Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why do we write?

The other day I was doing a work project with some people from my ward and a guy asked me how much I make on an average LDS novel. Some people are kind of cautious about answering that, but until I can say, “Well over six figures,” I don’t think I have much to hide.
So I told him that I usually make a little over $10k. He looked at me strangely for a minute, and then asked how long it takes to write a typical book. After some quick mental calculations, he shook his head and asked, “Why even bother?”

Now, being the witty, clear-tongued writer that I am, I came up with a retort that left his brain spinning. He agreed that indeed, I do know exactly what I am doing and that he might even try writing a book himself. So, having straightened out another confused reader, I toddled over to Jerry’s for a big Pastrami Burger and fries.


Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened. Maybe I mumbled something about how I was going to make more money on my next book—it really takes awhile to build up an audience. And hardcover books earn higher royalties. And then there is the whole national market, where people can potentially earn BIG bucks. Although most don’t . But, well, you don’t know if you don’t try . . . Until, he nodded in kind of a confused way and went to talk to someone who actually made sense.

So by way of penance, I’d like to try and explain why I write and maybe find out why you write (if you do.)

The thing is, it’s all a little confusing. I hear people say, “I couldn’t stop writing anymore than I could stop breathing.” At which point I usually think that they must go through a ton of paper. But seriously, I think I could stop writing. Yes, it would be hard to have all that free time—although my kids might wonder who that guy is who used to live upstairs with the desk and computer. But I’d survive. Would I miss it? Yes. Would I turn blue and pass out? I don’t think so.

Is it about the money? Yes and no. I don’t go fishing just to catch fish. I like being with nature. I like the smell and sound of the water. I like the relaxation. And I’m happy fishing even if I don’t catch any fish. But if I knew the lake, pond, or stream had no fish at all, I wouldn’t fish. The chance that I’ll catch something makes it all come together. I feel the same way about writing and money.

Is there any serious writer out there who doesn’t at some point dream about the huge advance? About receiving a foreign royalty check that would pay for a three week vacation in that foreign country? You don’t plan your annual budget around it, but the fact that it is—at least theoretically—possible, makes it exciting. Going back to my fishing analogy, what if a HUGE fish is just about to take my bait? If there was no chance of ever making a dime, I’d probably still write, but not as much, and it wouldn’t be quite as fun.

But it’s not all about money. I know how much a typical LDS novel makes and yet I still write them instead of spending my time selling herbs and vitamins to my neighbors, or guarding some car lot at night, or stocking shelves, or any number of things that would probably make more money.

I love the thrill of writing an especially suspenseful scene. I love hearing my wife laugh when she reads a funny part. I love bringing may family up into my room and having each of them type one of the last five words that finish my book. I love typing THE END. I love holding my book for the first time. I love going into a library and finding that my books are checked out. I love when people tell me I kept them up until two in the morning. I love thinking that in Heaven my grandparents might be reading my books. I love knowing that I do something really well in a way that no one else can. I love thinking that maybe my great, great, grandkids will enjoy my books one day. I love helping new writers discover how talented they are. I love it all.

So that’s my answer. Next time someone asks me I’ll be prepared.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Friends and Family -- Why it's good to share

A friend of mine who is also an author recently complained about families or groups of friends buying one book and sharing it. Her point was that it cuts back on the number of sales an author makes and therefore their income. She compared it to people checking books out of the library instead of buying.

Let me respond quickly and clearly. Share my books. Please. Pass them to your uncle, your aunt, the nephew who showed up to last year’s Thanksgiving bash wearing women’s Lycra pants, flippers, and a pair of lensless ski goggles. Share them with the postman, the garbage man, the grocery store clerk, the barber. In short, pass that thing around until the cover is falling off, the pages sag like a basset hound’s ears, and no one even remembers who it actually belongs to.

Why? I know there are a bunch of author’s shouting, “But think of all the people who are reading your book for free!” That’s exactly what I am thinking about. Every person who reads my book is a prospective customer for the next book I write. They know my name. Hopefully they like my style and characters. It’s the best publicity I could ever ask for.

At least once a week, I go on-line to the local libraries and check to see if my latest release is checked out or on hold. Every time it is, I make a mental checkmark. There’s a person who’s going to be looking for my next book. Will they check it out from the library next time? Maybe. And I’m okay with that. I lived in the library as a kid. I was the only eighth-grader I know who cut school to go to the library—sometimes even the school library, which didn’t always end well. But the authors I discovered in the library back the, I buy now. Often in hardback.

