It’s summertime and everyone is on vacation. So it’s a time to be quiet and reflect on things. The things I would’ve liked to do but didn’t. The things I could’ve done but didn’t. The things I should’ve done but didn’t. The things I should NOT have done but did. Oh boy, the list goes on and on. And there I am, looking at the blue yonder, the waves rippling over the azure lake, the swan coming by to chat, my watch staring at me as if it wants to stop.
I would love to play piano like Amad Jamal but I can’t. I would love to play tennis like Louis Federer but I can’t. I would love to write like Nora Roberts, but I don’t.
I did play classical piano pretty well but it faded: at a certain stage I noticed that I made no progress anymore. Stuck. Maybe I hated practice. Clearly, I didn’t yearn to get better at it and reverted to playing jazz all the time, which I did all right. My passionate Paris girlfriend and classical pianist, Geneviève, told me there was nothing wrong with that (See Some Women I Have Known – http://amzn.to/1QIL94B). I would’ve liked to play more tennis but back injury, tendonitis, and work priorities all fought against me. But I did complete an all right career and after 50 years of interesting work worldwide, I am now finally retired with a healthy savings account. So I should be happy, no?
Yes and No. I can’t sit still, hate to play golf and am too lazy to go hiking. So why not do some writing? The only thing you have to do is dream up a story, type it down on a computer, and post it on Amazon, is it not? Millions do. Easy, no? Well, not so. It’s like my tennis, like my piano, you must practice to get good at it. Know your words, grammar, syntax, and idiom. And what about my “content mind,” do my stories appeal to today’s readers? And what about my “craft mind,” do I use the right words, have the right rhythm, do I create sparks in my sentences, are my characters alive?
When I read, I use a notebook to write down words I don’t know or find interesting to remember. I underline sentences that I consider well-written. In the hope they stay with me and spark a good sentence of my own one day. The problem is that, as a non-native English writer, the words do not immerse in me as they do with a native writer who grows up with them. For him/her, words have acquired a lifelong meaning and feeling, are associated with memories, education, and experiences.
When I read in Dutch, my native language, I feel the meaning of words so much better because I grew up with them. They became my treasured treasure that I’d pick from whenever needed, and they spring up in my mind automatically when I need them. A native English writer acquired a similar treasure and can even “make up” words, something I’d never dare to do in English because it would almost certainly be wrong and scrapped by my editor.
As a funny example, I read the other day that “she wore a teddy.” Something to do with a teddy bear?
Since I did not know what a teddy was, I consulted Webster, which needed 20 words to explain its meaning! Probably any American knows from childhood what a “teddy” is (my wife, who is British-educated, did not even know!), and they would immediately associate it with their mother or sister, or perhaps a girlfriend (better). That sort of words is their permanent vocabulary treasure.
And so I go on, still learning to use idiom, syntax, and vocabulary. In addition to Some Women (in which Piano John confuses playing sheet music with playing between the sheets”), I wrote Enchanting The Swan (in which grad students and musicians Paul and Fiona agree to marry but evil blocks their love —http://amzn.to/1LPFw5o ). I am currently working on a third. Every day that I work on the “craft mind” I realize how little I know and how more I have to learn. I started doing this much too late. Young writers go through the same learning process, and they will also take time before they write their first good book. Even John Grisham and Stephen King (“On Writing”) admit that. But I started at the end of a long career, and won’t have that “luxury” of time to succeed. That’s why a well-known agent, Paul Levine, called me a “young writer” despite my white hair.
It’s “Spellbinding,” as Barbara Baig calls it (Writers Digest Books). Word(worth) reading!
See you next time and happy reading/writing.
I have attended many writers conferences and each one has its own atmosphere and character. What strikes me most of the annual BOOKSALIVE venue, organized by the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS (WIRB), is its special spirit inspired by the venerable DAVID STEWARD, its President and founder. In four years, the WIRB has grown into a fully attended writers event with engaging speakers on salient author subjects and a tightly run but effective pitch program on the side.
And who would not be thrilled to sit at the same lunch-table with Bob Woodward, the key note speaker, and Kitty Kelley, that charming and cute lady-author who wrote many best-selling biographies of brand name celebrities of our time, and received a life-time award for her work at the conference, handed to her by David Steward? That was my honor!
Bob Woodward with Gene Meyer and Kitty Kelley (in blue) with David Steward
The Conference started off on Friday evening with a launching party and a packed workshop on how to pitch and write a query, and especially what not to do. Every writer knows that it takes a world to acquire an agent. If you want to get published, writing is not just writing, it is a business to get representation, because agents must make a living from your royalty when they sell your product to a publisher, who in turn must spend his money on printing and sending your book to bookstores. That’s for many writers the frustrating thing: so many want to write (like so many want to sing at American Idol) and so few make it through the grind. You must prove you have an outstanding “voice” and a book that “rings.” A writer becomes an author when he/she gets published, that’s the traditional deal. But agents are people too and know how hard it is. They won’t bite you when you pitch, but they do tell you when your book would be a tough sell (they know this from experience as they have to pitch your book to the publishers) and, if it is not marketable, you had better improve or drop it and start with something new .
Of course, traditional publishing versus self-publishing was again the talk of the day. Frustrated writers can now publish their books via Amazon-Create Space or small presses, but everyone, including traditionally published writers, still faces the uphill battle to market and sell their books. And agents won’t be interested in your self-published book unless you have sold thousands of them. In other words, publishing and getting known remains a vicious circle for many. There are millions of books in the clouds! What the BOOKSALIVE conference does is reinvigorate your spirit to keep trying, no matter what your “age.”
or in whatever psychological state you are:
Bob Woodward’s Key Note Speech was funny and deep on the political scene, his insightful interviews having thought him that whatever historical judgment will be felled on presidents and their administrations of our lifetime will occur only when we are all dead. Thanks for that. As a foreign writer from Holland I expressed my perplexity with the American voter for being so fixated on the personality and personal features of presidential candidates rather than choosing the political party that best represents your interests, as we do in a parliamentary system, regardless of the leaders. Bob Woodward then asked the audience if they were as perplexed as I, and to my surprise everybody raised their hands! Now what! Change the Constitution?
Two wisdoms of the conference stood out for me: If you do self-publish your work, do it as close to what is needed for traditional publishing (Larry De Maria: use a good editor, scrupulously research for your best interior and cover design, and do your marketing as best you can), and join and build your writers community (Jen Michalski) to talk about writing and escape your writer’s insularity. Why not start with the Washington Independent Review of Books at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com. You will not be disappointed and find a wealth of good material and people to talk to.