Vital Simplicity

This past week I met with author Susan Schreyer for a writing gab fest. She asked me a simple question and I’ve been pondering on it since because it’s so vital to writing. I also had her give me advice on roses. She’s invaluable on both topics.

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That’s water on the petals

We all know the important ‘what if’ question. It’s how stories are born. What if this happened, and then that? What if she’d said this instead of that? And so on.

But there’s the more important question once that idea is formed. What does each character want, more than anything else?

I know it’s obvious. So obvious in fact, that it gets forgotten, almost like an ignored cliché.

I talked to Susan about a character that is in jail to figure out her role in the protagonist’s life. Susan asked me, ‘what does she want?’. Yes, I’d thought of that before, because this is the fourth book the character will be in. But I hadn’t given it much thought as far as how roles have changed with jail, how this character will fit into the new role, and more importantly, how she will act within confines.

To answer Susan, I started listing off things I thought the character wanted. The things I thought were important. And then, almost as an afterthought, I said, ‘well, and freedom I guess’. Susan honed right onto that word. Freedom. And followed up with, ‘what would the character do to be free?’.

So while I know the question is simple and basic, it’s too important to forget, or to assume that you already know the answer. It’s a question that should be asked of every single character and really, it works out to a dual question.

What do they really want…and how far will they go to get it?

It’s one of those basic questions writers learn early on. It then gets buried because, after all, you know it and you’re sure that you’re using it in writing. But it’s not such a bad thing to occasionally pull out a tool that might be buried at the bottom of your writer’s tool kit, dust it off, and use it again.

Interview with Author Lisa Souza

My last post was an interview with Mark Souza. This one is with his wife, Lisa, author of Beauty and the Bridesmaid. I’ve been lucky enough to read both Mark and Lisa’s books in early stages of development. This book made me laugh outright, which is no surprise because Lisa does, too. The thing is, the book hooked me because I’d laugh and then realize, ‘wait, this isn’t funny anymore, this is tragic’. What a roller coaster of emotion.

You have multiple writers in your home. What are the pros and cons of that?

PRO: Other writers understand the frustrations that come with the process: empty pages, dry spells, and of course the familiar ‘this is not nearly good enough’ feeling.

CON: Getting someone’s attention in a household full of head-phone-wearing laptop-gazers is useless. Don’t bother trying.

PRO: When stuck for a specific word, one can employ local talent to compete in a ‘find-the-word-I-need’ effort. Saves oodles of time digging through a thesaurus.

CON: It’s daunting living in the shadow of talented people. Therapy may be required.

PRO: Who better able to celebrate the joy associated with, say, a book sale or a good review, than another writer or two or three?

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Multiple writers? Nope. Lisa taking a photo of Mark. With fans?

Is there a book out there that you wish you’d written? If so, what was it about that writing that pulled at you?

What an AWESOME question! We could start with the non-fiction stuff (Stephen King On Writing, Thomas Sterner The Practicing Mind) and work our way through the classics (The Handmaid’s Tale). But I can’t neglect fiction (A Wrinkle in Time) or every single thing penned by Martha Beck. And Dean Koontz writes such heroic characters – they make me feel lazy and un-evolved by comparison. Great writers create clever, layered word experiences. In The Husband Koontz tossed in a plot twist that caught me off guard despite a life-time of avid reading. What a gift.

Are there certain types of scenes that are harder for you to write than others and if so, why do you think that is?

I suffer from plot envy. Working out a clever plot requires so much mental gymnastics. It would be handy if I could conjure twisty, believable stories by ingesting copious amounts of cheese, but not so. I have far fewer problems writing angsty characters dripping with emotional baggage. They do say “write what you know.”

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Wonder if these guys will show up in a book.

You also write screenplays. How does that writing process compare to writing fiction?

I thought writing screenplays would be far easier than novel writing – so many fewer pages needed! So much more white space! Instead it turns out screenplays are tricky word unicorns, unique creatures with distinct requirements. The format requires a tight, clean writing style, free of fluff and full of visual intensity. No long-winded descriptions in a screenplay. It’s a controlled environment, unlike a novel where you are free to flesh out details. Screenplays exercise a different set of writing muscles.

For example, you write with a particular actor in mind. Since you hope to capture their attention, you target your language and perhaps even the genre to attract that person. Awareness of budget plays a part, too. Is there a way you get rid of seven residual characters and still advance the story? Great! You just saved the studio thousands of dollars. Whatever the medium, though, it comes back to the empty page and the need to tell a compelling story.

It took a lot of encouragement and prodding to get you to finish your book. What were the biggest stumbling blocks, and how did you overcome them?

My older brother is a very successful writer. He’s also hugely dedicated to the craft. He has always worked harder and with more focus than anyone I know to make the written word his life’s focus. He told me when we were about five and three years old respectively that he would be a writer when he grew up. Well done, brother.

My husband is a successful writer. And a successful engineer. In short order he put together a very successful anthology of short stories and an award-winning novel. You, go!

And on a rational level, I’m overwhelmed with joy for them both, and hugely grateful to those who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), creating fresh and new and vibrant for me to enjoy. Thanks, y’all!  But being sandwiched between talented people leaves me swimming in awe. And also self-doubt. And fear, let’s not forget terrible fear of not being good enough because what if I do not deserve to share the stage with those dedicated, talented writers??

