Or is it Wort?
I don’t know – a wort to me is a sort of plant, perhaps a straggly plant, or something like St. John’s Wort. Maybe that’s why St. John’s Wort is used to make people feel better – the worrywarts for instance. But let’s get down to brass tacks here.
Are you a worrywart? Do you see a snowflake and predict the end of the known world and the onset of a new ice age? Or do you just flick off the concerns of life as if they were a sprinkling of rainfall on a summer’s day? Personally, I think inside the latter there is someone who was raised by the former and is trying desperately to hang onto a thread of balance. Worrying, to me, is like so much unsafe ballast on a ship – it can turn you over into the surf of crazy in a heartbeat. I know this, because I was raised by a first class worrywart – and she’ll be on the ‘phone to me within, oh, about three seconds of reading this post.
My mother worries about everything. She is known to call and ask, “Is there anything for me to worry about?” “Yep, only if you can fix the darn leaky tap in the bathroom from 6500 miles and eight times zones away,” I have been known to answer. Her antennae are always set to high alert and you could say it’s a family trait – call it siege mentality. I’ve tried to fight this all my life, but every now and again I feel my heartbeat quicken when something is about to go wrong (a question - might it not have gone wrong had I not reacted before the perceived event, trying to stop it?).
Thankfully, I think I’m more like my Dad – he was a laid back kind of guy, and even on those occasions when he wasn’t, he’d let you think that nothing was going to ruffle his feathers. As many of you know, he passed away in 2012, following a short but difficult illness, a rare blood disorder (and one which is either becoming more common, or doctors are getting better at identifying, because I’m hearing about it a lot now). I remember, at each meeting with his hematologist, upon being asked how he was doing, Dad would say, “I feel fine. No worries.” Meanwhile, his red blood platelets had plummeted again, my mother was worrying herself into a frenzy and I was trying to keep really, really cool while fighting the demon inside. It was only just before he died that Dad finally admitted, “Well, I don’t feel 100%.” That was a time to worry. That was when I told my brother to get on a ‘plane home to England NOW, " … and don’t think you can get away with stand-by on a buddy pass either!" I added, for good measure, worrying that he might call his pal who works for United.
This worry thing runs through my extended family, along with that siege mentality. It’s an “All for one, and one for all” collective emotion. It was during my book tour a couple of years ago that I learned exactly how ill my father was, so I made the immediate decision to cut short the book tour and return to the UK - as many of you know. I was in Boston, just two events away from flying home (and a little fried, I confess) when my cousin called on my cellphone. “Jackie,” he said. “Just tell me – how much do I need to worry?” I rolled my eyes and wound up like a coiled rattlesnake. I was trying to keep it all together for just two more days, and I knew this conversation was about to undo me. There’s nothing to get a latent worrywart going more than another of the same ilk worrying in their midst. I could feel this balloon of concern just getting bigger and bigger inside me. My cousin had just lost his beloved sister to another dreadful blood disorder, so you couldn’t blame him – couldn’t blame any of us – for being on edge, but I remember saying a bit snappily, “It’s nothing for you to worry about – everything’s under control.” What I really wanted to say was “Worry like crazy because the world is caving in .…”
My brother shows no worry at all. Personally, I think he’s like a swan in the lake – paddling for all he’s worth under the water, while giving the impression of absolute serenity. “Nothing to worry me, Jack,” he says, when I ask how he’s doing. That’s years of deflecting the concerns – real and imagined – of my mother. OK, and me too. When she asks “How’s your brother?” I always say, “Oh he’s fine, I’m sure,” while I’m thinking, “Heck, I haven’t spoken to him for weeks – I wonder if he’s OK?” Then I go on to thinking, “Is no news good news? Or is no news a sign that we’re in really big trouble?”
I once bought my mother a small handbook about things to get really worried about – it was a jokey book with all manner of cataclysmic events that could befall anyone. Earthquakes. Floods. Famine. War. And then I remembered something from my childhood. We were in our local town – more of a village, really. I was about five and my brother still in his pram, so he was probably a year old. The town had an old wartime air-raid siren that was used as an alarm to alert the mostly volunteer fire brigade. We were walking down the street when the alarm sounded, and before I knew it, my mother had gathered us up and we were cowering in a doorway next to the post office. Her pallor had turned sheet-white, and I remember saying. “It’s alright, Mummy. There aren’t any bombs. It’s only a fire somewhere.” She came to womanhood in London during the war, you see, and knew what it was to be bombed out of her home - and I was well aware of her fears even then.
