Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Radio Taught Me about Writing

I just realized that February 29th, Leap Day, was the one year anniversary of my stepping down from my radio gig. The move prompted a lot of mixed emotions but I realize now how much I took away from the experience. It seems I realized it a lot earlier. That's why I'm reposting this entry from the Way Back Machine. It's as true now as it was when I was still in the thick of it.

from Sunday, January 24, 2010

Radio and Writing
Here's something I have learned. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. If you want to be a good, published writer, you have to throw yourself hip deep into a dizzying array of books, blogs, websites, pamphlets, handouts and group loops to clutch madly at the information twister that will hopefully suck you up out of your own personal Kansas and drop you safely onto the best seller list. It's enough to make you rage madly or, in my case, lie helplessly on the kitchen floor staring at that mysterious gravy stain that made it onto the light fixture. It is bewildering to say the least.

One of the question aspiring writers are supposed to be able to answer is "What qualifies you to write the book you want to write?" This always seemed to me a strange question to ask a fiction writer. What's the appropriate answer? "I spend a great deal of time pretending this isn't my life?" Somehow I doubt that would be welcomed. Instead, I started thinking about what there is in my life that has made me a better writer.

As many of you know, I have spent the last fifteen years hosting morning radio at WKEE in Huntington WV. It's a great job with just enough absurdity to keep it interesting. It also prepared me for storytelling in ways I would not have expected. Here are a few things I've learned:

1. Your audience is smarter than you. Make no mistake about it. I am an intelligent woman. I have a strong education, a deep vocabulary and an almost preternatural ability to retain information and I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that the audience is smart. And clever. And they don't miss a thing. I've seen more than one radio host flame out in despair by making the fatal mistake of talking down to his audience. Is this intimidating? It doesn't have to be. It's actually very liberating, if you look at it right. It gives you the freedom to stretch yourself, to make the leaps, to push your limits. Never dumb things down. Never be afraid to challenge your boundaries. Not only will the audience keep up with you, they're probably already way ahead of you.

2 Get to the point. That said, you can assume everyone is on the same page as you if not a few pages ahead. Don't dilly dally. Don't linger over describing the drapes and think your audience won't know you're stalling. Your audience, whether for a radio show, a novel, a short story or a poem, has agreed to give you a slice of their precious time. Don't waste it. Reward their generosity with forward motion. I'm not saying I don't like building a little suspense, but time is a pricey commodity. Respect that.

3. Keep it entertaining. I'm a genre writer on a pop station. It's safe to say that "deep" is not the first word that springs to mind when people describe me. This doesn't mean my work and/or my show doesn't resonate with real emotion. What it means is I appreciate the fact that once you fulfill your requirements for whatever education level you pursue, your days of slogging through dry, stultifying books should be over. As kids, we were forced to finish the books to get the grades that would launch us into our 'real lives.' Now there is no gold star for wading through a deadly book. No matter how important your message, how poignant your tale,how heated your politics, your audience doesn't owe you their attention. You earn it by couching even the most tragic story into a compelling, entertaining narrative. On air, we often have to promote charity events for truly tragic happenings - Haiti relief, cancer survivor fundraisers, flood relief for hundreds of displaced families. Not light stuff. Even though the work we do in those cases is important, we still don't have the right to strip our broadcast of its humanity, of its compelling narrative. We are humans talking to humans. Keep it real or keep it to yourself.

Radio has taught me timing, patience, humor and endurance. Most of all it has taught me that an audience is not some great, seething mass of a collective consciousness, like some well-dressed clot of algae on a pond. It is a collection of individuals, each with his or her own voice and dreams and likes and biases. You can't please them all, but you can respect them. Whether on air or on paper, you can give them your best and maybe, just maybe, they'll repay you in kind.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The 30,000 Word Crisis Point!

The 30,000 Word Crisis Point!

*insert dramatic music here*

I recently returned from another glorious Brainstorming at the Spa getaway in Matera, Italy. (I’d post the link but I think it’s clear by now my link-posting abilities have failed me.) More than a dozen writers sat around for an entire weekend brainstorming their plots, hammering out story lines, free thinking crazy tangents and strategizing self-promotion.

And commiserating. Lots of commiserating. We are writers after all.

A misery I shared with the group met with a surprising cry of empathy:

The 30,000 Word Crisis Point

In every story I’ve ever written there is this point, this complete breakdown in confidence. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts my love of keeping a writing journal and in reviewing those journals I’ve realized this breakdown always comes at or near the 30K mark or at just about 90-100 pages. In my debut novel FLOWERTOWN (unsubtle plug!) the break in my confidence was so profound I had to shut down my computer for nearly a week, hide the pages, and talk myself off a ledge every day. The plot seemed too daunting for me to tackle. Who the hell was I to try to pull off a conspiracy thriller like this?

I found my answer in Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring TED talk on creativity. Google it. Watch it. I’d link it but…you know. What I took away from the video was this - it wasn’t my job to pull off this incredibly intricate plot. It was my job to show up every day and let the story tell itself. I taped a note over my desk with this simple message:

It will pull itself off.

That must have looked kind of strange to anyone who passed by my writing desk but I knew what it meant. And commiserating with my fellow writers in Italy I learned that other writers know all too well what it means. Nearly everyone in the group knew the horror of the 30K Crisis Point. Why 30K? Why 100 pages? Is this the tipping point of the plot? The point where the story takes on a life of its own and all you can do is hang on? Do plotters have this same crisis or only pantsers?

Skip ahead. FLOWERTOWN is due out in two months. (second shameless plug) I’ve received my ARCs, making the entire endeavor almost too real to wrap my head around. I’m writing a new story that is so far from my normal comfort zone that I practically need footie pajamas and a teddy bear just to open the document but it’s moving along. Or it was. I’m at 30K and guess what came rolling in? But this time I was ready for it. This time I had a weekend with other writers to talk me through it. This time I knew to take the fear apart and look at what drove it. Quite simply, I was psyching myself out. Ergo the note you see at the top of this post.

This is not that important.

This is a story, not a lung scan. I’m not leaving eternal words for generations to come, I’m telling a made-up story about astronauts and aliens, for crying out loud. If it sucks, it sucks. So be it. I love telling the story so all those worries about edits and story arcs and plot and development are just going to have to take a back seat to me entertaining myself. Sixty thousand words from now, I won’t even remember why I panicked in the first place.

So how about writers? Pantser or plotter, have you known the 30,000 Word Crisis Point? How did you get past it?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Did I mention this?

Hmmm, how is it exactly I forgot to mention this?


Yeah, you'd think that sort of thing might have made it to this page.

Believe me when I tell you I'd love to dazzle you with witty tales of the journey but the surrealism of seeing this coming to life is blowing my mind. I'll see what I can do about getting my verbal centers working again. Until then, cheers!