Sunday, May 24, 2009

Writing a Mystery

My lack of communication lately is due to the continued mulling over of my writing life and what I want to do with it while avoiding arriving at a decision. Then last week I received a package.

It came in a plain, heavy-duty mailing envelope. There was nothing with it--no letter, no invoice, no advertisements and no indication of where it originated except for the clue in my own address: it ended with the designation "UK" so I know it came from abroad.

The package contained a novel writing kit, which consisted of a handsome set of multi-colored novel-component forms and a book. I was amused and intrigued. Did it come as some promotional package, a bonus for re-upping my magazine subscription, or had a won it in a contest? If so, there would be some indication of where it came from and why I had it, but there was none. And the only magazine I have re-subscribed to recently is "The Writer," and since the "You Can Write a Novel Kit" is put out by Writer's Digest Books, I find that idea highly suspect. Had someone gotten tired of hearing me whining on the web and sent it to me to shut me up? Who knows? If someone did send it to me, thank you.

I wasn't sure what to do with it at first. I figured I could use the pads for scrap paper (they were too small for the copious character sketch notes I compile, anyway) and maybe have a look through the book just for fun; I mean, what more do I have to learn about writing a novel? So a few days later I picked up the book and read the first few pages. I'm still reading it, and the note pads are back in the pack ready to be used for their intended purpose.

This little book has more of the nuts and bolts of writing a novel than any I have ever read. And I find myself buying into the minimalist theory of the author, James V. Smith, Jr, especially since I recognize over-planning and never getting to the actual work as one of my major pitfalls. The theory is, all the prep work you do is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, locks you into a set pattern, causing you to expend a lot of energy fitting all your preconceived notions into the story, leaving little room for creativity and surprising turns.

It's something I can relate to from the experience of my last novel. All the work I did up front rarely made a difference, and along the way, as the story took shape, I came up with a lot more and better ideas. By sketching out the really important points, you can just get on with the process of writing and flesh everything out along the way. Writing a novel should be a process of discovery, not a paint-by-numbers exercise.

So I think I'm going to give it a try. I'm convinced writing the novel is the best thing to do; all I have to do is find the time.

The mystery of where this came from, however, remains.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

It Figures

After last week’s post, I thought I’d give the boys in the Marketing Department a leg up by buying them a copy of, “Six-Figure Freelancing,” by Kelly James-Engar. I harbour no illusions that I could hope to make that much—hell, I’d be happy if I were a four-figure writer, even if two of those figures were after the decimal point—but I did hope there would be a few pointers in the book that might prove useful to a part-time writer who is crap at marketing.

There were none.

This is not the fault of the book. The book, after all, purports to tell you how to make gobs of money by putting words on paper, and it really does deliver; it’s just not relevant to what I do. First of all, it requires you to be a full-time writer, and I can understand that. If you’re going to put in the kind of time it requires to make that kind of money, you need to be at it full-time from the get-go. And, while it is possible to make a good living as a freelancer, Ms James-Engar’s outline for success seems to be arranged like this:

How to make $100,000 a year writing:
Step 1: move in with your boyfriend
Step 2: quit your job
Step 3: find markets that will pay you tons of dosh in exchange for your writing

Equally illuminating was the advice on how to break this onerous task into simple, easy to manage bits. You shouldn’t worry about making $100,000 a year, she advises, just concentrate on making $400 a day. Wow, why didn’t I think of that! Let’s see, Day One, made…uh…zero. Darn! Failed already.

Before I take the piss out of Ms J-E too much (if you’re reading this, Kelly, ‘taking the piss’ is a British term and it is not a derogatory term) let me say that it really is a fine book and delivers as promised; it’s just not for people like me.

This book is for entrepreneurs who, trapped in a day job, dream of starting their own business. But what to do? Coat-hangar manufacturer? No, the start-up costs are too high. Sheep farmer? No, that might mean moving to Scotland. Writer? Now there’s an idea—low start-up costs, no office required. That’s the ticket!

And it really is almost that easy. There are, as Ms J-E points out, a lot of highly lucrative markets out there and, once you find them and cultivate a relationship with them, you will find your yearly income growing to heights you never thought possible. But you won’t be doing what I call writing. You’ll be working on corporate annual reports, or business brochures, or keynote speeches. Only an entrepreneur could be pleased about working on an annual report that he has spent a lot of time and effort finding and negotiating for. For someone like that, it’s the thrill of being your own boss, for someone like me, an annual report is drudgery, and I’m certainly not going to go out and ask other people to give them to me.

The sort of writing I do (as, I suspect, do most of you) is mentioned in the book. Ms J-E calls it “creative writing” and it is very definitively put on a back shelf. It’s not profitable and, therefore, not worth spending time on. There’s a bottom line to consider, you know.

I don’t mean to be derisive of this book—I have the greatest respect for anyone who can make a living on their own—but it is to writing what a house painter is to still-life oil painting. Granted, the house painter is going to end the week a lot richer than the guy huddled in his garret trying to bring some apples, oranges and a pear to life on canvas. But I’m not really talking about a “higher calling” or anything like that, I’m talking about abilities and, frankly, I’m simply not talented enough to do what Ms J-E has done.

It’s like when I was playing music. Back in the day, I had a guitar, I knew a lot of songs and had a better than average voice and, incredibly, I convinced people to pay me to play for them. Because of that, people began mistaking me for a musician and expected me to be able to jam with them, or diversify by joining a band. But I couldn’t; I didn’t have the talent. I was just a guy with a guitar doing the only thing he knew how to do.

The same with writing; I do what I do because that’s all I can do, not because I have purposely limited myself to humorous essays and maudlin novels.

So the guys in marketing are still limiting their computer use to solitaire and checking their e-mail, and playing trashcan basketball to fill the rest of the time. But the year’s not over, so maybe they’ll pull up their socks and we’ll hit the target yet. Only $99,983 to go.