Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Do You Write?

Recently, I saw a discussion on one of the writers' websites I follow. A member of the site wanted to know whether others write to get readers or to get published.

My first reaction was, "What's the difference? We can't get readers unless we get published, can we?"

But as I thought about it, I realized I've had another, related discussion with other writers for years, a discussion that usually takes place when one of us feels depressed about the difficulty of getting journal editors, agents and/or publishers interested in our work. It goes something like this:

"I'm sick of writing stories nobody wants to read. From now on, I'm only going to write what sells," says the discouraged one.

"Don't do that," says the discouraged one's friend. "Everything out there is crap. You're too good for that. Uphold your standards."

"Why? Nobody wants to read thoughtful stories. Hardly anybody reads period. I'm just going to appeal to the lowest common denominator until I get published. Once I'm established, I'll have plenty of time to write good quality fiction."

There are a couple of flaws in this line of reasoning. One is that what we label "crap" is usually written by someone who thinks her story is pretty damn good. The other is that when we do try to write something we don't believe in, that doesn't reflect us, the story almost always falls flat.

Years ago, for example, I decided that I would write a series of romance novels.

Not that romance novels can't be good. You can argue that the Bronte sisters wrote a type of romance. 

But I figured nothing could be easier. Why? Because they all follow one of a few predictable formulas. All I needed to do was decide on which formula I wanted to follow, and I was good to go.

I read twenty or thirty of the "bodice ripper" variety until I was sure I had all the elements down. I was sure I was only a few thousand keystrokes away from fame and fortune. Because that's what I wanted. Why I was writing. I wanted people to buy my books so I could make money. I wanted people to know my name (Well, my pseudonym which was, as I recall, Desiree Darling.)

I sat down at my computer and .....NOTHING. My mind went blank. I looked at my notes, my careful outline of all the plot elements I needed to include to make my first novel a hit. I turned back to my blank computer screen, stared at it for a full five minutes. Finally, I forced myself to write an opening paragraph introducing my innocent yet feisty heroine.

When I finished, I was drained. I got up from my computer to fix myself a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

I couldn't talk myself back to the computer that day, though I promised myself that tomorrow I would get down to it. For a full week, I told myself that my romance novel was as good as written. All I had to do was sit down and write.

I couldn't do it.

It didn't make sense. I knew exactly what I needed to write. What was the matter with me?

In retrospect, it's pretty simple--I couldn't write my romance novel because my heart wasn't in it.

In the end, we write what we must, I think. What we're drawn to. What speaks to us. And, yes, we want people to read our work. We want that with every fiber of our being.

But we have to write for ourselves first. The rest will follow if we're lucky.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

More on Marilyn Monroe


In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn's death, I am offering a free download of Catch the Sun, a novel inspired by the events of Marilyn's final summer.

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe was exhausted, depressed and losing hope that she would ever be given the kinds of dramatic roles she so desperately wanted. She had recently been institutionalized at the Payne-Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York. In the spring, she came home to Los Angeles and rented a small bungalow in preparation for playing "another dumb blonde" in a movie called "Something's Got To Give"

By this time, Marilyn who was thirty-six years old, was seriously addicted to barbiturates and was drinking heavily. Her marriage to Arthur Miller had disintegrated into a bitter divorce two years earlier. Her life was going nowhere but down. She was holding onto her career by her fingernails.

By the end of May, she'd been fired from "Something's Got To Give."

With no movie to give her life structure, Marilyn began drifting, coming ever closer to the despair that would suck her down into death.

But she could make one final effort to save herself: she could find one last thing to cling to.

During this final summer Marilyn began looking for a house, a safe haven that could function as a fortress supplying the security and stability that her life lacked.

In Catch the Sun I tell the story of the house Marilyn wants to buy but can't have. It is the perfect house, the one she has always sought. It faces the sea, promising vast possibility and an end to suffering. Here, in this house, a beautiful little girl lives with her mother, a famous artist. Could this child be the daughter Marilyn gave up for adoption three years earlier? Could the strange fascination the little girl feels toward Marilyn be proof that they are bound by ties stronger than death or time?

Thirty years later, the child, now grown into a lovely but troubled model named Amanda Grace, receives visitations from the long-dead Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn has a message for her. She needs to tell Amanda things--things only a mother can tell her daughter.

Take advantage of this opportunity to download Catch the Sun for free starting tomorrow, August 20.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Catch The Sun Available in Kindle Edition

I'm so excited that my novel about Marilyn Monroe's final summer has just been published as an e book on!

It is particularly appropriate because this August marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn's death. My novel follows Marilyn through her final months of life and culminates on the morning of August 5, 1962 when she was found dead by her housekeeper.

