On writing about the Subject and not the Story

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s classic, On Writing, for like the twentieth time. If you’ve never read it, and even if you have no writerly aspirations, do so. If you ever want to write for a living, then definitely read it, along with Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird and Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Through re-reading King’s advice, I realized what I did wrong with my failed manuscript. I wrote about the subject matter of the story and not the story itself. That may seem like semantics, but the approach in storytelling matters. Instead of spending time with my characters, I asked my characters to spend time focusing on things I wanted them to discuss. Classic mistake.

The characters always guide.  They do what they want based on who they are as people and what motivations drive them. This makes them real, human, flawed, worth reading about.

This was not a pleasurable epiphany, but one I’m glad I had. And I bring it up because I believe in our current climate this type of scenario may happen with other writers and creative individuals. We are so infuriated with our current environment, we want to do something about it with the tools we have, words. But regardless of the skill set of the person wielding any tool, the approach is still everything.

If a carpenter built  “about a house” instead of actually building one, I’m not sure the results would be desirable. Same with writing. It’s perfectly fine to have a mental sense of what the story is about, but that’s only because of the action that’s taking place, the emotions on the page, the push and pull of characters as they move through this life they’re living.

I know you know this. I know I know this, but a little reminder can’t hurt.

And while I’m realizing things and making changes, I’ve also decided to put my YouTube channel to use. I have my book trailers there, but I also think it would be a great benefit to librarians trying to book talk my work, or to any reader who is researching who I am, to have a face with the name and stories. Therefore, I’m thinking of posting on Fridays, and for the next few weeks will cover my books, one at a time. After that, I’m open to any suggestions.

So, if you want to see where I write or what my outlines look like, or what books have most influenced my career, or how I get my inspiration, let me know. Do so here, via my email contact, or leave notes on my YouTube channel.

Additionally, there’s still time to win a copy of Look Past over at Goodreads, but make sure you enter before the clock runs out today.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the change of the season and the beginning of new things in your life, be them old things remembered, or new avenues to travel 😉

Time and Place

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I’ve never enjoyed the expression, “There’s a time and place for everything.” If you’re on the receiving end of it, it typically means that you’ve made a mistake with your timing, or you are not suitable for the place you are in. For quite some time I’ve felt this way while writing and revising the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past two years.

Note that I used manuscript, and not book. To use another idiom, “This dog won’t hunt.” Or, plainly, this manuscript will not be sold and become a book.

This is not a reflection on me as a writer, because this is completely normal (although, trust me, it feels like a complete reflection on my abilities). It’s merely a matter of time and place. Now is not the time for this story. That’s a matter of business factors and industry demand. Books are business, and every business must know the waters before setting sail.

This is devastating to me. I’ve revised this particular manuscript, in varying degrees, seven times. And still…

Therefore, with a bit of a heavy heart, and feeling very much like I was in a place I didn’t belong, yesterday I went to the Central New York finals for Battle of the Books, held at the New York State Museum in Albany.

I’d been invited by the organizer to present to the 200 or so teens, of which middle and high school teams competed in a timed, Jeopardy-like quiz competition, where they had to properly identify the title and author(s) of books, based on short excerpts read to them. They had read all books prior, and Dare Me was on the list for the HS students.

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Middle School teams

Fortunately, I brought along two middle school students, my daughter, Grace, and her friend, Caroline. They were a welcome distraction from the general nervousness I felt about presenting, and my fear that when quotes about Dare Me came up, none of the competitors would have a clue.

The competition was fierce, with students buzzing in before quotes were even finished being read. Oneonta won the middle school bracket because of their unbelievable knowledge of the books, and their member, Emily a.k.a. “trigger finger.”

It was a tighter race for the High School teams. Oneonta and Fort Plain tied, and were forced into a tie-breaker. No lie, had Oneonta known the last quote used from Dare Me, they would have won, but Fort Plain ended up taking the top spot.

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High School teams

Watching the teams compete was as thrilling as watching any sporting event I’ve seen, and I was unbelievably impressed with the dedication and effort that must have gone into securing a spot at the finals.

I then had a brief break to tour the museum with my entourage, but shortly was back in the auditorium, under an enormous screen, with my presentation looming. Fortunately, I had my girls with me, because they distracted me with stolen, winning cup selfies, and karaoke with Adele. The sound system in the room is amazing.

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What stolen trophy?

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Karaoke with Adele 

But then the teens filed in, and it was go time. I did what I do: entertained the hell out of the crowd, telling stories about the difficulty of getting into publishing, as well as the struggle to stay alive once in. They were enthralled, and that bit of self-doubt I’d been feeling vanished for a while.

