When I was growing up, my parents would throw legendary parties in the Cameron Park neighborhood of Raleigh, inviting a combination of journalists, artists, writers, professors, and what was rather euphemistically called “free spirits.” I learned a lot lurking in the corners of those parties. But the only time they ever had to send out an actual invitation to their iconic New Year’s Eve party was when they had to cancel it after 25 years because they had grown too old to keep up the shenanigans. That year, they sent out an invitation saying that the party would not take place and thanking their guests for years of debauchery.
Each year at the end of April, my parents would also throw a Walpurgisnacht party, which was a low rent version of a black-and-white ball. People would arrive dressed in black and white clothing, packing into our sprawling Victorian house on Park Drive, drinking punch that steamed with the smoke of evaporating dry ice, shouting above the loud music, sweating, dancing, and engaging in a whole lot of conversations and other activities that I’ve spent years in therapy trying to forget.
I often think about those Walpurgisnacht parties when I look around the world we live in today. It’s like a black-and-white ball, only without the fun. Everyone is forced to take a position on either one side or the other of any issue, with no room to live in between. Everyone is shouting to be heard against the background noise, drunk on either power or self-righteousness. There seems to be very little room for nuance or thoughtful original opinion. Meanwhile, smoke and mirrors abound and we’re all trying very hard to convince ourselves that we are having fun.
I went through a reading crisis this year. Every time I sat down to lose myself in a book, I found my attention wandering after just a few pages. I would check my iPhone for messages, stop by Facebook, and then force myself to sit back down and try again. It drove me nuts. Losing myself in a good book has always been my way of taking a needed break from the world. I attributed my problem to a shrinking attention span brought about by cursed social media. I decided anything more than four paragraphs was beyond my interest, thanks to new media, and bemoaned the loss of my ability to enter the pages of other worlds. Needless to say, this did not enhance my participation in my book club or endear me to friends with new books coming out. “Yes, I bought it and can’t wait to read it.” [“God, please don’t ask me how I liked it three months from now.”]
Thus I sealed my fate and kissed reading a full-length book good-bye. And then I picked up “Death Comes to Pemberley” by PD James. I had no choice, really, as it was my book club’s December selection and I had pretty much disgraced myself with my inability to get into any of the books we’d chosen thus far in 2014. Now, since the Grand Master herself died the day I finished her book, perhaps I feel more comfortable saying what anyone who reads this book realizes by the end: this is a terrible mystery. The plot is tepid at best and the true killer revealed in groanable fashion. And yet, I loved every word of it and could not put the book down. Why? Because PD James did a stellar job of bringing Jane Austen’s characters back to life and giving us a peek at what happened to them after their tales had been told. PD James was impeccably loyal to their essential character, as envisioned by their original creator. Lizzie, Mr. Darcy, Jane, Bingley, even, alas, Lydia and Wickham, never uttered a word out of character or took an action that Austen herself might not have decreed. And while James built her tale around Pemberley and its grounds, she also brought in characters from many of Austen’s other books in peripheral ways. It was pure joy to discover that Walter Elliott and his snobbish eldest daughter were behaving, as ever, in utterly supercilious ways. It rang true that Emma was still telling poor Harriet Smith what to do. The characters were as real to me as ever. Even my outrage at how James handled the character of Colonel Fitzwilliams was assuaged at the end of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” when the motive for his somewhat out-of-character behavior was revealed.
I have been named the 2016 Piedmont Laureate and one of the responsibilities of that position is to conduct workshops for other writers in North Carolina. I’ll be doing just that in the months ahead as there are few things I love better than working with other writers and talking about writing. But with the world of writing in flux, and career trajectories no longer predictable, much less known, it’s time to look at exactly what these workshops should entail. I’d like your help with that.
With that in mind, if you are a writer of any kind – fiction, non-fiction, short form or long – what kind of workshops centered around writing would you be most likely to attend? What would be most useful to you either personally or professionally? Is there a specific aspect about the craft of writing you would find most useful, or are you more interested in exploring outlets for your writing? While I do not conduct workshops on how to get published – that question is unanswerable at the present – any other aspect of writing is a possibility. Please use the Comments section below to share your thoughts.
In addition to your ideas, I have several themes in mind for potential workshops, but I am reluctant to propose any that would not find an audience. If you are a writer reading this, or even someone thinking of dipping their toe into writing, can you do me a favor and give me your thoughts or your thoughts on whether any of the following themes appeal to you? Any feedback would be much appreciated:
One clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That’s why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots. Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader.
Let’s start with empaths. Being an empathy can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people’s emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer’s characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book from a bad one. When you are reading a book by an empath, the author’s understanding of how others act and feel can be both humbling and moving. Every character comes to life. Every moment counts.
Voyeurs, on the other hand, can be both wickedly entertaining and devastatingly cruel. Their ability to see every move you make and then use it to their own story’s advantage is opportunism at its finest. We all know people who specialize in sitting in the corner at parties, watching everyone else, having a grand old time keeping karmic score. They don’t miss a beat and they have the memories of elephants. They can be a real pain in the ass because it’s so hard to hide anything from them and even harder to illicit a genuinely personal reaction from them. They risk nothing but see everything. I can only imagine what life with a writer voyeur would be like. No privacy. Nothing sacred. No real emotional involvement by the writer, just a constant watchfulness – and a willingness to turn your life into words on their page.
To me, though, the very best writers are a combination of both empath and voyeur. To feel for others alone is to lack perspective. To observe without feeling is to lack warmth. But give me a writer who can not only convey what it is like to be someone else, but also fill in the details and put that life in perspective — and you can sometimes achieve greatness. I will give you two wildly different examples of books that fit this bill: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin and Floaters by the inimitable Joseph Wambaugh. Their characters breathe with life and, as authors, they respect the worth of even the most minor of their characters. Yet they also offer observations about what it is to be human that ring with a wisdom transcending a single lifetime. They are a joy to read.
