Archive | June, 2013

Giving Credit where Credit is due . . .

18 Jun

Writing is indeed a solitary endeavor, but you really can’t do it all alone, all by yourself. You have to have help of some sort. I frequently mention my Dad – who always told me I could do anything I wanted to – even if it took me entirely too many years to actually believe him! Then there was my maternal Grandmother who was a demon with the ruler – across my knuckles if I did something to displease her. I learned spelling, punctuation, and proper sentence structure (including parsing!) in self-defense. I would much rather have been helping Grandpa who was a plumber, but Grandma ruled the house, so I learned English.

Who knew it would be so helpful in future years? I didn’t, and wouldn’t have believed it had anyone told me. BUT – after high school and a year and a half of college, then marriage, followed by a divorce – I had to earn a living, and I didn’t know how to do anything! Except take tests – that was my specialty. I loved taking tests, but that had the opposite effect from what I needed. Employers insisted I was too bright for this or that nice-paying job. They just KNEW I’d get bored and quit, so what was the use of hiring me?

I’d always loved writing, and did well with it, but I couldn’t plot a mystery novel to save my life, and as that’s what I read most of the time, I didn’t see how I could ever become a writer. Teachers and friends had always told me I was a good writer. Of course, I didn’t believe them. Isn’t that what friends do? Encourage you, even if they don’t really mean it?

I became a Kelly Girl as they always needed girls with miscellaneous skills, and someone who could catch on quickly was a bonus. I learned so many office skills while being one of their temps – which would later stand me in good stead during my long working life.  But basically, my English language skills were the biggest arrows in my quiver. I found this out almost by accident in the mid-70s when I was assigned to a professor at Cleveland State University. It was a project-assignment, which meant open-ended, because who could say how long it would last?

The professor in question was Lucille E. Wright, a common sense imbued Ph. D. (that is not an oxymoron in her case, believe me!) who pioneered concepts in Business Education, including ‘weekend college’ programs. She thought that a room full of students, each at a table with a typewriter, didn’t make a lot of sense when relating to office workers who would have to utilize myriad other skills, including bookkeeping, accounting, shorthand, etc., and not just sit at a desk typing for 8 hours a day! Consequently, she created an office model curriculum where students (of either sex) could learn the various skills needed to be a productive office worker. What she was really doing was teaching Business Education teachers to be (and think like) ‘Office Managers’. The best part was that each student had a turn at each of the ‘jobs’.

During her college years, she had become friends with other Ph. D.’s  from around the country, and for the assignment on which I was hired, two of them submitted papers to her. My job was to re-type both of these plus one of her own, on her new IBM Selectric typewriter, (long before the advent of computers) because these papers were copies of copies (ugh) which had been typed on different typewriters, and she wanted everything to be neat and tidy.

I was totally discombobulated by the English language skills (or lack of them) in the other two papers. I felt strongly (having read her paper first) that she would not want them typed exactly as they were, but on the other hand, I didn’t exactly want to type them, and then re-type the corrected versions. How much easier to fix them first. It didn’t dawn on me exactly how presumptuous I was until much later in the project, but I boldly went into her office, one of the papers in hand, to ask if she’d like me to fix the mistakes I encountered before presenting her with the finished product. She looked at me with a quizzical look and asked me what I had in mind exactly.

I told her about the disastrous (and embarrassing) writing in the other two papers, and that it was my opinion she wouldn’t really want them to be re-done in that exact condition.

“Okay, what do you propose?” she asked. I suggested that I fix a couple of pages from each paper and thus could easily show her what I meant. “Do it,” she said. So I did. When I nervously took them to her and waited for her to read both versions, I began to realize just how cheeky I was. When she’d finished reading, she calmly handed me back the pages and said, simply, “Do it!” So I did.

She had an assistant who was an excellent researcher but had a tendency to write in ‘academese’, so she suggested I sort that paper out as well. Dr. Wright encouraged me to write something on my own as well. Actually, she just simply encouraged me to do and be whatever I thought I wanted to be. This was a totally unexpected notion at the time.

