Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Do You Write What You Write?

            Boiled down to its essence, the most common answer I can find to the question Why do you write? seems to be: Because I can’t help it.  (Nowhere did I run across one answer that I personally know is true.  It must be just too crass to mention that – gasp – at least some writers write for money.  I’m not sure how it came to be an embarrassment to admit that writing is a job; so long as one crafts a solid story, I don’t think a writer’s grand or base motivation makes any difference to readers.)
            This piece started out titled “Why Do You Write?”  A bit of research revealed that almost every periodical having to do with writing, every website dealing with writing, and every blogger writing about writing has asked that question.  Answers from writers about why they write have ranged from the pithy to the lyrical: less than a month ago featured a lovely letter from Terry Tempest Williams in answer to WHY WRITE, from the Summer 1998 issue of the now defunct magazine Northern Lights.
            But why do we write what we write?  When I was learning to write, one of my teachers, a realist, said a good writer can write anything – and that means anything from an owner’s manual to literary fiction.  How can that be so?  Literary writers are quick to defend their niche: they may not make any money but they make beautiful sentences. Others of my teachers, upon learning that I wrote genre fiction, generally let it be known that they thought I was wasting my time attending their classes.  It was amusing to watch the expressions on their faces when they had to admit that after sitting in on their lessons I was capable of handing in passable literary short stories.         
            And the short story was where I started writing.  In those days my favorite reading was the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Reflecting my own circumstances, the acerbic, disaffected writer Harlan Ellison was my hero and I wanted to grow up to be just like him.  (And never mind that we had not much in common outside of palpable unhappiness.  I never said that the urge to write had to make sense, and I doubt that Mr. Ellison ever made that claim either.)  My short fantasy pieces won a few awards and I sold a few stories to quarterlies of minuscule circulation that paid in copies reproduced on the editor’s dad’s office Xerox machine. 
            Then I paid for a writing course through the mail.  My teacher had published moody detective fiction and was horrified that I wanted to write not only fantasy, but fantasy short stories.  No, no, no!  I must write book-length fiction, detective if possible.  So I, who had been training myself to tell a story in as few words as would fit a proper magazine submission, now had to learn to expand into the thousands of words.
            Which I did.  It was a struggle, but I learned to surpass 60,000 words to tell one story.  There was a critique group starting in my town at that time.  We had poets show up, and creative nonfiction writers, and a few novel writers.  It was wonderful.  But the poet soon chafed at imposing any structure on the group, such as scheduling meeting times, and quit.  I missed her talent for searching out just the perfect word.  The creative nonfiction writer chose journalism instead, and quit the group.  I felt she had sacrificed a huge talent for “who, what, where, and why,” and I missed her. 
            Some left town, and others just drifted away.  And then there were three, all novelists.  Two of the three were romance writers.  Historical romance writers, since that was what they were reading and what was hot at the time.  So if I wanted to sell, they said, I must emulate them and write historical romance.
            Okay.  I could do that.  Time passed and I had no sales of my historical romance, but I placed in a few contests.  Which would have been all right, except my personal life was falling apart and I really, really had to start selling some writing or else give it up and get a job – or preferably two or three jobs.  At that time, Christian romance was huge so I tried to squeeze my stories into that new corset.  By the time I discovered the Christian romance sub-genre has very strict rules on what activities are allowed inside its pages, I had an unmanageable mess of unmarketable manuscripts and was barely surviving financial drowning. 
            I had to face the fact that I taken a ton of bad advice and wasted years of my writing life by changing directions so many times.  Now I didn’t even know if I wanted to put the effort into writing anymore.  Turns out, just because a writer is capable of writing anything doesn’t mean she should! 
            It took a long time to straighten out my life.  Eventually I also came around to the decision to fix my work.  These days I think any reader of historical, romance, or even Christian genre novels will find Willow Vale a satisfying tale – but the only fantasy involved came in making up the character of my Wyoming rancher protagonist, Kent Reed!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Wyoming Writer Pat Frolander named Wyoming Poet Laureate.
Governor Mead names Patricia Frolander as Poet Laureate of Wyoming during a ceremony in the Governor's Office on Monday, Novemember

