A Few Things I’ve Learned About Writing Since I knew It All

When you first begin writing, the horizon extends promisingly before you. All you see is your creativity and the gift of your words that readers will surely devour. You know intellectually that there will be bumps but those will be quickly cast aside as your energy and muse pour on the coal, slinging amazing ideas into the world. And in this sunshine coated-beginning, you think you actually have very little to learn and a great deal of wisdom to share. Just raw passion and energy. Ah, youth.

I started writing seriously, and by that I mean sending my stories and articles out to be published, at age 23. I’d been a voracious reader for some time and had written some short film scripts and a couple of plays in high school but nothing that I’d show anyone, except to my closest friends with whom I shared my secret desire to write. It would be two years before I had my first professional publication. Acceptances came a little quicker after that, but so did the rejections. Lots of them. Hundreds of them, in fact.

So here, in no particular order, are a few things I’d tell that young but excited fella about what lay ahead…

  • As good as you think those first things you write are, they’re really not. What you’re feeling is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not quality of writing. Nothing wrong with that. But as master Hemingway says, the first million words are crap. After that the quality starts to come. But it takes a while to write a million words.
  • Don’t be discouraged by rejection. You’re going to get lots of them. And when you get an editor’s personalized response, understand how rare those are. Rejection means you’re putting yourself out there and that you’re completing something. AND…it has nothing to do with you personally. It’s a particular editor’s view of your writing in that moment. Rejection also produces perseverance and tenacity…if you let it.
  • Finish everything you begin, even if it’s not working. Walk away from it for a while if you must but always complete the story, article, script or novel. If it still doesn’t work after you’ve finished put it in a drawer. Completing your writing gets you out of the habit of starting numerous projects and never finishing anything. Doing so also puts you ahead of 98% of the people out there who say ‘they’ve always wanted to be a writer but just couldn’t find the time.’ You are finding the time and it separates you from the pack. In some ways, it makes you a professional.
  • You’ll start out copying other writer’s voices; Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler. That’s okay, because almost every writer does this in a quest to write the kind of stories they like to read. But keep pushing through this period because your voice is in there and it will come out, but only with time. The imitations and cliches will fall away and your sensibilities, your filter of experience, your psychic roadmap – your voice – will emerge. Trust it.
  • You’ll reach a point where you’ve published a few things and then everything seems to stall. The writing seems flat. Your ideas dry up. You think you’ve reached the height of your capabilities. You haven’t. Just a plateau. Keep writing, climb over the hill and you’ll break through. Until you hit the next plateau. It’s part of the journey.
  • Your writing will get better if…you keep writing, keep reading, keep trying to improve, not settling for what has been and taking risks with your words. Don’t be afraid to try new styles, new genres, new techniques. It’s all good. And…never stop learning and be both a sponge and humble with criticism. Take your medicine. It’s good for you.
  • Write from your heart. You’ll hear that a lot but what it means is write from what moves you…what frightens you…what makes you deeply sad…what makes you ecstatic. Remember to write from that place where the real you exists. Not the masks you put on for others or even the ones you sometimes wear for yourself. No. Write from the naked you, the one that God created because that you is totally unique and he has something to say.
  • And remember, always remember why you started writing in the first place. Because it was fun. Because it takes you places where only writing can go. Because there’s something inside you that needs to get out. Because you’re supposed to. And because it’s a gift and you can.

The 23-year-old me was full of vigor, dreams, and a seemingly tireless work ethic. I miss that kid. Well, some of him anyway. What he also had was a lot of naiveté and ignorance about the writing business and objectivity about his own words. We’ve grown up a lot since then (hopefully not too much) and I still carry that magic he always believed was in the stories. We’ve written some things that have had a touch of that magic and have even touched others. What a wonderful thing that is. But we’ll keep trying to get the magic perfect, where the story soars and goes beyond us. Yep. We’ll keep trying.

Because we’re a writer.

