What Has Shaped My Writing

flame box elder penThe lovely Trinae Ross, who has a blog called Writing While Wearing a Straightjacket, tagged me to write a blog post about what has shaped my writing (you can read her post on it here). I will eventually tag someone else to do this, but first, my words on the subject.

I wrote my first word at three, my first story at six. From the time I was little, I was always coming up with stories and plays. I once wrote and produced a radio play using the kids in my mother’s daycare and the neighborhood, recording our voices on a blank tape on a radio. It was a murder mystery. I even attempted a retelling of Sleeping Beauty using nothing but pictures I’d taken on one of my little cameras. This was in the days of film, kids. I had no idea how good it was until my mom finally got that roll developed.

Storytelling has always been a part of my existence, a thing so ingrained in me that it might as well just be another chromosome. Even if I didn’t write them all down, I was still telling them, either to others or to myself.

So, what has shaped my writing?

I gave this question a good long think and I came up with three things.

1.) Fanfiction. I wrote mounds of it for several years, from the ages of about 18 to 21. The nature of fanfiction at the time and where I was posting it allowed for instant feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. It also taught me the very valuable lesson of writing for myself first.

I tell this story a lot because even after all these years later, it still resonates. One of my most popular stories started as a one off. It was just supposed to be that one little thing. But people begged for more and so I gave in and wrote a much longer story. It was a soap opera romantic thing and everyone loved it. Meanwhile, I HATED writing that story. HATED IT. I had never been so happy to finish anything in all of my life and I don’t think I’ve ever received a louder applause for anything I’ve ever written since. But that applause was so empty because I hated the story so much. That was when I recognized the importance of writing for myself first. And if other people read it and enjoy it, then that’s the bonus.

Another great lesson fanfiction taught me was that not all stories need happy endings, but EVERY story must have a SATISFYING ending. The readers will disagree, but the writers will know.

2.) NaNoWriMo. NaNo taught me the discipline to write every day. It taught me that I could complete a novel-length work of fiction. It taught me how to write by the seat of my pants, how to meticulously outline, and how to find a happy place somewhere between the two. It taught me that first drafts are supposed to be garbage and that the real magic happens in the revisions. It taught me everything I needed to know about how I operate as a writer, my habits and my weakness and my strengths. Basically, NaNo taught me about the nitty-gritty heavy-lifting that gets glossed over a lot in favor of inspiration and muses.

3.) Stephen King’s advice. On Writing has been a brilliant guide for me and I’ve waxed poetic about that book before. But I’m going to focus on one particular bit of Uncle Stevie’s advice here: Read a lot and write a lot.

I am notoriously awful at reading for a writer. I know I don’t read enough and I struggle to read more. My only comfort is that when I do read (and I try to be consistent about it even when it’s often interrupted and I’m very slow), I try to get as much out of it as I can. In addition to reading for pleasure and enjoying the story (or trying to, depending on the book), I try to read with a critical eye and learn from other writers, particularly in my areas of weakness. If someone effectively describes something or transmits an emotion or has a clever way of conveying some idea, I take note of that and try to put it to use in my own work. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. But I’m always looking to learn.

I do write a lot and I think it’s been the writing a lot that has done the most to shape my writing. It’s helped me find my voice and my style. It’s allowed me to build my confidence. With millions of words written over the course of my writing career (remember, I started this in earnest back in 2007), I can actually look back and see my growth. I can see where I failed. I can see where I improved. I can see where I still need more work and development. I couldn’t have done any of that if I hadn’t put the words down somewhere.

I think there are probably other things that have shaped my writing. I think just about everything in my existence could be said to shape my writing, for better or worse. But I think these are three things that had the biggest impacts.

And I think they’ve all been for the better.

Writing–Books of 2013

Cover of "Rescue 471: A Paramedic's Stori...

As I said earlier this year, laziness led me to stop reviewing every book that I read, which was my form of accountability when it came to doing my reading goals. Instead, I kept a list of all of the books that I read during the course of the year, some reviewed on my blog before I abandoned that idea, but most of them not.

This is the full list, the whole list, and nothing but the list, but the list is not in chronological order. Re-reads are marked.

The moral of this list: my goals were achieved. At least 24 books. At least 10 non-fiction. More than one outside of my genre. More than one memoir. A couple from authors I know. Good job self.

