Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing as Forbidden Fruit

I started writing my first novel a long time ago, before I had my son and when I had a (somewhat) demanding fulltime job. I’d write during my lunch hour. And I’d spend the morning thinking about my book. And sometimes my lunch hour would last … longer than an hour. I’d write with my door open, not wanting anyone to think I was doing anything other than writing press releases, constantly looking over my shoulder as the words flowed from my fingers.

I wasn’t supposed to be writing, and yet I couldn’t stop. (It’s a good thing it wasn’t an internet porn habit!)

Oh, those were the days! Nowadays the only boss I’m accountable to is myself, and my to-do list is filled with chapters to write, outlines to plan, ideas to transcribe, and pages to edit. I have the time, the ideas, and there’s no one lurking in the hallway trying to figure out what I’m working on.

And writing my daily pages is like pulling teeth. I’m constantly rewarding myself for putting down a single paragraph by flipping over to Facebook, catching up on email, or sneaking a peek at the latest 99 cent novel I just downloaded to my Kindle.

Because those activities are now my forbidden fruit. I’m supposed to do the writing. I’m not supposed to be sneaking off to check Facebook. And yet, that’s what I’m doing.

And I know I’m not alone. When something is forbidden, it becomes irresistible. That’s why dieters are urged to keep their favorite foods in their diet somehow; while parents know it only makes things worse to tell their teenager they can’t date someone.

Even the term “forbidden fruit” comes from the very first time this happened – when Eve ate the apple from the tree God specifically told her not to eat from. (Although these days “forbidden cookie” might be a more appropriate term.)

For myself and other writers who spend way too much time not writing, I’m wondering if there’s any way to turn the daily writing into forbidden fruit.

So my writer friends: I am absolutely forbidding you from getting any writing done! You must go to the gym, pay the bills and do the laundry. No writing! THE GYM AWAITS.

I’ll check back in a week and you can tell me if that helps.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Athletes Have Coaches. Why Not Writers?

My Facebook friends probably think I love the gym. After all, I check in from there five to six times a week. But the truth is, I hate it. I’m a typical reader type. I’d much rather be on my butt, reading a book or at the computer, than working out those muscles. In fact, I was a completely sedentary type until about three years ago. So what changed? When we moved to Florida and I joined a gym for my son’s sake, I got a call about taking advantage of their free personal training session. I showed up. I got “trained.” And then I bought a short package. And then I met Richard. Richard was a nice guy, dedicated to physical fitness and putting himself through school with his earnings. So my gym sessions stopped being about me making me do something I hated to do, and started being about the appointment I had with Richard, letting Richard down if I didn’t show up and possibly costing him money. Plus I’d have to send a text explaining why I wasn’t showing up, and that would just be too hard to justify. They say it takes six weeks for a new activity to become a habit. It probably took me longer than that, but three years later, exercise is a regular part of my routine, with and without a trainer.

And I still hate it.

It makes me wonder if the same process could work for writers who aren’t happy with the amount of writing they’re getting done. I don’t know if I’m a typical writer or not, but I am much happier “having written” than I am deep in the throes of the writing. While the writing is happening, I’m constantly sweating over every word. I’m way too pleased with myself at the conclusion of a single sentence. I get too distracted by my email and the thought that something interesting may have just been posted on Facebook.

Look, a flying fish!

I have friends who get together to write, but I’ve never been able to do that. I get too distracted by their presence. I want to talk to them, not type with them. And there is stuff going on at the coffee shop or the library. People to look at. Boats. How is a person supposed to stare at a blank screen and a blinking cursor with all that going on?

(By the way, I just had to hop on Google to look for pictures of flying fish.)

This problem is by no means limited to writers who spend their days alone staring at a screen. I’m also a real estate agent with a company that is constantly providing its sales associates with motivational techniques to get out there, make those calls, knock on doors, and do what it takes to meet people who’ll want your help to buy and sell houses.

(I just took another break to read an email and then post a comment about said email on Facebook.)