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A Day In The Life

So what exactly does a typical day look like when you’re writing for a living? I’ve been asked this several times. And it’s a little hard to answer, actually. I’m not sure there is a ‘typical’ day. Especially, if you’re not specializing in one kind of writing and providing words for a variety of projects. But on any given day, the words must be put down, whether they flow or not. Now my writing schedule is in the evenings or on weekends and looks different. But when I was writing full time, what follows was a real day of writing for this particular writer. . .

7:30 – 8:00AM: Climb into chair, check e-mail to see if there are any emergencies. Answer a couple quickly, then call-up a document of copy for a health care brochure. Got most of it done yesterday. Read back over what I wrote. Shorten one paragraph, clarify a specified procedure and punch up a closing line. Pretty satisfied. Let it rest until late in the afternoon to give it fresh eyes and then make any more corrections and then send off to client.

8:00 – 10:00: Begin a video script for a Northwest resort that is rebranding their image. Somewhere in the 5-7 minute range. Come up with a montage of images for the opening and then begin to write narration that hopefully doesn’t feel too narrationly. More natural, inviting. Finish a draft of the first third of the script and push back from the desk. Take a quick walk outside to stir the gray matter.

10:30 – 11:30: Rewrite an essay for an airline magazine. The editor liked the piece but wondered if I couldn’t punch up an incident that is central to the article. In other words, make it more humorous. And of course, I’m more than happy to do that. It’s really only rewriting part of a paragraph; rewording/structuring three sentences, really. It takes me an hour. Remember, dying is easy; comedy is hard.

11:30 – 1:30: Answer e-mails. Get a little thrill when an editor for a large magazine takes interest in my query (brief summary/proposal for an article) and says she’d be interested in seeing the piece. I shoot it off to her with a little prayer. I’m then brought back down to Earth with the disappointing news that a fiction piece was rejected. The personal note from the editor is only a little solace. Then send out a query for another proposed magazine article. I get a response from a regional corporate producer who has looked at my script samples and said he’ll keep me in mind, which means, don’t call us we’ll call you. It’s now time for a bite, peruse the news on the web, read a writing blog or two.

1:30 – 3:30: Sent out script samples to ten production companies and ad agencies in the region in hopes they are looking for freelance writers. I’ve learned that I have to actively market at the same time I get the writing done. Can’t put it on the back burner or the work flow is too choppy…or stops all together.

3:30 – 5:00: Go back over health care brochure. Make one change. Satisfied and send it off to the client for review. Start some web copy for the home page of a new client. Kind of hit a wall. Writing feels dry and forced. Push away from the desk and call it a day.

And that indeed is a typical day. A fairly productive day. Not everything went well but still got some work done and the promise of tomorrow brings another chance to make the words better.

It’s a hard, exciting, frustrating, enlightening and wondrous way to spend a day.

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Looking Forward With A Backward Glance

Every year between Christmas and New Years I take an inventory of writing projects I’ve accomplished the past year as well as looking at what I want to tackle in the coming year.

Before I started working the current job I have (one that I love and am thankful for) I wrote full-time for about three years. It was a dream fulfilled as well as a pen’s eye view of the roller coaster ride that is freelance writing. But my writing regime has changed since I’m not writing full-time anymore. Though, ironically, I think I’m still getting quite a bit done because I have to put stricter parameters on my schedule due to my full-time work.

In 2012 I wrote over a fairly wide spectrum of projects and genres. Here’s what it looks like I completed:

  • Published a young adult novel called Lost & Found
  • Published a short story collection called My Eye On Home
  • Was commissioned to write and nearly half-way completed on a biography.
  • Placed four articles in national publications
  • Revised True North, a full-length play and had it selected for a public reading at a regional theatre.
  • Completed Last Run, a new one-act play and began submitting it to contests.
  • Taught a Playwriting class to kids 12 and up.
  • Wrote a new article and two new short stories.
  • Wrote a bunch of corporate writing; web copy, television commercials, brochure copy and some brand writing.
  • Adapted three short stories for the stage for a collection of Christmas plays.

