Tag Archives: Jodi Picoult

Today I Resign from Writing (well, maybe)

I’ll start by sharing a recent “brick & mortar” journal entry, dated January 18, 2013:

Geoffrey Whiteway → in Paper & Books

“…this publication and that publication and ebooks and agents and I’ve had it! What if I were to just stop? Give up on the notion of ever becoming an author? Get my manuscript back from [freelance editor’s name here], pay her, thank her, and then put the damn thing in a drawer somewhere. Forever.

 I could focus on teaching, creating a nice house, and preparing to become a mother. That’s it. No more nonsense. Would I be happier?

Would this writing dream chase after me anyway?

How much more satisfied would I be if I STOPPED writing?

Maybe I should consider this.

I’m serious. What if I were to simply…give up???

What do I really want anyway?”

I have been toying with my resignation letter of late. What I find puzzling though, is who would I address it to? My muse? My readers? My future agent? No one?

Yesterday I received my tenth rejection letter for a short story I’ve been sending to various literary magazines. I didn’t even care. I shrugged. Tossed it in the trash and set about feeding the cats.

Ed Davad → in Toys

What’s wrong with me?

I don’t feel discouraged per se; I know the writing business left and right—rejection and uncertainty come with the territory. It has more to do with my personal happiness. My identity. How much of myself do I associate with writing? What percentage of my brain is solely focused on “making it”?

If I were to strip myself from all writing obligations, what would I be left with? Is this why I push myself to write? To be something? As if I’m nothing without the possibility of becoming the next Jodi Picoult?

How many hours of my day would clear up? Suddenly doing laundry would be nothing more than doing laundry. A day off would mean I could climb in bed with a book or watch the entire third season of Beverly Hills 90210 without feeling guilty because I’m “not writing.”

Intrinsic Writer?

The term “intrinsic” suggests something that is built-in, inherent, natural. As in, I was born to write, no one taught me how (not initially anyway) and no one suggested that I write—I just did. As a kid I wrote stories abound, filling countless spiral notebooks with tales of haunted houses, conniving best friends, and handsome boyfriends. In fourth grade, I won the “Best in Storytelling Award” for my fictional piece about a talking vacuum cleaner. Back then I wrote because I liked it. It was organic. I had an idea, so I wrote it down.

Then I got caught in the fog of adolescence and forgot all about my talent.

But in college I rediscovered my insatiable need to write, only this time my priorities were different from my childhood days of scribbling stories and poems. I started using writing to identify myself, to impress others, to become something I never was before. That’s the way it’s been ever since. I push and push and practically delude myself into thinking that I’m already a New York Times # 1 Bestseller. The pain of it all occurs when reality hits: I’m still plowing through a sixth, seventh, eighth draft of my novel, quietly—by myself—in my upstairs office.

Maybe I’ve been doing this for all the wrong reasons.

So I hereby resign from this practice on the grounds of reclaiming my sanity, my morality, and my overall well-being…

Wait.

Nicolas Raymond → in Objects

I’m suddenly reminded of an episode of Mad Men:

Ken Cosgrove, an account man at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, is a fantasy writer on the side. He keeps it on the down low. He’s supposed to be focusing all his energy on the firm, and a side practice—of any kind—is simply forbidden, and many of his superiors have told him just so. So Ken, not be discouraged, uses the pen name “Ben Hargrove” to continue his writing and manages to find some success.

One day, Peggy Olson, one of the ad agency’s copywriters, spots Ken in a diner with his editor. She promises to keep quiet.

Later in the same episode, Ken is at a dinner party with some colleagues—including Don Draper, main character and one of the four partners of the agency. Ken’s wife accidentally spills the details of his writing, along with his pen name. Don eerily questions him on the plotlines, themes, and characterization of his fantasy stories. Ken answers respectfully and calmly, but it’s clear that he’d rather not be having the conversation.

In a later scene Ken admits to Peggy that after having dinner with Draper, he’s decided to “resign” from writing. Ben Hargrove is no more. He shrugs it off, chalks it up to a silly hobby and goes on his way.

However…at the end of the episode, there’s a quick shot of Ken sitting in bed with a pad of paper, writing a story under a new pen name, Dave Algonquin.

I think the point comes across here. Can a writer ever truly stop writing? Is there a force that won’t let us resign—even if we want to? Maybe I’ll keep going for a while. See what happens (rips up resignation letter).

I think there is one line in my journal entry above that is louder than the rest: Would this writing dream chase after me anyway?

You too?  Tell me all about it.

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Filed under The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Why We Write

Far Out: Writing fiction set in different decades

I’ve always been fascinated by decades past, particularly those before my birth.  My novel spans the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’ve written short stories set in similar periods. It’s not easy to capture the ‘vibe’ of another decade, because it goes beyond saying, “My story is set in the seventies so I’ll have my characters watch The Brady Bunch.”  Dropping popular celebrity names, fashion styles, or any peppering of timely—and obvious—pop culture references will not do the setting’s vibe justice.

