Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chasing the Latest Literary Trend—Smart, or Not?

    Okay, so vampires are hot. Seems like all you have to do is stick a blood thirsty (literally) vamp in your novel and it will sell like hotcakes. Or so you've been told. Or maybe you're tempted to write a techno-thriller, in the style of Tom Clancy, or a fantasy inspired by Harry Potter's success. Why? Because, again, these genres have sold millions of books, bringing wealth and fame to their authors and agents. Why not cash in on what works?

    Well, there's no reason why anyone shouldn't try. Except…think about it a moment. Is it the genre itself, or the author who spawned it that's the reason for these stories working so well? When a trend begins in the fiction world, it usually happens because of the passion and talent of an individual writer. This writer follows a vision of the novel he/she wishes to create, and often takes a substantial risk that, because it's something new and different, the book may be rejected by publishers who are more interested in safe, tried-and-true types of stories. When a book like Twilight first appears, it's a surprise and takes a while to catch on…but if it does, it has the possibility of becoming a sensation. The possibility. Readers are the ones who decide whether or not a book actually will become a bestseller.

    And what about all the other vampire tales and fantasies that have suddenly appeared in Twilight's and Harry Potter's wake? Aren't they selling well? Many are. Then why shouldn't you, an author trying to break into publishing, benefit from the feeding frenzy and create yet another, say…Dracula clone? Well, there's no reason you can't. But take a look at the scores of vampires and werewolves and shape shifters competing for shelf space in your favorite bookstore. Does your passion for this type of story promise to raise your novel above these as well as the truckloads of similar novels that weigh down literary agents' and editors' desks at this very moment?

    The point is…following a trend seems to work best if you are lucky enough to have a book ready to go in the earliest days of readers' enthusiasm for the new type of story. If it will take you a year or more to write the book you imagine will be the next Twilight, you're probably already too late. Trends are ephemeral things; they burn themselves out. And no one knows what the next one will be, until some lucky editor spots that book that takes fiction in a slightly new direction, and makes an offer on it.

A lot of what goes into coming up with the next literary sensation is luck, but some of it is passion, extraordinary writing, and belief in your story. And, yes, the willingness to risk failure. I love to see an author take a risk, write a magnificent story, then be "discovered" by readers. And I hate to see new writers desperately trying to copy today's hot trends, because I worry that by the time they finish that first novel their market will have evaporated. Then they may give up without ever letting their unique talent shine.

    So, here's a suggestion. Instead of trying to jump on the bandwagon, write from your heart but also take the pulse of your prospective readers. What kind of story would you love to read? Into what sort of novel do you think your friends, co-workers, family might enjoy escaping? No, there aren't any guarantees you'll be rewarded for your effort, but I for one believe your chances of success are better writing something you really care about…rather than slogging away at a borrowed idea or character model with which you have no emotional or artistic connection. Give me, and the world, something marvelous to read, something to take our breath away and make the rest of us writers say, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"

    Happy writing—Kathryn.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tis the Season

    Outside my window sit two feet of snow. My house is warm. I just made myself my version of a latte—espresso, equal parts warm milk (who has time for frothing?), and a little yellow packet of Splenda. My office is cozy and quiet but for Miranda (the calico cat) tripping over my desk between me and my monitor, and I (we—sorry, Miranda) are alone. So why can't I focus and write?

    I'm excited, I guess, because it's nearly Christmas. Yes, maybe that's it. I do feel a sense of joyful elation.

    The thing is, I sometimes feel guilty for allowing myself to enjoy these physical surges of happiness this time of year. Why is that? I think about our young men far from home, fighting a war. I worry about friends who have been without jobs for months in this obnoxious economy. Then there are the people closest to me, family. Some are doing okay for themselves, or at least not complaining if they're struggling. Others…well, if there were any way I could help them I would. But what do you do when someone you love is unable to deal with the daily logistics of life? Can you cushion, protect, provide for them so that the world can no longer cause them pain?

    I lost my mother to a long and horrid adventure with Alzheimer's two years ago. She spent the last three years of her life helpless. The last two unable to move from her bed. My sister became her caregiver and did what I never could have done for her. Even so, I can only imagine our mother's pain and confusion. To say that watching someone fade away in the grip of this disease is heart breaking seems a gross understatement. But there is still another person close to me who is just as dear and just as lost. In this instance it isn't a case of advanced age or Alzheimer's. It's a form of mental illness, the medical name unimportant. After spending many years consulting with psychiatrists and counselors of various sorts on behalf of this person, I've come to accept that this illness is another one that simply won't go away, be cured or even likely controlled. It will create the rules by which this dear one will live until death. And again, I am helpless.

