Sunday, October 30, 2011

Our little escapes

Many readers tell me that a good book should help them escape. They're usually pretty vague after that, as if the word "escape" covers it.

It's up to our imagination to guess what so many people want to escape from: their troubles, their cares, monotony itself.

But then I realize that for the writer, it doesn't matter what each person wants to leave behind, only that they want to leave something behind. It's my job to make whatever is on the page more introspective and interesting than the personal problems a reader may have at the moment.

This, I think, is also the essence of Halloween. It's a night to throw-off the mundane, to be less serious, to discard the ordinary.

It seems a little morbid that so many of us want to enter another person's reality in order to gain respite from our own. Whenever we pick up a book, it offers the chance to trade our problems for another person's.

Fortunately for writers most people are willing to make this bargain.

Why spend time on taxes, bills, the dishes, or taking out the trash? No. People would much rather run from Michael Meyers, hunt vampires, or try to survive a zombie apocalypse. Scary stories can make hearts race and palms sweat. When was the last time household chores ignited our need to survive?

So to the goal of escapism, I raise a toast of Halloween cider. For if a good story helps us escape, then what is an author but an escape artist?

Unlike Harry Houdini, us authors don't have to chain ourselves up and get in our underpants to do our job. We can do it from the safety of our keyboard.

For the writer, then, there's a little escapism too.

You didn't think the readers had all the fun, did you?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What if?

I had the chance to be a visiting author at a middle school recently. To prepare for the visit, I asked the teachers what things they would like me to cover. Basically, it was the writing process, the importance of edits and rewrites, and what else authors have to do.

I put together a PowerPoint presentation that addressed all sorts of different elements. One question I covered was "where do authors get their ideas from?"

Here is what I did to help the students understand one way I get my ideas. Actually, it’s the main way I get them. It is: "what if?"

I told them, for example, "What if the sky was purple?" or "What if the school was attacked by zombie bunnies? (Sounds like something David J. West could turn into quite the amazing book, eh?) From there, I had them write their own "what if" statement. I was quite impressed on the different ideas students came up with. I joked that if any of them wrote a best seller based on their "what if" statement, I wanted a mention in their book.

I explained there are many different ways of writing. I used the example of "pantser" (writing on the seat of your pants) vs. plotter (doing an outline). I, personally, am a combo of both. When asked how I write, this is the best way I could describe it: The first thing I do is create the characters in my head. I use personality traits of different people I know (even myself) and try to create a unique individual. From there, I create a basic outline of a story—the major plot points and such. Then, when I write, I put these characters into the setting and see what happens. Often they don't do what I expect, based on their character, . . .but somehow, it works.

When it came to demonstrate the importance of edits and rewrites, I showed them several pictures and had them write down the issue.

Here they are:

As you can see, some are fairly obvious, and some are a little more hard to explain. The picture of Pizza Hut, for example, got a few of the students hung up. They didn't see anything wrong with it. For me, I explained the concept of redundancy. As a reader, I get frustrated with an author who beats me over the head with the same thing throughout the book.

Lastly, I left time for questions and answers. Any ideas what the number one question I was asked?

It was: "How old are you?"