Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Do You Bring To The Page?

As a writer, I've wondered what do I offer my readers? Do I possess what it takes? What do I have to say that anybody wants to hear?

Lofty volumes of prose line many library shelves. Some deliver profound messages, soothing to the ears. Some hold you spellbound with intrigue or humor. And then some curl the hair on the neck as you quickly turn the page to discover the killer. Besides constantly polishing your knowledge of the writing craft and striving for the title of great storyteller, there's another element to this writing thing.

The author's ability to share knowledge, life experiences, and enlightenments within the context of a story. To make it matter.

What have you learned or experienced in your life that you bring to the page? Many of us bring our writing degrees, our teaching degrees, our years of contributions to magazines, lit mags, newspapers, and we bring awards. Oh, so many writing awards. And, that's wonderful. Commendable, in fact. But that's not what I'm talking about.

To quote Dorothy Allison (one of my favorites.) She made this profound statement at the Maui Writing Conference many years ago. " ... writers come to the page for many, many reasons. In fact many of us do come in the hope of justice! We do come in the hope of balance! We do come with an agenda of love! But I'm telling you now, lots of us start with a desire for genuine revenge."

Do you bring revenge to your written pages? Anger? Truth?

"Are you saying there has to be some deep, dark reason why we write? Can't I just write for fun?"

Of course you can, and many do. But once again, in my humble opinion, the writing that lasts for generations is written from the cobwebbed corners of a writer's mind. Those basements and attics where the writer fears to tread, but goes anyway.

"But," you say, "I write humor."

Ah, yes. Dissect that humor. Much of our humor also comes from pain. You know that old cliche spoken in the midst of anger and frustration ... "We're going to laugh about this later." Laughter through tears ... it's a powerful emotion. Take it to the page.

"Do you mean, then, write what you know?"

Not just what you know, but what you feel. What you've seen. What matters. The gut-wrenching moments in your life that cut deep into your heart. Write about that. Write about the scars. Who gave them to you, and how you healed, or how you still suffer from those scars. Give your character a piece of your life story that you want to share with the world. Dig out the best and worst of your memories, and include them in your stories. Write not just what you know, but what brought you out of a dark spot. What event turned you inside out, not just what made you uncomfortable. Write your passions, your desires, what moves you. Write that.

Those are the guts of a good story. Bring that to the page.

Blessings to you and yours.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Best Writing Is Born From Anguish

I listened to David Wilkerson, a well-known fire and brimstone evangelist whose messages stir the emotion and bring most to their feet or their knees. Clips of his sermons are posted on You Tube. You can search for him there.

"True passion comes from anguish," he said. His words flew into me like a fiery arrow, illuminating my past. Wilkerson's message centered around anguish and how todays church is void of it. He's a big believer in, Cryin' Holy unto the Lord. He professes the church has gone soft, that we're basically a bunch of babies who want to be soothed and coddled. That we no longer tarry for hours before the Lord, prostrate at the altar. That God wants to see our anguish over the state of the world and our Godless nation. Wilkerson has that pastor voice. You know what I mean? He's learned how to wail when he speaks, allowing us to hear his heart as it breaks for the sins of mankind. And if you've grown up as a fundamentalist, it moves you. Even if you've never sat in a tent revival, I think it would move you.

Whether or not you agree with Wilkerson's message, you have to agree that true passion is definitely born from anguish. As a writer, I believe the heartaches and hardships we experience give us plenty to write about.

And plenty to talk about ...

But it's not about anguish over a fender-bender. It's not about a bad grade on a test. Or losing your wallet. Or a fight with your spouse.

Anguish, suffering, agony, grief, sorrow and angst ... comes from a break in your spirit. A temporary disconnection with yourself and the world around you. The loss of anything dear to you creates real, gut-wrenching anguish. The kind you feel down to the soles of your feet. Buckets of tears. Nobody wants to experience it. Nobody wants to go through something like that, and I hope and pray you never do.

But if you do, what you do with that anguish, how you channel it, will determine your future in many ways. And if you're a writer, it can propel you into another level. I've read books where I know, without a doubt, the writer has suffered at one point in his/her life. You can feel it in the way they put the story together. Raising the stakes isn't so hard, because they've lived it.

Not a pleasant topic to blog about, but I think it needs to be said. Personally, I hope I never see another drop of anguish as long as I live. I've had my share. David Wilkerson can wail as long as he wants about anguish, but I never want to experience it again. Ever. It's not a pleasant place to go to.

However, I want you to remember if you've closed the door on your anguish, the memories of it ... you may want to revisit that dark place again. Especially if you're a writer. Your writing changes. Something inside you clicks and literary takes on a whole new meaning.

My passion was truly born from the sorrow, grief, and the anguish of my life. Now, I can truly say, the joy of the Lord is my strength. A scripture phrase that has almost become a cliché in Christian circles, has power and new meaning in me. At some point the tears have to stop. The river of sorrow has to trickle to nothingness. We have to move out of that place and use what we've learned to write the story of our life. It's not something we want to think about, anguish, but be thankful for it. It's made you who you are.

And despite the fire and brimstone, that's a good thing.

Blessings to you and yours.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Towerless Sky

Oil from the Arizona still floats on the water at Pearl Harbor. Smoke from the Twin Towers still lingers somewhere in our atmosphere. I was reminded by a friend today that these events that rocked our nation will never depart from our hearts and minds. Thank you, Barbara.

I remember visiting the towerless sky in 2002, one year after the attack. Ground Zero still smoked, the fences still held the memorabilia of those who perished, and the air still smelled of death.