When I first began to research my novel’s era, I was biting off more than I could chew. Countless hours were spent memorizing hairdos, current events, slang terms, and more. None of which, might I add, turned out to be successful in creating my story’s (totally far out) vibe. In movies and television shows these elements may be important due to their visual natures, but it doesn’t work the same way in literature. Though some well-placed epoch-relevant allusions work well, there is no need to constantly remind the reader what decade it is. The groove should take care of itself.

Nicolas Raymond → in Objects

So taking a step back and re-analyzing the situation, I found that taking a broad, academic approach to researching a different decade works wonders. Take any ten year period and think about the big picture. What were people’s hopes and fears at the time? What philosophies surrounded the era? This is what I mean by vibe.

Two great books have aided my process:

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and The Making of Eighties America  by Phillip Jenkins

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota

Both books gave a comprehensive overview of the 1970’s and 1980’s, respectively. Just having a sense of the overall climate of the two decades gave me tremendous insight.

In the meantime, I’ve developed some strategies to live by when researching the glory days:

  1. Peruse books, magazines, and newspapers from the era. I got lucky when my father-in-law came across boxes of old Newsweek compilation books in his garage. The books were categorized by year.  From obscure cigarette brands to long-forgotten car models, vintage kitchen equipment, and not to mention, the big stories of the day, these books greatly contributed to my setting’s ‘vibe.’
  2. Watch television shows, movies, and music videos (if applicable, otherwise, listen to the music) of the era. Also, read books written during the era. Particularly with film and television, this helps with the visuals. The semi-faded backgrounds, the slower day-to-day pace, the humor, and of course, the ‘look and feel’ of the decade. Translate this into the writer’s mind, and somehow, magically, it ends up on the page. I’ve made a point to watch movies like Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club, and other pop culture classics circa…well, fill in the blank. Nick at Nite can be helpful, as can old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
  3. Watch television shows, movies, music videos, and read books that portray a different era. Get some ideas on how it’s been done. Which ones are believable? That 70s show, Happy Days, Mad Men, and The Wonder Years come to mind. As do films such as Dazed and Confused, Rock Star, The Sandlot, Forrest Gump and A League of Their Own.Some great fiction that depict the days of yore? Try Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance (Told in parts during the 1930s—what a feat!), and of course, many more.

My main point in this: the details do matter, but so does the bigger backdrop. Establishing setting (either time or place) on details alone just won’t do the trick. The vibe is crucial, even in its most subtle forms. Without the vibe, the story’s just stuck in some timeless purgatory.

Have you ever written in an era other than this one? Did you go back even further (in other words, a ‘real’ historical novel)? What was your experience like? How do you capture ‘the vibe?’

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Breaking Through, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

My People

The writer must always leave room for the characters to grow and change. If you move your characters from plot point to plot point, like painting by the numbers, they often remain stick figures. They will never take on a life of their own. The most exciting thing is when you find a character doing something surprising or unplanned. Like a character saying to me: ‘Hey, Richard, you may think I work for you, but I don’t. I’m my own person.’”
—Richard North Patterson

My characters are with me quite often. They kind of float around the top of my head. Like angels, in a sense, only I know for certain they’re there. I don’t know how else to explain it. They did not come from me, they came at me. I’m thoroughly convinced of this. Psychics say they hear voices, or the dead, etc. I do too. Sometimes I swear they must be from another dimension. I honestly don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve posted a link to a clip of author Jodi Picoult talking to Ellen DeGeneres. In the interview, Picoult calls writing “successful schizophrenia.” I was beyond pleased when I realized that I understood what she meant. That’s exactly what it is.

The protagonist in my novel simply arrived one day. He just showed up uninvited. OK, maybe I crafted him into something he wasn’t when he first came my way, but for real, he sprung up. Boink. like a weed (a good weed of course, he’s a great guy). A few days later, another character knocked on the door to my latent, subliminal, intrinsic writer’s brain. Then another, then another after that. At that point I started thinking, and soon, even more just bubbled up to the surface with names, backgrounds, etc. They told me who they were. They told me what they wanted. Half through the novel, one more came by. One I didn’t plan for. He was the most surprising. It’s funny too, because he enters the novel the same way he entered my mind: Out of the great, wide, expansive blue.

Sound easy? No. Not so much. It’s like I am channeling them, so in essence, things often come out distorted. They don’t always open up so easily in the beginning. I have to keep plugging along, letting them guide me. Some days, of course, they don’t guide me. They get all huffy, and puffy, and refuse to speak. They get sucked back into that realm they originally came from and sometimes they don’t come back for days. When they do, they steer me in a whole different direction, and soon I spinning in circles, ready to kill off each and every one of them. “You want your story written, huh?” I’ll say, “Then cooperate, dammit.” And eventually they do. Because they’re my people. And I love them.

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writing Process