On Writing

For me a blank computer screen is an open door leading into new worlds full of voices clamoring to take form, interact, face conflicts and find resolution.  Writing is life’s truest adventure.

***

I will never understand writers who complain about how hard writing is and all the excuses they make for not writing.  I love it.  I look forward to escaping into a landscape that I am creating, characters I am bringing to life, for the most part directing their actions, polishing their words and standing back to behold a new little universe that is the book.

***

All my writing gets back to the Bible, Hemingway and Twain, and not in that order.

***

The raven told me that it’s not in the past and not in the future, but only in the present that you truly fly.
(From One Bullet Beyond Justice.)

***

There’s nothing better than  fully lived  characters and a good revelation or two, except maybe an unexpected death done with care.

***

I did a reading of excerpts from the Vengeance sequel, One Bullet Beyond Justice today in the North Hall Reading Room at Mansfield University.  I’ve been writing professionally for 40 years and have never read from a work-in-progress.  I’m going to try to make this a habit.    All good writing must stand the test of reading it out loud.  The immediate, unfettered feedback of listeners in invaluable.

I keep worrying about going too far, offending people, but the excerpts on “pecker cutting” went over much better than I expected.  There was laughter in all the right places and three faculty and fellow writers told me afterwards how much they liked the dialogue and how real it was.

I must add here that most of the room were women.  For them, men and their sex drive is a sometimes pleasurable, often bothersome and in too many cases an abusive way of existence.

I couldn’t get a feel for Nora’s journal excerpts but this is a whole different way of communication and I think I’ll get a better idea once I make the Pinterest board live.  I also think people have to read Vengeance to understand Nora’s character and why she makes the entries that she does.

***

I love bright mornings and big full moon nights,

Cold beer and warm hugs

Floppy puppies who lick your face and

Kittens when they get crazy.

Writing?  That’s like breathing; just something I have to do

To stay alive.

***

Writing is so personal, and so intertwined with one’s personality and soul, that there is no standard way of writing.  Some people begin outlining a plot.  Others start with a character or situation.  Others, God love them, just write.

The one thing most all writers have in common is that they write everyday. Every day. You must be by yourself, with no distractions, and write.  That’s the discipline that develops the craft.  On the outside, it looks boring.  On the inside, you are in a vast, wonderful world that you are in the process of creating.

There is nothing more adventurous, exciting or rewarding.

***

When I’m writing, really writing, everything but breathing is an ignorable distraction.

***

Sometimes — maybe once a day –I just want to say, “Dear World, get out of my way.  I’m writing.”

***

On Writing About Nora Hawks

I write about a female character to try, in vain, to understand two things:  the purpose of life, and women.

***

The Universe Below Me

As a writer and a reader I’m probably the luckiest person in the world.  My office suite is on the fifth floor of North Hall, a six-story building constructed in the late 19th century.  The first four floors contain three libraries.    Beneath my feet are more than 100,000 books (maybe more), magazines, DVDs and a music library.

So when I need a break from the computer I can walk downstairs and wander among the book stacks, pulling anything from  The Sun Also Rises to The History of New Mexico (for research on the  One Woman’s Vengeance sequel.)  I can flip through the latest issue of The Rolling Stone or take out Bach or the audio edition of King Richard.

As icing, library director Scott DiMarco is an avid reader and reviews audio books so we get together in his office, my office or the six story open atrium, coffee in hand, and talk books, movies and politics.

Granted, none of these things occur often enough, but the fact is, below me are a universe of books, periodicals, recordings and a friend who shares a love of reading and writing.

There are people in the world with more money than they could ever know what to do with.

I appreciate everyday that I am richer by far.

***

Vast, Uncharted Territory

When I start writing, whether it’s a blog or a novel, I’m  entering a vast, uncharted territory.  It’s scary and challenging.  I don’t know directions or what manner of beings live there. As I return and continue exploring and getting to know it, shaping it, and being shaped by it,  I get more comfortable until it’s familiar and it becomes a place I’m obsessed with.  The “real world” is boring and this new land is a place I must live in until the adventure plays out.

I recommend it to everyone.

Bradford County, Where I Became a Writer

I’m giving a reading/signing tomorrow night at the Bradford County Library.  It brings back a lot of memories.  It’s where I learned to write.  In high school, Mary Smythe and Bob Stackhouse encouraged my writing and gave me direction.  This was in a rural, white high school where I had a lot of friends but still was the skinny little geek who loved to read.