1. Real Murders by Charlaine Harris (blog post)

2. A Bone to Pick by Charlaine Harris (blog post)

3. Charlie by Shana Hammaker (blog post)

4. Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King (blog post)

5. Fall Down Laughing by David L. Lander (blog post)

6. The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst (blog post)

7. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (blog post)

8. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (blog post)

9. Emergency! True Stories from the Nation’s ERs by Mark Brown, MD (re-read)

10. Resurgence by Johi Jenkins

11. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

12. Fat Chicks Rule! How to Survive in a Thin-Centric World by Lara Frater (re-read)

13. Trauma Junkie: Memoirs of an Emergency Flight Nurse by Janice Hudson

14. The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

15. The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman

16. House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels

17. The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsly

18. The Murderous Urges of Ordinary Women by Lois Meltzer

19. The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth

20. Shark Attacks: Terrifying True Accounts of Shark Attacks Worldwide by Alex MacCormick

21. Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg

22. Carrie by Stephen King

23. Rescue 471: A Paramedic’s Stories by Peter Canning

24. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

25. Writer’s Gone Wild by Bill Peschel

26. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

27. Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill

Writing–Like Love Letters

English: Love Letter

I read Stephen King’s On Writing at least once a year. It reminds me that it’s okay for me to write what I want to write and how I want to write it just so long as I’m being true to myself and the work. I need that reminder every so often, particularly during the long, barren stretches when nothing is getting accepted, published, or read.

In the book, he talks about having an “ideal reader”, someone you have in mind when you write your story. It could be anybody. It can be your wife, your husband, your best friend, your cousin, the shlub down the street that throws things at the pine trees when it rains. Anybody. The person doesn’t even have to be living. Considering their current popularity, even zombies could be ideal readers nowadays.

I’ve developed an odd take on this. I don’t really have an ideal reader exactly. At least, that’s not how I look at it. To me, my stories are my love letters to certain people. There are certain people I have in mind when I write them. When I put those stories out there, traditionally or self-published or whatever, I’m hoping that those particular people read their particular stories. I want them to read them and know that I’m thinking of them.

Love letters.

Most of the people I’m thinking of will never read what I’ve written. Many of them don’t even know I exist. But just in case they should happen to stumble upon something I’ve done…

I’ve never been good at expressing my emotions. I’m better at it when I write them down. I’m unbeaten at it when I can express myself through fiction with the relative comfort that the love letter I’m writing won’t be interpreted as such, isn’t obvious, and likely won’t even by read by the intended.

But, like I said. If they do happen to stumble upon that story I wrote just for them, I hope they read it and I hope they know it was sealed with a kiss, just for them.

I bet you didn’t realize that horror could be so mushy in a non-entrails sort of way, huh?

Writing–Finding Stories

Trash bin

My roommate Carrie and I were sitting on the patio by the side door which faces our neighbors’ yard. On their patio, next to their garbage cans, was a large box, probably for a television. Carrie speculated on why they might need a new one. I really didn’t care.

She told me that I wasn’t curious enough to be a writer. That I should look at that box and wonder what story is behind it. Maybe the neighbors are aliens and the new TV is a communication device (which made me think of This Island Earth) or maybe they had a poltergeist in the old TV and they had to get a new one (which made me think of, you know, Poltergeist).

I shook my head at both of those ideas (which she considered an insult) and told her that for me a TV box by the garbage wasn’t a story. The recurring personal ad in the paper that just said “Please Forgive Me. Barbara Smith” was a story.

The conversation ended with Carrie basically telling me I was wrong, but it did get me to thinking.

Stephen King has said that stories are found things. I believe that. I find stories anywhere and everywhere. That night I found my story in a newspaper, not next to a trashbin. I’ve found stories doing laundry, taking a shower, watching TV, driving past cornfields, doing all sorts of mundane, every day life things.

I don’t find stories everywhere I go. I don’t expect to. Not every story is meant for me to find. I’ve been known to find stories that aren’t for me. I’ve tried to write them, but they never turned out well. So I try to be smarter about that. I leave those stories for other people and only pick the stories I know are meant for me. I’m developing my sense for that now and I’m getting better at it.  The idea notebook has been a great asset in that respect.

So in the end, the stories Carrie found might be valid, great stories. They might take the nation by storm and inspire a bunch of people. And that’s terrific. Unfortunately, I didn’t find them. They weren’t there for me to find. Maybe someone else will.

But when I looked across the driveway at the neighbors’ back patio all I saw was an empty TV box sitting next to a trashcan.

The story was nowhere to be seen.

On Writing by Stephen King

I believe I’ve mentioned before, at the very least in passing, that my writing bible of sorts is On Writing by Stephen King. I try to read it at least once a year. I’ve read other books on writing, but this is the one that really resonated with me.

It’s divided into two sections (okay, there’s also a postscript as well, but let’s not go splitting hairs just for the sake of splitting them). The first section, the C.V. is a biography of sorts, detailing memories and events that he believes helped shape him as a writer, or at the very least, pushed him on his writing path. The second section is the toolbox, in which he provides all of the “tools” he believes a writer needs. (If you’re curious, the postscript recounts his being hit by a van, nearly dying, and how writing fit into his recovery.)

It’s the toolbox portion of the book that really got to me, though I have to admit, I loved reading about his life (I’m voyeuristic like that). Stephen King was brought up lower middle class and that’s how he presents the toolbox. It is what it is without pretension. It was the first writing book I read that didn’t leave me feeling stupid afterwards. It didn’t leave me feeling like I was doing it wrong.