    What does this have to do with writing? I'm not sharing these thoughts with you, my friends, as a means of venting my frustration or sadness or, worse yet, to squelch your holiday spirit. I'm well aware how many of you reading this are struggling to help someone who is ill, either physically or emotionally. My correspondence with students and mentoring clients often reveals how many of you are caring for young or grown children, grandchildren, parents, or spouses who are desperately in need of help. Often, all we can do is be there for them and let life run its course. If we believe in a higher being, we may be able to place our loved one in the hands of one greater than ourselves. For some that can be a comfort. No, my message today isn't meant to be tragic or drain the joy out of this Holiday Season. Believe it or not, it really does have to do with writing. Consider it my gift to you, except….it's not really a gift, I guess, because it's something you already possess. I'm just reminding you that you have it.

    Your natural talent. Your writing. It's a very special ability that you have but few others in this world are lucky enough to possess.

You have an innate desire to put your thoughts, dreams, imagination, stories, and fantasies into words for others to read, and this is the most wonderful tool I know of for managing stress. When I finish this blog, I'll still be sitting at my keyboard and, having gotten my mental gears grinding away by typing this page, I'll feel the urge to keep on writing. My focus has returned. As I write a new scene, the sadness that threatens to suck the joy out of life will weaken and leave for a time. Some people think of writing as work, drudgery, something they must suffer through and be diligent about accomplishing each day if they are to achieve their goal—publication. But the truth is, if you have the writing gene, while you are in the act of putting words to paper or screen, you leave this world behind and live on another plane, in another universe, in a place apart from the rest of your life. You take a little mind trip, and the parts of life that haunt you, particularly those you can do nothing to change, evaporate into the ether. That is why, even with the splinters of pain that life embeds in our souls, I can be happy and enjoy this time of year.

So, this is my wish for you. May you dream your dreams and weave your stories on page after page. May you live in a place of the imagination that brings you long, blissful moments of peace and healing. Write from your heart. Write…write…write, and know that you are doing something worthwhile that will bring insight, pleasure, and comfort to others while allowing you respite from whatever challenges life has laid before you. –Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, Kathryn


Friday, December 18, 2009

It’s in the Details!

    What turns words on a page into a vivid scene? What magic do some authors perform that convinces readers a story is real and characters are people they might actually run into on the street?

    Details do the trick!

    Does that seem too simple an answer? Common sense or not, it's one element of fiction that is so often overlooked that editors and agents declare it's one of the most frequent reasons they turn down manuscripts. Yet this is such an easy problem for writers to fix, if they are just aware of it.

The trouble begins when the author—you, me, anyone regardless of experience—envisions their story and characters. To us, as creators, the people leap from our imagination with fully developed personalities. Our settings glow in our minds, complete with flora, fauna, and furniture! We "see" each scene as complete even as we polish our final draft, working on dialogue, plot, pacing, character development and consistency.

    But what does the reader see? Only what we put on the page. Therefore, it's important to weave in enough physical details for the reader to work with in her own imagination, allowing her to come up with a fictional world that is, if not exactly the same as the one we envision when we wrote the scene, at least similar and as vivid in its own way. Stories that take place in a muddy void aren't convincing. Stories that give us only generic details—flowers instead of iris, roses, and lilacs; buildings instead of chic condos, Georgian mansions, or mud-daub huts—leave the reader unconvinced that this world on the page actually exists.

    Some writers shy away from using the most obvious details—locations that are available to anyone who walks through a specific city or town. Is it fair game to set a scene in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, to fly on U.S. Air, to allow your characters to stroll down Connecticut Avenue in D.C. or work for the World Bank? Absolutely. In fact, a sense of recognition plays a very strong role in making your story come to life. A good general rule is: as long as you're not saying anything libelous about a business or place, you're safe.

    Take the time to play with details in your story, adding just enough to bring your scenes and characters fully to life. Coloring your story brings it from tonal grays to vibrant color…and may make the difference between a near miss and an offer on your next book. Happy Writing! --Kathryn

Monday, December 7, 2009


    Why do some writers' characters seem to spring effortlessly to life on the page, while others of us struggle and, even then, sometimes feel we've missed the mark? We look at our paper people and wonder--will these characters ever feel real to my reader? Will they be convincing enough to coax anyone to follow them through an entire short story, a novel, or (most challenging of all) a series of mystery, suspense or science fiction novels?

    Too often authors think that by listing the physical and basic emotional traits of a character, they will breathe life into them. By tossing in a description at the beginning of a story or scene, we've delineated the character, created a convincing portrait, given the reader the necessary information to imagine a particular type of person. But how important is it for your audience to know that Rachel has long blond tresses, while Norma has short dark hair? What does it really tell us about Frank if we see that cute cleft in the middle of his chin, or notice that he's 6'2"? I was reminded of the deeper differences in real people, which should be mirrored in our story characters, by a whirlwind Saturday recently. Let me explain.

