Saturday, November 24, 2012

"The Story You are Telling is Your Own": A Real-Life Power Club Story

This is going to be one of my most personal posts ever.

“The story you are telling is your own”—another nugget of wisdom (spoken by executive coach and bliss mentor Cyndi Daugherty Swall) from the Business of Writing – Success workshop earlier this month—has stuck with me.

To me, it says that all writing to one degree or another is autobiographical—even my novel-in-progress, The Power Club. 

The story of Damon is, in some ways, my own.

Sure, I never had super-powers, but I wanted one. I wasn’t greedy. I would have been happy with the ability to fly or run at super-speed. Motion is important to kids.

But The Power Club reflects my life in other ways.

Just before my sixth birthday, I moved into a new neighborhood, a block and a half from Sherwood School in St. Joseph, Missouri. More importantly, I lived across the alley and street from kids who were around my age.

I have a photo of some of these kids attending my seventh or eighth birthday party. There’s Tim, shoulders hunched up as if the camera had caught him off guard. There’s Scott, looking away from the camera and watching Tim’s antics. There’s Steve, grinning directly into the camera. And there’s me, the birthday boy, dreaming hazily and looking like I’m praying. Next to me stands my younger brother, Mark, his arms folded in apparent imitation of me. We are surrounded by our parents and grandparents, but the focus of the photo—and of the party—was clearly on us kids.

Mark and I shared numerous adventures with Tim, Scott, and Steve, plus Steve’s sister, Mary, and another girl named Jeannette. They were our “gang” (though Mark recently told me they were more my gang than his). When we were younger, we played The Archies—with Mary (a blonde) and Jeannette (a brunette), we had a natural Betty and Veronica. (I was Jughead, the guy who wore the crown!) As we grew older, we talked about forming a basketball club and starting a haunted house, though we never did either. At one point, Tim and Steve formed a “rock band,” miming to records. (I wanted to join their band but was relegated to “audience”.)

We could be anything we wanted to be—including super-heroes. When I discovered the Legion of Super-Heroes, I shared them with my gang. Tim liked the feral Timber Wolf the best (in part, I’m sure, because of the similarity of their names). Steve liked Colossal Boy’s costume with the headgear and shoulder harness but was disappointed that his only power was the ability to grow to giant size. Scott admired Ultra Boy’s muscles. My favorites then were Lightning Lad and Sun Boy.

The girls didn’t seem to care much for super-heroes. I remember describing the female Legionnaires to Mary once. With her blonde hair, she would have been a natural fit for Saturn Girl or Princess Projectra, I thought. But we were all entering that age when boys do not play with girls and vice versa.

And then, like kids everywhere, we grew older and our interests changed. We hung out less and less. The older guys, Tim and Scott, became interested in cars and girls. Mary and Jeannette did . . . whatever girls did. And Steve wrestled me to the ground and refused to let me up until I cried “uncle”—a way of asserting his superiority, perhaps, but effectively ending our friendship.

Still, I always expected they would be part of my life forever. At age 10 or 11, it’s hard to conceptualize the idea of other kids leaving your life. Adults, yes. They sell their houses and move away or they grow old and die. But with kids—you attend the same school and live in the same neighborhood. You can’t get away from them even if you want to.

And then, the summer before I turned 12, Steve, Mary, and Tim all moved away.

I visited Steve and Mary in their new home once. Steve had no interest in playing—he was sitting in front of his stereo, listening to a new song I would later recognize as “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Recalling the days when our interest in music consisted of Three Dog Night and The Sweet, I couldn't understand why he was listening to opera!

Tim dropped by to visit a few times. After he turned 16, he showed up in his new car and took my brother and me for a drive. Mark, who had long since ceased trying to imitate me and had found his “social legs,” monopolized the conversation (something he’s been doing ever since!). Feeling relegated to the back seat in more ways than one, I responded in my usual fashion: I sulked.

