Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wait! Before You Read That Book...

It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something. ~Ornette Coleman

On a publisher’s loop this morning, a fellow author mentioned that F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to have said he wished he could get his books back so he could rewrite them.

I immediately connected with THAT sentiment.

Sure, I only have one published book out there in Bookland; but, even with that one book, I sometimes feel ‘writer’s remorse’ (I don’t think there IS such a term as ‘writer’s remorse’, but it seems to fit me SO well, I’ll coin it myself).

I’m probably the only author on the planet who literally cringes every time a potential buyer comments to me, I’m just getting ready to download CANDY G! I can’t wait to read it!”

I have to bite my tongue to stifle the advance apologies chomping at the bits to spew—before you DO read it, let me warn you—let me tell you ahead of time, a reviewer called it a ‘silly plot’—warning, warning—read at your own risk!

No, no, I’m not saying my book is bad. It isn’t bad at all. It is what it is. Some love it, some like it, some feel so-so about and some loathe it. That is true for ANY book.

What I AM saying is that I am the first to acknowledge that this book—my first published work—has flaws that I can see now. What I AM saying is that ALL of my writing has flaws. What I AM saying is that just because I have one published book out the door does not mean I’ve ‘arrived’ at my pinnacle writing experience.

One book—a hundred books—does not the perfect writer make.

This all could seem terribly hopeless, couldn’t it? Well, hell, C. Zampa, why even keep trying? I mean, if you’re going to just keep messing up, if you’re never going to get it perfect, what’s the point? How discouraging!

Not so, my friend. Not only am I NOT discouraged, I am ecstatic. I can see my mistakes.

I’ve been fortunate. Somehow, I’ve luckily found a multitude of friends and supporters in the writing community who work with me. But they don’t just work with me. They push me. They push me hard. They push me SO hard sometimes I feel like Lucy on the ballet episode—you know the one with the tough instructor who perpetually snapped her baton at the bumbling Lucy?

My teachers haven’t been tender. They haven’t been afraid to tell me what I’m doing wrong. Although they HAVE praised my strengths, they haven’t been easy on my weaknesses. And I HAVE been tempted to snarl at them when they point out an imperfection in my perfect work-in-progress.

But none of my mentors--not even one--will hesitate to tell you that I never balk at their advice. Oh, sure, I get second opinions--often--as anyone should. But as far as pointers that can make my story stronger, get more bang for the buck with tighetning, structure, etc.? I'd be silly not to listen. My mentors will tell you I grab help and run with it, feast on it with greedy passion. Sometimes I find I cherish the negatives because I know, I just know from experience, they can almost always be turned into positives. They have their own beautiful power.

To find your pristine manuscript isn’t so flawless after all…well, it stings. But I’d rather feel the sting now—as I’m writing the manuscript—and learn to correct my mistakes than to feel the much bigger bites of the readers who catch my blunders.

Winston Churchill said I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.

Like I said, I’m lucky.

Of course I wince at first upon hearing my errors.But the opposite end of that spectrum is the unfortunate author who either has not had the opportunity to learn or who DOES have the chance but refuses to accept they DO have weaknesses, even when those more experienced have tried to point them out and help them improve. To ignore help will keep them from growing. Even worse, to think they don’t NEED help will stunt their writing growth completely.

An unknown author said, Things could be worse. Suppose your errors were counted and published every day, like those of a baseball player.

And that’s just it. By sending our writing out to the public, we ARE sending our errors to be counted. So, like the ball player, it’s in our best interest to practice, to listen to the experienced ones who try to help us, to learn from OUR OWN experience, to be grateful that we have the means to sharpen our skills.

On the other side of that coin is this: in order to do all the above, we have to know and accept that we are always going to make mistakes. We aren’t going to reach that perfect moment in our writing when we know everything.

Harry Truman said, It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.

And another unknown author said—and I love this—Experience is what causes a person to make new mistakes instead of old ones.

And that’s the beauty of it all. In writing, as with everything else in life, we DO make mistakes. And, as everything else, we grow from them IF we use them as valuable learning tools instead of gauges of failure.

Some time ago I stumbled on an excerpt of a book. The short piece I read was so laden with mistakes and bad writing I actually found it comical. But the tragic part? It wasn’t supposed to be comedy.

My first—and lingering thought—was…didn’t this person have any one to help them, to mentor them? How sad that was to me to think.

