Friday, May 22, 2020

The Stories That Were Never Told

I offer this post as my Memorial Day tribute. There will not be a post on Memorial Day, because my attention will be on those who gave their lives in service to this country and never got the chance to tell the story.

War stories are a fascinating genre in literature, particularly because they are from the survivor's perspective. Like any honest recollection of history, the story comes from those who lived through the horrors and came home. They can talk about those who didn't make it home, but in the end it is a survivor telling their story, and offering their perspective on those who were killed.

In Saving Private Ryan, (spoiler alert) we see the D-Day invasion in harrowing detail from the perspective of Tom Hanks' character. His landing craft takes heavy fire the moment the door opens, and he has to bail out over the side. He swims to shore, fights his way through the hell that was the beach, and makes it through the day. Everyone talks about that scene - it is truly the stuff of great stories.

Now let's go back to the landing craft. As the gunfire hits it, plenty of soldiers are killed instantly. Some go over the side only to be killed by enemy fire in the water, others drown, and some reach the beach only to die from a variety of other nightmarish fates. How often do we think about their stories? They had full and complete lives until that final moment, but do we look at everything that led them to that final moment? Perhaps that's what makes the movie so compelling - we see some of those lives in full, even though they end in the tragedy that is war.

As writers, we need to acknowledge that every person has a story. Some receive more focus, such as Tom Hanks' character, but every character in that movie had a story of value. In some ways, the story of the man who died in the landing craft is especially valuable, because his heroism ended a few minutes into the movie. It's easy to write them off as side characters, but each one of those men had live and experiences that were unique and irreplaceable. They all had family and friends, they all went through boot camp, they experienced things we will never know because before they could tell that story, they died on the beaches of Normandy.

It is a genuine art to examine a life for its story when the obvious part isn't apparent. When we write, we need to look for the hero in the man who died on the landing craft. His death is just as tragic as any other, his heroism just as much as anyone who rushed that beach, but his humanity is what makes the story come alive again.

And on that note, our final responsibility as writers telling about other people is to bring them to life one more time, telling their story and breathing some air back into the world that ended so tragically. That is a heavy responsibility for a writer to bear, but nothing compared to what those men endured and ultimately died for. As writers, we owe them that much.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Placing Yourself In Your Story

In my last post, I closed out with a brief mention about including yourself in your own stories, but I want to give this subject a little more air time. Including yourself may seem like an automatic part of the process of telling your own story. However, that's a very easy trap to fall into. Just because it's our story doesn't mean we automatically place ourselves into it. In fact, there is a tendency to detach our personal experiences from those stories, and that will really hurt your story.

Years ago, a fellow writer wrote the story about how he lost his leg above the knee after a motorcycle accident. Clearly, such a traumatic, life-altering experience is fertile ground for a very moving story. After I read the story, I knew all about the accident, compression injuries, phantom pain, and the special rehab that accompanies such a procedure. What I didn't know was anything about how he felt about such a catastrophic experience.

As a reader who has only known life with two legs, my thoughts naturally drift toward myself - what would my response be if I lost a leg? Would I resist the process? Would I be happy my life was saved, or would I grieve for the loss of a limb? How does it feel as a person to hear terms like "skin flap" and know that's a reference to what used to by my limb? A clinical exploration of losing a leg does have its place as a story, but when it is our story, we have something very special to offer - our personal view. No writer can replace that, but every writer can gain something from hearing about the personal depth of that experience.

After some discussion, the writer acknowledged that a lot of those emotions were still very raw and unprocessed, and that the story was his first exploration into all those feelings. That confession was the most personal thing that had come from that story, and even a statement such as that makes the story all the more meaningful. The acknowledgement of pain is the first step toward recovery, and that is possibly why it is the most difficult step. I do not know if he ever took the next step (no pun intended), but his growth as a writer started once he decided to put his emotional experience into the story.

