Tag Archives: fiction

Writing About Life’s Mysteries

As writers we are expected to make sense of the senseless. We have to organize our stories so that the cause and effect is clearly identified although not always initially apparent to the reader. But in real life, mysteries outweigh certainty. Very rarely are there a direct cause and a direct effect. In life, we are left guessing at answers or stumbling around in a fog of confusion in which nothing makes sense.

I’ve been dealing with my daughter’s chronic illness that has been unexplained by Western medicine. For two months, she’s been sick with flu-like symptoms that have evolved into migratory aches and pains and a dire need to sleep 20 hours a day.

The blood and urine panels don’t reveal a definite cause. It could be anything from a virus that has decided its two week notice wasn’t enough to vacate the body to something more dark and insidious that Western medicine has not had the resources to explore.

The infectious disease specialist said the only thing for certain is the symptoms my daughter has are isolated to teenage girls in Sonoma County.

Sonoma County is a curious blend of technology and agriculture that is unique to the United States. It is close enough to the coast yet far enough inland. It encompasses hills, valleys, forests, vineyards, and suburban sprawl.

But why would a particular disease take up residence in one location? And why would it only infect a small population of teenage girls?

There are no answers.

But in fiction, there must be answers.

Things that don’t make sense in the real world must be understandable and believable in the fictional world in order for the reader to suspend disbelief.

But how do you write truthfully about life’s mysteries without losing the reader’s confidence?

You must build in the structure of uncertainty from the first word and continue in that same vein throughout the narrative so that the reader will think, “Of course, that’s possible.”

After all, a writer’s job is to make sense of the senseless, to bring solace to the inconsolable, and to find peace amidst chaos, because humans need to believe there is hope in the face of hopelessness.

Return to the Zone

A Crime Novel_Pic

I’ve been wondering what to devote my writing hours to besides the articles and essays that put food on the table. The nonfiction book proposal I’ve written and rewritten hasn’t come together in the way I had imagined. The sample chapters are nothing that any reader would appreciate. Fifty pages into the book I knew something was wrong, but I continued writing. By the time I reached 150 pages, a sagging disbelief in my ability to communicate something meaningful gnawed at my soul. I decided to not write for a while. I would lay fallow. Take a vacation. Go visit family and friends. Let my thoughts bubble up and float away like helium balloons instead of jotting them down in my notebook.

Only one week passed without writing before something miraculous happened.

On the drive through the desert, I passed the location of the beginning of my crime novel and felt a jolt of joy and enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in months. When I wrote that book I knew it was only a draft and not a very good one at that, but I had been content to hole up in my office tapping away for every moment I could steal until the story was done. My husband warned me to hurry up and finish before I became too lost in the imaginary world I created and lost my job, my children, my family, and my friends. I wrote about the entire experience in “Surviving the Zone” which is currently under consideration. If I had been at a writer’s retreat, I could have indulged my obsession and polished off the book in two weeks. But I had other responsibilities that interfered. People who didn’t know what I was working on commented that I seemed distracted. Of course, I was. I was living in two worlds, not sure which one would pull me under and claim me first.

Passing the scene of the crime reawakened me. Why am I writing a nonfiction book? I asked. I’m a novelist. I should be writing novels.

That’s when I decided to return to the crime novel that held me captive for so long. If it possessed that type of power for me as a writer, what type of power would it possess for a reader? How selfish I had been to shelf the draft and never look at it again. No matter how disappointed I was with the imperfections, everything could be fixed. Fact-checking, plot structure, and characterizations should not be an excuse to deny the heart of the story, which pulsed with as much life as an actual event I had lived through and needed to share.

All of my fears melted as soon as I returned home and unburied the manuscript from underneath my desk and started reading. The chapters flew by effortlessly. It didn’t read like something I had written. It read like a good book I could not put down.

So this is how I will be spending my summer: returning to the zone.

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Eat, Breathe, Write

Most male readers assume I write from personal experience.  Why?  A lot of my fiction revolves around women’s issues.  One man read the back cover of Legs, which included my bio, and said, “You write about yourself.”  Since the heroine is a Realtor and I work as a Realtor, he assumed I was writing a thinly disguised autobiography.  That was hardly the case.  Another man read the summary of Out of Balance and said, “A former housewife. . .That must be you.”  Oh, how I wish!  Only in my wildest fantasies have I been a housewife.  These men would not assume I was writing about myself if my novels focused on male issues, such as men in the workplace or men on the hunt for true love.  They would, however, assume I was writing about a man I know, perhaps a husband, a brother, an uncle, a father, or a friend.