But, then, my thought progressed to…what if this person DID have a mentor who tried to help them and they just knew more than the person offering the advice? THAT would have been the ultimate tragedy. Because that book is now out there—like the earlier quote said—with all its errors to be counted. And if an inexperienced eye like mine could even trip all over the mistakes and horrific writing, think how it will bode when an experienced eye zeroes in on it?

Falling prey to critical eyes is going to happen to all writers. It’s part of the game. But when my writing DOES fall victim to dissection, at least let me know in my heart the faults that get counted aren’t there because of my refusal to have opened my mind to learning.

Friday, 9 September 2011

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night...

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.
 ----E. M. Forster

Years ago, while in high school, I decided to learn to crochet. How hard could it be, I figured.

I bought supplies at Woolworth’s—yarn, needles (or were they called hooks?), an instruction book. My yarn was beautiful pastel blue. I envisioned a beautiful shawl, maybe even an afghan.

I hunkered down on the floor in my bedroom. Supplies ready. Adventure on the horizon.

Basic crocheting was pretty easy. Fun. It was the other techniques I couldn’t get the hang of—edges, corners, the critical steps needed to make an actual design.

I just kept going forward, no corners, no turns. Eventually I used up the yarn and had nothing to show for it but a forty-foot-by-six-inch mammoth wool boa constrictor. Discouraged by this monstrosity that I couldn’t even give away as a Christmas present, I never crocheted again.

Believe it not, I have a point to make by sharing my arts and crafts fiasco.

And the point is…

I found writing is pretty much the same as crocheting. One can be a skilled writer, one can be an eloquent writer. But, as Donna Tartt said, Storytelling and elegant style don’t always go hand in hand. And I can tell you, this is true.

First of all, I’m not knocking my writing. My prose has its strengths. I’ve been told my characters have good, strong voice, they are vibrant. Reviewers have commented that I get a lot of bang for the buck with my choice of words—simple but strong. And, no, I’m not boasting. As a writer, I must recognize the good stuff as well as the bad stuff. Those strengths are foundations for story building, and it’s not vain to want to insure your good, strong bricks are in place.

One strength I do NOT have is plotting.

I remember my very first adult attempt at writing.

It was to be the story of Sam and…oh, hell, I don’t even remember the heroine’s name, she was that forgettable. The story was titled Letters to Lola.

It began with words spouting from my mind, not much rhyme or reason, just a vague setting with even vaguer characters.

Reminiscing over Letters to Lola, I realized the damn story had reached seventy-six chapters when I’d finally abandoned it.


Was my writing also destined to be a wooly forty foot muffler?

The story—although it had its merits, it had some potential—had no plot or logic. I was just…writing. Going nowhere. There was a beginning but—like my ill-fated pastel blue shawl—there was no middle, no direction, no end. No course plotted whatsoever. It was one little emotional scenario after another, but no reasoning to any of it. It would have made a wonderful soap opera—a million pages of little unconnected vignettes with no apparent resolution in sight. But, then, I ask: if there is no plot, how COULD there ever be a solution?

At least my first published novella, Candy G, consisted of a beginning, a middle and an end. I cringe at times, even with this book, to see its weaknesses, the holes. Somestimes I re-read some of the scenes and wince, thinking how silly it seems for my character to do this or that. But at least I DID plot a course for it and finished it. It was a struggle, but I did it.

A writer may walk into this craft with natural talent, it may be their destiny, their calling. It can be a gift like drawing or painting. But even drawing and painting have rules. Who knew?

So does writing. I didn’t know that when I began. I honestly thought it was merely a matter of having a talent at word crafting and just….well…writing. Put the pen to the paper and the words would come.

There is the matter of plotting. Fleshing of characters. The prose itself—passive verbs, redundancy, effective description. Hooks. What is a hook? That certain something that draws the reader in from the beginning, that keeps them interested in the story.

This issue came to my attention recently when I became discouraged with my writing. I felt lazy. I could begin a story, I couldn’t finish one. I’d look around me to see my peers announcing new book releases every month, and I became disheartened, glaring at my one lone book on the shelf.

I had to take a close look at WHY I couldn’t finish. And, during a discussion on my authors’ forum, some harsh realities hit me.

A fellow author, upon some brainstorming about an idea I had for my story, analyzed a part of my plot in these words (piecing together fragments from their conversation: I think you're actually creating two big problems for yourself: characters planting a legal briar patch for no logical reason and stacked coincidences…. More problematic is the number of "just so happens" you employ in order to make this unlikely showdown occur……. It starts to look like a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat. Genre fiction can sustain coincidences, but this explosive sleepover has more to do with you wanting drama (as an author) than the way people would act in the situation.

