I also get to create and express myself in ways that most people do not. There is an amazing liberation in this, one that I fully believe most people would find addicting. So often, if we are wise, we censor ourselves, because it’s the right move for a myriad reasons. However, the walls of decorum come down when it’s a character, not me, who gets to speak.

And, I know many people find it nerdy, but writing is damn cool. I am successful in an activity that I love, get to meet all sorts of amazing people, and have opportunities to enjoy the unknown, the whatever’s next. That is not always the case for people, personally, professionally or both. I am lucky.

So yes, it is a unique job, and yes, I’m sure my daughter didn’t imply a fraction of what I just wrote about. Or maybe she did. Because she’s living this life, right next to me. And this uniqueness is contagious.

*For Fun* Here’s a list of 10 “Unusual Jobs”. I’d be willing to clean a crime scene, and think being a Whisky Ambassador has to be phenomenal.

Imagination

I recently read an interview in which an author of Young Adult fiction was asked, “Why are you the only one who could have written this story?”

The implication of the question seems to be that this fictional tale is a metaphor for the author’s life, that her experiences (non-fiction) are simply being recast as fiction. I don’t like that notion. While author’s do draw from their own lives–I’m not arguing that we don’t–whatever happened to the element of imagination?

I’m currently reading Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres, and in the story is a scene where the protagonist (Frenchie)–a smoker–is asked to take a deep drag off a cigarette because another character (Andy) wants her to describe what she feels. He can’t get past the taste of cigarettes, but loves the idea of how it seems to feel so relaxing. Frenchie takes that drag and describes it as such:

And when you exhale, it’s like you’re letting everything go. Like the smoke scoops up all your worries and expels them from your body and they’re gone for that second.

Whether you’ve ever smoked or not, there’s a truth in those words, because you’ve seen others feel this way, or have felt this way yourself. Now, is Torres a smoker? Once was? Had a family member or friend who smoked? I don’t know and I don’t care. Because there is an honesty in those words, and that’s all that matters. Because that is the heart of storytelling: delivering a truth.

Truth comes to us in many ways. Through our lived or vicarious experiences, but also through our pure imagination.

In Tap Out I wrote many difficult scenes, because they were violent or vulgar or heartbreaking, and one of the worst is the scene where Tony attacks his mother. Both my agent and editor noted this scene with asterisks and questions in the margin. It’s as raw as they come.

I didn’t live like Tony, never saw such violence firsthand, or ever heard of something similar from others. I made it up. It’s pure imagination. I was close enough to Tony’s heart and soul, as if he were real, and so I knew what he would do. That’s all there is to it.

I don’t know what that says about me, or any other author who has the ability to go there. But it happens. And in beautiful ways as well. The Art of Racing in the Rain comes to mind, and The Life of Pi, as do so many other titles.

So, for me, had I been that author, I might have said, “I don’t know that I am the only one. I think I’m fortunate to know what I know, and to use that in writing, but to also have the wherewithal, the imagination, to fill in the blanks as necessary.”