    We, DH and I, had screwed up our calendar (not an unusual occurrence) by purchasing tickets to a 5 p.m. concert at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. on the same day we were supposed to be at a luncheon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 100 miles away from the city. Although the times didn't actually overlap, the 2 ½-hour drive from coastal Maryland to downtown D.C. would make for a tight schedule. As we drove across the Bay Bridge and east toward the restaurant where we were supposed to meet with 75 members of our sailing club, in this the off-season of December, it began to snow…and I got an uneasy feeling about our chances of making either venue. But we drove on and arrived in good time for the luncheon. Since my husband does most of the driving, I always take editing for my mentoring clients or a portion of my own WIP to work on as we zip along the highway. Thus, when we arrived, I was still in that writer's daze, semi-lost in my story and its characters.

    This first group of people we were meeting for lunch had been sailing buddies all summer long. We knew them by first names (not always by last) and by their boat's names. Some live in Pennsylvania, some in Maryland or New Jersey. Their jobs, families, religion, political affiliations, and education are all different and no one cares. The one interest that has brought us together is a love of sailing the Chesapeake Bay. As I was a tagalong, my husband being the newly elected Commodore (don't laugh, I think that makes me First Lady of some sort), I grabbed myself a glass of wine and sat back to study folks. What was it that made each of these people unique? What would someone observing them and, not knowing anything about them, learn on first meeting each one? For me, it was a lot more than whether their hair was gray or they chose to wear blue jeans instead of a suit and tie. It was their enthusiasm and ready smile, or the tentative and thoughtful way they listened to conversation. It was the use of hands, head, and full-body gestures that marked them as different. It was the words they chose to express themselves—warm or cautious, teasing or self-deprecating, concerned or casual, cheerful or complaining. All of these subtle differences I could see using for my paper people when I needed to breathe life into them. But there was, over all and despite their individual personalities and characteristics, a feeling of relaxed camaraderie. This was an atmosphere that wasn't in-your-face, out-to-impress, challenging or demanding a great deal of concentration. I kept thinking about this—the mix of setting and characters. In another setting, how would each of them change to suit the atmosphere? The most laid back individual might spring to action in the face of an emergency, no longer speak in the same languid tones, or become so unnerved as to be unable to speak at all. So maybe character is more a matter of a mix of personality, past experience, and current circumstances?

    I was looking forward now to our second people-watching opportunity of the day. At the end of the luncheon, we dashed for the car and sped through sleet and snow back toward Washington. Miraculously, we found a parking space on the street just one block from the National Portrait Gallery where the concert was to be performed. Now this is no ordinary classical music performance. This is the 21st Century Consort. Their members are drawn from some of the most prestigious musical assemblages in Washington. Many we have recognized as regulars from the National Symphony that performs at the Kennedy Center. And the pieces that are chosen are all modern, very modern. So much so that many of their composers are still living, and often appear as guests to discuss their compositions before the audience. Although I often feel at a loss for understanding the music (not having any training in that area to speak of), I feel amazingly privileged to actually see these gifted composers and hear them speak about their works. I tell my husband, "Two hundred years from now, these people will be honored as the masters. It's like meeting Chopin or Mozart!" But this time what most interested me were the people in the audience. Because, like the group of Saturday sailors we'd just left, they came from different places in this or other countries, and no doubt they had varied religious and political views, but they shared a common interest in a very select type of music. The atmosphere here was also friendly, to a point. Many people seemed to know each other and greeted one another warmly. But the conversations! (Okay, so I eavesdropped. Don't you when in a crowd? Great research.) These people spoke an entirely different language—and one foreign to me. They were familiar with the pieces being played. They spoke in technical detail about the compositions, the instruments, their personal experiences playing this music, conducting it, arranging it. And the feeling in the auditorium (and later at the reception in the garden court) was electric, challenging, hyper-charged intelligence colored with a competitiveness that hadn't been at all evident among our sailing friends.

    What have I learned from this day? That the white-haired, stocky gentleman in sweater and chinos might be one type of character at a luncheon for casual sailors…and someone else entirely if he instead chose to spend his spare time at an intimate classical concert. He might love to putter around boats on a summer afternoon, but his look-alike might write a sonata. One fellow might think nothing of diving off the stern of his boat to unsnarl a line from his propeller. The other may have never set foot on any ship smaller than the Queen Mary. Characters are a complex mix of the physical, emotional, personal history, talents, manners of expressing themselves, and circumstances as well as the settings and company in which they find themselves.

All of this reminds me—"Don't settle for a simple physical description and a touch of dialect. Go deeper, a lot deeper if you want to build a believable character on your pages." I'm going to try to remember that as I continue work on this next book. Maybe you will think about it too? --Happy writing! Kathryn