Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I Don't Quote Shakespeare OR You Can Still Be a Duck

Every author has their own formula for writing a successful book. As a life-long reader, full-time writer and wanna be successful author, I've watched (or read) many interviews with authors, even conducted one or two of my own. Most of them will tell you they've always wanted to be a writer. Many of them will describe their process of outlining a story, not just in their head, but on great big sheets of craft paper pinned to their writing-room wall, showing plots, characters. I have even heard a few admit that they know the last line of the book before they write the first.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a live interview with author Lee Child. Child writes the Jack Reacher series (of Tom Cruise movie fame) - he's written 18 so far. I've read the first three, and while I thought they were page turners, I wouldn't say his prose would win him any literary awards.

But here's the thing. He doesn't care. He thinks of himself as an entertainer, rather than a writer. A few more things about the amiable Lee Child I didn't know:

1. He never wanted to be a writer.  Child worked in television until, well, he was fired. Then, he spent $6 on a new career... three legal pads, a pencil, and a pencil sharpener (he still has the pencil).

2. He's curious by nature, and does all his own research for each book. And if you've read any of the Reacher books, you know there's a great deal of detailed information.

When he decided to write a book, he thought about his main character first. He didn't want to create another "James Bond" with the cool name, tuxedos and fast cars, so he created a character with no job, no car... a regular guy, born and raised in the military. He needed a "regular" name. The first name came easily: Jack. And the last name, well that's #3...

He was at the grocery store (a chore he'd inherited after he'd lost his job) and an older woman had called him "a tall drink" and asked if he could reach something up on a high shelf for her. He did. His wife told him if the book thing didn't work out, he could always go to work for the grocery store. As a "reacher." And 'Jack Reacher' was born.

Here's something else he said that stuck with me: He writes what his mind's eye sees. To wit: his editor was reading a draft of one of his books once and made the comment "Shouldn't this (event) come after this one?" Child replied, "Well, it would make more sense... but that's not how it happened."

I am one of these writers. When I sit down to work on any fictional piece, whether it's a short story or a section of my "book in progress," I have no idea what will go down on the page. I tell the story as it's happening in my mind. Sometimes a character gets herself in a bind, even when i don't want her to, but I can't make my characters do what they want - they simply tell me what they are going to do. Odd, I know. So, it was validating to hear that a "gen-u-ine" author does things the same way.

When I was in college, I took several fiction writing classes. Each one of them was held in the room of an old house, painted white about a hundred times on the outside, and in need of a new coat on the inside. The professor was always in a jacket with elbow patches, or a faded black leather jacket: the typical writing professor or the one who wants to set himself apart as "the real thing."

Anyway, the classes were always small - 10-15 students max. And the great majority of them would talk about how they must write, how they'd been writing all their lives, how words move them, man. They'd spout literary terms and pedantic prose, and throw Shakespeare and Faulkner around like athletes toss batting averages and passing yards. I was always afraid to admit that while, yes, I'd always loved to read, and yes, I did write as a kid, and even wanted to be a writer, I never did take a liking to shakespeare.

I never belonged to a Poet's Society - Dead or otherwise.

But I digress. I think the point I'm trying (maybe not very well) to make, is that each of us brings something different to our craft. To follow the mold that someone else has created, or to think we have to fit into a framework of what a writer (or any other profession, for that matter) should look like, talk like, act like, well, that's just boxing us in. What makes a work of art so wonderful is the uniqueness of the artist. The color that their own life experiences bring.

If you've dreamt of becoming a duck, but you don't look or sound or walk like all the other ducks out there, so what?  It was Steve Jobs who urged college graduates to break the dogma. He dreamt of merging art and science - computers and art - into one beautiful, brilliant machine. And he did. Not because everyone else thought like him - in fact, very few did. But because he realized that his own vision was possible, simply because he'd thought it.

Create your own vision. One that is unique to you.  If you believe completely in who you are and what you can accomplish, those around you will believe it, too.