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why Write a Historical

The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
            What can possibly induce a writer to spend years researching the details of the sights, the sounds, the smells of the past and try to make it real as life again? 
            Most sources I’ve consulted for an answer give noble, dignified reasons for writing about history: to reconstruct the past to see how it affects us now; or to answer perennial questions of why people act like they do; or to seek a final and definitive Truth about events of the past. 
            The answers I’ve come up with are not quite so refined.  (Although just as effective, I think.)
            1)  Obsession. 
            The most representative of historical periods that writers are absolutely obsessed with is the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.  Sometimes even against our will we’re drawn into the minutiae of a historical era, but Civil War buffs don’t even try to resist giving in to their fixation.
            I have no overriding interest in the Civil War.  But the topic seems to have come to visit me for a while.  Out of the blue, my daughter sent a nonfiction book, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz.  Even the author admits it’s a peculiar topic for a modern Jew to spend several years documenting, and until the very end when the book starts to drag, the details of Confederate war re-enactors and their obsession (no other word will do) with historical accuracy is a fascinating study of a modern South stubbornly clinging to illusions of uniqueness and a faded idea of separateness.  The war is so real to these weekend Rebels that they starve themselves to look like the soldiers in old photographs, and wear uniforms so authentically ragged and filthy they reek.
            2) Curiosity about another time, or the challenge of telling a story within the tight framework of history.
            AMC has been airing Hell on Wheels, a new drama about the anything-goes tent city that followed the building of the Union Pacific railroad.  This series – billed as a “Western” which I suppose it is in a way since the actors wear guns and there is an Indian storyline that looks well-researched to this amateur historian – has me and anyone I’ve mentioned it to absolutely hooked.  Perhaps the most stark image that wordlessly tells the story of the race to lay track is the shot of the rails so hastily laid grass still grows between the ties.  I find myself studying the muddy, bawdy backgrounds, checking the way the stovepipes poke out of the tents, the advertising signs hung on the canvas businesses, the paint on the Indians’ faces and their historically accurate paint ponies.  I even make excuses for what looks to be historically inaccurate: surely the glint of a horseshoe on a racing Indian pony reveals that the animal was traded for or stolen, and not that somebody filming the scene made a mistake.
            3)  Because the whole story hasn’t been told, or hasn’t been told right!
             At a recent Friends of the Library used book sale I picked up Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by the late Michael Shaara.  Dealing with one of the war’s major turning points, the three days of Gettysburg, the book won a Pulitzer.  (Seems an odd choice of voluntary reading material for a woman, but there you go.)  Not nearly so comprehensive a study as Battle Cry of Freedom, the nonfiction book which exhaustively details every battle on every date led by every general for the entire war and which I spent a semester memorizing (involuntarily, for a U.S. history class), Killer Angels does an excellent job of giving the reader a fictionalized peek inside the heads of the leaders of the Union and Confederate armies and attempts to explain what they were thinking in the days leading up to and then during the battle.
            4)  To tell our own story, or our family’s story.  Or sometimes, as detailed in an NPR program on the oral histories of hospice patients, to make a final attempt to correct our own personal histories and make sure our story is recorded the way we want it told – even if no one else remembers it the same way.
            I saw mention of and then bought a copy of James Lee Burke’s Civil War novel, White Doves at Morning.  I checked Burke's website to see if his story is a re-telling of the events of one of his ancestors’ lives, as I suspected.  I was right, and I was wrong: it’s the story of two of his ancestors, Willie Burke and Robert Perry.  A prolific writer of hardboiled detective novels, the author does a good job with his male characters – but also writes believable black and white heroines.  I do have to say, though, I was a bit jarred by the recurring mention of testosterone to explain excessive male behavior in the book.  I looked it up: testosterone wasn’t identified and named until 1935.  But having once been questioned myself about the historical accuracy of post-Civil War era characters playing baseball, my research concurs with Burke’s about the game of rounders being played circa 1865.
            5)  Self satisfaction.  This last reason brings to mind such negative connotations as selfishness, self-centeredness, and self interest.  But there it is in all its naked glory, the real and true reason for writing the historical novel.
            I found, on my writing adventures, that some historical details could not be substantiated during the actual writing.  It was a happy circumstance whenever I could later find documentation for some detail I thought I had fabricated entirely.  In my not-so-humble opinion, I think such correct guessing proves a writer has a good feel for the period, and I’m always glad to be so pleasantly surprised by such ingenuity.
            (And I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this little essay with me, you realize I’m writing with tongue stuck in cheek.  It was a bit intimidating to read all the lofty reasons people had for writing about history and then to think I was going to write a blog entry about it myself.  Especially when I had no high-minded reasons for writing Willow Vale.  I had no higher purpose with the novel than to build a good story around some of the experiences of WWI Tyrolean immigrants.  I hope I succeeded.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's on Your Bookshelf?