So, I try to remember that now – that perhaps many of our worrywarts have good reason to be so, and it all started somewhere. Mind you, it could have been our house on fire that day, so we went straight home, just in case.
OK, Mum, now you can call me – and don’t worry, everything is just fine. You know it is … really, truly, honestly.
James O. Born
The language of the novel has everything to do with how it's received and the way in which a reader perceives it. I know that sounds obvious, but many writers don't seem to get it. I'm not talking about every novel written with exquisite prose and flowery language. Some novels are written bluntly and to the point. Some tell the story of survival and danger and require a different tone. Some have a lighter touch and certain language would crush the comedic timing. One way to think of the tone of your writing is the music to a movie. I am a fan of Shakespeare's Henry Vand seen the movie starring Laurence Olivier several times. In
addition, I've seen the remake by Kenneth Branagh dozens of times. It's the same story with essentially the same dialogue. (I would hope that they were both following the same source material). But the impact of the remake by Branagh is much stronger in my opinion and it took me a number of viewings to figure out why. Laurence Olivier is arguably one of the greatest actors of all time. The production with him is from the 1950s and is spectacular. After careful consideration, I realized it was the music of the remake that set the tone and made it that much more exciting for me. Others would disagree, but I find the remake to be far superior to the Laurence Olivier version. And I generally don’t care what others think. They only get in the way of what I think.
Consider all that when you decide how you want to tell your story. Our friend and fellow blogger, Paul Levine, once told me about his experience writing the excellent novel Illegal.
He changed the tone of the novel by simply referring to the protagonist by his last name, Payne, instead of his first name, Jimmy. That gave the story a harder edge. I thought it was a brilliant and simple move and an explanation that should be in writing classes. So now it is. Thank you, Paul.
The other language quirk that I would look at if I were starting my first novel was avoiding clichés. Things do stick out like sore thumbs, but they also stick out like George Bush's ears or, for that matter, Barack Obama's ears. Have I just stumbled onto a hidden code about our presidents?
One of Elmore Leonard's famous rules is never used the phrase, "Then all hell broke loose." I listened to him so intently that I don't even use that phrase in real life anymore.
Is he a smart as a whip? Or are smart as Neil Degrasse Tyson? This one isn't really a cliché because Tyson is a very bright
guy. Use your own imagination, I'm tired of doing all the work.
Is he lonelier than an Amish electrician? (Thanks Larry the Cable Guy).
Something faster than a speeding locomotive or is it faster than Adrian Petersen in the open field. Is it faster than the French army in reverse? (You can never go wrong poking fun at French military expertise.)
They don't all have to be funny, they just have to avoid being clichés. Personally, I avoid clichés like the plague.
Work smarter not harder. Or whatever.
Our quote this week is more contemporary, but right on the money, I mean, as precise as George Will’s elocution.
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.”― Joss Whedon
From the messy desk of Paul Levine...
I have nothing against self-promotion by authors.
How could I? I'm been shamelessly flogging my own books since publication of "To Speak for the Dead" in 1990. (See! I just did it there).
But self-promotion is one thing in the publishing world. Self-pity and whining are something else.
I refer to a piece in Salon by first-time novelist Stephan Eirik Clark, in which he complains about the difficulty of finding his book on Amazon, seven months before publication. In doing so, Clark, an English professor at Augsberg College in Minnesota, picks up the tired old cudgel of Amazon bashing...and also seems to criticize his own publisher, Little Brown.
Clark's article, "Amazon Buried My Novel: Those Search Algorithms are for Sale,"
is wrong on many levels. I have no trouble finding his book, "Sweet #9" on Amazon when putting his name into the search window. Sure, plugging in the exact title confuses Amazon's search engine because it doesn't recognize the "number" symbol, and that troubles him a lot.
But wait there's more. A conspiracy may be afoot. Clark suggests that maybe his publisher failed to bribe Amazon into giving him better search results through those mysterious Amazon algorithms. For this proposition, Clark relies on George Packer's recent New Yorker article, bashing Amazon for extracting promotional fees from publishers.
As he is new to publishing, Clark might be surprised to learn that Barnes & Noble, the late Borders, and many other chains historically squeezed "co-op money" from publishers in exchange for front-of-the-store or end-cap placement, advertising and marketing.
This isn't new. Amazon just does it better than...oh, let's say the defunct chain Waldenbooks.
What really seems to frost Clark's Minnesota buns is that Amazon's search engine places "Sweet # 9," a book he considers literary fiction, on the same Search Results page as "Sweet Valley High."
I felt ready to channel the words of the great unifier, Jonathan Franzen. “I’m writing in the high-art literary tradition!” I wanted to scream at my computer. “And you’re going to lump me in with “Sweet Valley High” and “Sweet Valley Confidential — The Sweet Life?”
