Of late, I’ve been reading–no devouring–books set during World War II, stories of individual lives within times of great turbulence. I began with:
—BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan, the war stories from Pino Lella’s perspective, set in war-torn Italy. Writer, Mark Sullivan, experienced a wonderful stroke of good luck when he discovered the stories about Pino Lella, and he also discovered that Mr. Lella was still alive, healthy, and living in Lesa, Italy. Sullivan set off for Italy to interview Pino who served as a spy for the Italian resistance during the war. Pino, a bright, yet un-presumptuous young man, became, at just eighteen years of age, the personal driver for General Hans Leyers, a top official in Hitler’s Third Reich, and the man primarily in charge of Nazi operations in Italy.
I became interested in this book because it had over 20,000 (five star) reviews. Yes, I wrote that correctly–over 20,000, five star reviews! With a reader-response like that, I HAD TO READ IT!
This book opened windows to the world for me. I knew very little about World War II in Italy, and had never heard of General Leyers or Pino Lella. Now, I feel like I’ve seen them with my own eyes. BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is a page-turner because there is conflict from the get-go, conflict in nearly all of Europe, conflict in Italy, conflict in the Lella’s household, and conflict within young Pino. Conflict is the very lifeblood of fiction–every novelist is advised to “open in conflict.” Also, because it’s historical fiction, the reader is transplanted to a different time/place and gets a guided tour of that time/place from someone who actually experienced the events.
Seems to me there are several things for the writer to observe here: 1. Times of conflict are good settings for fiction because the conflict(s) can be layered–conflict within society, within families, within individuals; 2. Be observant for potentially great interviews that might open a door to a great novel; 3. Explore archives for interesting pieces of history as well as interesting characters that lend themselves to great literature; 4. Don’t fear historical fiction–if it’s good, the reader will love it!
For the reader, there’s a pot of gold as well. The reader gets a history lesson embedded in a wonderfully told story. That’s the best possible way to learn history, and, in the case of BENEATH A SCARLET SKY, we have a personal guide (Pino Lella) who knew the people, places, and events firsthand.
“Six Beliefs That Set the Course of Your Life” Shannon L. Alder
1. If you don’t believe the impossible can happen, then you are right.
2. When you feel like you are less than others, then you are right.
3. When you believe what you have and how you were raised keeps you from having everything you ever dreamed of, you are right.
4. When you believe your mistakes can’t be undone, you are right.
5. When you feel this is the best it is going to get, you are right.
6. When you think someone will never change or rise above their brokenness, you are WRONG!”
― Shannon L. Alder
Have you ever stopped reading because a book just wasn’t holding your interest? But . . . you felt like you should slog on and finish reading that particular book. Somehow, you failed–you are the loser if you don’t finish every paragraph, every word. This is especially true if the book won a major prize or if all your friends (your good reader and writer friends) are raving about it. So, your reading slows down. You read a little bit every day, but just a little bit because you find your mind drifting. Almost anything else interests you–watering the plants, ironing a few blouses, straightening the closet–rather than reading that particular award-winner or best-seller.
Well, what I’ve learned is to to move on. Start another book. Often I’m reading two or three books at the same time, and unquestionably some books interest me more than others. I just need to give up the shame, admit it–move on. For example, I loved John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and LOOKING FOR ALASKA, but was a little less fond of PAPER TOWNS. The characters in PAPER TOWNS didn’t pull me in as strongly as did he characters in FIOS and LFA. I read PT, but mixed it with other reads. (I think PT will make a great movie, however, and I’ll be one of the first purchasers of Green’s next book.)
Similarly, I loved ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE in the first third of the book, but then my attention faded a bit. It’s a great book, deserving of all the awards and accolades, it has received, but after a while the style, which was fresh and beautiful at first, became a bit of a barrier. I read on, but read fewer pages every day and mixed that read with some other books until I finished. (Doerr is one of the greatest stylist of our age. No one writes descriptions any better than does Doerr.)
Here’s what I have learned: every paragraph and every word of a best-seller or major award-winner may not hold the full attention of a particular reader. Every word of every book is not for every reader. I love COLD MOUNTAIN, but some readers find it too slow. I love EMPIRE FALLS, but my students don’t like the long prologue and the slow start. I slogged my way through ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, which is an all-time favorite for other readers (love his short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”). Another example: Love Donna Tartt, but parts of THE GOLDFINCH were a little slow for me.
I’m currently reading THE OREGON TRAIL, and LIFE IS GOOD–enjoying both books., but what I’ve learned is that when a book slows or stops my reading, I need to:
- Not feel shamed because I like one book less or more than other readers. Not every book is created equal in terms of my personal reading preferences.
- When a book slows for me, add another book to the mix–nothing wrong with reading two or three books at the same time.
- Speed read sections that get too slow for me.