Although Scott and Jeannette continued to live in the same neighborhood, I saw little of them. They were a grade ahead of me, so they entered middle school and then high school before I did. And then I switched schools. My teen years became a complicated mess of trying to fit in and failing, so I withdrew into the world of comic books—a world they had long since outgrown.

How much of this real-life story makes its way into The Power Club, I’ll leave for the reader to decide—when the book is actually published (which, given a few recent setbacks, could be in the next few weeks). But I’ve drawn several lessons from writing this book:

  • People are going to leave your life, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
  • One of the painful contradictions of life is that we need each other to survive, but we also need to be independent of each other. 
  • We need family and friends, but relationships are often temporary constructs—training wheels, if you like, for the next relationship.
  • Appreciate each other while you can, for you never know when your next encounter with someone will be your last.

I’ve consciously made Damon a bit more assertive than I was at his age. And his story, in many ways, does not parallel mine at all. (Hey, it is fiction.) Likewise, the other characters in The Power Club are not direct analogues to the kids I knew way back when. There are surface similarities—but the most fascinating aspect of writing a book is watching characters grow and take on lives of their own.

But all fiction (or at least the best fiction) is grounded in reality. Every writer from Mark Twain to Bill Cosby draws upon his or her own experiences to craft worlds of imagination for others to share.

In that respect, The Power Club is both a love letter to some old friends and a "thank you" for being part of my life.

How does your story reflect your life?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Be Authentic: Should Writers Be Themselves?

Be authentic.

This advice became a frequent theme at the Business of Writing – Success workshop last Saturday. Several presenters encouraged writers to be ourselves—even if we’re boring! Such advice is very appealing. After all, many of us became writers in order to express ourselves.

But being authentic carries risks. What if no one likes you? What if you don’t like yourself?

These questions keep resurfacing as I sit in a restaurant, chowing down on breakfast, and listening to old tunes piped through the intercom. Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” played earlier. If you know the song, you know how it begins:

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back

In a sense, Springsteen glorifies a man who abandoned his family. Yet the song was a hit precisely because it exposes an authentic feeling we all share: the hungry heart that can never be satisfied, not even by the traditional avenues of love and marriage. Being authentic means being real, which means admitting we’re not perfect. We’ve let ourselves and others down, and our hearts are still hungry.

But being authentic can be dangerous. Just look at the state of U.S. politics these days. 

Probably the most authentic public statement made this year was uttered by a Missouri politician. He asserted that women who are raped have a way of "shutting down" their bodies to prevent pregnancy. The assumptions and rationale behind the statement appear to be as follows: If a woman gets pregnant from rape, she must have wanted to be raped. Therefore, rape is not a valid reason for abortion.

To be clear, this was a reprehensible statement from someone who was a) ignorant of biology, b) trying to justify a black-and-white view of abortion, or c) both.

But was it an authentic statement? Almost certainly. It's hard to imagine anyone—much less a candidate for the U.S. Senate—saying it without believing it. The fact that he stuck to his guns and refused to withdraw from the race amid criticism from his own party supports the theory that he was being authentic. (He lost the election, by the way.)

It’s easy to pillory someone who makes outlandish and ignorant claims. Yet should we not admire him just a little for being so honest, so . . . authentic? 

Well, no. Peddling stupidity is never to be admired.

And yet, as writers, we can be just as ignorant at times. We create fictional characters to dress up our own notions of how the world should be or how we think it really is, and those notions can be built upon any number of false assumptions, painful experiences, and comfort zone observations.

In being authentic, we risk exposing those notions—those cherished aspects of ourselves—to painful criticism. Worse, being authentic means looking in a mirror and judging what we see.

The tightrope of authenticity becomes even thinner when one writes for children and young adults. Certain subjects are considered very risky when writing for a young audience. By mentioning rape and abortion, for example, have I crossed the line?