Once the presentation was over, I felt as I always do: hopeful that they’d enjoyed and that I hadn’t wasted anyone’s time. Id’ forgotten about the signing.

There was no book seller onsite, so the students who wanted books signed had to bring their own copies. I sat at the front of the auditorium and the line stretched up the steps. So many had come with books and posters and bookplates and T-shirts and forearms and hands for me to sign. It’s impossible to express the gratitude I felt in that moment. None of these teens knew prior to coming to this event if I’d be any good, and they certainly didn’t know how down on myself I felt. Did they ever lift my spirits.

During the signing, I received a T-shirt made for me, signed by the team, which is totally awesome, but then I had one of the most surreal moments. A student shared with me that after having read Press Play, he was inspired to tackle his health and had already lost 20 pounds doing so. Mind blown.

BOB shirt

I write fiction for teens, not motivational non-fiction. I write scary, often violent, and downright disturbing stories. That these kids loved. That these kids found motivation from. That these kids then read on their buses back to their hometowns, many, many miles away, and sent me messages on Instagram thanking me and telling me how awesome the books were they’d just started.

Time and Place. What a difference a day makes. Pick your idiom about needing the rain for a rainbow. They all work. Yesterday was equally necessary for me and for those amazing teens. Thank you to all who showed me much love yesterday. You have no idea how I needed it.

And have no fear, I’m writing another manuscript. I have other projects already written that may come to fruition. So, a swing and a miss, but not down and out. As they say, there’s a time and a place for everything.

 

Carpe Diem

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As an English teacher, I think it’s law that I enjoy Dead Poets Society. And I do, especially Robin William’s character whispering to his students, as if from the other side, “Carpe diem.” Yes, it’s a bit morbid, but in reality, it’s a stark reminder that this life is often impossibly short.

Recently, a man I grew up with passed away suddenly. He was my age with two daughters the same ages as my own. Attending his wake was one of the most difficult things I’ve done recently.  It cut too close to the bone and I was rattled for days by images of the funeral home. 

However, it also shifted my thinking. Today marks the first anniversary of my father-in-law’s death, which was the apex to one of the worst years of my life. Today, my wife is much better than she was a year ago. As are her siblings and her mother and her relatives. As are my own children. I’m all right, too, but with this most recent tragedy, I have again been reminded how fragile life is.

I felt hollow reading comments online about how sad it was for someone so young to be lost. While true, the deeper pain resonated with me. That which his parents will carry, as will his wife, his daughters, and anyone else whose life he touched. And the vastness of what he will miss in life is simply astounding. It is almost too much to consider.

Yet, that’s what I do. Maybe it’s my sensibility as an author, to think of life in terms of stories. But I’m not alone. Viola Davis’s Oscar speech struck a very deep cord with me:

“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories, the stories of the people who dreamed.”

She continued, “I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

This is exactly it. To live a life. To seize the day–carpe diem. 

Recently, though, it’s been difficult to feel connected, to feel plugged in, to feel as if there is this great hope of a life lived. Our society is in shambles. I can barely go on any social media site without feeling the pit in my stomach deepen. So I’ve disconnected, pulled back and have only lurked and at times posted on Instagram. Not because I want to ignore, but because I feel myself falling into the precipice of despair.

I don’t want to live hyper-focused on the negative. Trust me, I don’t want to be a hypocrite and ignore it either. Truly, I want to be active in the resistance, but I also want to live a life. Because they get cut short every day, and I still have so much that I want to do and to prove and to understand and to change.

It’s a difficult balance, and I’m not sure I’m succeeding. I am trying. I am still writing. I am waiting to see if and when I will have another book out. I have just begun another project that I feel will be a solid story.  I am thrilled that Moonlight won. I adored that movie. I believe that stories are worth telling, those about change, about fighting for what you love, about being the light in the darkness, about living a life, about seizing the day. Often, in spite of it all. Because so often this world feels hell bent on crushing the spirit.

That simply cannot be. Because it is in remembrance to my father-in-law, Christoper Connelly, and my recently departed friend, Rich Gilooly, and all those who Viola suggests we exhume, that I will continue to push forward, and to share stories that I know will inspire us to be a little braver, a bit more sensitive, and always aware that there are whispers from the other side, to which we should be listening.

Pump Up The Volume

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Last night, I was in my car, and happened to catch one of the local DJs talking about his approach to Facebook amid our new political era. He has turned off political posts in his feed. I don’t know he did that, because, I really don’t use FB that much, but even if I did know, I wouldn’t follow his lead. Yes, like many of you, I have unfriended or stopped being able to see those people who post nothing but political posts, because they are always overly partisan, and not typically grounded in anything that seeks to educate or is based on facts.