            So you think you can write a novel.  You have a good idea, and it can’t be very difficult to just sit and write it down, or even better: save time by typing it straight to the word processor on your computer.  Then you can publish your new book yourself through createspace or lulu or bookbaby and start to earn lots of money as a best-selling author. 
            So you follow that simple plan.  And you sell a grand total of ten copies, seven of those to your mom and your closest friends who always support you.
            What went wrong?  Anyone can tell a made-up tale, right?  It’s a basic talent.  The capacity for storytelling is ancient, so deeply embedded in us it’s probably encoded in the human genome.  We dream in living color, full dramas with a beginning, middle, and end.  So what can be so hard about writing a story?  Why didn’t your book sell, or garner any notice, just sinking quickly to the very bottom of the rankings?
            To judge from the e-books being given away for free on the Internet, I have a few ideas about why they don’t make any money for their authors.  If all you care about is seeing your name on a book cover, you can stop reading right here.  But if you refuse to associate your name with anything except your very best effort, read on while I share my experience.
            On my bookshelves, I count 56 books just on writing, editing and publishing, plus four dictionaries, four style manuals and two thesauruses.  I have read them all or at least in the case of the style manuals and dictionaries, consult them regularly.  I seldom go back to the books specifically dealing with the actual writing of a novel anymore, trusting that by now I’ve internalized the lessons contained in them.
            But isn’t all that advice confusing?  Where do you start? 
            These are the basics:
            Most of my writing starts with characters who come to visit and then take up residence in my head.  Anyone can write a description of a character similar that on your driver license: height and weight and hair and eye color.  But while those details are important for the writer to visualize her own characters, they don’t necessarily have to be included in your book.  For one thing, unless your heroine is always gazing in the mirror, she won’t need to mention what color her own eyes are or if her hair is wavy or straight because she can’t see those details. 
            What’s important is what your characters do, the action that builds the plot of the story.  So we’ve written our synopsis or even longer outline and have our characters and know what they’re going to do from beginning to end.  No matter what, our characters have to stay in character all the way through the book.  Once the reader becomes familiar with your story’s characterization, she can’t be jarred by one or another of them stepping out of character for no discernible reason.  (Unless it’s part of your plot: your character has been taken over by aliens, or is a Harvard grad hiding in a holler in Kentucky with Dolly, or has another really good reason to be acting like someone else.)
            Part of staying in character is dialogue.  In addition to aiding in the visualization of your characters, dialogue should serve multiple purposes such as advancing the plot. Paragraphs of “Hi, how are you,”and “Fine, thanks,” are not only boring they do nothing to move your story along.
            Another part of seamless story-telling is scene.  Like building blocks set one atop another, each scene is part of the whole.  Building on the previous scene, or depending on your purposes, deviating from the preceding scene as you change viewpoint, each scene leads to the final one which ends your story – all of which add up to the story’s structure.
            So you’ve studied and stuck with it until you’ve written the entire novel.  And it’s perfect now and ready to publish, right?  One can only wish.  I don’t know of any writer who gets it right on the first draft.  I remember how awkward some of my early writing was; I knew where it sounded off-key, but tried to convince myself it was okay.  It wasn’t okay.  It’s never okay until it’s right, and the only one I was cheating was myself.  But I am grateful there was no Internet at that point so I could rush my toddler book into print and have it out there with my name on it, never growing up and remaining forever an obviously amateur effort.
            Learning to self-edit is probably the most difficult part of writing: ruthlessly chopping, cutting and pasting, re-writing until we almost have the manuscript memorized.  And there lies a real danger, becoming so familiar with our own work that we can’t see its flaws anymore.  I beg of all beginning writers who have gone beyond their word processor’s built-in spelling and grammar checkers, please have someone knowledgeable look at your story before hustling it into print.  Learning to take critique, as well as learning to choose which advice to take and which to ignore, is a critical part of learning to write well. 
            If you can, find another writer or a group of writers at least as far along in a writing career as you are.  Ask them to read your manuscript and give you feedback.  Be prepared to return the favor.  In a group, critiquing an entire novel might take six months or a year.  (I have never used online critique groups, so if anyone has helpful advice concerning them please share.)  If you aren’t in a class or a critique group, and can’t find anyone else to look over your work, try entering a partial in a contest and paying for commentary.  I found Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest to be helpful in this regard.  At least you might get an accurate idea of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what you do well versus what you need to work on.
            I am not an expert.  None of the books in my little library, singly or added all together, makes me an authority on writing.  But I have offered here a consensus of the advice my many writing teachers have given me.  After all the books, and all the classes, and all the critique groups and contests, I can hold my head up as my first book sees print.  Willow Vale is the best historical novel I am capable of writing right here, right now. 
            Learning to write is a process.  There’s always somebody who does it better, and their lessons cost the price of their books.  As long as I write, I plan to attend classes and study other writers, and keep on learning to write well.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