Most women, on the other hand, want to know how I find time to write.  A lot of the women who ask this question are also working women with families.  They get up early, stay up late, and always seem to be falling behind.  They want to know if there is a secret formula they can use to achieve their own dreams.  I tell these women I’ve been writing most of my life.  I published my first essay at the age of 10 and was paid $50.  Five years later, my first poem was published in a national magazine.  By the time I was 17, I was working as a reporter.  Writing is something I have done before I started working and before I had a family.  It’s as elemental as eating and sleeping.  I’m sure others have developed habits over the years that have become so much a part of  their lives that they take it for granted when people ask, “How do you do what you do?”

Finally, most of my writing ideas come from my observations of life, particularly anything odd or unusual or interesting.  For example, listening to a beauty school student talk about the challenges of learning the trade inspired the short story, “A Cut Above,” which is featured in my upcoming short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories.  Twenty years ago, I puzzled over the mystery of point of view after reading a police report about an auto accident told from multiple bystanders.  Each person witnessed the same event, but each person described it so differently, it may as well have been a different accident.  For years, I wondered how one person’s facts could become another person’s fiction.  Eventually, I addressed this issue in the short story, “Out of Focus,” which is also included in The Human Act and Other Stories.

Sometimes a perfect storm happens where something so odd, unusual or interesting happens to me.  That’s when I write autobiographically.  And I’ll proudly say, “Yes, this is about me.”  But, unfortunately, that’s the only time no one asks.

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The Manuscript Monkey on My Back

Have you ever heard of someone dying a week after retiring? That person lived for work. It wasn’t just a part of their identity. It was their identity. When work died, they died.

That’s the way I feel about The Take and Go (formerly Our Summer at No Name Beach, a novel, and before that Red Eggs and Good Luck, a memoir). Since the manuscript was written in 1992, it has gone through various incarnations so that it no longer resembles anything it once was.

In college, I wrote a piece from my childhood and tried to disguise it as fiction. It failed. Once I restructured it as memoir, the piece sold. I was encouraged by a literary agent to expand it into a full-length memoir. I did. Excerpts won numerous local and national awards for adult nonfiction. The manuscript gained the attention of an executive editor of a major New York publishing house. The executive editor championed the manuscript from start to finish. She presented the polished manuscript to the editorial board, the sales and marketing committee, and finally the attorneys. When it was determined the publisher didn’t want to risk publishing the memoir without liability releases from all parties mentioned in the manuscript (this was right after the James Frey scandal for A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to be a million little lies shortly after Oprah endorsed the book on her show), I was asked to turn the book into fiction. My first attempt failed. My second attempt failed. My third attempt is stored in the safety deposit box of my bank. I didn’t have the heart to bring it out again. But last week, a reader who had read an excerpt from one of the book’s various incarnations asked, “Did you ever publish it? It’s really good.”

That comment haunted me. It’s the monkey on my back, the book that won’t go away, no matter how hard I try to get rid of it. I swear I could burn all the various manuscripts and delete all the copies on my hard drive and still someone somewhere would ask, “Whatever happened to The Take and Go? Or Red Eggs and Good Luck? Or Our Summer at No Name Beach? It’s really good.”

It’s not like I haven’t had the opportunity to publish it. In fact, over the years, I’ve been approached several times by several different publishers to publish the book in one form or another. What I haven’t found is the right publisher for the book.

Why am I so picky? Am I thinking this is another Harry Potter or Hunger Games? Not necessarily. But I do think it needs a wider readership than I am able to give it on my own. I want someone who believes in reaching the widest possible audience—that means foreign rights, movie rights—that means advertising, endorsements, and other marketing strategies I cannot afford. And if this manuscript truly is my magnum opus, I will not settle for less.

On November 6, 2014, the manuscript monkey is no longer on my back! She Writes Press will publish the memoir, Red Eggs and Good Luck, on October 6, 2015, as the result of winning the Memoir Discovery Contest.