Why Writing is Hard

Here’s a wonderful bit of encouragement for all of us.

A Writer's Path

Hard

by Meg Dowell

Writing is hard.

You know this without having to convince yourself it’s true. You may love it – it may be your art; your love; your baby – but that doesn’t mean there are days it doesn’t take all you have left in you to drag yourself to your laptop and write something. Writing isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels like the words are flowing from your fingers and they’ll never stop – but not long afterward, you’re staring at your empty coffee cup, in a daze, as if you can’t believe you just wrote 2,000 words without thinking twice about it.

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My Day Job Sucks & Doctors are ***holes

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A brief recap:  Like just about every writer on the planet, I work a day job to keep a roof over my head.  In my case, I do medical transcription.

What that means is that I listen to reports dictated by very highly paid neurologists and otolaryngologists and I type what they say.  Well, sort of.  I type what they’re supposed to say.  Clearly, the basics of English grammar are never acquired by these highly-educated buffoons and it takes a woman with a twelfth grade education to make them sound smart.

In addition to being an excellent typist, I have to know the rules of grammar, be an excellent speller (including medical terms like “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty”), and have to know which drugs are used to treat which conditions, as well as the appropriate dosages.  I have to be very aware of details, like making sure the doctor is consistent about things like left and right.  I also have to find current addresses for the referring physicians, most often without being given a first name or the proper spelling of the last name.  This eats up my time and I don’t get paid for it.

For all of this, I currently make (if I’m lucky) 5 cents per line.  That translates to about $6.25 an hour in a good month.  And boy, do those doctors bitch about the cost.  Many have gone as far as to outsource their work to India. Yeah. Chew on that for a while and remember it the next time your computer freezes and you get stuck talking to “Bob” in customer service.

The only benefit to this job, as far as my writing career goes, is that I can say with complete honesty that I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life editing medical reports.  That fact, and this blog, are about as far as I get with the elusive writing platform.

So next time you see your doctor, just remember that behind that façade of concern is a person who will later bitch about how much it costs them to have someone like me make sure the right information gets into your chart.  If your doctor hasn’t poisoned you yet, you may have a medical transcriptionist to thank.

You’re welcome.  Your miserly physician is not.

 

 

It Doesn’t Have to be Real

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I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

To tweet or not to tweet…

I have no idea why I started a Twitter account, but everyone seems to think a writer should have one. Quite frankly, as a writer, I find it rather irritating. I don’t like the limited space. I don’t like the choppy “tweets”.  I don’t like sounding like a poorly educated urchin.

And it looks so sloppy.

Anyway, I’m over there trying to figure it out. The fun part is I get to drop in on Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) occasionally and see what he’s up to.  *sigh*

If you’re on Twitter, pop on by @BelkoMj .

Oh, and #WinthropRiskDetective .

Word-2-Kindle Rocks!

You’ll recall I had pulled my new book, Winthrop Risk, Detective, from Kindle because I couldn’t get the formatting right.  A little Google search turned up a service called  Word-2-Kindle.com and with a little help from the wonderful Nick Caya, my book is professionally formatted and is officially for sale on Kindle!

Amazon’s CreateSpace wanted $79 to format the book for Amazon’s Kindle.  Displeased with Amazon scratching its own back at my expense, I went in search of a more reasonably priced and responsive service.  Enter Nick of Word-2-Kindle!  For $49, he had my book reformatted within 2 days.  When I had trouble opening the file (not Nick’s fault but due to my own lack of computer savvy), my plea for help was answered in just minutes and I was able to finish the Kindle publishing process.

As self-published authors, we have to wear a lot of hats:  writer, creative director, publicist, marketing guru, etc.  One thing I can’t be is a computer whiz. I tried.  Believe me, I tried. I figured I could keep trying and failing or I could admit my shortcomings and employ someone who knew what they were doing. I think I made a good call.

 

 

 

Quite the Learning Curve

There’s a lot you don’t know when you set about to self-publish your book.  Getting the manuscript to Amazon, ordering a proof, and getting it out there was pretty easy.  I did change the font and line spacing. Keep in mind that what looks OK on typewritten pages is pretty hard on the eyes in book form. Choose something bolder than Courier and definitely spend a few bucks (mine was about $5) and order a printed proof of your book. You won’t regret it. It’s probably something you can write off as a business expense; but since I have to pay someone to do my taxes because I can’t get past the part where I fill out my name, you might want to check with your accountant.  Just sayin’.

Then there’s Kindle. Create Space and Kindle are both Amazon related, so you would think the conversion of your book from the print form of Create Space would translate easily to the e-book form of Kindle. Shockingly, this is not so.  In fact, for those of us who are not computer literate (i.e., the over 50 crowd), the process can be quite frustrating. I kept doing what they said to do (at least what I thought they said to do) and the manuscript on the Kindle preview still looked choppy and ridiculous. I don’t do choppy and ridiculous.

Create Space will generously (wink, wink) reformat your manuscript to work on Kindle for a paltry sum of $79 (US).  In my more paranoid moments, I think Create Space is just drumming up business for itself by screwing up the manuscripts it sends over to Kindle. Not one to be hornswoggled, I found another service that will do the deed for $49. If they do a good job I’ll sing their praises here.  If they screw it up, the blog post will be lengthy and vitriolic.

Anyway, I’m going to enjoy an adult beverage while I wait to hear back from the formatting dude.  Hopefully, I’ll have good news in the next day or so.

Well, that was anticlimactic.

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A few days ago, I announced to my Facebook friends that I had just self-published my first children’s book on Amazon, Winthrop Risk, Detective.  Aside from my husband and one of my sons (the other isn’t on Facebook), nobody responded.  Not one “like”.  Not one expression of congratulations.  Nothing.

I can still hear the crickets.

The day after my big flop of an announcement, a man delivered a bouquet of flowers to my house.  They were from my husband, John (my pet name for him is Bear).  That’s the card he sent with the flowers.

“Congratulations, it’s a boy! And his name is Winthrop Risk.  All my love, all my life.  Love, your Bear.”

Pretty cool, huh?

 

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