Marilyn is not the only main character in "Catch the Sun." The other is a young model named Amanda Grace whose life in the summer of 1995 is unraveling. Yes, you read that right. 1995. It seems that the lives of Amanda and Marilyn are linked despite the more than thirty years separating them.

Why Marilyn Monroe? I must confess to being fascinated with Marilyn from my early teens. She seems the quintessence of fragility, yet her story is one of fierce determination and the will to succeed. She was a "little lamb lost in the wood" to quote the old song, easily arousing the protective instincts of men. At the same time she was tough as nails in the pursuit of what she wanted. Maybe it was her own ruthlessness toward herself that destroyed her in the end.

Why Amanda Grace? Because I have always been fascinated by the way we project our own fantasies, needs and demons onto the famous people we admire. Amanda is beautiful--just as Marilyn was--but, lacking Marilyn's talent, her career is sinking. Even worse, when her mother dies, Amanda discovers she was adopted and her frail sense of identity crumbles. To keep herself afloat, she fantasizes about Marilyn.

Could Marilyn Monroe be Amanda Grace's mother?

Certainly they are kindred spirits, both women too damaged to sustain the reckless lives they lead, their minds, too fragile to contain the fierce spirits that drive them beyond their strength.

I hope you'll read "Catch the Sun" in its new kindle format. Let me know what you think. Is Amanda Grace mentally ill? Is Marilyn Monroe really her mother?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Is Writing a Competitive Sport?

Maybe it's because the Olympics are on, but I got to thinking the other day about competition. I was raised by a father who believed that competition was not only beneficial, it was necessary to survival. As he saw it, we inhabit a Darwinian universe in which those who successfully compete for food, water and mates prosper and reproduce. The others die.

 Winners and losers.

 The strong and the weak.

 My father wasn't alone. Look around. Our culture is all about competition. Television networks especially manage to turn every imaginable activity into a competition. Singing. Dancing. Home decorating. Cooking. Losing weight. Even crafting. Even visual arts. (A couple of seasons ago there was a competition show to discover the best young artist in America.)

 I know why they do it. Competition makes any activity more interesting. It gets the juices flowing. Creates people to root for and against. (Have you noticed how there are always people you love and others you hate on competition shows? You say, "He needs to go. Why is she still here?)

 It's supposed to be about quality: the best person wins. But of course, it isn't just about quality. It's about luck. It's about the subjective opinions of the judges. It's about having an especially good or bad day.(I remember one cooking show where a finalist had the flu the day of the final cook-off and could barely function.)

Which brings me at last to writing. (I'm sure the only reason there hasn't been a TV competition show for writers is because it would be terminally boring to watch the competitors hunched over their laptops for hours at a time. Not to mention how time-consuming it would be to read all the results aloud.)

There are plenty of writing competitions--even if they aren't on television. And winning one is very prestigious for a writer, as it should be given that there are usually thousands of entries. But writing should not be a competitive sport. None of the arts should be.

Competition is not limited to contests. Writers also compete for readers.

Creativity is about taking risks, stretching boundaries, challenging assumptions. That's how great writing happens

Competition is about doing what is safe so that judges and readers are not jarred. That's how mediocre writing happens.

When writers compete, we consider each other rivals for praise, fans, readers, sales. And as the readership for novels and short stories shrink,s we fight over a smaller and smaller audience. "How did that piece of trash get published?" we ask ourselves and/or a loyal follower, "when my work languishes in a slush pile somewhere? I'm so much better than he is!"

Maybe we're right, maybe we're wrong. It doesn't matter. The point is, envy poisons good work. Writers deal with envy in a number of ways. We

  • Give up entirely and stick to our "day job"
  • Try to create a carbon copy of the rival's successful book(s)
  • Stick our nose in the air and declare, "I'm writing literature so I don't care what trash Mr. and Mrs. America want to read.

But there's an alternative--we can see one another as comrades in arms, all struggling to create something worth reading. That way, we can learn from one another. Be inspired by one another. Help one another.

Does this sound Pollyanna-ish? I suppose it does. After all, we're human and how can we not feel at least a tinge of jealousy when someone succeeds where we have failed? Or feel triumphant when it's us in the winner's circle?

Many of us imagine we're in a race, looking over our shoulders to see who is gaining on us, looking ahead to gauge how fast we have to be to catch the leader.

But we're not running a track with other writers behind and ahead. Each of us has our own path, our own course to run. Some are running up a hill, others down a mountain. Still others are on a straightaway. We may meet each other, but we're never running the exact same course.

Think about it. Each of us has a different gift. Our task is to nurture and develop our own, unique talent. We do that by writing. We do that by studying other writers. We do that by freeing our minds and imaginations to flow wherever they want to take us. We do that by welcoming the companionship of other writers we meet along the way.

Some have been where we're going and can tell us something about the place.