Who can understand why this happened? No one. But the peace of knowing God in times like these is the peace that passes all understanding.

Blessings to you and yours.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

There's No Social Media Like Speaking To Your Readers Face To Face

As a writer, my comfort zone, like most writers, is at home wrapped in the warm, soft blanket of creation. To create well-rounded, compelling characters, and pull them through the high stakes of their lives ... there is simply no place I'd rather be.

But every so often, a writer has to get out and meet their readers. Word of mouth is truly the best way to sell books, but guess who must get that ball rolling? The writer. Once an event is booked, once you arrive on the scene, how do you size up the audience? Is the speech you have prepared the right one?

Be proactive. If you want to get an audience on your side, first you need to choose the right length of time to talk. Sometimes, even when they give you an allotted time to speak, you know after arriving, to shorten it, skip the Q & A, or change the speech entirely.

How can you make that decision? There is no fast rule here. You must learn to analyze each audience. I remember hearing that one pastor offered this silent prayer every time he stepped into the pulpit: "Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and nudge me when I've said enough." Cute.

If you are the main event, if they came specifically to hear you speak, you possess much more latitude. But if you are the "scheduled speaker" at a business lunch, a monthly meeting, or a Mother's Day event, if the audience didn't come because of you, then do your homework and be prepared. Some folks in the audience, guaranteed, have never even heard of you. Unless you're a celebrity author, you've got to make that group fall in love you and want to take a piece of you home. Your book!
A program coordinator will typically suggest a specific length for your presentation, usually it's thirty minutes to an hour. Nod your head, appear appreciative, say thank you, then totally ignore whatever time frame they gave you.
Unless the entire program is focused on you and your books, meetings and conferences rarely stay on schedule. Technical glitches eat up time. Coffee breaks have a mysterious way of expanding. Attendees run late. Don't assume you will get all the time you've been promised.
Event planners have an agenda. They think in terms of "time slots." They need a speaker to fill their speaker slot on their schedule. Fine. But good speakers do more than fill time slots. As the invited speaker, your job is to entertain, enlighten, communicate and captivate your audience, all while selling your book(s) in the process. Tough process? You bet. But the good news, you can learn how to speak to your readers, be great at it, and have fun doing it!
Consider the place of the event. Is it inside or outside? Is it air-conditioned? Women and men? How many will attend and are the seats comfortable? It's hard to communicate with an audience when they are uncomfortable. If you talk too long, they will tune you out. If it's a lunch meeting, remember these folks need to get back to work. You want to give them enough time to buy your book!
What precedes your presentation? For example, if you're scheduled to talk right after lunch, understand that lunch often runs overtime and so you might get less time to deliver your talk. Also, folks get sleepy. Don't drag on and on. Give an interesting, quick, and to the point presentation. Talk in a friendly tone, don't fiddle with your hair, and smile! Some say, "be yourself" but as a speaker you may want to spend your time as someone else! What a great excuse to do that!
On occasion the program director may want you to speak while the audience is eating. Try to get them to change this. People want to visit with those at their table when eating, not have to listen to a speaker. I know, crazy, but it happens.

Often a cocktail hour or a reception follows and the audience will be itching to get on with it. Not a comfortable situation to be in. But you have deal with this. Don't just get through it, have fun with it. I've changed my speech several times, gearing it to the mood of the audience. If you don't think you're talented enough to do this, then I suggest you take a class in public speaking or join Toastmasters for a while, and learn how to manage your audience.

Always factor in a few minutes for starting late. I've sat in Rotary meetings that have run over, giving me a whole ten minutes to wow the room. I jump in with a quick reading, about a paragraph of my book, something funny, and talk about what will resonate with the audience. Enough to whet their appetite and buy the book. But never, ever look or sound irritated. Common sense, right? You'd be surprised.
When you arrive, are the women friendly? If it's a mixed group, will that bother you? Do they welcome you warmly? Most do, but every once in a while you walk into a freezer. Truly, that's when you make it a challenge. Your dog and pony show can surprise them all, have them rushing to your table to buy your book after your closing remarks. Even if you're a great speaker, be prepared for a non-responsive audience. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.
Don't lecture. Find a coach to help you create compelling speeches about your work, research, and the book itself. Jodi Picoult is famous for her research prior to writing her novel. I've heard her speak on three separate occasions, and each time she spellbinds the audience with her story. I've also been in the audience of many other authors who put folks to sleep, or have no idea how to speak to a group. I've actually been quite embarrassed for them.
Allow time for someone to introduce you, and prepare that ahead of time. Make sure they have the correct bio in hand, or some interesting piece of news you would like the audience to know.
It's okay to use your notes, walk around, or stand behind a podium. Dress for the event. Don't overdress. And allow time for Questions and Answers. At most Book Clubs, the entire time is taken up in Q&A. It's very informal and I love this. It's easy, and the time goes fast.

But always, always allow time for selling your book.

Do your best. Once again, give the audience 100% and be prepared to shorten or change the speech upon your arrival. Never forget that the more you say, the less people remember. But take five minutes and read from your book. It doesn't have to be from the first page, but make sure it's a good part, and read in character if you can. I often turn into a Southern Fried Woman when I read. It's just a part of me, so it's easy. But find your niche. Know who you are as a writer and a speaker. It takes practice, hard work, and you must be fearless.
But more than anything, know your audience. If you can learn to read the faces in your audience, your success rate climbs. In being asked to speak, and in book sales. I've been professionally writing for over a decade now, and speaking for about six years, and I can tell you there is no social media out there like meeting your readers face to face.
Blessings to you and yours.