The book is very much “Here’s how I did it, here’s what I do, here’s what I think works, here’s what I think might help you, now go and work it out for yourself”. Like I said, no pretension. He acknowledges that there’s no one way or right way to writing success or even writing period. He makes me feel like not only is it okay to do it my way, but to experiment without abandon to find out what my way is. I appreciate that.

I appreciate the advice, the experience, and the straightforward way he presents the sometimes aloof subject of writing. There’s no glamour, no nose-in-the-air snottiness. It’s a job. It’s a lot of work. And if you really love it, then it’s more than worth it.

As I said before, I try to read it once a year to remind myself what I’m doing. It’s like a map. I read the book to get my bearings so I can plod on. I don’t belong to a writer’s group. I have a few writing friends, by not many. This book is my guide, which may be a little silly, but it works for me.

And thank you, Stephen King, for giving me the freedom to find out what works for me.

Like Mother, Like Daughter…Scary!

Whenever someone tells me (or someone else) that I’m acting just like my mother, it’s typically not meant as a compliment. What they mean is that I’m acting in such a way that they don’t approve of and attribute my behavior to something genetically inherited from my mother.

However, I am like my mother in some ways, good and bad.

For example (and for Halloween), my mom and I both love horror.

The last time I was at her house, AMC was showing all four of the Alien movies and Mom and I watched the end of Alien and most of Aliens. She loves the SyFy channel on the weekends for movies, no matter how bad they might be. The People Under the Stairs was on Saturday morning and I immediately thought of Mom. She watched that movie a couple of times a week when I was a kid.

She took me and my friend to see Se7en. She rented me Rosemary’s Baby and brought home Dracula from the library for me when I was sick.

Mom is the reason I know who Stephen King is. She read all of his books. I can specifically remember her reading Salem’s Lot. I remember the cover of the book. I remember reading the dusk jacket.

I have yet to read it, though.

When I was finally allowed to check out an adult book at the library at the tender age of 11, Mom didn’t bat an eyelash when I came back with Jaws.

I can’t say that my mom is the reason why I like horror (as I said in my post about why I write horror, I’m not sure exactly WHY I like it or write it), but my mom was definitely a horror enabler. She liked it, realized I liked it, and encouraged me to explore it.

Of course, we don’t always agree on our horror likes. Mom liked Scream enough to make me watch it (during Thanksgiving dinner, naturally). I hated it. I enjoy Vincent Price more than Mom does.

It doesn’t matter, though. The point is that it’s a bonding point for us. Our relationship hasn’t always been the greatest, as happens sometimes with mothers and daughters. Sometimes it’s easier for me to focus on the differences and disagreements. They’re easier to see. It’s easy to forget when we get along or agree. The lack of conflict seems to diminish the recall on the memory.

But even as I picked my brain for more memories of the Mom-horror connection, I was shocked at the warmth that bubbled up behind them. It’s kind of odd that I’d get sentimental and gooey watching a guy run around in a gimp suit while he shoots through the walls because one of his cellar children escaped into them because it reminds me of my mom, but there you go.

My mother and I have an interesting, if not unique, relationship.

You can tell by the ways I take after her.

Writing–The Reading Requirement

Stephen King says that to be a good writer you must read a lot and write a lot.

I believe that.  His book On Writing is like a bible for me. I respect the man. I enjoy his work and his advice (and his sense of humor; I have endured many a dirty look from a cat startled awake by my cackling). Uncle Stevie has yet to steer me wrong. He’s an influence on me as a writer.

Which is why it pains me to say that I’m letting him down.

I will be the first person to admit that I have terrible reading habits. I like to read. I do. I enjoy it. My parents started me young. I learned to read at three and trips to the library were the highlight of the week during the summer (we read in the winter, too, but we got to walk to the library in the summer, therefore bigger deal). But no matter how much I read, I never got a good rhythm established.

I read in bursts. I can read two, three, four books a month for three months and then read nothing by writing magazines for three months. Then I might spend two months reading a book that would normally take me a week. Then I’ll got a month without reading anything deeper than baseball news.

It’s terrible.

I’m horrible with time management and even worse about setting aside time to read.  It’s far too low on my priority list. Growing up, reading was a downtime thing. You did it when you got everything else done. You did it to relax. It’s a mindset I can’t get out of now.

Reading is part of my job as a writer, but I have trouble getting that through my thick skull. I can’t rationalize reading when I have this, that, and the other to get done. So, I put off and the reading gets done in inefficient fashion.

It’s long past time to establish a better habit and to move reading up on the priority list. I’ll do it like I do most things, gradually so I make sure it sticks. The thinking behind this is by doing it slowly and giving myself time to adjust, it also gives myself time to change the way I think about reading.

That’s the key.

Transforming reading from a pastime to a job requirement.

Stories By The Number

Submitted: 2 (“Such a Pretty Face” and “Another Deadly Weapon”)
Ready: 4 (“Husband and Wife”, “Elevator”, “Bigger Than a Squirrel”, and “Erin Go Bragh”)
Accepted: 1! You can now read “Summer Rot” on Suburban Fool!