However, I use Twitter devoutly. I follow people from all walks of life, who tweet or retweet articles and information that reinforces and challenges my opinions. I think this is good and necessary. Because the advice the DJ was offering is garbage. You must stay informed. Sticking your head in the sand is always a problem, regardless of how your politics lean.

Being blissfully uninformed is not the kind of civic responsibility I want emulated. I’m sure this DJ stays in the loop in other ways, aside from social media, which is VERY smart, but to say that you don’t care what your friends and neighbors and community think, and that you’ll just ignore the world until everything settles down is one hell of an entitled position to hold. Don’t stare at another cat video. Read something.

This entitled thinking is useless for those who cannot escape the realities of the here and now. Some people have been deeply and immediately affected, and others will soon be. To ignore this because it’s “not my problem” is a disservice to the American people. When members of the armed forces show up at airports, stating, “This is not what I put my life on the line for,” I don’t think you can tell people to ignore the issues.

I recently had a conversation with my daughter about disability. In case you are just tuning in, both my youngest daughter and I have type 1 diabetes. We can’t just blissfully ignore our disability, because there is no way to put it on pause, to take a day off, to not be immersed in its issues daily. I’m not thrilled about this, and would love a break, but I’m also a realist, and I believe this is a profound analogy for today. I have to look. I have to read. It is my responsibility as a citizen of this country, as it is my responsibility as a patient. Do the work.

Therefore, if you are on social media, don’t hide from the rhetoric. Pump up the volume. Read. Listen. Engage. Consider both sides and then make your decision. Because if you’re not, if you’re like that DJ just waiting for the storm to pass, shame on you. We are clearly at a turning point in our country, and you should want to be so involved that when it turns, you can say, “I’m glad I had a hand in that.”

And if you’re looking for reputable sources, consider these:

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The Winter of Our Discontent

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I could say that I’ve been too busy revising my latest manuscript to write a post recently, and that would be true. But that’s not the only reason I have shied away. Honestly, I’ve feared being too bleak.

A shocking sentiment, I know, from the guy who brought you Tap Out, but it’s true. I have been deeply frustrated since November, and now that we are facing a change in power, I am almost completely unmoored from my faith in a just world. Or, at least a just country.

It’s not that I don’t understand how and why we are where we are. I’ve read so much, from both sides, that I feel like I have a handle on the process and the perspectives that came into play. However, that understanding brings me no solace. It doesn’t help in dealing with whatever is to come. And I think that is the worst, the fear of the unknown, especially when the unknown is so alarming.

Really, this isn’t even about the politics. It’s about the shift in tone and rhetoric. There’s a self-serving and callous attitude that has emerged, and I fear for the teens and children who are inadvertently affected. Post-election, I’ve heard more crude and crass speak from teens and the younger children I know. There’s a disposition of, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of story.” As those famous lyrics go, “If nobody’s right, then everybody’s wrong.”

This is the bleakness I fear. So, I’m looking for the light. I’m looking for any articles or books or shows or movies that tackle this with clarity. I genuinely appreciated the take Black-ish had in their episode “Lemons.” It was nuanced and non-partisan.  The type of thinking I’d like to see more of.

In my latest manuscript I’ve taken on a very difficult subject: race relations in America. In spite of the bleak aspect of the topic, I forced myself to look for the light. I was writing and revising this during all of the election season (September-January). It’s impossible to think what was occurring in our world didn’t directly affect my words. But I write realistic fiction, so that’s the point.

Still, I worry about that story, not simply because I want it to sell, but because the message, for some, might come off as contrived, as if there’s no way teens could ever figure out what adults can’t. But that is my light: that this next generation of voters can and will. That this next generation will turn away from the negativity and the hostility and embrace something greater than themselves: humanity.

As far as I know, we’ve got this one trip on this planet. It is my deepest belief that we need to spend it with our eyes open, seeking out the good, trying to make things better, and not believing ourselves to be the center of every story. The world is vast and has much to teach us. But we need to be open to the message.

We’re not there yet, but there’s always light after the dark. Spring follows winter. Now, we may be discontented, but that is not fixed and permanent. Nothing truly is. We are all malleable.

Merry, Merry

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The image sums things up, to a degree. 92,000 words, which took me 15 weeks to write. Yet, this is a story I’ve now written four times. Not revised four times. I rewrote from page 1, four times. 

Ah, the life of an author 😉

Really, I’m thrilled with this draft, and think this time it will pass the test with my agent.

For now, I can focus solely on Christmas and the rest of the season. I wish the same for you. Clear the deck. Remember what matters. Embrace your loved ones.

Merry, merry to you all. I’ve been hard at work so I can provide good news in the coming year. In the meantime, thank you for all the support you have shown me.