In case the message hasn't come across, this is the difficult part of writing our own story - pulling out feelings from the deepest part of our guts. This is a call to explore things we might not want to face, and put them out on the page, exposing them to the pure daylight of reality. Therapists sometimes have clients do this, and it's painful. For a writer to do it on their own is even more so, but there's a purpose for this.

At my old hangout in Ukrainian Village, I overheard one guy telling another about how he was going to write a letter to the Chicago Police Department about the cop who gave him a DUI after an accident that left him in a wheelchair. My curious, people-watching self settled in to listen to this man rant about a cop doing his job. If only I had popcorn.

It turns out that the guy in the wheelchair wanted to write a commendation for the police officer. After some severe soul-searching, he understood that the officer was doing his job, and that DUI after the accident finally got him to attend AA, clean up his act, and take responsibility for his actions. Letting him off the hook would've cheated him of the opportunity to get sober. I knew nothing about the accident itself, whose fault it was, his other injuries, or his recovery process, but his discussion was the most honest, insightful thing I had heard all day.

I sure hope he wrote more than just that letter.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Storytelling vs. Reporting

Here's something that happened to me the other day - for brevity's sake, I will offer the abridged version. I got into my car to go run some errands. After my last errand, my wheels skidded and I slid into a crowded intersection, having a near-accident with two other cars. Fortunately nobody was hurt and there was no damage, so all parties went home. Once I got home, I did some thinking about what could've happened if I had made one different choice on that drive.

That's the simple version of the story, but it's barely a story. Why?

Obviously, the lack of details is a clear problem, but believe it or not, that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that it communicates the events of my drive but offers nothing in terms of meaning, message, importance, or relevance to my life. It is a story, but the lack of substance makes it little more than just reporting the events of a day. A story earns its stripes when it tells more than a series of events. And there are a few ways to do that.

First, we can convey the importance with details - not filling in every blank, but exclusively offering details on the part of the story we want to stand out. If the point of the story is to emphasize that I was almost in an accident, do the details of my errands make a difference? Probably not. Maybe if the incident happened just outside my last stop, I can throw that in, but otherwise, details about stopping at the pharmacy, the gas station, and the hardware store are irrelevant.

This may seem obvious, but is it? What details should be included if the purpose of the story is discussing how one difference in my route would've meant no near-accident at all? At that point, the errands are the important part, because changing that route would change where I was for the incident. In fact, sliding through an intersection now loses importance because the purpose of the story becomes a discussion about choices and outcomes, not a near-accident.

And since we are referring to this near-accident all the time, let's focus a little on how to tell this story. A near-accident goes by another term - "not an accident" - and there's not much interest in a story about going on a drive where we don't get in an accident. Every drive I have taken this year ended up without an accident, so this is nothing special. Therefore, if our purpose is to tell a story about not getting into an accident, for this to be an interesting story, we might need to tell it a little differently.

Note that "tell it a little differently" does not mean lying or changing any events. It simply means reorganizing story to capture the audience's attention. We know the order of events, but if we start telling the story with, "As my car skidded into the crowded intersection, I thought I was a dead man," then I can go back to the beginning with the reader eagerly awaiting that moment. I should still choose what details are relevant and what I want to convey, but by changing the order of how the story is told, this near-accident is actually interesting.

Lastly, and most importantly, I need to include myself in this story. I need to offer more than the events and the details - that isn't a narrative story, it's a news report. If I don't include my feelings, fears, thoughts on that moment and how my hands shook even after I got home, I have not offered anything more than a spectator's view of an event. To be a story, we need to include that main character of ourselves and all the emotional substance that comes with. Otherwise, all we are doing is warning people about the dangers of the intersection of Steger Road and Western Avenue, even though there wasn't an accident there.

Monday, May 11, 2020

"I Want To Be A Writer, But..."

Look over the title of this post and think of three ways to finish the sentence. I am sure everyone who wants to be a writer can provide five or ten reasons. Even people who have started their journey and who are developing their process can still throw in a few reasons. Being a writer is not easy, and within this is a lot of room for self-doubt, hesitancy, and plenty of excuses to stop trying to be a writer. However, I can also show that none of them are true.