Now, "Sweet #9" may be the best first novel since "Catcher in the Rye." Or it might be dog poop. I don't know. But I hate pretentiousness in all its forms.
(I also realize that Clark may be so damn smart he purposely opened himself to ridicule by writing that...all in an attempt to get a thousand bloggers to tell him his ass is too tight. In other words, his aim was to get others to cleverly flog his book, even inadvertently. And here I am, doing just that).
I'll close with this advice for Professor Clark. Keep on writing. Keep on flogging. But quit your belly-aching.
This is going to be one of those “off the cuff” and probably rather long posts – nothing concluded in my mind and without the structure of the well-considered essay. Just a few thoughts to, perhaps, inspire a few in return – a conversation, if you will.
I’ve been thinking about privacy and its first cousins solitude and silence this past week. I think about these things a lot. Not because social media seems to have brought such considerations up close and personal – to coin a phrase – but because I value all three and do my best to cradle them gently, lest I lose them. And I was traveling all day yesterday through three airports (privacy aside, you pretty much all know how I feel about flying) – and unless you’re driving alone on a deserted road with no radio signal and a dud sound system, travel will always compromise privacy, solitude and silence.
In one airport yesterday, among the people around me, I learned the following: That the young man in the black pants and black check shirt with a black tie – though the shirt was hanging out of his pants – was on his way to California to make a movie about skiers. Even the people in not so close proximity to him knew this about him (and I’m using some of his language here) – that he didn’t give a f**k about what so-and-so thought, but everyone just had to get out there and make it happen. He fielded several calls to this effect, and I was not the only member of his audience – for what does a projected voice demand, but an audience? – to notice that he chewed the inside of his mouth as if he were eating dinner while talking, and he looked around and fidgeted as if he could not concentrate on just one thing. I did not want to hear any of this, so I moved away, as did other audience members – but we shuffled straight into another “sharing.” The woman with very dyed blonde hair, a bright pink smock and tight leggings spoke in a voice loud enough to let everyone at gate B9 know exactly what she thought of her ex. In my book she was trumped by the girl next to me who had to make arrangements for her two dogs, given the delay – I began to worry about her dogs. Anyone who has been at an airport in the past twenty years would have a similar story of unsolicited information reaching them too loud and too clear. These experiences led to me thinking about privacy and what we consider it to be now – and I began by looking at myself, and my behavior with regard to that which is personal in my life.
Once, at a meeting of writers, the person interviewing me said words to the effect that, “We know all about Maisie Dobbs and the other characters in Jacqueline’s books, but here’s what we know about Jacqueline – that she’s a writer, that she was born in the UK, and that she lives in California – and that’s it!” And I wondered if that wasn’t all everyone needed to know. Around the same time, my then publisher encouraged me to add more about my life to my website – a page with details about my pets, for example. They wanted to see more about my family, about me – to “share” with my readers. I was pretty much convinced that all my readers wanted to know was when the next book was coming out! But I went ahead and “shared” more about who I am and what I had done, and it seemed that no big dam of information was breached. You see, despite what you might read about me or by me, I’m a rather private person. Or am I?
Writing posts for www.nakedauthors.com has given me the opportunity to indulge in the personal essay – and what is the personal essay if not an opportunity to touch the universal by way of the personal? You who visit this blog know quite a bit about me, don’t you? You know I adore my horse Oliver, that I am getting to know Wolke, who I bought last summer and that Maya, our Labrador was a rescue pup from the LA County Shelter. You know – I think – that my beloved mare, Sara, had to be laid to rest last summer, and that losing her all but broke my heart. You know my Dad died in 2012 – I wrote about him on my Facebook page, mainly to thank the booksellers and readers who were so understanding when I had to cancel most of my book tour. You know that sometimes I like to write about the lighter moments in life, and that at others I write about elements of life that affect me deeply. But where is the line? Have I opened a bottle and released the genie of my past, present and future so that nothing is private any more? I wonder about that sometimes, especially when I skirt very personal questions at events (such as bookstore readings and so on). I try to use humor when I do that, scanning the audience for the next raised hand. At one bookstore event several years ago, the bookseller said afterwards that she had never known an author have so deal with so many personal questions, tap-dancing around them. I wondered, then, if perhaps people think I am the characters I write about, and because they know so much about Maisie Dobbs, perhaps they think they know me more intimately than they do, therefore such questions are OK. I think other authors with a series have experienced the same thing. It’s not that we don’t appreciate every single person who bothered to turn out to see us – heaven knows I am so grateful for that support – but sometimes we unwittingly blur our own line in the sand, and therefore must look to ourselves for the consequences.
