Guest Post on Change it Up Editing

I’m thrilled to be guest blogging today over at changeitupediting.com, where I reveal a few of my writing secrets, namely how I’ve wriggled out a few creative blocks. Come on over and check it out and share your own tales of creative inspiration. While you’re there, indulge yourself in the some wonderful writing insights of editor Candace Johnson. Here’s to a prolific 2014!

Do Fiction Writers have an Obligation to Society?

photo by vpickering

photo by vpickering

As I write this, I ask myself if this has any validity. Do fiction writers have an obligation and responsibility to society and humankind? I’m referring to when writers create stories about atrocities which are not documented in history, but conjured and invented with all of its repugnant detail, by the author. A Huffington Post article I read yesterday made me wrestle my own thoughts for an answer to this.

The article talked about Tom Lonergan, the author of Heartbreak Hill (2002), his self-published book about, among other things, the attempted bombing of the Boston Marathon. “The novel was about a terrorist plot to set off a series of bombs during the race, killing and wounding spectators and runners.” In the novel the bombs were held off, diverting a disaster.

When Tom Lonergan first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings on Patriot’s Day earlier this week, he panicked. In an interview he said, “The bombing is especially troubling because ‘I could not help feeling as I saw the news reports on Monday that someone, somehow may have been inspired by my fiction.’”

This brought to mind a reaction I had in 1996 to the release of Daylight, a movie with Sylvester Stallone in which there is catastrophic explosion, due to a confluence of events, in the Holland Tunnel. I was incensed that anyone (actors, directors, producers, studios) could be so irresponsible as to practically hand over on a silver platter an idea so calamitous, to sickos at large who don’t have ideas like this on their own.

And what about the endless debate over song lyrics which give people, especially teens, ideas of violence and suicide. Like the song by Tupac Shakur, which is blamed for the killing of a Milwaukee police officer by two teens who were unwavering fans of the singer and his messages.

As I reflect on what Tom Lonergan grapples with as a writer, and how closely his novel parallels the very real travesty in Boston, I think about all the thrillers and horrors and suspense novels that have been written in the history of time. I think about my own novel, a thriller in which dark deeds are played out within a realistic setting. Do we as writers have an obligation to censor ourselves? I came across this post, Stop Blaming Music for Violence, written by high school newsmagazine, which mentions film, literature and the news media as sources for violent imagery and asks, “To those who believe that it is music causing violence in teens, ask yourselves this – does reading a suspense novel cause the reader to go out and commit murder? Does watching the news cause the viewer to go out and commit that same crime? No.”

Of course the answer is “no.” Someone of sound mind doesn’t feel propelled to execute malicious acts drawn from literature, or any art form. But is there a message here for writers? Is there an invisible line over which we shouldn’t cross? Should our conscience be our only guide? Are there taboo subject matters which are unspoken as untouchable and off-limits?

What do you think?

Writer Separation Anxiety: A Portrait

photo by Williac

photo by Williac

It’s time we admit that Writer Separation Anxiety is a bona fide disorder. I’m not ashamed to say I have it, maybe others will come forward. Remember, there is strength in numbers. It may not afflict the majority of writers, but that doesn’t make us freaks. Why do you think there are so many sequel writers?

It’s true that most writers are ecstatic to finish a manuscript. However, when I wrote The End of my novel, I was bereft.

What would become of Caroline, Andy, Lilly, all my characters? We’d been together for so long. I spent more time with them than my real family. What would I do now?

That first morning after The End was the hardest. Time to get reacquainted with my LBTB (Life Before the Book). During the manuscript’s third edit our kitchen became depleted of anything edible. Grocery shopping was now long overdue. A chore would be good. It would keep me busy. No time to pine.

At the store I strolled down the cookie aisle. Bad idea. There were Oreos everywhere. You can’t dodge a cookie with 17 varieties. I told myself to stop thinking about Andy, he’s not real. Oreos were his crutch food. The night he and Caroline got into a chandelier-trembling argument (Chapter 6) he ate 2 sleeves of Oreos with a quart of milk. Any other guy would’ve gone out and gotten bombed with his buddies. Not Andy; he plopped on the couch (which he’d later sleep on) and ate 28 cookies. I hated that night. I hated when they fought. A friend of mine accused me of being secretly in love with Andy. Which is complete hogwash. I’m married!