Looking back that seems like a fair amount, given my job, work out on the farm, wrangling an ever-growing menagerie and trying to spend as much time as I can with a cherished wife. And yet, I feel like I wasted so much time. There were projects I wanted to complete that I didn’t even get started.

So looking ahead, here’s what I hope to cross the finish line by the end of the year:

  • A full length play concerning JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis (started)
  • Complete a novel that was started a couple of years ago (about 50 pages in)
  • Write a screenplay (western) that’s been percolating for some time.
  • Complete another play that is in outline form
  • Complete afore-mentioned Biography
  • Continue submitting short stories and articles
  • Be more specified about the corporate writing I take on
  • Blog more

Looking at that list is a little daunting. But I’ve actually scheduled out a minimum number of words I want to get down each week. I also have deadlines for first drafts for each project. So it’s not only possible to accomplish these tasks but even likely. Of course, life comes in now and again to remind us our plans are sometimes good for a snicker. Still, had I not written down my writing goals, I wouldn’t have completed the projects from the previous year.

And that’s why I’m writing this down now; to remind me what I’ve committed to as well as give myself a gentle kick in the butt.

I’ll let you know come December how well I did. . .

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Faithful

It’s an interesting thing writing about faith. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tenuous. Always vulnerable.

From a Christian perspective, making faith a critical element of a piece, be it non-fiction, fiction, screenplay or otherwise, usually brings a response. More often than not, a negative one. There’s a lot of reasons for this but I think the main ones are that if it’s didactic, people feel preached at. They generally don’t like that. If it comes across pat, they dismiss it as being unrealistic, which is often true. And even when it comes across sincere and genuine, people are often dubious.

I’m speaking of the general populace here. I’m not talking about writing a faith-infused piece to folks who already believe; the choir, as it were. I’m talking about crafting a story where faith plays an important role, where it’s central to the make-up of a character, where it actually makes a difference in someone’s life and infuses their decisions, response to events, colors their worldview.

You know, like in real life.

Some of our greatest works of literature wrestled with the issue of faith. The Brothers Karamazov (faith and doubt) by Dostoyevsky, Les Miserables (the power of forgiveness) by Mr. Hugo and I would argue A Christmas Carol by Dickens deals with the heart of a man being effectively changed, which is at the core of the Christian faith.

So faith is a deposit that is rich to mine and always will be. And yet, it’s one of those areas that make most of us uncomfortable. It’s personal and universal. True faith creates a transparency that is both compelling and uncomfortable, making us want to draw closer and hide all at the same time.

Why is that?

Probably because faith, or the ability to yearn for something beyond ourselves, is at the very center of who we are as human beings. And I happen to be one of those who think we all believe in something, whether it’s something outside of who we are or simply in ourselves.

And that makes for an awful lot of grist to write about. . .and it’s one of the hardest things to write about well.

What pieces have you read that have been thought-provoking along the lines of faith that have stayed with you?

Good writing will do that. It may even be the agent that brings about change.

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The Short & Short Of It

Short stories.

Have always loved reading them. They feel more like munching on chips and salsa than taking part in a full course dinner that is the reading of a novel.

But, man, are short stories difficult to write well. I so admire writers that can transport you in a single sitting that a short tale offers you.

I have a short story collection coming out in a couple of weeks called My Eye On Home. Since this is a blog on writing I thought I’d give you a preview of the collection via the Afterwards of the book which talks a little about the writing of each story. Even though you haven’t read the stories (and I hope you will) it’s sometimes fun to take a peek behind the curtains, or to try to answer that unanswerable question, where do you get your ideas…

These stories span almost twenty years. The first one was written in 1991 (Widowers) and the last one in 2010 (Kindred Spirits). Widowers, Freefall and My Eye On Home have been published. For those interested in writerly stats and such, Widowers received eighteen rejections before being purchased. My Eye On Home inspired a reader of the magazine it was published in to ask permission to adapt it for the stage, which was wonderfully gratifying. And Freefall morphed from a non-fiction piece into a short story.