They were right. I was aiming for drama, but—repeating my crocheting catastrophe—I still needed more insight into the complexity of writing, of plotting, of storytelling, of logic.

I came across this quote (author unknown), and it…well, it was me: One bright day in the middle of night two dead boys rose to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot one another. A deaf policeman heard the noise, and saved the lives of the two dead boys. If you don't believe this lie is true, ask the blind man, he saw it too.

In that one silly little ditty was my writing experience in a nutshell.

Part of me is discouraged. I can’t plot. I can’t crochet. But the other part of me—the part who yearns to write, who doesn’t want to repeat the afghan that ate Tokyo—is ecstatic because this obstacle standing in my way of creating a complete story is learnable. It is not out of reach. It is only a matter of desire to make the hurdle. And I have the desire. I’m going to do it.

But do not ask me to crochet you for an afghan for Christmas.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Welcome, Alan Chin...

Today I am so pleased to welcome to Casa Zampa a fellow author I’m absolutely crazy about. Alan Chin.

I love Alan’s writing—his eloquent style, his emotional depth that somehow manages to be both painfully raw and beautifully delicate at the same time, and his big as life characters.

But I’m also gaga over the man himself, Alan Chin. As I’ve come to know him over time, I’ve often found myself smiling at his gentleness and his…gentlemanliness; but I’ve also seen his fierce side when he feels called to fight injustices.

I specifically requested him to share with us his thoughts on love. One thing I’ve enjoyed about him has been his tone and the obvious tenderness in his words when he speaks of his husband, Herman.

Lucky for us, he obliged. I’m sorry I was not able to post this last week, as that was Herman’s actual birthday, but Alan’s tribute to Herman is just as beautiful today as it was that day.

Have at thee, Alan…


Happy Birthday My Darling
Written by Alan Chin

Today is my husband’s birthday. Yes, I said husband. Herman and I were married the day after it became legal to wed same-sex couples in California. We are both the same age, 58, both the same build and coloring, and both still in love with each other after being together for seventeen years.

Tonight I am treating Herman to a romantic dinner (yes, even at our advanced age we still enjoy a little romance) at a tapas restaurant that sits only a block from the spot overlooking San Francisco Bay where we first pledged our love for each other.

I’ve been thinking about him all morning, like someone studying a flawless diamond from different angles to fully appreciate the beauty forever locked in the stone. And I’ve been thinking about our relationship, our affection for each other, and what it means to me. I freely admit I’m a romantic—notice I did not say hopeless romantic—but what I’ve discovered is that our love is still developing, moving toward a destination that is richer and more meaningful than what we have now. That is, our love is both growing and deepening as it moves toward an endpoint I have no clue about. Let me describe how I see this, and then determine for yourself if you think such a love is possible, or am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

The affection I give this man is built on a foundation of consummate respect, and I know that it is unequivocally pure. Not that we don’t have our issues, our moments of bickering—we do. I’m talking of our love being pure, not the day-to-day expression of it. More than anything I want Herman to understand that I choose to spend the rest of my life with him because I want, need, simply to be with him each day, not because of social pressures or a piece of paper or to escape loneliness, but because he, more than anything, fills me with happiness. I feel that it is his companionship that gives me the strength and confidence to do all other things in my life.

Our love seems to subsist amongst us as a living, tangible thing, an unbelievable magic that we both know is possible because we occasionally touch its perfection. What we have is what you get when two people surrender completely to each other—a whole, a complete entity. Think about the concept of becoming whole: half of yourself does not cheat or injure or transgress the other half. There is no perception of being anything other than one being.

I know from analyzing my own feelings that what I say for me is true. I must admit I often find myself wondering if Herman feels as deeply as I do. Of course I like to think that he feels even more so, and that he is leading me down a path to that unknown destination I mentioned above.

So ask yourself, is such a love possible? Is it something you have experienced for yourself? Or should I have included the word ‘hopeless’ in front of the word ‘romantic’ above?

Alan Chin

Novels: Island Song, The Lonely War, Match Maker, Butterfly's Child

Short Works: Haji's Exile, Simple Treasures

Screenplays: Daddy’s Money, Simple Treasures, Flying Solo