How to Get Published

            In olden days — five or so years ago — the sole path to publishing was defined by the big houses, which were busy swallowing numbers of small companies; the university presses; and a few specialized independents.  If any of these still accepted unagented submissions, a custom so rare as to be almost unknown in the business, the protocol was for the writer to send off a synopsis and three chapters.  Sometimes, months later, the desired letter from a real New York editor might arrive, bearing the magic words: We Would Like to See the Entire Manuscript.
            Oh, bated breath exhaled!  Oh, sweet proof that the years of sweat and preparation and ignoring our children’s pleas for attention were finally worth it.  The endless years, not to mention all the money we might have spent elsewhere, splurged on perfecting our writing:

  • Endless classes and endless assignments, struggling to write on demand everything from poetry to creative nonfiction to short stories. 
  • Hours poring over our writing, choosing just the right word, polishing our spelling, grammar and punctuation.  Learning that only chickens lay, people lie, and that it’s slothful to allow our characters to loose a valuable possession.  We knew it was supposed to be lose – honest! 
  • The Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons devoted to critique groups, hundreds of hours reading and correcting and offering (helpful only, please!) comments on someone else’s work in order to get (helpful only!) feedback on ours. 
  • The dread that our printer’s type isn’t dark enough to suit a midnight-oil-burning editor’s eyes (does anyone remember dot-matrix?), or that our margins might be too big, or too small, or we overlooked a glaringly obvious typo.
  • The writing conferences we couldn’t afford, where we wore clothes bought to impress that will never be worn again, while we hoped for a few moments alone with that one agent, that one editor, who would at last say:  Send Me Your Manuscript.
So we sent off our precious baby with SASE — does anyone recognize that acronym anymore? — and then we waited.  And waited.  Afraid to call New York and check on The Editor’s progress.  Afraid not to, while the arrival of the mail truck brought on another bout of sweaty hands and roiling stomach and eventual depression because — once again —  there was no word.
More often than not we did eventually get a letter: Sorry, Does Not Meet Our Needs.  Sometimes we heard nothing at all, until the next conference, where we learned that the editor who held our fate in her hands had moved on to another publisher, and our precious baby novel was once more an orphan.
Meanwhile, friends and family and other writers urged: You must, you must keep sending your story out.  You mustn’t give up, not ever.  Haven’t you heard about Tatiana de Rosnay’s twenty rejections before historical best seller Sarah’s Key fortuitously landed on the right editor’s desk?  Don’t you know the legends about the book that was sent over the transom to an editor at a house that exclusively publishes nonfiction – but that she loved it so much she drew on all the resources at her disposal to get the trespassing book published, and heavily publicized?
The rejections, of course, are never meant personally.  Intellectually, we know that rejection letters, like the best critique groups, are all about The Work.  The Work doesn’t meet the editor’s needs.  Or the publishing house has too recently published A Very Similar Work, or Our Work is not similar enough to The Works That Have Been Selling Lately. 
Those dreaded words, a stab to the heart, repeated again and again: Does Not Meet Our Needs.  Good Luck Placing Your Work Elsewhere. 
For causing depression, I hate to mention the agents who don’t have any idea where to send Our Work, but offer to represent us for fifteen per cent if we somehow overcome the barriers to anyone even taking a peek at our manuscript – and miraculously get it accepted on our own