And the reason they are constantly providing these motivational experiences is because the majority of these agents aren’t doing what they know they need to do to be successful, even though the steps are broken down pretty clearly and most agents need to do them because it’s their job and they need to make money and pay the bills! One way my company tries to keep agents motivated and active is by providing coaches. Agents meet with coaches as often as they like to talk about what they did to pursue their real estate goals, what they didn’t do, and why. It’s called accountability.

I do something similar with my weekly writers group. We start each meeting talking about what we accomplished writing-wise that week, and what kept us from writing more. Some people talk about the other things they did that week in lieu of writing. Sometimes I call them out on it, and sometimes I don’t.

I love the idea of using the personal training model for writing. Like a personal athletic trainer would, a personal writing trainer would spend the initial meeting talking about the writer’s goals and assessing where the writer is right now. Does the writer have a great idea for a novel but no idea how to develop it? Does the writer have an outline but lacks motivation to work on the book every day? Is the first draft finished, but the edits seem too overwhelming? The writer and trainer would then work out a schedule of working together, with the trainer’s sole job during that time to keep the writer on track.

Fellow writers, what do you think? Is this a model that could work?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

More on Unreliable Narrators: What The Girl on the Train Can Teach Us

Warning: This post contains spoilers about The Girl on the Train. Don’t read if you don’t want to know!

Unreliable narrators continue to be on a roll. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train continues to lead bestseller lists five months after publication, and the just-published Luckiest Girl Alive is being called its follow-up due to its unreliable narrator. Manuscripts I’m reading at the agency I work for are full of them.

In February, I wrote a blog post on unreliable narrators that gave writers guidelines on how to tell whether their story’s unreliable narrator works. After reading The Girl on the Train several times along with several more manuscripts using unreliable narrators, there are a couple more points I’d like to make.

An unreliable narrator is not unreliable if she tells the reader she can’t remember whether or not she committed the act. Hawkins’ Rachel is not considered unreliable because she’s a drunk who thinks she might have murdered Megan. She’s an unreliable narrator because she doesn’t immediately tell the reader that she’s lost her job, that she’s not on the train because of her work commute but because she’s lying to her roommate about being unemployed, and because she doesn’t tell the reader she’s a drunk. Once she puts her cards on the table with the reader – and I believe it’s fairly early on in the narrative – she is no longer an unreliable narrator.

Most new writers playing with this gimmick are straightforward with the reader. Their protagonist doesn’t know what she did because she was drunk, or knocked out, or she sleepwalks and wakes up to find blood all over her hands. A confused narrator is not an unreliable one. When the protagonist tells the reader everything she knows, she’s as reliable as she can be.

If you want your story to have an unreliable narrator, you must have her lie to your readers. Forget the dreams or the reincarnation fantasies or hypnosis stuff. She’s a liar, plain and simple. She cries to the reader about her divorce; it’s her husband who reveals in dialogue how she cheated on him with the entire New York Giants offensive line.

Stories with unreliable narrators are almost always mysteries, and the manuscripts I read that feature them are always overpopulated with possible suspects. Readers have trouble keeping track of who’s who and what their motives are. What’s worse, with so many possible suspects, the killer almost always stands out.

Hawkins avoids this by having very few characters in her novel. There’s Rachel, her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Anna, the dead girl Megan’s husband, Megan’s therapist/would-be lover, and Rachel’s roommate. That’s pretty much it. Since the book is also told from Anna and Megan’s points of view, there’s an additional finger of blame pointed at Rachel. Rachel thinks she may have killed Megan and Anna is certain she did it. The reader thinks Rachel may have done it, but there’s also the possibility that either Megan’s therapist or her husband was the killer. While the reader is wondering whether Rachel could be the killer, Hawkins casually drops all the information needed to figure out the real murderer: Tom and Megan are both cheaters. Megan once babysat for Tom and Anna. Paying attention to these details, it’s obvious what happened.

The real unreliable narrator wasn’t drunken, jilted Rachel. It was stupid Megan, who doesn’t let on that Tom was her lover until it was too late.