Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Advice for the Rookies from a Rookie

A number of people have asked me recently how I write. They say things like, “You know, I have always wanted to write a book, but I don’t…” And here you can fill in the blanks. Have enough time, enough talent, know what to write about, know if I’m interesting enough, know if people would like my stories, know if they’d like me. So I thought I would write some of my thoughts about writing from an Everyman perspective.

These are just my ideas, not at all Gospel. I am a middle-aged guy with no degrees in literature, journalism, or creative writing. I am a husband and father first and foremost, who has a day job, and who writes detective stories at night. I have been blessed to be part of such an amazing group of writers, and as the new guy on the block I wanted to share some perpective on my writing experience. If these ideas work for you, then by all means take what you can from them.

  1. Read. Simple enough, right? But reading is where you learn what you like, and what you don’t like, in a story. It’s where you pick up on language, expand on ideas from other writers, and charge the batteries in your imagination. Read stories you enjoy. If you like mysteries, for example, read several authors to find a style and voice you can relate to. Historical romances your thing? There are some wonderful writers in that genre. The point is, if you want to write, you have to read. And now on to…

  2. Pay Attention. Inspiration is a goofy thing. You never know when or from where it will come at you. I can also tell you, from my experience, it is usually subtle. One day a few years ago I was sitting in the parking lot of a car repair shop along the lake just south of Buffalo, NY, on a typically grey January day, waiting for my wife’s cousin to drop off her car and take her back to our house. As we drove home, Lake Erie was an expanse of grey snow and ice heaved at the shore line, stretching out until it was impossible to tell where the frozen lake ended and the cloudy sky began. I thought, this would be a lonely place to die. Eighteen months later my first novel, Lake Effect, was set against the very backdrop I described as my detective hero unravels the case of two children murdered on the icy shore. I can’t tell you the number of times I have come across little tidbits of life that find their way into my stories. Paying attention to the little things makes all the bigger things easier.

  3. Stop, look, and listen. And smell and taste while you’re at it. Books are a wonderful way to convey your ideas, but if you want to add texture and substance, you have to use all your senses. It’s not enough to say you ate delicious Buffalo chicken wings, though to be honest that should be enough. From what I understand, there are a few people that have never eaten Buffalo wings before. For those people, you can tell them about the steam rising off the plate of red-sauced chicken parts, awash in a sea of hot sauce and butter, the creamy Bleu Cheese dressing a cooling accompaniment to the tangy, spicy wings. Are they fried crispy, or are they soggy and saucy? Are they mild enough to give to a four year old, or do they leave your lips stinging as they light your throat on fire? The more real you make it, the more into the story both you and your readers will be.

  4. Embrace rejection like a 13 year old at a middle school dance. My wife and I have been married for 23 years, have two ten year old kids, and find we agree on the most important things. But she doesn’t care for the Joe Banks series I have written at all. Just isn’t her cup of tea, and you know what? We’re still married, we still love each other, and she still supports my writing. Make your story as good as you can make it, and learn as much as you can from people who tell you constructive ways to improve. Failure, and rejection, is nothing more than the opportunity to do it better the next time. I think that’s true no matter what.

  5. Have a sense of humor about it all. A wise old man once told me if you can’t laugh at yourself, someone else will laugh at you. In my day job as a physical therapist in a nursing home, I had a resident walk with me as part of his exercise program. We chatted back and forth for several minutes, and finally Arthur turned to me and said, “You know, this is a nice place. I think it might make a nice nursing home.” He thought about it, then started laughing. It was a genuinely funny moment, and reminded me not to take myself, or what I perceive to be my problems, too seriously.

Then, when you’ve got all that sorted out, keep notes on what you see, do, smell, taste, feel and hear that you might be able to use in a story. Figure out how you feel about it, and how you would react to a situation as you get to know your characters. Then write it all down. All of it. Don’t worry, you can sort it all out later. That’s what the editing process is for.


Pamela Callow said...


Great advice. I love your story of where your inspiration for writing Lake Effect came from. It's so true - inspiration often comes from things in our everyday lives that simply resonate with us for some reason.

And I'm inspired by your day job. My dad is waiting to be placed in a nursing home, and it's the team of people who interact with him and help him every day that make his situation less difficult.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Ron, it's almost eerie how much we have in common re. our writing and lives. One of my mantras is "take pleasure in the little things," and on my website, I echo your thoughts with this note:

“It seems as though every image ever impressed upon my brain finds its way into my work. Whether it’s the light dancing through stained-glass windows in a Parisian chapel, curly slate-green lichen covering a boulder at the edge of a pond in Maine, or hoarfrost dangling from a cherry tree branch in mid-winter, these images burrow into my memory cells. In time they bubble back, persistently itching, until they are poured out on the page.”

It's all so true. If you soak up what's around you, it's bound to come spilling back out onto a page. I also agree wholeheartedly about reading - constantly - and like Pam, I'm so in awe of your career.

When I was laid off for over a year, I tried my darnest to find an engineering job in Rochester. It wasn't happening in 2009, or early 2010. So I decided to change careers and become a mental health therapist. Got into the school I wanted, etc., and was ready to use up my retirement money to get a new degree. I guess it wasn't meant to be in this lifetime, because an engineering job "found" me, and it all worked out. But sometimes I dream about what my life would have been like, helping people every day. Well, next time around, that's for sure!

Thanks again for a great article, and I'm so glad you're a part of MB4.

Kim Smith said...

Great advice, pal. Keep it coming!

Ron Adams said...

Two quick thoughts after saying thanks for the kind words...

My wife bought me a t-shirt that said, quite prophetically, "Be careful or you'll wind up in my novel."
I bring it up because a few weeks ago, we were out at a bar listening to one of our favorite local bands, and they were doing a song by Cheap Trick. I excused my self from the group to head to the restroom, and was in a stall when I heard a very large and loud voice singing at the top of his lungs, "I want you to want me-e-e..."
Not the kind of thing you EVER want to hear in the men's room, but you can be sure it will wind up in the next book.
Pam, I picked up a copy of your book yesterday, and I'm looking forward to digging in.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Ron, I have that tee shirt, too! LOL! I'm telling ya, it's almost eerie.... Have a great night!

Marta Stephens said...

... and have you ever run into one of your characters at the market? I have. Kim and Aaron know all about Alvin Quinn. LOL He's a middle-aged guy, short and pudgy, with more hair on his back than his head. Walks around with a cigar dangling from his mouth and has a pretty sleazy disposition. One day I was at the check-out, looked up and there he was in the next line. LOL What's interesting is that I had already described him in the book, but that poor man couldn't have looked more like him.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I remember Alvin, Marta! Funny how our characters can sometimes find us in the weirdest settings. But grocery stores are almost always the place, aren't they?