Short stories are fun to write. They’re also a beast to do well. I was spoon fed on the stories of Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, some Faulkner, Twain and Hawthorne. Stories require an exactness, a capturing, if you will, of a moment exploded in time. Novels give you leeway to travel down some rabbit trails (as long as their interesting trails). Short stories do not. Yet they still have to have a beginning, middle and end. They still have to etch real people into your hearts and minds and they still must do what all writing is supposed to do; transport you out of the here and now into the what if.

Freefall. If truth be told was inspired by two things. One was ‘Breathing Method,’ a novella in Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons. In his tale, a group of older men tell almost supernatural tales in an old English drawing room. It’s a story within a story. I loved how he played with an almost British literature sensibility and I loved the camaraderie of the men and the club itself as much as the tale told. But I wanted my setting to be more contemporary as well as the chance to get inside the heads of WWII vets, which was the second inspiration. I’d just connected with a member of my father’s WWII B-17 crew and we instantly hit it off, developing a wonderful friendship over the last three years of his life. In part this story is dedicated to him.

Man of the City. Walking through a rare snowy day in the Pacific Northwest near Christmas, I got to thinking what it might be like to encounter Charles Dickens near the end of his life. What would he be like? What would he say? What concerns or observations would he have? I finished my walk as the snow cast a serene setting and wrote the bulk of the story that evening.

Kindred Spirits. This is an ode to my dog. Actually to two dogs I’ve owned. One growing up and one I currently have. Dogs have played an important role in my life and it seems like the hardest times I’ve had to endure have been with a furry faithful companion at my side. The story is also an homage to the Bradbury story, The Emissary.

My Eye On Home. I had just seen Ken Burn’s The Civil War for the second time through and was taken with David McCullough’s descriptions of the young soldiers memories of home. I decided I wanted to explore that world and found myself falling in the love with the main character. Even though I knew he was doomed, I was taken with his courage, sensitivity and faith. It really is true that sometimes stories write themselves. I wish I had known Will. I would like to have met him.

Widowers. This story’s first seeds were planted on a day trip to Crater Lake in my home state of Oregon. For those of you that don’t know, Crater Lake is a majestic and breathtaking body of water formed when a volcano pushed upward in a massive eruption thousands of years ago. The resulting lake is perhaps the deepest in the United States at nearly 2000 feet. I was there one day and saw a small boat making a trek out to the Wizard Island, a tiny atoll in the middle of the lake. I got to thinking, what would happen if during this pleasant sunny day, with just a handful of tourist and rangers, a great Plesiosaur rose out from the depths just feet from that tiny boat. What kind of impact would that have?

As often happens, I didn’t get to the keyboard right away. The story percolated for a while. Years actually and it changed and developed into its current form. I always really liked the story but couldn’t seem to get anyone to bite on it. Finally, after seven years and eighteen rejections, an editor from American Airlines Magazine (who were still publishing fiction in the late nineties, God bless ’em) called me and said they’d love to purchase the story. Not only that but it was more money than I’d ever seen for a story and they put an outstanding illustration with it as well.

Sometimes stories need time to find where they’re supposed to live.

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Thank You, ‘Papa.’

The tributes are coming hard and fast, spilling over in adoration and love.

Just as it should be.

But it doesn’t seem to quell the fact that I thought he’d live forever. After all, Mr. Electrico dubbed it so.

