Friday, October 30, 2020

Writing: Getting Started

Everyone will be posting Halloween-themed material today--except me. We don't expect many trick-or-treaters tomorrow night. So I thought it appropriate to post this instead, since it answers questions that I sometimes get.

As we used to say in medicine, "Although you may not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, you can nevertheless make a better-looking, more acceptable sow's ear." In writing, probably there are people who are born with a talent for putting the words together, and they may turn out better products than those of us who don't have the natural ability they do, but those of us in the latter group have learned to write by reading, practice, and paying attention to advice. In other words, I learned to improve on the sow's ear--and sometimes got a silk purse out of the deal.

Mine is not advertised as "sure-fire" advice, but it's the way I learned. First, I attended a writing conference. Actually, I attended several of them. This may be too expensive for some of you, but if you really want to learn writing, go to one. It's not necessary to attend a large one. There are many good ones out there. If you go, you'll develop relationships with others of the same bent. Writing, like algebra, will eventually start to make sense for you. And you'll pick up small tips that you'll incorporate into your writing until they become automatic.

Notice that I don't mention editors or agents in the above paragraph. If you go to your first conference expecting a contract, prepare for disappointment. If for some reason you do get one, count yourself fortunate. But keep learning anyway.

While you're deciding about a conference, start reading. Learn how to plot, with books like James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. Learn how to catch the attention of the reader by reading Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. There are too many books to mention--I have a two-foot shelf of them in my office--but read to learn how to write. And also read books by other authors. Read the good stuff, and imitate it. Read the bad stuff, and avoid it.

This isn't sure-fire advice. It's just the way I got into it. There was a lot that followed, but this is how I started.  Eighteen novels and novellas later, am I an expert? Not at all. But I hope you'll be on your way with this advice. What would you add?


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Will Trick-or-Treat Be Different?

 Admittedly, it's not as easy as it once was for me to pause the TV and pry myself out of the recliner to answer the door, but I used to actually enjoy doing it on Halloween. My wife and I got a real kick from the little ones in their costumes. I enjoyed dispensing candy. (Admit it--you, like me, give out the stuff you don't much care for first, saving the things you like for last and secretly hoping you'll get some).

But this year promises to be different. Not just because it falls on a weekend (glad it's not on a Sunday, which calls forth a lot of comment, which I won't get into here). But because of the specter of Covid-l9. Is it really worth catching it to get some candy? What about costumes plus masks? And some "experts" are even saying that both Halloween and Thanksgiving should take on a new look, and be celebrated in splendid isolation. If you're the type who really looks ahead, what about Christmas?

I know what we'll probably do--prepare with a bit of candy, mainly things that we'll have around the house for our own enjoyment, but not be too disappointed if the doorbell doesn't ring. And as for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I'm sure my wife has plans. Personally, I'll take it one day at a time. How about you?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Writing: Rejection

I thought it was about time for me to mention that I've put together some early blog posts in a little Amazon booklet, First Lessons. These are aimed at persons just getting started, although some of the lessons in them are still applicable. Here is a segment from an early chapter. The lesson, of course, is to take rejection as a way of life if you're going to write. Enjoy--then write.

"My first novel was sort of "written to order." At my first writers' conference, I met an editor who was a huge baseball fan. He discovered that I had played in a number of baseball fantasy camps, alongside some of baseball's greats. He said, "Why don't you write a novel about a doctor who goes to one of those camps?" Having no better sense than to think writing a novel was something that could be accomplished by anyone who put their mind to it, I did just that. I completed it in four months and sent it off to him. He encouraged me to revise it, which I did, and then he took it to the editorial board, who turned it down. "Oh, well," I said, "this is easy. I'll just send it to somebody else."

"I obtained permission from several editors to send them a proposal. I also sent my proposal off to a web site that judges your work, and if it meets their standards (about half the submissions do), they send it to a number of publishing houses. I was thrilled when a major publishing house contacted me and wanted the full manuscript of the novel. "Aha, they don't do that with every submission." (True) "They're going to accept it." (False). I got a very nice form rejection letter from them. 

"But the story doesn't end there. Two weeks later, I got a letter from the same publisher (different person), advising that they'd seen my novel's posting on that same site, and asking for the full manuscript. So, I got it printed up (again), and sent it to them (again), and it was rejected (again). It doesn't quite measure up to Steve Laube's story of the writer whose rejection notice came FedEx (because they really wanted to be sure, I guess), but it's close.

