Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting Personal

First, I'd like to say thank you to all the new followers. I believe you all arrived after a thread of conversation on Agent Query, which, for the uninitiated, is a site that includes tons of information about how to query a literary agent, information on agencies, and a community of writers — both agented and not.

That particular thread also broached a topic that I thought I'd like to address here: personal information.

Here's a little story about myself and my blogging. When I created my first blog, Matt Sinclair's Coffee Cup, one of my brothers visited and warned me to be less informative about my personal things. At the time, I think I was just discussing the random things going on in my life — umpiring baseball games, watching baseball games, drinking a beer while watching baseball on television after having umpired a game that night... I wasn't griping about work or calling someone names or whining about a hangover or anything completely idiotic like that. But I understood where my brother was coming from, and I toned down some of what I discussed. When my kids were born, I became even more standoffish about personal information, especially as it pertains to them.

But there are times when personal information is useful to making a point. As a writer, a lot of my scenes in what I write are informed by what has happened in my real life. They're fiction, but they might have a germ of reality in them that morphed into some imaginative piece of crafted prose (or maybe something else that starts with the letters "cr.")

A blog post is different, but the goal can be the same: engage the reader, be honest, be interesting, and oh yeah, be honest. As John Lennon sang "All I want is the truth. Just give me some truth."

I ask you, faithful readers, followers, friends, Romans... How much personal information do you include in a blog post? How much do you allow to enter your fiction? Do you think of these things as different? Mutually exclusive? Closely tied together? Wrapped in leather?

Come on, you can tell me....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Versatility and Range

The other night, on a softball field off the East River in the sweltering city of New York, I did something I hadn't done since I was a little kid. Not only did I hit two home runs — I wouldn't call myself a power hitter, by any stretch of the imagination — I also pitched. I've played baseball-like games since I can remember. When I was two years old, clad in an elephant shirt, one of my brothers would pitch Wiffleballs to me that I'd chop at with a little orange bat. So I've been around a ball field pretty much all my life and have played every position.

But in high school and college I was a catcher. When I could no longer allow a few at bats to justify a plummeting grade point average, I decided that my baseball career was, sadly, at an end. So my softball career started in earnest. Long story short, I've played everywhere, filling a utility role on strong teams and leading mediocre teams from whatever deep hole needed filling. But as I've aged, I've found that sometimes I can't do the things that used to be so easy. I can't move as quickly or as well as I did when I was in my twenties (or, GASP!, my thirties). The other night, it made sense for me to pitch. I was more useful there.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

Versatility and range often go unheralded in writers. "Those are traits of journalists," some might scoff. And while that's not untrue, I wonder why fiction writers don't always allow them into their world. Or maybe it's not the writers.

How many of you either say or think you'd like to write in more than one genre? I bet there are many of you; I'm one. And I'm not talking about writing fiction and nonfiction. I mean writing, say, literary fiction and science fiction, or thrillers and young adult.

If you're fortunate enough to have an agent, you might hear her say, "Stick with what you do best and make yourself even better." Indeed, that's good advice in my opinion.

But what about those of us who feel not only comfortable but capable of writing in a variety of manners? What about the versatile writer? Perhaps this is where you develop a pen name (or second pen name, if you write under one already) to keep the distinction clear. Let's face it, I doubt most Stephen King readers would feel warm and fuzzy about finding a romance novel by their favorite author — unless, of course, the readers' eclectic tastes include such flavors.

But I'm not sure even that is necessary. Graham Greene would step back and write his "diversions" — humorous stories like Our Man in Havana — that aren't steeped in Catholic symbolism and issues of great import. A more contemporary writer, John Connolly, came to my attention through The Book of Lost Things (a wonderful read if you've not tried it!), which is essentially a coming of age fantasy story. Connolly is perhaps best known as the writer of the highly engaging (and sometimes wince-inducing) Charlie Parker thriller series. Again, brilliant stuff.

As a reader, I trust Connolly implicitly to tell any type of story. Perhaps it matters that he also plied his trade as a journalist.

So I wonder, do you write all that you can write?. Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Do you write to the market you think you can sell or do you write the story and let things fall as they might? Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Daily Deed

As we head into what promises to be a lovely and exciting holiday weekend (at least around here in God's Country, a.k.a. New Jersey), I find myself with something I'm not too accustomed to having much of: free time. Like now, for example. The wife just left for an appoinment and the girls are getting drowsy as Bert and Ernie sing about words starting with the letter "l."

Now, a conscientious writer would head into the current work in progress (or two as the case may be) and continue where he left off. I, on the other hand, am squeezing in a moment to post a blog, maybe check up on Facebook (where I'll likely post a link to this on the Elephant's Bookshelf page -- feel free to follow me there, too!), and check out a writing site or two, like Agent Query.

These are not unimportant things, but they are distractions from the primary task at hand, which is to prepare my manuscripts for heading out into the big blue world of publishing. Their first stop, presumably, will be an agent. I don't know who that will be yet, but sites like Agent Query certainly help me get closer to answering that question. Yet, if the manuscript isn't written and as polished as I can make it, then searching for an agent is wasted time.

That brings me to a question: Do you write every day? And perhaps more importantly, does writing that isn't directly related to your manuscript count?

For example, I don't work every day on my manuscript. Try as I might, I just can't guarantee that I'll have the time and access between my workaday life and my home-with-babies demands. But my workaday life is a writing life. Does that count?

The other aspect of this question is, who is asking? I ask it of myself all the time. I ruminate over the lives of my characters often. What would Bonnie do, for example, if she never were able to return to Antarctica? Could she handle returning if Taylor had died in a helicopter crash? Is that what the death of her parents prepared her for? Or is their death meant to spring her into thinking about love and her future? Those are questions that can only be answered fully by writing and revising. Because her life isn't just about her — there are several characters moving across the pages — and I'll only pull back the veil on her life by allowing her to live it in combination with those characters.

But if a non-writing friend is asking how my novel is going, I'm going to say, "It's going well. I'm making progress every day." I might even offer a word count, because that can be impressive to people, even though I've done enough of this to know that 57,000 words now means nothing until after I've gotten through the first draft and started reshaping that collection of words, removing thousands of the wrong ones and adding hundreds if not thousands of others.

I write every day. Just not always with a pen or computer.