Ray Bradbury was a ‘Papa’ to me. Not a literary Hemingway papa as Ernest was often called, though for different reasons. No, I called Mr. Bradbury Papa in the same way Steven Spielberg called him that. After Ray told Steven that ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ was the greatest film of the genre, Steven remarked that he wouldn’t have made the film if it weren’t for ‘It Came From Outer Space’ a film based on Bradbury’s story. Then, as the story goes, Steven said, “Are you still my Papa?” And Ray smiled, nodding, “Yes, I’m still your Papa.” Meaning, that we all sat at his storytelling knee, weaned on his imagination and metaphors, enraptured with his lyricism as we fell headlong into his stories.

A friend came to me once and said he was going to a convention where Bradbury was the guest of honor and that he might have the chance to speak to him personally, and did I want him to say anything for me? My mind scrambled and I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote, ‘Thank you for being my Papa. And thank you for giving me back my home town in the form of Green Town.’ And gave it to my friend, saying, “…if you get a chance, give this to him.” My friend returned a week later and said he had something for me. Apparently he did have the chance to talk with Bradbury briefly and told him about my love of his work and gave him my sheet of paper. Dan, my friend, handed the paper back to me, smiling. On it, was written, Dear John, No—thank you!! Ray Bradbury.

It’s framed over my desk as I write this.

Ray’s writing took us to Mars, alongside a fire chief torn about his duty to burn books, to a African Veldt that came alive in our living room, and washed us in the golden glow of endless summers in a small Midwestern town that we all immediately recognized.

My own writing sparks from the small town in Oregon where I grew up. But it wasn’t until I read Bradbury and discovered the sheer joy he took in his writing, that I felt I was allowed to write about the wonder of my childhood, the town I grew-up in and the bright flame that burned in my own imagination. He gave me that. And I will forever be grateful.

He’s gone now, but not really. His intensity of joy and wonder will always make his books pop off the shelves. He invites us in and regardless if the tale is horror, science fiction, fantasy or mystery, he never concludes before leaving a waft of hopefulness and an air of wonder.

I’m so grateful to have discovered him in my lifetime. And he will live forever, as I’m turning to him now to take another stroll through Green Town, letting him show me the sights I already know but yearn to see again.

Thank you, Papa, for giving us your words.

For giving us you.

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Journeys

I just finished reading WILD by Cheryl Strayed. I was thoroughly engrossed. It’s about a young woman,  having just lost her mother to cancer and divorced from her husband – all before the age of thirty, sets out to sort herself out while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California to Washington state. It’s a story of tenacity, heartbreak, resolution and self-discovery. She tells her story with brutal honesty but also a lucidity that opens the trail up for us to discover both the physical and emotional landscapes. By the end, when she reaches the Columbia River and puts her hand on the Bridge of the Gods that spans Oregon and Washington, you shed some tears of relief with her and think back on the expanse of her journey and just how far she’s come. 

As I closed the book it got me thinking about journeys. We all have them. And whether they’re told over a beer or written down in book form, they still make an impact. 

Some that come to mind of those I know or have known….

A teacher who faced prejudice all his life, only to impact students for a lifetime by opening up the worlds of literature and theater for them. He would later transform at-risk youth with the beauty of art and helping others… 

A girl who for years endured the sexual abuse of her father only to find escape in art and who somehow, someway, kept her heart soft and tender towards others by having an incredible generosity of spirit… 

A man who’s battled alcoholism most of his life yet ministers to people all over the world, including tenderly sharing with prostitutes on Bourbon Street and living with and serving a family in the garbage dumps of Juarez, Mexico… 

A woman who endured ridicule and loneliness growing up, finding escape in the theater, only to become a highly respected concert performer and who gives willing of her time, treasure and talent…. 

Our lives may seem small and nothing ‘big’ ever seems to happen to us. But raising an autistic child and seeing him bear fruit as an adult or surviving a devastating divorce that leaves one crippled only to have entire vistas surprisingly open up before us, including our hearts, our journeys are worth relating. It’s not a matter of big or small, it’s one of relateability. And all of us have lives and experiences that universally resonate. 

And sharing those lives, in whatever form, may prove to be the catalyst for inspiration or hope for someone else.

 So what’s your story..?

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