Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I went to a writer's workshop a couple weeks ago. The teacher led us in an activity to make our fiction better. I don't normally write fiction. Or, when I do, it is a gloopy mess. I like coming up with the characters but can never think of a plot.

So the characters end up complaining, "I'm bored. I don't have a conflict. I don't have a compelling story. I don't have a theme. Blah, blah, blah."

But she had us think of a character. Mine was a young superhero out of his element among big kid superheroes as they prepared for a race across the kingdom. Did I mention this was a children's story workshop? Then she said about five groups of four words that we had to choose from and use in the story. As she said each group, I watched as my character's whole landscape changed from ominous to cold to a marching band rehearsal.

It was like a door opened up in my mind. That night, I dreamed that I was climbing a huge tree--so huge that a branch actually ripped through another universe: make believe land. I could tell because the people looked like they were drawn. I was so excited to see what was happening in make believe land. But it was just a line of garbage trucks that were bumping into each other like dominoes. If this was a book, I would tell the character that that was a bad sign.

But in the meantime, I was getting frustrated with my non-fiction projects almost panning out, and then not. And I thought, "I don't even like real life, with its messy houses and meetings and bills. Why do I write about it?"

With fiction, you get to take all the things that are good about real life--the people and the funny things that happen and the defining moments in everybody's lives and forget the rest.

So I decided to write a novel. This is what I would compare that to: You're knitting a sweater. But instead of buying yarn from the store, you have to spin it on a spinning wheel, which you first have to build with wood you carve from a tree you chopped down from the forest you planted. And you must shear the wool from a sheep you herded. But before you can do any of this, you must pull that sheep and those trees...out of your ass.

And I don't even know how to knit.

Perhaps this lovely analogy illustrates why I'm struggling with writing a beautiful novel. See, with nonfiction, it's never a question of: Can I do this? Given enough time, and assuming that people will allow me to interview them--which they usually do--I can. But fiction is an endeavor that I know might never pan out. But it's something I have to try.

A lawyer who had been working for a big law firm and struck out on her own to do trial work told me, "If you're never in a courtroom, you're not practicing law."

I don't agree with that across the board. But for her, it was true. Now I feel like, for me, if I'm never writing fiction, I'm not writing.

From writers I've talked to, a good market is romance. I enjoy romance novels and I think I understand the story structure behind them, so I've been reading up on the genre. Some writers describe the beginning chapters as a blind date. You're getting to know your characters.

But it's a very bizarre first date.

Your character tells you, "My daddy was a coal miner and I left home as a teenager to become a country music singer."

And you're like, "Um, that's a little too Loretta Lynn for me. Would you mind trying again?"

"I'm from Texas and attended college on scholarship, after which I became a country singer."

"Better. But let's drop three years of college and give you a business degree from the school of hard knocks."


"And let's say you're the suspect in a murder."

"Whoa. Back up. I'm here for the romance novel."

Anyway, to divert my attention from this disastrous novel, I've been following the writers' strike in California. I show Richie and J.J. the You Tube clips in a home school lesson I call Sticking it to the Man. It's available via the blog www.unitedhollywood.blogspot.com. They are striking to get residuals from Web based programming, which runs ads.

It is heartening for me to see writers who believe their material is good and that they should be compensated fairly. I've always been jealous of T.V. writers because they get to write as a team. I know a strike is nothing to be jealous of, but I am just a tad envious of the way they believe in their work and their right to be paid fairly for it.

I'm biased, but I think writing is what makes or breaks a T.V. show or movie. It always amazes me when I see a good story--even if it's short or simple--because bad writing is so easy to do, a fact I'm reminded of now each and every day.

On a more basic writing note: Richie learned his ABC's. My mom sat down with him one morning and said, "This is not going to be easy. And it's not going to be fun. But by this afternoon, you're going to know your ABC's and it's going to be worth it."

And he learned them. And it was worth it because now he carries around a little notebook and writes letters on the pages. I also showed him how to make words by alternating vowels and consonants...if only it were that easy.

Maybe sometimes the only way to do something is to sit down and say: This isn't going to be easy or fun but it's going to be worth it. Or maybe not. But it's worth a try.

Ironically, after I abandoned hope for my nonfiction children's writing career, I got an e-mail from an editor asking me to write a biography for fifth grade readers. It's a work-for-hire, which, for some children's writers, becomes their bread and butter while they pitch stories that may or may not pan out. In other words, it's a start. I don't want to give too many details because I haven't gotten my contract yet, and I think that would jinx it. But basically, it's a rags to riches story of a famous writer. 6,000 words. Maybe real life isn't so bad after all.


Anonymous pat said...

You always come through! I know you can do whatever you put your mind to - It's a good creative mind!!!

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is awesome!!! You are amazing. Tell Richie congrats and give RJ a lesson or two in the ABC's...i REALLY want you to write a novel...

10:39 AM  

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