Mary Kubica, author and
time-management guru
Full disclosure: When I first ventured into writing, I had a lot of self-doubt. My motivation was unquestionable, as I mentioned in my first post, "Starting Off As A Writer," but my doubts were legion. My three ways to finish that sentence at the time would've been "... I didn't have the skills," "...there wasn't enough time," and "...I'm probably not as good as real writers." These were all perfect answers for the time. Funny story: I proved them all wrong.

First and foremost, let me say this as a constant reminder to everyone who wants to be a writer: Once you start writing, you're a writer. When you dedicate yourself to telling stories with the written word and communicating things to the world, you're a writer. The qualifications are not too high - you need to start writing, and keep on writing. Not too tough. Now, does this make you the awesome, world-changing writer you wish to be? Nope, but it's a start. It's the journey of a thousand miles starting with the first step, and most of the steps involve just writing.

To be honest, most doubts we have come from the simple fact that we look at simple truths and think they will never change. When I started writing, the facts on the ground were that I did not have the best writing skills for creative narratives, my job occupied most of my time, and I was not as good as most writers. My doubts were validated in that very moment. However, I made the conscious decision that those were not permanent situations, and that my world could change if I so chose. I could work on my skills. I could read more and see just how those real writers made their magic. I could go to workshops and ask questions, and if I was so dedicated, I could make time. And if you think you just can't make time, let me tell you about Mary Kubica.

Mary Kubica is a local author who does a lot of speaking about how she first pursued her goal of writing a novel. If you think you are short of spare time, she started writing when she had just become a new mother. (Note: Babies require a lot of time and attention.) However, she had a story in mind that she wanted to write. She decided to write it, and worked out a plan. The baby woke up around 5:30 every morning, so she would wake up at 5:00 and start typing until her little one woke up. Little half-hour bursts of activity created her first novel, "The Good Girl," which got published, got rave reviews, led to a few publishing contracts, five more books, and eventually a Netflix deal. One-half-hour at a time led to all that. Even a new mother had the time once she decided to become a writer.

Simply put, there are only two reasons you can't be a writer - you can't read or you never learned to write - and the fact that you are reading this post voids those excuses. Any other reason is merely a doubt that can be dispelled by the simple task of writing. So start writing, and whenever you think something might get in your way... keep on writing.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Amazing Stories - Maybe Too Amazing

I have a friend who has lived the kind of life that allows him to tell the most amazing stories. He will tell us about the times he's driven up to the city, met some amazing people and they've gone on all these drunken escapades into all those hidden places in Chicago. There's been sex and drugs and gunplay, A-list celebrities and pretty high living, and my rarely-sober friend is always willing to relay those stories to everyone around. We have never had the good fortune to go on one of his adventures, but we love the stories.

In case you haven't figured it out, my friend lies a lot.

No, I can't prove that my drunken friend didn't do tequila shots with Jennifer Aniston and John Malkovich at an afterparty on Rush Street. I have no evidence to counter that he found out the top floor of the old Fulton Market Cold Storage building used to double as a rave room where Vince Vaughn and Jon Cryer hung out when they came to town. However, I hear the story, look at my friend, and come to the inescapable conclusion: "No way, no how."

This is the thing about stories: As writers, we can create whatever we want, and tell whatever tale we wish to spin. However, if we don't do it in a manner that convinces our audience that we are genuine, then we lose our readers. They don't embrace the narrative - even if it's true.

I've said this before and it's worth repeating. Just because something happened doesn't mean it is automatically believed. Non-fiction isn't a stamp of approval, particularly if the story centers around the stupidity of others. In an excellent piece by my friend and colleague, Victoria Marklew, entitled, "This Lousy Pandemic Script," she succinctly demonstrates how reality can fail to pass the smell test when it comes to a believable narrative. Sometimes, the truth has so many forehead-slapping, face-palming moments that if we didn't watch it unfold right in front of us, we would never have believed it could happen, much less did happen. When it is written as a story, readers quickly dismiss it.