Then, a year after graduation, I took a crazy, wonderful opportunity to become a reporter for a daily paper.  I learned to write fast and accurately.  I covered meetings and came up again small town fathers.  I covered fires, accidents, crazy people and a couple of murders.  In many of the stories, I knew the people.  I learned to distance myself and write the facts.  I wrote features about common, amazing people and learned that joy and miracles exist in all of us.  I grew up fast, had a hard time, and nearly flunked out of college because academics didn’t stack up to the real life I was writing about.

If I live to be 100, Bradford County will always be in my heart and mind as the real and mythical place of my own universe.

The  Obstacle . . .

The biggest obstacle to writing is not writing.

Your Audience of One

Writing is an act and your audience should have one member — you.  Your goal should be to write so real and convincingly that your audience sits in rapt attention.  It has to be so compelling that your audience wants to come back for more, and in fact has to come back for more.  If you succeed with that member – you – when your work is published your audience will steadily grow with other like-minded people drawn to your art.

On Happy Endings

I recently gave a reading to a university audience of faculty, staff and students.  After I talked about Nora’s character and all her trials, I said to end it  with Nora and Peter living happily ever after would be disingenuous.  I reworked the end maybe 20 times so that it was neither happy or unhappy.  It was hopeful.  Then I added a post script which introduced a sinister element.

And it worked.

In most cases, I don’t believe in happy endings.  In fiction, as in life, endings are just pauses pointing to a new beginning.

Where the Ideas Come From

I’ve always been impressed by where ideas and lines come from. They appear in the oddest times and places and I’m pretty sure that’s why “creative” people have always been viewed as different, and in different times, revered or feared.
I know I’ve said this before, but when I’m writing, I’m thinking about the character or the plot or the action anytime I can. This includes, driving, walking, really boring meetings, reading, watching TV,  shaving, etc.
When I die, I really hope I’m zapped into a dimension with answers to questions like:
Okay, who sent this to me and why did you do it while I was talking to this inane bureaucrat with nothing under his tie but stale air?

Saved By the Black Panther and the Witch

Back when I was a reporter, I interviewed a former Black Panther and a former practicing witch.  Both had been involved with violence and one had helped kill a man.  They were saved by Jesus.  I wanted a good story and they gave it to me.  When the interview was done the Black Panther asked me if I knew Jesus.  I  said I wasn’t sure.  “Do you want to know Jesus?”

When you are in the presence of a Black Panther and a witch, you don’t want to offend.

I said sure.

People appeared from different rooms in the farmhouse where the interview was conducted.  They laid their hands on me and got  a good group prayer going, telling me simply to confess my sins.

I didn’t think my sins were any of their business.  There was some weird energy flowing and I wasn’t sure I liked it.  I wasn’t sure being a reporter was worth it.  I didn’t care if the witch had helped kill a person and now was showing people how to find Jesus.

So eyes closed, head bowed and with strangers hands all over me, I just said, “I confess.  I confess.  I confess. . . .”

Someday I’ll write about the whole affair.  But every year at Christmas I remember the 1970s “Jesus Freaks”.  I was after a story and they were after my soul.

I really don’t think Jesus cared much either way.

Fairy Dust and Three Wishes

I love writing, but when I’m finished, I’m impatient.  I want all the techie stuff done.  I want all the marketing to be in place and take care of itself.

So my dream is that when the novel is complete, Tinker Bell appears.  I  act in a calm, dignified, mature manner.  (My fantasy about Tinker Bell is lifelong).

“Tinker Bell, cute, scantily clad  fairy, spread your dust and let my novel be published.”  She waves her wand to a harp soundtrack and One Woman’s Vengeance is a real book.

Then I  side-scrub the musty lamp and Aladdin’s Genie morphs from mist, folds his muscular arms and does the three wishes thing.

“I wish for my book to have no typos.”  He gives a silent nod and every wretched mistake miraculously heals itself.

“I wish for it to be a bestseller.”  Another nod of the goatee face and I see Vengeance on the NY Times Bestseller list (and Amazon and Barnes & Noble and whatever the Chinese bestseller list is).

“My third wish is to be on Fresh Air, after which Clint Eastwood make a movie which earns two-story high Ebert thumbs up  and  –”

Tinker Bell floats in, sees the Genie and wiggles her hips: “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” She asks, dripping a little fairy dust from her wand to the sound of harp music.   The Genie visibly melts, then grows.

To a child it’s charming.  To an adult it’s clever porn.

“I think it was on the Disney set,” he says.  ” You were –”

“Saving Peter!” She exclaims.  (See?)

“An underfed busybody who will never know maturity,” the genie says, puffing up his chest and flexing his biceps. He glances at the short green skirt, then says suavely, “Wanna take a ride on my carpet?  It’s magic,” he says softly.  “It flies and undulates.”