I didn’t know that she’d also discussed my writing skills with the professor in the next office to her. He taught English Education, and to my surprise, one day he called me into his office.  He told me that Dr. Wright had bragged about me to him, and she wanted him to encourage me. Wow! Over the next month or two, I did begin two projects, which were never finished, as before that could happen, the job expired and family problems interfered. But from that day onward, I never again seriously doubted my writing ability. (So far I’ve had five books published commercially, plus a novella, and well more than a thousand pieces on the web. That figure doesn’t include this blog or book reviews.)

Sadly, I lost track of Dr. Wright after that year. I was told she’d moved away, but no one seemed to know where she was. She passed away on June 3 of this year. I wish I could have told her of my achievements – all of which were because she was so open-minded, and never put people in any particular box. You can read her obituary here,       to get a better grasp of the life and career of this extraordinary woman. I’ll certainly never forget her! Everyone should have such a mentor!

A brief glance backwards . . .

5 Jun

Three years and 6 weeks ago, I began this blog with a piece titled ‘So You Want To Write a Book?

And here I am again with the same topic.  First, however, an apology for missing a couple of weeks. I was in Colorado, visiting my son and daughter-in-law!  The scenery was fabulous, and so were they! I’d been slightly mis-led – there was NO wi-fi on my train. No lots of other things, as well, but those failures will be detailed in a long letter to AMTRAK. Believe me, it’s no way to run a railroad!

Still – new people come along all the time wanting to write a book, so since I’ve been handing out this kind of advice to several people lately, it seemed reasonable to do another blog piece on the topic. Primarily, this piece will be for fiction, and possibly creative non-fiction, although definitely more of the former.

Generally, writers of fiction are divided into two camps: those who plan out every detail and know where they’re going before they ever put the first word into the computer (or on the notebook paper, if you’re the more conservative type.) The other kind are the ‘flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants’ variety. They have an idea, and are confident that once they sit down and start actively thinking about it, the idea will suddenly sprout wings of its own and take off!

Amazingly enough, this really can happen. The book begins to bubble and the characters come alive to such a degree that they actually take over the book! They tell their story the way they want it told, not in whatever fashion the poor writer had in mind at the beginning. Trust me on this. It’s happened to me too many times! Sometimes I’ve been able to rein them in a bit, and sometimes not. However, I think the book is ALWAYS better when I give them the freedom they demand.

On occasion, I have helped (and sometimes hindered, I have to admit) these characters by creating a bio sheet for them. My favorite way to do this is to pretend they’re applying to an on-line dating site. All those strange and off-the-wall questions! But, the answers do sometimes provide a spark – and we can hardly ask for more than that. It only takes one little spark to start a mighty conflagration!

Perhaps your notion begins with just one or two characters in a specific situation and how they get themselves in or out of it. However, a story with only two people is really hard to do, and probably best left in the capable hands of a very experienced writer. So – for your own well-being, you might want to identify half-a-dozen other characters whom you think might wander through those pages. Give them a name and a bio, too. (see above paragraph.)

Presumably, you’ll know what your characters look like. And be sure to use description for all locations and clothing worn by them. I’m forever reminding people to include all the senses: smell, touch, sight, sound and taste. Another important quality is emotion. Don’t be afraid to lay it on thick – it can always be pared back in the editing process.

The very most important thing for you to know and have firmly implanted in your mind before you ever start with this project is – what kind of book are you writing? What genre – and you may well benefit from the genre mash-up created and fostered by the e-book revolution. You can indeed mix two or three or more together to come up with something unusual. That alone will not guarantee success, but then, one of my favorite mottos is: Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

It may be that your baby is so weird you won’t be able to find anyone to read—or review—it. But that’s the luck of the game, and you can only give it your best shot!

Happy writing! 

Isn’t this gorgeous? It’s between Durango and Silverton, Colorado, from Mother’s Day, 2013.