I don't think so. The kids who will be reading The Power Club  live in the same world in which politicians make controversial statements and in which their parents and other adults in their lives choose sides, debate, and sometimes divide over such issues. Kids are not stupid. They can see what's going on in the world and form their own opinions. They can see that there really is no wall between the fictional worlds we create and the real world we seek to understand. Each realm mirrors and informs the other.

Which brings us back to being authentic. If you are authentic, you reveal who you really are in your stories—warts and all. You risk being criticized for your warts, both by those who want to help you remove them and those who want to feel better about their own warts by making you feel bad about yours. You risk appearing stupid, hateful, ignorant and foolish because, let’s face it, you are all of these things some of the time.

But you also recognize the good in you—and in others. And that some risks are worth taking.

How do you manage authenticity in your writing?

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

How To Succeed in the Business of Writing if You DON’T live in the Kansas City Area

Okay, maybe my last post was a bit unfair. For writers who do not live in the KC area or otherwise could not come to The Business of Writing - Success, here are a few nuggets of wisdom the 80 or so attendees got to hear from a few of the dozen experts:

  • YouTube as a social marketing platform and search engine.  Are you aware that YouTube is the second most popular search engine after Google? Neither was I. Younger generations, I was also surprised to learn, visit YouTube before Google. (This is valuable information for those of us who write for children and young adults.) Creating vlogs (video logs) is a great way to engage your audience. “People want friends and engagement,” said Leah Stella Stephens, a self-described YouTube junkie who posts videos as Stellabelle. “If you’re boring and dull, that’s fine. There’s a place for you on YouTube,” says Stephens, who is anything but boring and dull. (How can anyone who wears a green, feathered wig be either?) "Be yourself. No one is exactly like you. Take risks."

  • Develop your brand and be consistent.  There’s a reason why Coca-Cola cans are red and white and why those colors resurface in every commercial Coke makes (including white polar bears), says Kelly Dobyns Ziegler, principal of ZiggyFranz Advertising. Your brand, which can include colors, symbols (Nike’s swoosh), or special fonts (Stephen King’s), identifies who you are to your customers. Your brand should have “one voice,” Ziegler said, and should be present on your author website, email signature, business cards, and so forth.

  • What makes someone say, “I’ll have what she’s having”?  This question was posed by Cyndi Swall, who describes herself as an executive coach and bliss mentor. Her answer was authenticity. “There can’t be a disconnect between the work you have created and how you show up in the world,” she said. “Perception is reality. Who are you, and what do you want me to feel about your work?” According to Swall, the story you are telling is your own and what’s possible for you.

  • Why aren’t booksellers just thrilled when you bring in your newly published book for them to sell?  Pat Worth, co-owner of River Reader in Lexington, MO, gave several possible answers. Are you coming in at a bad time and expecting the owner to drop everything to work with you? Did you do your research to find out if this bookstore caters to your audience? Are you selling your book at competing venues down the street? Any of these actions can turn off a prospective bookseller, said Worth. On the other hand, coming in prepared can make booksellers want to carry your book and help you promote it. “You must have a website,” she said. “What materials do you have to help us sell your books—posters, shelf talkers?  Would you be available for NPR interviews?”

  • Worried about copyright issues?  Donald R. Simon, J.D./LL.M, president of Simon Business Consulting, Inc., gave practical advice for protecting yourself and others. When submitting to a publisher, said Simon, “make sure you don’t send out stuff unsolicited. Only send it to people who have requested it." Simon stressed that writers should establish relationships with publishers or agents before sending their work. He also discussed work-for-hire contracts and clarifying who’s going to own the property if you’re working with collaborators. “Get it in writing,” he said.

Developing relationships was one of the recurring themes of the day.  Authors need to build positive relationships with their audience, of course, but also with booksellers, publishers, literary agents, and each other. The Business of Writing - Success was all about developing relationships and being authentic.