"By the time every publisher to whom I'd submitted novel #1 rejected it, I was well on the way to completing #2. Then, through a series of circumstances, and attendance at another writers’ conference, there was renewed interest in novel #1. So, I've rewritten it yet again, and it's under active consideration, as is novel #2.

"If there's a moral in there somewhere, it must be that rejection is a way of life for authors. Don't give up. True, write new work, but keep the old one around and pitch it every once in a while. You never know what's going to come of it."



Tuesday, October 20, 2020

My Muddled Brain

  I'm finding it hard to write in the current circumstances. My mind has been taken by the pandemic and all its various aspects, the election and all the back-and-forth that comes around every four years, and the things that go on around us that together make up this thing called "life."

We're been concerned about how our family is doing--and will do in the future as everything plays out. We often look at our daily schedule--which remains subject to change as things come up--and wonder how we got everything done and still went to work every day. And then again, there are the wonderful little surprises that life throws at us--like coming into our kitchen first thing in the morning and while we're getting set to have our coffee discovering that we've had a leak under our sink that has left water all over our vinyl flooring that was installed only a couple of weeks ago. Things like that.

The way it looks now, my next novel will be published well after the first of the year. That's not the most important thing right now. Meanwhile, I'll leave the final resolution in the same Hands that created us and the world in which we live. I recommend that to my readers, as well.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Writing: Climbing The Mountain

 When you pick up a book, do you ever picture the writer? I don't mean looking at the picture on the book jacket. I mean, do you ever think of them as a flesh and blood entity who has hopes and dreams, needs and wants, the same as you? Do you ever wonder whether they write full-time (few have achieved this status) or steal a few minutes from their "day job" to put the words together? Are they self-published or is there a publishing house behind them? For that matter, do you ever even look at the book jacket to see who publishes them?

Most authors have a dream of having their name on a book jacket. Few attain it. Think of the stories behind the next book you read. I'm reading a series of novels right now by a woman who starts the first book with an author's note thanking the small publisher who "took a chance on an unknown author" and gave her a start. Then, there's the story (although it may be apocryphal) of the man who indie-published a novel and sold it out of the trunk of his car, but who is now a best-selling writer. I think it helps to know the background of the author. 

My own story involves a publisher who was getting a fiction line started, an agent to whom I just happened to send the first few chapters of a novel, and some luck. Whatever the circumstances, with few exceptions we have a mountain to climb before acceptance of our book comes along. Some never achieve the heights of which they dream, some do. But one thing marks the successful author. We keep on climbing. Even after we get to the first level, we keep on climbing. Because you're only as good as your last book, and none of us know when the book we're writing will be our last.

Think about all this when you next pick up a book. It will enhance your reading experience. I guarantee it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Speaking The Language

 Although I've long ago (almost two decades) retired from the active practice of medicine, I still "speak the language"--that is, I understand what is being said, and sometimes what is implied. And it's hard for me, at times, to understand why others don't have that same knowledge. But I'm trying.

Our step-son called the other night because his pre-teen daughter had a nosebleed. My wife tells me that she's had them before and knows how to handle them, but this was apparently something new for him. My children, on the other hand, soon picked up from me the dictum (only slightly joking) that they should consult me "if the bleeding was arterial." My step-son didn't speak the language, my children had picked up a lot of it from being around me. There was no right or wrong in this. Just the circumstance in which they had been exposed to certain things.

I guess that was why I took the unusual step of posting this weekend about steroids--I saw misinformation coming out of the mouth of some of our politicians, and got sort of frustrated about it. I don't guess it did much good, but I explained something that was clear to me although not (for whatever reason) to those who twisted the meaning. 

Should those of us who speak the language--whether it be medicine, the constitution, the rules of baseball or whatever--remain silent? Or should we speak up? Let me know how you feel.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Speaking of Steroids

Although every physician knows the rudiments of the HIPPAA legislation--especially the "privacy" part of the rule--apparently not everyone does. If you're unclear, I suggest you refresh your memory. The reason I bring it up is to remind the reporters that keep asking for more information on the treatment rendered to the President that doctors are limited in what they release. Also, since none of the reporters seem to have enough medical knowledge to interpret some of what they're asking for, they are reminiscent of the dog chasing the car--what do they plan to do with it once they get it?

But the thing that really got my dander up yesterday was the suggestion that the President is suffering from "roid rage" due to the steroids he received. Thus, this post to differentiate the two types of steroids--something doctors learn early on, but which apparently isn't covered in journalism school or preparation for serving in Congress.