But at some point a couple of things caught my attention. One: every human being has a unique and intriguing perspective, so sharing mine contributes to the rich literary bucket. Two: I’m going to die. I know. It surprised the heck out of me, too. When I truly accepted the finite nature of consciousness, I felt compelled to get something completed before some force – like a fast moving car – writes “The End” for me.

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Love this photo. Wish you could hear her wonderful laugh.

And my favorite question – what do you wish someone would ask you about writing, and how would you answer it?

Would you like fries with that? (This is called ‘stalling’).

Gosh writing is hard. Writing QUESTIONS is hard.

“Does writing come easily to you, Lisa Souza?”

No, Lisa Stowe. No it does not. Writing is wonderful and complex and hard, like… like… like a very, very hard thing.

Beauty and the Bridesmade e-book

All the books by both Mark and Lisa are good, but this one is my favorite. It’s not what you expect.

An Interview With Mark Souza

A writer wanders into a writer’s group…and sticks around for years, becoming a friend in the process.

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You have family who are also writers. Can you tell me the pros and cons of having multiple writers in the same home?

With three writers, heads down over laptops, it can be a long stretch between words. Then there are the times you want them as beta readers, or they want you. It’s time they don’t get to write, and half the time you wonder if what you’ve written is even worth reading.

What has been the hardest for you along your writing path? The easiest?

Easiest is when the story flows through you too fast to keep up, and you see it all playing out in your head and it’s brilliant – then you look up and 10,000 new words are on the page. The worst, there are so many; when you’re blocked and words won’t come. When you reach a point in your story where there is no bridge to the rest of it. And when you’re stuck in the DMV of edit/rewrite over and over again until you never want to see your story again.

In this day and age of millions of books available, what steps do you take to help become visible?

I write the best story I can, and good cover art and blurbs. Good writing and good stories will be found. The world is hungry for them. But readers may not even look inside if the cover isn’t appealing, and the blurb compelling. I’ve tried advertising and blog tours, they don’t work. You’re much better off putting the work into your story – the next one, that is.

What draws you to the genres you write in?

Money and passion. I started out a mystery writer – mysteries are a passion of mine as a reader. I became a horror and sci-fi writer because there were far more open short story calls for those genres and I wanted to be published, and I wanted to be paid. My first novel, Robyn’s Egg was going to be a short story. Sci-Fi pays the best. The call was for stories of up to 15,000 words, and paid five cents a word. At five cents a word, you get pretty Dickensian (who was also paid by the word). I got to my 15,000 words, let my wife read it, and she said there’s a lot more story there. So I kept writing, and it turned into a work of passion and a 162,000 word novel. I had some things to say. My second novel, Zombie-saurus Rex was a work of passion from the start. It’s about a gawky zombie kid just trying to get by and maybe be accepted, though he is clearly different. It’s sort of autobiographical.

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Where do you think your love of words and stories came from?

I’ve always been a storyteller, though initially my talent was oral storytelling. I’ve always known that the order you weave your tale, and the which words you choose makes a big difference. It’s all in the delivery. I would hear people tell their own stories, and internally wag my head while smiling on the outside, thinking, “that could have been a great story if you only knew how to tell it.” It seemed like a natural step to move from oral storytelling to writing – though it was much harder than I thought it would be. Practice, practice, practice. Get your one million words down on paper and you’ll probably be a decent writer. And don’t let anyone who doesn’t love you see those first ten stories.

What is the earliest thing you remember writing?

When I was 25, I wrote a Hemingway-esque story of a couple in the 1920’s whose marriage falls apart after the birth of a mentally handicapped child. There was no joy in the story, but it was visceral and real. I wrote it out longhand on a canary yellow pad and don’t know what ever happened to it.

When did you have that ‘aha’ moment that made you realize you were a writer?

When my first story was published and I got paid. It wasn’t a lot of money – dinner and a movie maybe, but it meant something.

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Aha!

Storytelling in one form or another has been around forever, from cave drawings to oral traditions, to e-readers. Why do you think stories create such a deeply important part of being human?

It’s a chance to travel somewhere exotic, meet a hero, or someone charming, and face down a villain. It’s a chance to escape your life and live a bigger one. It confirms your beliefs and challenges them. It makes you stay up all night because you just have to know. It’s because the world inside your head is so much bigger and more colorful than the real world.

Now that you have a few books out, do you see an underlying theme that comes through in them? Or a theme that draws you to write? I have a tendency to get on my soapbox in the novels I write. The one thing I’ll say is writing is so much easier (and better) if you are passionate about your story.

There is so much advice out there for writers. In your writing path, what have you found most beneficial and what advice have you found least helpful? On the helpful side, “write in active voice with creative, audacious verbs,” and “show, don’t tell.” The least helpful, “write what you know.” Write what you want. Write what you have a passion for. If you don’t know it, research and learn something along the way. And don’t be afraid to create your own world.

In all the interviews you’ve done as a writer, what is the one thing you would like to have been asked and haven’t yet, and how would you answer that question?

“May I fill your trunk with gold bars?” And my response, “yes, you may.” These questions were awesome – thanks Lisa.

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