Off they go into a land far, far away and I sit here with foreign HTML, broken links,  and a withering dream of greatness.

I’ve never trusted entities that offer wishes because wishes always have some stupid demonic twist.  But, Tinker Bell, you always seemed so innocent and straightforward and I loved you.

I feel a bit betrayed.  I hope you fall off that wayward carpet right into my sea of typos.

On Characters

Don’t try to force your character to do something he doesn’t want to do.  Don’t force her to say something she doesn’t want to say.  Characters have a life of their own and understand when they’re being pushed in the wrong direction.  If they’re good characters they will always push back.  Yes, they will even push back at their own creator.

***

The only way to make characters real is to accept the fact that they are and proceed accordingly.   They can influence other characters and be influenced by others, just as we are in daily life.  They can even be influenced by their creator, just as we are.

***

Writing is a dialogue between author and characters in a search to do and say what is true for everyone in this dialogue.

Dream Big

The reviews coming in from readers have been really enthusiastic and positive.  Many have said they picture it as a movie.

So do I.

I want to see Nora and Peter as a feature film.

Little dreams are important.  They are what get us through our daily lives.

Big dreams are important, too.  I’ve seen it over and over again.

Big dreams are reality busters.

Fairy Dust and Three Wishes

I love writing, but when I’m finished, I’m impatient.  I want all the techie stuff done.  I want all the marketing to be in place and take care of itself.

So my dream is that when the novel is complete, Tinker Bell appears.  I  act in a calm, dignified, mature manner.  (My fantasy about Tinker Bell is lifelong).

“Tinker Bell, cute, scantily clad  fairy, spread your dust and let my novel be published.”  She waves her wand to a harp soundtrack and One Woman’s Vengeance is a real book.

Then I  side-scrub the musty lamp and Aladdin’s Genie morphs from mist, folds his muscular arms and does the three wishes thing.

“I wish for my book to have no typos.”  He gives a silent nod and every wretched mistake miraculously heals itself.

“I wish for it to be a bestseller.”  Another nod of the goatee face and I see Vengeance on the NY Times Bestseller list (and Amazon and Barnes & Noble and whatever the Chinese bestseller list is).

“My third wish is to be on Fresh Air, after which Clint Eastwood make a movie which earns two-story high Ebert thumbs up  and  –”

Tinker Bell floats in, sees the Genie and wiggles her hips: “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” She asks, dripping a little fairy dust from her wand to the sound of harp music.   The Genie visibly melts, then grows.

To a child it’s charming.  To an adult it’s clever porn.

“I think it was on the Disney set,” he says.  ” You were –”

“Saving Peter!” She exclaims.  (See?)

“An underfed busybody who will never know maturity,” the genie says, puffing up his chest and flexing his biceps. He glances at the short green skirt, then says suavely, “Wanna take a ride on my carpet?  It’s magic,” he says softly.  “It flies and undulates.”

Off they go into a land far, far away and I sit here with foreign HTML, broken links,  and a withering dream of greatness.

I’ve never trusted entities that offer wishes because wishes always have some stupid demonic twist.  But, Tinker Bell, you always seemed so innocent and straightforward and I loved you.

I feel a bit betrayed.  I hope you fall off that wayward carpet right into my sea of typos.

***

I must stop tinkering.  There are 47,000 words in this novel.  That’s 47,000 units that can be changed, altered, added to or deleted.  At some point, one must stop and declare: share it now, with the world.

“I Felt Energized”

I ran into a faculty friend on campus today and she mentioned how much she was looking forward to reading One Woman’s Vengeance.

“You know, I sat down to write to a friend the other night,” she said. “We hadn’t talked or corresponded in years and I wound up writing and writing, filling her in on my life and memories of our time together.”  She stopped and smiled.  “When I finished I felt, refreshed, energized.”

I feel the same way.  Writing is not a chore; it’s a joy.  Writing is  playtime in a land of thought, expression, feeling; finding the right words and phrases  to create and reinforce the meaning of your life.

Fiction is the art of bringing lives into meaning.

Writing to yourself or to a friend is meaningful conversation, increasingly rare in today’s world of thought bytes.

Thanks, Shelly.

You reminded me of advice for writers with “writer’s block.”

That’s for the next post.

***

The Walking Path and The Line

About a mile below our house is a walking path that my wife discovered a few years ago and began taking the dogs for daily walks.  She did this after walking our dogs through the woods along our creek and encountered a mountain lion.

After several months of taking the dogs to the path, she talked me into going.  I don’t have the appreciation for all the subtleties of the walk — the pond on the left with geese and beaver, the wetlands on the right covering the croaking bullfrogs.  I take quick stock of the cloud formations and the sound of the passing train a few hundred yards from us.  Then I zone out as we walk, I with two Australian blue heelers on leash and her with the German Shepherd.