- But . . . here is the really big thing: DON’T LET A BOOK STOP MY HABIT OF DAILY READING. Fast read if necessary, add books to the mix, move on, but the important thing is to keep on reading!!
- That’s what authors want too–for readers to keep on reading, buy those books, download those books, but keep on reading. That’s the really important thing!
There–I’ve said it. Not all books are created equal for me or for you as a unique reader, even if the book won a major literary prize and everyone is raving about it doesn’t mean that you (or I) will gobble it up. The important thing is to READ ON! READ ON!!!
I don’t believe I have ever attended a writers’ conference that I didn’t walk away with beneficial information and inspiration. This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Tennessee Writers’ Conference sponsored by WRITE-MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University). I came away inspired and with some new insights on the writing life.
If you have a passion to do something, I’ve always believed you should invest where your heart is—writing is my passion, and I’ve spent a heaping plenty attending conferences and workshops across the eastern part of the U.S. (as far north as Columbus, Ohio, as far east as New York City, as far west as Texas, as far south as New Orleans, and Fairhope, Alabama. Those are just the boundaries—I’ve attended conferences in many places between those boundaries. Some of these include Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Kenyon College, Indiana University, SCBWI in Atlanta, Rope Walk, Monroeville Conference, and numerous others.
I have met many would-be writers who have never attended a conference or workshop or reading or showing of the art form they so much love. They write within a tiny bubble—their home office or at the island in the kitchen. If you are an artist—painter, musician, writer—you don’t have to travel too far to find something of interest to you—perhaps that is a reading by a writer, a showing of art at a museum, library, or book store or perhaps the local college is sponsoring a workshop for musicians. Somewhere, there is something that will enrich your life and feed your passion.
This weekend at MTSU, I had the opportunity to learn about techniques to break out of writer’s block; I learned about the writing habits of some of the world’s greatest writers; about the ability to hold on when publication is long-delayed and seems impossible. I also had the opportunity to be in the company of other writers who inspired me, and—not least—I made some new friends, and reconnected with old friends.
In short, we should all invest in those things that make us richer. Invest in those things of the heart. Invest in those things that sustain our passion for life. That means an investment of time, energy, effort . . . and dollars. At least, that’s my take on things.
As a writer, one thing of late that I have considered is my motivation to continue writing. Not my motivation for publishing, but my motivation for writing. I think all of us have fairly similar motivations to publish, and those reasons are straightforward and can be summarized in three observations:
- Publishing affirms our efforts. It says our work is good enough to share with others. Publication is a pat on the back that says well done. Your writing has merit—others want to read your work.
- The second reason we all want to publish is because we want to be paid for our work. To earn a paycheck from writing is the dream and end-goal of every writer.
- The third reason is to bolster the resume. Publications—especially publications of real merit—look good on the resume, and that opens the door to new opportunities.
So, our motivations to publish are indeed straightforward.
The more difficult question to answer is: What motivates us to write? I submit that when we can answer that question with personal clarity, we will know what we want to write, have a clearer vision about the process, as well as understanding more fully why we invest in the endeavor. Some avenues to explore are:
- I write to consider my past in relation to my present and my future.
- I write to allow myself the opportunity to walk in the shoes of individuals who lived in bygone times. This motivation sends the writer into research and into thoughts about individuals who lived, and breathed, and worked, and loved in times that are now part of our collective history.
- I write to amuse and entertain. Daily life is hard and full of stress. I write to lighten daily burdens for myself and others.
- I write to reflect and understand contemporary social and personal conflicts. The writer, Jodi Picoult, does this. She places characters in the middle of current social struggles and allows the reader an opportunity to explore particular issues from a specific character’s point of view.
- I write to explore certain ideas or themes. Certainly Annie Proulx explores the themes of surviving, and achieving self-respect, and gaining love without pain in The Shipping News. Richard Russo explores the theme of moving into the future instead of stagnating in the past in his novel Empire Falls. In a novel-in-process that I’m working on, I’m motivated by a desire to explore self-forgiveness and moving beyond personal accusation.
- I write to explore particular types of characters—to get inside their heads and walk in their shoes.
- I write to understand friends or members of my family.
There are as many motivations as there are writers, but when we begin to think specifically about what motivates us, the steps from beginning to end of the novel become clearer. We understand what we want to achieve—what we can offer that is fresh and provides new insight. Understanding our motivation to tell a particular story will keep us going–will help provide the strength and insight to write and see the project to its conclusion. I think understanding our motivation to write, will also provide greater insight into SELF.
Most of us have heard the advice for successful, productive living–do a few things and do them very, very well. The first step in that process is to decide what those few things are. All of us have lots, and lots, and lots of things on our plates. So how do we limit?