Imagine that for free you could introduce 5, 000 people to your books, or 10, 000, or 100, 000. Tell me that isn’t invaluable. Every time I sell a book to someone who says they are buying it for a friend or family member, I tell them, “Borrow it back when they get done. And then pass it around.” It’s called the family library and it works.

Oh, and by the way, when you borrow or check out one of books, bend the page corners. I know the librarian may give you a look. But I love it. When I go in, I can check the places where you put the story down. It helps me understand how my pacing worked out. The only time it makes me unhappy is if you stopped reading in the last 75 pages or so. That high-intensity real estate. If I wasn’t gripping enough to keep you reading through to the end, I messed up.

Chocolate fingerprints are okay with me too.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Contests and Scene Changes

Wow, too long since my last entry. Too many things going on at once. Work, finishing up the new Shandra book (tentatively titled Dead Again,) writing a new national supernatural thriller, the usual change-of-season family illnesses. You name it.

The good news is that the Mystery writing contest was a resounding success. I've received over 30 entries from 10 different states and one from Germany. And let me tell you, the judging is going to be tough. There are some great entries. I've asked five other authors to help me pick the winners, but I will respond to every entrant personally. I was really amazed at the quality and creativity. (The human heart in the BBQ was quite a surprise!) I'll keep you updated on the entries and the judging right here so stay tuned. Winners will be announced on the 12th and if I get permission, I will post all of the entries.

I expect to post the December contest tonight. I think it will be a lot of fun and definitely a change of pace.

My second item of business is something that I will elaborate on further in my next writing tip, but I thought I'd get your feedback first. The other day I read a comment that really struck home. It was in regards to screenplays, but I think it may fit into writing fiction as well. The comment was, "Enter the scene late and leave it early."

What does that mean? Well let's start with the first part.

How many times have you started a chapter with, "The desert sun pounded like a blowtorch on the deserted Indian village. The smell of sand and sage carried on the air like . . . (more description) Tom pulled into the dirt road in front of the dilapidated hut, got out of his car and knocked on the door. The old man peeked through the window. 'Go away,' he shouted. 'No one wants you here!' "

Is that bad? No. But does it pull you into the chapter? Not as well as it could. What if we tried this?

" 'Go away,' the old man shouted through the window of the dilapidated adobe hut. 'No one wants you here.'

'I need to talk--'Tom stepped out from under the shaded porch. Before he could get to the window the wrinkled face disappeared. He pounded on the door again, but there was no response from inside. Great, he thought, pulling a faded red handkerchief from his pocket and mopping at his face. He'd come over five hundred miles to stand out under the blowtorch sun in the middle of a deserted Indian village like a blasted Gila."

See the difference? In the first example we have to read one or more paragraphs before we get to the meat. As an author, our first thought is to set the stage if you will. We want the reader to see the images unfolding in our heads. But what if you jump right into the scene and then provide the background information (scenery, time of day, characters, etc.) as the scene unfolds? This pulls the reader right in.

Let me give you an example from my own writing. In chapter two of my second national, a man is driving down a twisty mountain road late at night. The chapter ends with him hitting a woman who suddenly appears out of the misty night. I found myself struggling over how to begin the next chapter. It just seemed too slow to have him open the door, look back down the road, get his flashlight, and so forth. But do I really need all that? Instead I began the chapter with:

"The woman was dead. If he hadn’t known by the glazed blue eyes staring up into the beam of his flashlight, the impossible angle of her thin white neck would have left no doubt."

Then I have him step out of the ditch where he found her and look around for help as I fit in the swirls of mists glowing red in the car's taillights etc. The reader understands that he got out of the car and found the body, and I get the immediacy I want.

So what about leaving the scene early? Same concept. Get the biggest bang for your buck. How about this example of the end of a chapter.

"Roy glanced down the side of the sheer cliff. He was over two hundred feet in the air. If he fell . . . He shuttered just thinking about it. Concentrating on the job at hand, he shifted his weight to a large white rock jutting from the side of the mountain. Only twenty more feet and he'd be safe. Just as he reached for the next handhold, the rock he was standing on gave way.

"No!" he screamed.

He scrambled for something to hold onto, but everything around him seemed to be in motion. The cliff face in front of him sped by. Rocks and dirt tumbled past as he picked up speed. (And so on.)"

Not such great writing, but quite a cliff hanger huh? (Sorry I couldn't resist that.) Now try ending the chapter at "the rock he was standing on gave way." You have to turn the page and see what happens. Go ahead and start the next chapter with, "No!"

So what do you think? Does this apply to fiction as much as it does to film or am I up in the night?