Then, of course, we have the parrots — and that’s the best word I can think of for writers who emulate other writers or follow a formula they think will bring them success. It is not enough to describe what is happening in your story, as if you were providing people with a television show on paper. It is not enough to pile plot twist upon plot twist unless there is some meaning behind all those machinations. But still people do it, book after book, and many succeed, through luck and a willingness on the part of publishers to clone bestsellers. That doesn’t make them good writers. It makes them lucky writers who wind up in the hands of readers (readers who, upon hearing that a book is on a bestseller list, make the mistake of thinking it must be better than all the others). But reading a book written by a parrot is like eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. The satisfaction is short-lived and you are soon left hungry and wondering, “You mean that’s all there is to it?”
All of which leads me to an irrefutable fact that most writers would like to avoid: to be a good writer, you must first know yourself and you must be willing to dive deeper than simply putting words on paper. You have to be willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of others. You have to be willing to pay attention to the lives of others. And you have to be driven to put it all together in a story that offers readers a glimpse into life as you — and only you — both see and feel it.
Is there any obsession greater than death? No matter how hard we try to hide it, isn’t the popularity of crime fiction an indication that we humans remain, as we have for thousands of years, obsessed with the idea of no longer being here? We are driven to wonder…. Where do we go? Where do our loved ones go? Do we linger, somehow, in this world? And if it is true that readers of crime fiction are, perhaps, more obsessed with death than most people — what does that say about the writers of crime fiction? Surely, we are the most fascinated by death of all? We spend our days thinking and writing about nothing else.
But the truth is that death is benign when you are writing about it. All those words, the plot, the puzzles, the mysteries surrounding it are artificial buffers that protect both the writer and the reader from truly experiencing the ultimate power of death. These buffers allow us to dance around it, poke at it and flirt with its finality without actually feeling the incredible pain it can bring into our hearts. Reading and writing crime fiction is a talisman of sorts — maybe if we steep in it enough as entertainment, it will pass by our door in real life? This is impossible, of course, and when you feel an all-too-real threat of death that hits close to home, it looks and feels very different.
I have been lucky in my life. Even at my age, I have experienced relatively few losses. Yes, I have lost a friend who died far too young. I have even lost a sister, which was like losing a part of myself. She had always been there in my life and then she was gone forever. But her conduct in the face of impending death was one of such bravery and fierceness that her death was less a passing and more of a battle that left me filled with awe at her spirit. I have lost a parent as well, when my mother passed away almost five years ago. But she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade and when her body finally gave up its burden, we had long since come to terms with having lost her.
Now, though, death has become so much more than an abstract. My father, frail in health at age 86, survived a night two years ago that no one, most especially the doctors, thought he would make it through. Four times that night the doctors came to us to confirm that we had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order” on him and four times we confirmed it. He did survive that night, though, fueling my belief that, somehow, my family had cut a deal with death to pass us by. Since then, my father has been living with his heart working at 25% capacity, no small feat for a man who towers at over six feet tall. As it turns out, as we had always suspected, he really does have the heart of a lion. It has been steadily beating over the past two years and this tenderhearted, uncharacteristically sweet man has been with us for far longer than we expected. His life has become more limited, of course. He is confined largely to his bed at his nursing home. But in that time, it is as if his essential nature has distilled and burned even brighter, endearing him to staff even as it has made it more inconceivable to his children that we might lose him one day. This is no ordinary father, mind you. He did the heavy lifting when we were children, taking care of us in addition to working full time. When you have six children, this is an accomplishment that borders on the heroic. Continue reading “When death is no longer an abstract”
“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
I came across this quote from Mark Twain this week and loved it. Being a writer has one big advantage over other occupations: it is one of the few jobs where your age is largely immaterial. But even better than that, as the books pass by, you start to acquire an awesomely-tuned ability to cut the hell out of your prose. The way I write has changed so much since my first book. I have now developed a system where I have a detailed outline to guide me, but then I cut loose and write fast and furiously in wherever direction it takes me, knowing that I will be waiting with my editing knife in hand at the other end.
God bless computers and word processing. You can turn the messiest, most meandering manuscripts into a fast-paced, tight story by the time you’re done and no one will ever know your book once looked like something you dredged off the ocean bottom and pulled, dripping and covered with seaweed and slime, to the surface. The best part of this approach? It’s fun. You get to go off on side adventures with your characters and wander through their world without worry, knowing that, in the end, your travels will lead you to those essential passages that need to stay in.
My system is pretty straightforward. I write when and where I can, given my schedule, but I always aim to have a complete draft ready at least a month before my manuscript is due and, preferably, two months before. I then scrub all prior knowledge of the book from my head and start at the beginning, reading it with draconian standards of pacing and slashing out whole gobs of words at a time. My word count feature helps a lot in that regard. I become the Queen of Hearts, shouting, “Off with its head!” on every page. At first, I was sure this approach would create holes in my narrative or cause sections to stick out like amputated stubs. But I quickly learned, thanks to second, third and even fourth read-throughs, that this is not the case. It is possible to polish a manuscript with the same loving care you would bring to polishing a rock and, hopefully, in the end, come up with a finished product that is distilled, vibrant and full of color.
I am in the midst of writing my fourth Dead Detective book and, while I don’t have a title I like enough yet to offer publicly, I am well into the book. As often happens, given all the characters I typically jam into a single book, there is a minor character who has grown in importance with each page I write and who seems determined to take over. I used to say that when this situation occurred, and the author found themselves not in full control of their character, it was subconscious creativity speaking and that a wise author let it happen.