I spun the grocery cart around and headed to frozen foods. I’m far less emotional when I’m cold. My internal voice said, “Cheer up! Celebrate! You finished your first novel!” Right at that moment I found myself smack in front of the Carvel Cakes. A sign! Clearly, a celebration was in order. I felt better already. In fact, I started whistling−which I often do when I’m happy (or need a bathroom). Then I recognized the tune: My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music. I gasped. The very song Caroline hummed on that disastrous night (Chapter 10). If only I could’ve helped her.  

Grocery shopping was not going as planned.

I paid for the cake and pimentos and skulked to my car. My phone rang. It was my son. Thank God, a real person to focus on. “What’s the matter Mom, you sound awful.” I tried to stay light and breezy but I choked up. “Mom, it’s okay to miss them. You’ll be alright, remember when Caroline thought she was having a nervous breakdown−”

“Because she was!

“Oh god, that’s right. Jeez…”

Before I shifted the car in reverse my phone rang again. It was my husband reminding me of our neighbor’s party invitation. We declined because I thought I’d still be editing. “We should go,” he insisted. If I wasn’t having fun, at least I could eavesdrop and steal mannerisms and quirks from people to use for new characters. That sounded amusing!

It felt good to wear decent clothes and eye shadow for a change and rekindle with the neighbors−laughing, swapping stories, exchanging recipes. Was it wrong of me to give them a deviled egg recipe that Caroline’s mother, Elaine, kept secret (Chapter 14)? Somehow she’d never “remember” to tell people about the chili paste. That always made me laugh.

Boy was I out of touch with current (past) events of our town (world). A neighbor’s sister miraculously recovered from a near-fatal illness. Everyone reveled in this news−then mid-hoopla, their eyes, with scrunched brows, turned my way. Ripples of “Are you okay?” spilled over me.

I wasn’t okay. “It’s just that Caroline’s sister wasn’t so lucky−” I tried pulling myself together but instead became defensive and blubbered, “…she’s dead.

My sniffling intensified under a chorus of “Oh my gosh” and “I didn’t know” and an exchange of incredulous glances. Someone asked, “Who’s Caroline?”

My head shot up. I spurted like a broken carburetor, “My protagonist!

It was time for me to go. I insisted my husband stay. I needed to be alone.

At home I sat in the chair that supported me for all those months (years) it took to write my novel. I lifted the manuscript and inhaled deeply to smell the paper and ink. I thought about Caroline, Andy and Elaine, the kids. The triumphs and disasters. It was time they moved on without me. Me without them. They’d enriched my life in so many ways. I’d always have that. I put down the manuscript and picked up a box of Oreos.

Time to ponder a sequel.

The Books You’re Fated to Read

photo by Ipoh kia

photo by Ipoh kia

It is that very particular exhilarating feeling, when you find a book so scrumptious and exotic you open it with a whisper and close it with a sigh. You’ve found this book through no one’s urging or description or advertising. You wandered alone, woozy in towering aisles with books stacked up to another altitude, on a day when no one seems to have this same idea. All others are elsewhere and so it’s only the sound of your own quiet breathing and the buzz of the florescent lights that you hear. You are looking deliberately for something, a book of fiction about a man who is lonely in a house deserted, but you are half-hearted about this man and his house and this story. You’ve read it before. With a woman and a castle. And you’ve written it before that. So instead you turn and change direction. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” you say to yourself and are left to ponder exactly what it is you mean.

When left uninspired, it is always wise to choose a classic. You crouch down in the Fs in a position only three-year-olds find comfortable; your knees crackle and you know this limb configuration will have a deadline. Without pause your fingers skip through the shelf, grazing each binding, searching for FI and then T. Your time is up; your knees tell you so. Your fingers must decide. They do and pull back the top of a book’s binding who’s dressed in black and white and in one fell swoop you clutch and stand. Fitch. No. Wrong book. Before slipping it back into place, without a conscious decision to do so, you turn the book over and read what’s been said about it.

“This is what you’re after when you’re browsing the shelves for something good to read.”

A silent gasp preempts your next breath. Your cheeks prickle with heat and you gulp the collected saliva before your eyes move cautiously to take in who and what is around you. How can this be? How did it know? You bring White Oleander home and feast on its beauty and barbed wire without manners or even a napkin to dot your lips. When you’re finished you imagine you have joined a secret book club of members who have also found this book this way. A book you never speak about to anyone, instead you keep its secrets and believe others will read it because it will be fated to them. Just as it was to you.