I found myself thinking of Nora Hawks in various situations, dialogues with her bounty hunter mentor Peter Clawson.  I worked on scenes of her confrontation with villain Butch Wheeler.

And then, one sunny Sunday afternoon in July 2009, I saw her in the tiny, stinking whorehouse room getting ready to confront two of the men who raped her and left her for dead.  I felt the fear that made her cold and weak from trembling.  And then a line was given to me.  We were halfway up the path, coming to the dead oak on our left that was one of our markers.  It was a line that made her whole character, that showed her strength in the face of all that she feared most.

It was a thought addressed to God from a woman who might be moments from torture and violent death, an unorthodox offer from a woman who will not bend.

It was Nora, fully realized, in one soul-felt line.

We continued our walk in silence, the dogs sniffing at smells beyond mere humans.  The ducks made their quiet graceful glide through the muddy pond, and we greeted other walkers:  How are you doing?  Beautiful day, isn’t it? . . . .

Details Make or Break Your Credibility

I was so careful about the details in One Woman’s Vengeance: the make of Peter’s stove; the utensils he ate with; the guns he gave to Nora. . . .

Not careful enough. I asked a trusted colleague to read the galley. She called me to say she loved it and had a male friend read it. That friend is a retired military officer, a gun enthusiast and a re-enactor. She suggested I call him.
I did.
“Well,” he said politely,” the rifle she’s using is pretty wimpy.” (I chose it because I thought a lighter weight rifle was better for a female).

“And the pistol is a different caliber than the rifle,” he continued. “Usually back then people had rifles and pistols of the same caliber so they didn’t have to carry two types of ammunition.”
The most common calibers back then were .45 and .45-40.
I thanked the gentleman profusely. He had saved me a fate as bad as death for a writer: a lack of authenticity.
Readers of genre fiction (or biographies, autobiographies, etc), have a lot of knowledge of the field. They love the field and that’s one of the reasons they’re reading the work.
If there are mistakes in facts or details, your credibility as an author takes a nosedive. The reader continues on with suspicion, and a critical eye looking for other mistakes.  This means he or she is not paying full attention to the narrative.
Not good.

I spent the next two nights researching firearms of the period and making the changes my new friend suggested.
He saved me from a major misfire that would have seriously wounded my voice as a writer.

Mom and My Bad Language

My mother has a way of cutting through subtleties to get to the essence.
I told her I was troubled that my first novel, The Perfect Song, had very little foul language and only a couple scenes of violence. One Woman’s Vengeance is, by necessity, hard-hitting, violent and is full of adult language. I worry that people who liked the first book may be shocked by the second.
“I liked Vengeance better,” she said. “It’s a really good story. And that’s the way people talk.”
She paused to think about it. “Just go to Facebook and you’ll see how people really talk.”
Mom is right.
She’s 82.

She’s not one for giving out advice, but when she does, it’s  concise, on target and I listen.

9 Responses to On Writing

  1. Dennis, I love this. I’d like to hit the “like” button, but don’t see one. I want to subscribe so I get emails of your posts, but don’t see that either. Am I missing it?
    –Lilace

  2. Wait–I found the “notify me” box (was looking for “subscribe”) but don’t see a “like” button.
    –Lilace

  3. Pingback: News | One Woman's Vengeance

  4. strope says:

    Appreciate the insight you provided. Worth it’s weight in gold! Finished the book and awaiting comment from mother-in-law, to whom I sent a copy. Was great to finally meet you, I commented in a post to Terry, ” The Infamous Dennis MIller!” Thanks again!
    Travel Safe ….

    • Dennis, the other night was a lot of fun. Lot of great questions. If you have a chance, I’d love you to write a review on Amazon.com I am also very interested in you mother-in-law’s opinion.
      Best of luck on your book. As I said, if I can be of any help down the road, let me know.

  5. Amen, brother! I agree with all of this (I, too, am always writing — when I’m in a car with people, I sometimes get annoyed if they try talking to me). Love the genie/Tinker Bell porn. 😉

  6. Eleanor Kodish says:

    Good morning, Dennis,your blog filled a void for this morning, and I loved it !! I needed something to read—have two books due back to Ross Library, Kindle needs a download, and along came your blog !! I devoured it, as I do all of your writings !! Thanks for sharing your wonderful insight on writing……and “life in general”, really. I am one very fortunate lady to be able to claim you as a friend, and I brag about it constantly !! Please keep on “blogging”—-(as if anyone could stop you, right?)

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