And remember, I’m still thinking out loud.
Although I keep my cellphone with me for emergency purposes, I find I am leaving it off more and more. I called my husband yesterday from a discreet place in the airport to tell him about the flight delays and that I would call from the car when I’d arrived at my final destination. Then I turned off the cellphone. There was nothing important I wanted to say to anyone, and at that point, there was nothing I could do about any emergency that might arise, so it was better left off. No big-voice sharing from me.
I’m also thinking more about what I want anyone to know about me, and I want to make sure I am clear with myself – what do I want to hold close? What do I want to reveal because there’s something of a story there. I have shared personal stories when they have inspired something in my writing - and I love to read the same of other authors. I’m interested in where stories come from.
Finally, perhaps we all think we’re more interesting than we are. On the other hand, in the sharing of stories – even the most personal stories – we know we aren’t alone in the world. There’s something to be said for that – as I said earlier, when the personal becomes the universal. The word “universe” means “one song” after all, and apparently the root of the word “conversation” means “learning together.”
I just think some conversations are best held in private.
In closing – here’s something I read in “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams:
“It is winter. Ravens are standing on a pile of bones – black typeface on white paper, picking an idea clean. It’s what I do each time I sit down to write.”
What do you think? Maybe we can pick this idea clean ….
James O. Born
We've gone through a lot these past six weeks. We have come to understand what it takes to get our heads on straight and comprehend what we want to say when we start our blockbuster novel. We’re not quite ready for experimental literature, so were going to follow the three act structure. Our characters should be deep and interesting with flaws as well as positive traits. The hero and the antagonist should be equal and have the ability to cause each other serious damage. And we haven't even got the plot or story yet.
No, I'm afraid we need one more week on characters. They're just that important. So we talked about good guys and bad guys. Basically main characters. But are they the only two people in your novel? I doubt it. Aside from a few books and movies over the years, usually involving some form of nuclear devastation or a worldwide plague, every story has a number of people in it; especially the more realistic police or legal thrillers.
So now we have to think about secondary characters. But not too many. There is no set rule on this, but my feeling is once you get past eight or nine named characters things can get confusing. Especially if some of the names are similar. I read a review of one of my novels once where someone pointed out I used the same letters to start last names. It was just a little quirk I had developed, but didn't realize. I worked so hard at making the characters unique, I screwed up and left their names similar. There is just so much to keep track of with characters.
The beauty of secondary characters is they can be completely and wildly quirky. They can talk in rhyme, if that's how you want it to be. That may not work for a main character, but to have a secondary character with some sort of brain trauma, which has forced them to speak in rhymed verses would be interesting. At least to me. And the beauty of writing your own novel is you can explore those kinds of characters.
The secondary characters are intended to support, not overshadow the main characters. They can help in the hero's quest, but they can't complete it. Just as they can assist a villain and do a lot of dirty work, but they shouldn't be the brains of the operation.
The secondary characters are what turn good books into great books. They mark the author as someone with imagination and attention to detail. I love the supporting cast. Not just in books, but in TV and movies well. It's always the goofy brother or the ditzy girlfriend that makes me laugh and keeps me interested in the story.
But secondary characters can also provide great motivation. If you don't believe me, start a story with a wisecracking, amiable sidekick and see what happens when he gets killed in a shootout with two escaped convicts. Suddenly the story went from important to personal and you feel it viscerally, rather than interpreted cognitively.
Try a love story without a supporting cast getting in the way of your two star-crossed lovers. Even a story about cavemen would have a character who wanted to run the tribe and keep the hero from successfully completing his quest.
The other important thing to remember is that no sidekick realizes there are sidekick. Every character is the hero of their own story. Just like we talked about last week with villains, no villain realizes they’re a villain. They think they're justified their actions. A sidekick doesn't realize they’re only a minor part of a larger story. To them the protagonist is off doing their own thing while our supporting character is living their life.
Think about the world we live in now. Are you someone else's sidekick? Do you have sidekicks? Who is the comic relief in your life? Who's your good friend who gives you advice that is always wrong, but you listen anyway?
The beauty of writing your own novel is that in real life you may not be able to fix those things or say what you want at the right time. When you have a year, two years, or maybe even five years to write your great novel, you can't get the right phrase out at just the right moment and fix all the little things that annoy you in real life. You can even fix them by killing someone. That is a scary and awesome ability. Just remember, the consequences. In fiction and in real life.
That's what we can talk about next week: consequences.