Well.  .  .  .
I.  Just.  Gave.  Up.
Time passed, and I went on to other things.  The kids grew up and moved on to college and then grad school.  I tried to ignore the urge to work on the novels stored on my hard drive.  Sometimes a well-intentioned someone would innocently ask, “Have you published anything yet?”  It got harder to confess I wasn’t even trying when the self-publishing companies started to dominate the Internet.  Publish your book!  No editor or agent required, no formal study of plot or character or theme or grammar or punctuation!  Anyone can do it! 
And, it suddenly seemed, everyone was.
There appeared downloadable e-books.  There were a few writers who were very good at taking care of all aspects of writing and selling their own work.  Stories began appearing about the success of certain self-published novelists.  Some claimed to make thousands of dollars a year selling their books for under a buck.  How can it be possible to thrive as a writer selling such cheap e-books?  I watched from a distance, a lurker in the dark anonymity of fascinated denial.  Certainly I couldn’t be all things to my own book: omniscient writer and editor and publisher and publicist all at the same time.  And so once again time passed and I did nothing. 
And then my daughter said to try Jargon Media.  New publisher.  Looking for a project.  Check it out. 
So I did look at the Jargon Media website.  But it seemed editor Victoria Harben wasn’t really looking for genre fiction; she likes literary work.  And since Willow Vale is a romantic historical set in WWI-era Wyoming . . . I lost confidence and dithered. 
But adult daughters can sometimes be more mature than their mothers.  She persisted.  I sent a query.  Victoria liked the story.  She called my characters, Francesca and Kent, “enthralling,” high praise from someone whose personal taste is non-genre.
Imagine, I now have the same sweet deal the Wall Street Journal reports that Stephen King gets for his new foray into historical fiction: about fifty per cent of the profits.  Most authors get ten or fifteen.  And I have big influence in other aspects of publishing where writers usually have no say, such as the wonderful cover featuring a cameo of my immigrant grandmother.
Sometimes wishes do come true.  The Internet has opened up a whole new universe of publishing opportunities for writers.  So now I offer to my readers the same advice that was given to me:  Keep writing.  And never give up.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hello! Welcome to the blog for all things writerly. My new historical novel, Willow Vale, will be available from Jargon Media this December. It has truly been a work of love. I hope you will like reading it as much as I enjoyed writing this romantic WWI-era story.

About me: I’ve been asked about my name. I named my blog “Actually Alethea” because Alethea is my pen name. There are lots of permutations of my everyday name, five that I can count off-hand. Any Margarets, Marges, Midges, Madges or Maggies out there? I’ve had three last names, the one I was born with and two by marriage. But Alethea is constant, unabridged and real. It was my paternal grandma’s name, and it comes from the Greek language. It means, according to Webster’s Encyclopedia, “truth.”  So I truly hope ours is a lasting association! I promise I will always uphold my part of the bargain between writers and readers, and present you with the best story I know how to write. But a writer is nothing without her readers, and I look forward to hearing from you and your reactions to Willow Vale.

Follow @actuallyalethea and @JargonMedia on Twitter for updates on the progress of my Wyoming-based novel and my adventures as a newly published writer. And check back here often for writer tips, editor tips from my wonderful editor and publisher, conference news, and links to anything else you can help me find that’s useful to writers.