Now, this bar of believability is easier to see through the eyes of fiction. If I am writing about the rise of a zombie apocalypse, the characters should be at least a little surprised and have some disbelief as to the events unfolding before them. The reader likely understands that this is a zombie book so there is some suspension of disbelief, but they still need to see the characters as people who are being introduced to something they are not expecting.

In this regard, non-fiction is a harder sell because there is no suspension of disbelief - the factual world around us is baked into the story. When my drunken friend tells his stories, he incorporates reality to make them amazing, though this often goes beyond our acceptance that he, a 300-pound drunk with a tenth-grade-education and half his teeth, could so smoothly fall in with any social scene he desired. At that point, we smile, nod, laugh among ourselves and know he's on another one of his wild flights of fancy.

This is an art, and it takes practice to sell the most bizarre situations and get the reader to believe what you are presenting. By now you believe my drunken friend is basically just a loudmouth who lives in these drunken delusions. You'd be right. However, you'd also believe that he exists. You'd be wrong. He's just a fiction of my mind that we are all too willing to believe exists because he represents something we've all kind of experienced at one time or another. He's the fiction we all assume is real. Non-existent characters like him are the real amazing stories.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Ugly Side of Self-Publication

Judging by the emails and Facebook IMs I received regarding my last post about the road to getting published, I scared a lot of people into opting for the self-publication route. The thought of all the work, struggle, and rejection that comes with finding an agent, much less a publisher, definitely gives the do-it-yourself route some appeal. Well, now let me offer the pros and cons of being your own publisher, and we will see if that scares you back in the other direction or convinces you that you're ready to take it on yourself.

Self-publishing obviously has its appeal - no agent taking 15% of your royalties, no fighting with a publisher asking you to consider some changes to make it more marketable, no annoying editors sending you a relentless number of revisions. Just your word going onto the shelves, and you claim the royalties. Nice and tidy - but a little too tidy, as I shall point out.

The important part to remember about self-publishing is the word "self." You do everything yourself, or pay for someone to do it for you. Even before your first copy is available, you do the editing yourself. You do the layout yourself. Cover design - yourself. All the technical requirements for creating the files that make the book - yep, that's done by yourself as well. Sometimes it's easy to outsource these, which is fine, but they need to be done and they cannot be taken lightly.

I'm offering a special paragraph here to emphasize the importance of having your work edited. This is different than editing your work - you need an editor. And before you answer - no, an editor is not your dear Aunt Pearl who is so glad you are writing, or a long-time friend who is good at finding mistakes. An editor is someone who is not emotionally invested in your process and can tell you the things you might not want to hear. If characters are flat, if pacing is uneven, if plot lines wander around, an editor should tell you these things. Self-publishing means there is no gatekeeper to tell you if something needs work, so literally anything can go into print. If you self-publish, you want to make sure that your words and ideas are presented in a way that stands above all the books out there where the author said, "My work be good 'nuff, and ain't nobody telling what need ta be done." They're wrong. Don't join them.

Just as a side-note, the most common route for self-publishing is Amazon's KDP. It is a full-service suite for publishing where you can buy features that are normally outsourced, or if you prefer, you can publish for free without their premium services. More importantly, any book published through KDP is examined by other retailers, who may list the book in their catalog as well.

So, let's say you finally get into print. Excellent. Now what? Well, self-publishing also means that you wear a bunch of other hats, and the weirdest one you will wear is public relations - you are your own PR agent, making sure the world knows about your new book. This is a job in itself, and if you want to sell copies to people other than your Aunt Pearl, you need to promote yourself long before your book is published.

Self-promotion is more than just an Instagram post that you've published a book. Social media is very important, but it's not the only route. You should be on several social media sites talking about your upcoming publication and asking about how to promote your work. You should be looking into ways to get buzz stirring - local libraries are great routes for writer forums, and you will want to make sure you find out about whether you can have a presentation as a local author and sell some autographed books. (Yes, you should have a stock of books you are willing to sell at a moment's notice. Consider them the biggest business cards you can carry.) A publisher would normally help you with these things. Self-publishing means you do all this yourself.

