Friday, September 23, 2011

Failure or Success: Which is Worse?

Fear of failure is a common phrase. But there are so many quotes about picking up, moving on, learning from, and becoming better people because of our failures, that I wonder why should we fear it? And why should it stop us from trying our best at something? 

More sensible yet less talked about is fear of success. Success changes everything, not always for the better. Think of people who win the lottery only to go broke again, or actors who become movie stars and lose their privacy. Think of the winners of the Biggest Loser and the scrutiny they're under to stay slim. Think of Mark Zuckerberg who now has 20 Billion things to worry about. Think of aspiring authors who like the quiet life of being a writer then get shot out of a cannon into the public eye when their novels get published. 

Then again, fame and money are so fleeting that maybe the real test is whether or not you can hold on for the brief flight. That's it: Success is like a bull riding. 

Excuse me while I go look for my cowboy boots.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Write What You WANT to Know

There are many American axioms that, like stereotypes, are prevalent because they are true: Location, location, location; Time will tell; Never underestimate the power of body language; and my new favorite: Research, research, research.

Me, in Jackson
I recently spent a week in Jackson, Wyoming because that is the location of my work in progress (WIP). I wrote an entire novel set in Jackson because I've long held a romantic vision of the West. I completed the novel (300 pgs) with a story, start to finish, based on Google Maps, Google Earth and Wikipedia. As any good teacher would tell an aspiring writer, "Don't do that!"

Actually, it's not a bad way to start a story, but the novel would have been a joke if I had never gone to Jackson at all. 

Annie Proulx, of Brokeback Mountain fame, sets many of her stories in her home state of Wyoming. In her work, the setting is as strong as any main character. Ms. Proulx must get the details perfect because they are vital. Ann Patchett set her most popular novel, Bel Canto, in an "unnamed South American country." That's one way to do it ~ be so vague that no one can contest the details. While in Jackson, I learned that C.J. Box (who also lives in Wyoming) set one of his mysteries in Jackson specifically. I bought Out of Range so that I could see how a famous, published author dealt with the details of the same town I chose in his work. (He was also very vague.)

Setting can be as vital or unimportant in any story as the writer choses. But if a writer choses a specific location, he/she better get the details correct. While my storyline was solid and valid, I got many details of the setting incorrect from the information I garnered on the web (I didn't expect to have them perfect, I only wanted the framework. I always intended to visit the town). If I had never set foot in Jackson, anyone who'd ever been there (10,000 residents + 3 MILLION visitors per year!) would have thrown my book down in disgust. "She's obviously never even been there," they would have said.) Because I spent nearly a week in Wyoming, I was able to correct the details and polish my novel, and it is crucially better for the effort.

Some would suggest visiting the location of one's work first. I can see the validity in that. Others might say you really need to live someplace for an extended period of time before you can get the true feeling of a location. I'm sure that's true, too, in certain instances. Again, it depends on how important the setting is to the novel. But the one thing I know for sure is, whether you write about your home town, or you visit the place you write about, a writer MUST know what he/she is talking about first hand. The same philosophy applies to the characters' occupations, hobbies, lifestyles. If you write about a baseball player, you darn well better know something about baseball. Some say, "Write what you know." I say, "Write what you want to know," just be sure to learn all about it before you finish the book. 

Most people seem to agree that too much description of a place or a person can hamper the reader's experience. For the most part, readers don't really care what color the wallpaper is in a room, or weave of the carpet, or how many columns are on the front of the mansion. On the same line, most readers don't want too much medical or job-specific jargon. What people want is an engaging story. The details must enhance the story, but not overwhelm it or be so inaccurate as to turn off readers who know more than the author.  

Novels are entertainment. If a writer wants to draw his/her readers into a new world, he must find the perfect balance between an enveloping atmosphere, realistic characters and an engaging plot that will grab the reader on page one and never let them go. But we writers can entertain ourselves at the same time, can't we? 

Research is not a dirty word. Think of it as making you a smarter person.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Writer's Silver Platter

My view in Colorado
How often do you count your blessings?

Health might be the most important; food is a necessity, as is money; intelligence cannot be minimized or taken for granted—and with that, education; and we cannot forget love. No, this is not an impostor sitting in for Karolyn... who only a few short years ago might have mentioned new black pumps, Prada purses and pearls. Now all I want is to be published (and to retain the aforementioned blessings).
Why do I not have a whiskey in my hand?
As I type this, I'm sitting in a beautiful Colorado home, where my husband and I will spend the next week. He'll be drinking coffee and reading. I'll be transcribing pages and pages of notes I took last week when we were lucky enough to spend the week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on my research trip for my current novel... the one I wrote while we spent the winter in Costa Rica.

Please forgive me here, I'm not bragging. This admission scares the shit out of me.

I spent eight years as an art dealer with an evermore lucrative art gallery (i.e. it started out paying me zero, and ended up paying me a monthly pittance). When the moment came to re-up my lease or close, I closed it so we could travel and I could begin writing. Now I'm back to being paid zero.

The scary part is that I have every opportunity and every bit of the responsibility. I have been given the Writer's Silver Platter: a laptop, a location, loving support and lots and lots of quiet time. When I publish, I will have so many people to thank: my husband for his unending support, my parents for my brain and their support, my children for growing up and leaving the nest, and countless friends who've given me so much encouragement and advice (specifically my former artists and Twitter friends who will not let me quit). But no excuses, and no one to blame if I can't make this happen.

So, now I must produce. I have counted my many blessings, and I'm ready to test my skills. By October 1st, I will be querying agents for "Invented Lives." Get ready World, here I come.