The Writer's Mailbag: Installment Sixty
Random Thoughts Before We Begin
The beginning of a new school year is always a sweet-melancholy time for me. I so enjoyed my years as a teacher. There were very few days sprinkled in those eighteen years when I did not want to go to work. In fact, it’s an injustice to say that teaching was work for me. It just seemed a natural extension of who I am, like breathing or sleeping or urban farming.
But the day came when it was no longer fun, and at that point I kept a promise to myself and walked away. And now I write, and it is fun and fulfilling, and the same passion that was a part of my teaching is now a part of my writing….and that’s how it should be.
Let’s get started with a passionate question from Zulma.
From Zulma: “Now that I think about it, here's a question you may want for the 'Writers' Mailbag'. When it comes to establishing a time period and a timeline, do have one already in mind when you start or do you let the characters thought process and voice lead you there? I have a devil of a time when it comes to that and I'm curious how others handle this.”
To me, Zulma, time period and timeline are two different things. Do I have a particular time period in mind when I begin? Most definitely. I have three completed novels, one almost completed and another in the works, and I know for a fact what time period they take place in. The time period (1960s, 1990s, 1810s) is an integral part of the story, like voice, dialogue, scenes, so I can’t imagine not knowing that in advance.
The timeline, however, always gives me the weebie jeebies, and the only solution to that, in my humble opinion, is a timeline “outline” before you get started, or at least a “running timeline” on a separate piece of paper so you don’t lose track of time.
What day is it? What time is it? Is it realistic that the character performed this task in two hours? If so, did you remember that two hours had passed before you started the next scene? Are you keeping the days straight? Heck, in the case of “Tobias,” my second novel, I had to make sure my years were consistent, because it was told as a series of flashbacks and memories. Timeline is difficult. I literally have a piece of paper on my desk, and on that paper are columns for activity, time started, time finished, and I keep track of events as I write.
I’d love to hear from our readers on this topic.
In Search of Motivation
From Eric: “For so many of us housewives school is starting up and with the little ones off to live their own lives without us, ingrates probably won't even miss us, it is a good time to jump start our writing. Can you give us any motivation to help get us off the couch watching soaps and eating bon bons? I would so much like to be a writer and not just an ornament for my spouse to show off at mixers. As you can see I am covering up my fears by joking and being flippant. What if I commit and just cannot cut the mustard? I don't suppose you can be successful and keep your writing a secret?”
There’s a serious question hidden inside this flippant question and by God, I spotted it immediately.
Every writer I know walks this tightrope of self-doubt. “Cutting the mustard,” as you say, is always hanging around our necks. As I’ve said many times, I almost quit one week into my writing career, and the reason was I didn’t think I was good enough. But by who’s standards? Who determines if I’m “good enough?” It seems to me that that is a call only the writer can make. If your goal is to share observations, reflections and information with the general public, then take it from me, Eric, you are already “good enough.” If, however, your goal is to be published one day by a major publishing firm, you may never be good enough. If that’s the case, then your passion for writing has to carry you through. A truly passionate writer will not quit. It’s virtually impossible to do so.
From Theresa: “Hey, what do you think are the most common obstacles every writer faces? Again, not sure this question is worthy of esteemed recognition in the famed Monday Mailbag series.”
Thanks Theresa! Of course this question is worthy. LOL I’m just not sure how to answer it.
I think self-doubt plagues many a writer. I think lack of marketing skills and/or the desire to market plagues many more. Then we have a lack of technical skills and then, of course, we have a lack of talent, but that’s just too ugly to talk about.
Writing is such an individual undertaking. I think it is real hard to give a blanket explanation to something as subjective and individualistic as the Arts. I know writers who work full-time jobs and then come home to take care of four kids. For them, the greatest obstacle is time. I know others who have all the time in the world, and they’ve written several manuscripts, but they never self-publish those manuscripts because of a lack of confidence. And on and on we go.
In Search of Humor
From Ann: “Question: You are good at humour in writing. Can you give us an example of taking one sentence and giving it a serious slant, then a humorous one? I'm just interested in how you tackle humour, or (as I suspect) is it just an innate talent?”
What an interesting question, Ann. Thank you! My first observation is that there are some people who are just naturally funny. I grew up in a funny home. My dad was hilarious (except when I forgot to mow the lawn). My mother was funny as well. I also grew up surrounded by sarcastic and funny friends. We were always “cracking wise,” so now, in my waning years, humor is just a part of who I am. Even when I’m writing on a serious topic, that sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek side of me will show up in a sentence or two. The same thing happens when I’m writing an article for a business customer.
But you asked for an example. Obviously I’m stalling. J Okay, here goes. I’m going to show you how my sick little mind works. This is completely off the cuff. I took a story from the news five minutes ago….here is a passage from that story:
Kerry, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Cuba in 70 years, told the ceremony it was obvious that "the road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the United States and Cuba have been traveling is not the right one and that the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction."
The first thing that popped into my head after reading that sentence was “and then he rushed to the corner store and bought a case of Cuban cigars.”
Hey, I thought it was funny!
And Thanks to Everyone
Sixty installments down. How many to come depends on all of you asking questions in the future. Thanks for the great questions this week. I’ll be back next week with more, good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise. In the meantime, I’ll be busier than a one-armed paperhanger with crabs. I borrowed that line from my dad. Was that funny enough for you, Ann?
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”