Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You Should Write a Book

Most writers are motivated to write because of things that have happened to them. And the first instinct is to write it as a non-fiction autobiography because the experiences are so vivid and personally profound. Often, well-meaning friends who've heard you recount portions of the story exclaim, "You should write a book!"

But they don't realize just how hard that actually is.

One reason it's harder than most people think is that if you're writing non-fiction, your editor will need to know more of the facts and context of any given story than you - from your narrow and limited point of view - actually know. So, as you try to write FACTUALLY, you'll discover that you don't know nearly as many facts as you thought you did.

Of course you can set out to find those missing details, but, as a journalist, I can tell you that the process is time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And perhaps the biggest difficulty is that if you're writing things that are unflattering about a person, you could get sued for defamation of character. Even though what you're writing is true, if the person's not a public figure, you could lose a lot of money defending yourself in court.

It ain't worth it.

Not only that, but, publishers are less likely to want to make your story into a book because you're not well known, making it harder for them to sell the story of a nobody to the general public. Publishing is, after all, a business.


Here's what I suggest:

Use those personal stories as a way to inspire your imagination. Change some of the details of the events and characters so that the real people won't recognize themselves, then build a story that still conveys the deeper "truth" you want to communicate. If you have a vivid imagination you'd be on firmer ground going in that direction. That's because you get to "dream up" the facts, something an editor of non-fiction won't let you get away with.

That's how I dreamed up my first novel "Fast Track." The book got its start because of two traumatic experiences in my life: a car/train collision I witnessed as a kid, and my sister's suicide. But, instead of recounting what happened in the style of a just-the-facts-ma'am journalist, I made up an entirely different story - a mystery/thriller - that still highlights themes and truths surrounding sudden death and suicide. I used my imagination to create a story that would resonate with people who don't know anything about me personally.

If you're able to camouflage the true events that happened to you and create a compelling story that still conveys a deeper "truth," you may be able to write not just one book, but ten, simply by using what happened to you as your creative muse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ever Feel Inadequate? Some Thoughts on Writing - and Living

A woman sent me an email recently telling me she has a "yearning" to write, but wonders if she can really sit down and write a book. She asked, "Did you ever wonder if you could really do it?"

The short answer is, "yes." Here's my longer response to her - and if you substitute the word "living" for "writing," my comments might be relevant to you even if you're not a writer:

Yearning and self-doubt are both essential elements in the process. The yearning propels you to the keyboard; the doubts cause you to stare stupidly at it. The yearning is necessary; the doubts are inevitable.

At some point, it's probably valuable to look more deeply at yourself and ask why you have doubts. Chances are, your answer will revolve around these two inadequacies: I'm not smart enough and I'm not good enough. (Apologies to Stuart Smalley)

The first one -- not smart enough -- is probably true. I don't have to look very far to find someone smarter than me. But I know I'm smarter than some people, too. I am who I am.

My mom, who was a third grade teacher, refused to tell me my IQ even though she knew. "You're above average," is all that she'd say. She explained that if she told me it was high, I'd coast through life and wouldn't try very hard; if she told me it was low, I'd give up and wouldn't try, either. She always used to say, "It's not the IQ, but the 'I will.'" Throughout her career she saw kids who were oblivious to their low IQ thrive because they worked hard and tried.

As for not good enough - that's true, too. But that doesn't mean that you can't improve. First you try, then you look critically at the result to see where you need improvement.

Writing [living] is a process. The more we do it, the more knowledgeable and skillful we become. WHATEVER you write won't be perfect, but instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure, put all that yearning and doubting into motion. As you try to do your best, your "best" will steadily get better.

Hope that helps.

Just a reminder: I'll be speaking and leading some writing workshops this Friday and Saturday (April 23 and 24) at the Writers' Institute at the University of Wisconsin - Madison