After some thoughtful consideration (really working things through), I wrote (in thick permanent marker) five things on 3×5 cards that are most important to me. Now that little stack of cards stays on my desk. I can pick those cards up at the close of day and evaluate how much time I’ve put into the things that are most important.
If I failed to be faithful to what’s most important in a given day, my stack of cards is a reminder to turn my attention back to those things the next day. As writers, it’s so easy for writing time to get squeezed by all kinds of demands on our time. Those cards remind me of ways to avoid the “squeeze” and locate the writing time. Here are a few things I’ve discovered to allow time for my writing:
- –Say “no” more often, thus making writing time more available.
- –Get up earlier to write.
- –Write in small blocks of time.
- –Cut back on social events.
- –Find ways of doing things faster. (I’ve learn to speed read, for example.)
- –Set a timer and force activities into tighter timeframes. (Amazing, but it works–thus, limiting time for unessential things and allowing more time for those few things that are important.)
- –Downsizing our lives to allow for what’s important.
if it’s important, we’ll find time for it. We all just need constant reminders of what’s really important to us!! Write on!!
Nothing will bring a writer to an instant halt any faster than attempting to envision ALL of the work to be done on a novel or a memoir. Thinking about writing a 300 page novel or memoir is nothing short of daunting. The task seems almost impossible, but the task appears manageable when envisioning the novel or memoir one scene at a time, envisioning the novel or memoir in small pieces. One scene, one scene, one scene and the work at hand will soon be done.
Thinking of writing only ONE scene—not the whole novel—is also liberating because it breaks the mind’s insistence on chronology—our minds are trained to start at the beginning and work our way through to the end. But thinking in terms of writing, not the entire story, but only a single scene, is liberating. On any given day, the writer can write anywhere within the story, beginning, middle, end.
For example, in the wee hours of half-sleep, half-wake, the writer might see one particular scene very clearly. (We all know how creative we are in this state of dreamy half-sleep.) The writer might envision a scene that will come close to the end of the novel. By thinking in scenes, the writer can focus on writing that particular scene that morning when she fully wakes because that particular scene is clear and fully formed in the writer’s head and heart. There is a brilliance in wee-hour mental images that can be lost if writing the scene is delayed. On any given day, if the writer writes the scene or scenes that are clearest, that are envisioned in detailed, then the writing will be vivid and will not be forced. Few things in life are any more nerve-wracking than attempting to create a scene while staring at a blank page. Alas! That is hard work indeed!
But, if the writer has already envisioned a scene BEFORE she sits down to write, the writing will be much easier. By thinking of a novel or memoir in scenes —not the work as a whole—the burden of chronology is lifted from the shoulders and the writer is free to write anywhere within the story. The scenes can be assembled later, but the story is unfolding within the individual scenes.
Using memoir as an example, Fierce by Barbara Robinette Moss is an excellent model. Moss’ first memoir, Change Me into Zeus’ Daughter, told her life-story of being raised in rural Alabama in abject poverty under the roof of an alcoholic and abusive father. Her second memoir, Fierce, is the story of her climb out of poverty and establishing herself as an independent adult. The entire memoir is told in short vignettes. When I introduce Fierce in my writing classes, my students feel empowered. They can do this! YES, they can write one small piece, and another small piece, and another small piece that turns into something BIG. Each vignette is compelling, yet it is just one tiny piece of the entire puzzle—the scrambled bits and pieces that lead Moss into a successful and meaningful life free of abuse and allow the reader to experience this journey with her. Ultimately, Moss divides the small pieces into periods of time and distinct locations, but on any day, she could write within any of these times or places.
Another memoir that is an excellent example of small pieces making the whole is Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, the story of a British girl raised in Africa by struggling parents who had a dream of adventure and success, but little more than a dream. Fuller opens in Rhodesia in 1976, after only three pages she switches to Zambia in 1987, then to Zambia in 1999, and back to Rhodesia in 1968. In this New York Times best-seller, Fuller demonstrates that the writer can organize around principles other than chronology.
An example of just one novel that is told from small pieces and breaks chronology is The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson (a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award). In Heaven of Mercury, Watson tells the story of two would-be lovers who are now in their eighties—they have known each other since childhood. As the story unfolds, Watson moves around in time to the two as octogenarians, to the would-be lovers in their teens, to their childhood, to the two as young adults. We get the full scope of their lives (and the lives of others), but in short pieces and not in chronological order.
Thinking in terms of small pieces provides at least two benefits for the writer: 1) It divides the job of writing a novel or memoir into manageable pieces and dilutes the fear of the job ahead. 2) It allows the writer to break the mindset of chronology. No, the story doesn’t have to written as it actually unfolds. It can be written in any order the writer choses. Then, the story can be assembled as a whole from the small pieces, arranging the pieces as they fit best for the unfolding narrative (chronologically or not).
There is real power in thinking small!