Scared yet? Don't be. Anything worth doing is worth putting forward the effort. If you're a little nervous, great - that means you're taking it seriously. Look into it as an option. It might be a great way to get the ball rolling and stir up some buzz for future publications. And believe me, nothing quite matches the feeling of holding a book and seeing your name on the cover. It is the validation that nothing else can ever match.

Aunt Pearl will be proud.

Friday, May 1, 2020

What A Publisher Can Offer (And What They Shouldn't Offer)

At some point, writers dream of publication. Maybe it's not the first dream and it certainly should not be the last, but the idea of getting your words printed, bound, stamped and sold to the public is a pretty amazing idea. This mean that not only would the public be reading your words, but they would willingly pay for the privilege. Libraries will dedicate space on their shelves for your words, people will hear about you giving a talk about writing and note the date, and fans who see you will *gasp* ask for you to sign their copy. Then are just some of the many joys of being a published author.

Now, how do you get there?

There are two main routes - conventional publishing and self-publishing, and this post will talk about the first one (Monday's post will start the self-publishing adventure). This is where you sign a contract with a publisher, they publish your book, and you take in a percentage of the proceeds. Simple? Kind of. Getting to that contract is the difficult part. Really difficult.

You can attempt to contact publishers directly, but I have never seen it work. Most people solicit a literary agent to work that angle. The agent is someone who has usually been in publishing for a while, specializes in certain genres, and knows the right contacts to reach out to when pitching a new book, anthology, collection of poetry, or what have you. And for 15% of your eventual royalties, they will provide this service for you.

(Side note: A trustworthy agent works off of future earnings, and the same goes for a publisher. If an agent or publisher asks for a stack of money up front, walk away. Cash up front puts the writer on the hook for the job the agent or publisher should be doing, when the reward should be from sales - the back end of the deal. Cash up front is usually a red flag.)

Now, soliciting an agent is not an easy task. There are thousands of agents but literally millions of writers potentially selling to all of them. An agent will pick and choose a select group of writers to represent, and it's not that many. Writers try to win that agent's attention through what is called a query letter.

The query letter is a 200-to-250-word audition. It follows a standard format, but within it you write about what you want to publish, its genre, points of appeal, target audience, and what makes you so cool. In this, you sell yourself and your work, and hope someone bites. This can be brutal. This is walking into a crowded singles' bar with one pickup line and going table to table, pitching that line. There will be rejections, snubs, and non-responses, but if you try and try and try, you will get someone to dance with you. So with something this brutal, you want to have the thickest skin, the best line, and enough knowledge on who to ask first. Dedicate a lot of time to the query letter, and Google around for query letter advice -- there are hundreds of sources to choose from.

Once the letter is done, it's time to try and snag an agent. The online Directory of Literary Agents (DLA) is my first stop. Sign up here (it's free) and you can sort through the listings to see who works with your genre, accepts unpublished writers, and email submissions. Each agent lists what a query letter to them should and shouldn't contain, and submission guidelines (if any). Follow these directions like gospel! You are competing with hundreds or thousands of emails every month, and the agent is just looking for a reason to delete those queries from unpublished writers who think they're good enough to ignore the rules.

Lastly, get yourself a copy of Writer's Market 2020. A new one comes out every fall, and there are also books for sub-categories. My fave is Novel & Short Story Writer's Market 2020, but they are there for most every genre. Not only do the Writer's Market books have agent listings, they are full of articles on perfect query letters, writing and publishing tips, inspiring examples, and author testimonials. Use the Writer's Market and the DLA to find out about the industry then chase down the perfect agent. And yes, you will need to chase dozens of agents, if not more, before you get a bite. So go for it. Run after that agent to take you down the path to publication. (And if they want money up front, run the other way.)