So if you missed out, don’t fret. Seek out opportunities to learn from professionals in your area, and don’t be afraid of change. Cyndi Swall, the executive coach, could easily have been talking about writing when she said, “Coaching is always about forward motion.” She encouraged each writer to ask, “Is what I’m thinking and doing in support of my new story, or is it keeping me stuck in my old story?”

How are you moving forward?

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Succeed in the Business of Writing: Free Kansas City Workshop

So, you’ve written your novel. What do you do now? Should you self-publish or seek out an agent or publisher?  How do you go about marketing the book? What about copyright protection? Social media? Headshots?

The modern publishing world is filled with terms that can make a writer’s head spin.

But, relax! There is a guide through the maze. If you live in the Kansas City area, you can come on Saturday, November 10, to The Business of Writing - Success, Getting the Word Out. This workshop will feature 12 "mini-sessions" in topics relevant to new as well as seasoned writers. The presenters will include professionals in fields such as selling yourself, social networking, legal issues, accounting, and even stress management.

This workshop is not about writing or editing your work. It’s about taking the next step: getting your work out there.

And best of all: the workshop is FREE!

You do not even have to register to attend, though, registering at the above site helps the event's planners know how much food to prepare.  (Yes, writers need to eat, too!)

Local authors (including me) will also be on hand to sell our books.

The Business of Writing - Success, Getting the Word Out,  a one-day event, will run 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, November 10, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main, Kansas City, MO.

Don't let your novel languish in despair of ever being published or dying on the vine once it is published. Come to the workshop and find out how to get your work out there.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Eye Candy for the Brain

Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell (Photo credit: life serial)

In 1936, a young, gay composer named Robert Frobisher flees from his lover’s hotel room. Decades later, the haunting melody he composes finds its way into the world of a reporter investigating a nuclear power plant. Decades before, an ill young lawyer leaves behind a journal for Frobisher to find.

These are just a few of the connections between characters, times, and places that turn up in Cloud Atlas, a stunning visual feast which spans the distant past, the present, and the far future. It features stalwart actors such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant in multiple roles, heavily made up in some cases and crossing ethnic and gender barriers.  The actors are ably supported by computer-generated locations so imaginative they make the heart skip a few beats.

Yet for all its technical wizardry and narrative cleverness, Cloud Atlas never quite rises to the heights it could have achieved.  

 After nearly three hours of jumping back and forth between multiple narratives, the story falls short of saying anything new or offering new ideas. 

The movie’s central theme—that people are all connected and that our lives are not our own—is repeated ad nauseum like a liturgy to the faithful. If you accept this philosophy as true, here it is again to reinforce your belief. If you do not accept it, Cloud Atlas offers no compelling argument.

What we are left with instead is the cinematic equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. Just as players of the venerable board game move forward by correctly answering questions of a, well, trivial nature, so does Cloud Atlas connect its narratives in trivial ways. So what if Frobisher reads the lawyer’s incomplete narrative? So what if Frobisher’s composition turns up in a record store decades after his death? 

Some of the narratives, granted, are fun to watch—particularly an unscrupulous book publisher’s harrowing attempts to escape from a nursing home—and others explore the choices people make between cowardice and bravery.  Religion, consumerism, and corruption turn up as recurring themes.

But, in the end, the story telling and connections reminded me of classic Marvel and DC comics.   

Characters from one series would pop up unexpectedly in another. A weapon abandoned by one villain would be discovered issues later by another. A storyline from one book would lead to a new plotline in another.

And while such connections can be fun to piece together, Cloud Atlas sadly leaves little to the imagination. Everything is spelled out for us, leaving nothing for the reader to do but marvel at the technical and narrative gymnastics. (Hint for writers:  If you’re trying to impress the audience with how clever you are, you’re going about it wrong.) I felt I was watching a story, not participating in it.

The difference between watching a story and participating in one can be summed up by audience reactions to Cloud Atlas and Marvel's The Avengers, released last summer. When Avengers ended, the audience applauded. When Cloud Atlas ended, people filed somberly out of the theater. A funeral would have been more engaging.

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...