The type of steroids that give "roid rage" are called anabolic steroids. These are what athletes sometimes take to "bulk up." They do have side effects, but we need not go into them, since that's not what was used in this case. What the President was given was a corticosteroid. This has side effects as well, but they have to do (in my experience) mainly with a burst of energy and difficulty sleeping--something that wouldn't affect the ability to govern, and would be hard to see in this President.

The President last night said he was off dexamethasone, the steroid he'd been given to counteract and/or prevent any inflammation in the pulmonary system, so probably this was all moot. But I wanted to put it in black and white--there's a difference in the types of steroids, a difference that's quite large when you consider the usage (but not, apparently, when you are in a political fight).

Friday, October 09, 2020

Writing: It's Tough

 Why keep on writing? I've asked myself that a hundred times during the past six months. When I retired from medicine, I had no intention of writing. I had written or edited nine or ten medical books, and after the death of my first wife, I crafted (after many months) a non-fiction book, The Tender Scar, which is in its second edition and continues to minister to those who have suffered a similar loss.

Why, then, did I feel the need to try my hand at writing fiction? Honestly, it was the result of a sort-of challenge to do just that, a challenge that came from some knowledgeable people. And that is how I ultimately ended up with a total of nineteen published novels and novellas. But during these past few days, it has been nice to ignore the unfinished manuscript on my computer, preferring to enjoy the time away from writing. Yet, it still sits there while a still, small voice tells me I should work on it, and I get emails from time to time that gently (oh, so gently) tell me how much the words the Lord gives me mean to them. And that's why I know I will soon attack the manuscript with the idea of finishing it. Because, just as I was led to dip into writing in the first place, I feel the need to keep on putting down the message that, no matter what our circumstances, we're never far away from redemption. And if I can continue to spread that message, I will. To do otherwise would be to disrespect the One who got me into this in the first place.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Why Bother?

 We've sort of centered our TV watching this past week or so on various aspects of the political scene--mainly the debate, plus posts on the President's health (both accurate and glaringly slanted) and that of others.  

I've also read some of the online posts, which isn't wise if you're watching your blood pressure, and even some of the comments, which is a definite no-no. I seem to be unable to keep from doing these things, even though I know that they don't mean a lot. The best advice about social media was given to me long ago, and although I believe it and try to practice it, it's hard. A person wiser than I told me, "You don't have to enter into a fight with every post that takes a differing view from yours." Very few, if any, disagreements are settled via social media posts.

In that case, why bother? What I try to do is see if there is anything new that I don't already know--but I use the search facility to see if it's accurate or not. And if the information isn't backed up, I simply put it in the category of "tell it enough times and see if you can get someone to believe it." That's a well-known maneuver that goes back many years.

Some "polls" are fair, some unfair, and a few are actually designed to keep people from voting ("suppression polls"), thinking "what's the use?" So I take them with a grain of salt. And social media is part of today's fabric, and I can't let it go completely--just as sometimes I don't take my own advice, and thus, try to correct a false post.

What's your stand regarding social media? I'd like to know. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

Writing: Choose Your Subject (Carefully)

 Finding the idea for book--indeed, the general outline--is usually not a problem. Although the non-author may feel stumped, most writers find that they accumulate ideas fast enough to end up with a list of books they'll never have enough time to write. The problem isn't the idea, or even the general outline. It's the book itself.

As you know, if you follow this blog, I tend to collect and reread the books that I've enjoyed over the years. Recently, I pulled a favorite from the shelf and soon found myself wondering why it was such a best-seller. The parts that were supposed to engender excitement and hold my interest did just that, but I had to wade through so much to get to them that I gave it up. 

This particular author had recently turned out books that I jokingly felt the best thing about them was their usefulness as a doorstop, due to their length. This one was special, but I couldn't recall why. The ones I found myself going back to read multiple times were those that held my attention from the first few pages. Not only that, I admired the way the authors strung together words in simple sentences that demanded my attention--no compound sentences or words that sent me to the dictionary, but simply a narrative that was easy to follow and made me turn the page.

If you're a writer, think about this as you craft your next book. And if you're a reader, think about the books you'd go back time and again to read. These--and not necessarily those on any best-seller list--are books that would make it onto my bookshelf, to be read over and over. It doesn't matter what they're about so much as the way they're crafted. See if you agree.