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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: writing

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Goodreads to authors: Pay $600 to give away a $10 book

Stephen H. Provost

Hey, fellow authors, Jeff Bezos is laughing at you ... all the way to the bank.

Bezos is already the richest man in the world, but that’s not stopping him from making a few extra bucks off the proverbial “starving” authors.

Until now, Goodreads has offered a free service allowing authors to promote their books via giveaways. (They weren’t really free, as the authors were, giving away their books, but Goodreads didn’t make any money off it).

No more.

As an author who’s run Goodreads giveaways in the past, I received an email this morning about a new program that’s being touted as “a more powerful book marketing tool for authors and publishers.” Of course, there’s a catch: This new program will charge authors $119 bucks to run a “standard.” And if that’s not enough money to line Bezos’ (or his shareholders’) gilded pockets, you can run a “premium” giveaway for the bargain basement price of $599 smackeroos.

I call them Goodreads Takeaways.

Bezos, who just became the world’s only $100 billion man, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, which purchased Goodreads back in 2013.

Like he needs the money, right?

Forgive the sarcasm, but when you’re struggling to promote a book that sells for $10, it’s hard to get excited about paying 600 bucks just to give the damn thing away!

Any faint hope that these new packages would be somehow optional upgrades is quashed in the first paragraph of the email, which states that the new program “replaces our current Giveaways program.”

Of course, Amazon … er … Goodreads is touting enhanced features of the new packages. The standard package get “a notification letting them know there’s a giveaway starting.” Oh, goodie! Let me jump up and down a little bit higher.

And if you buy the premium package, you’ll get “premium placement in the Giveaways section.” Translated, this likely means that unless you dish out the $480 extra for the premium package, your giveaway will be buried.

(None of this is really much more than the giveaways offer now.)

I’ve paid to promote my books before. I’ve spent money on gas to drive to book signings. I’ve invested in posters and bookmarks and postcards. But I’ve never paid hundreds of dollars for the “privilege” of giving my books away, and I'm not going to do it now. That’s where I draw the line.

Oh, but the exposure!

I’m sorry, but I get paid to write. I get paid a decent salary to write in my day job, and I don’t value my work as an author any less. I'm not going to pay to do it. I'm not a flippin' vanity press.

As Wil Wheaton said when he was asked to contribute his work to Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, “How about no.”

That’s my answer to the new Goodreads Takeaways, too. They take money away from authors and give them to the richest man in the world.

Not just no. Hell no.

Let Goodreads know what you think: Take the survey here.

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Why time travel doesn't work

Stephen H. Provost

Time travel. Whether you’re reading H.G. Wells or watching Capt. James T. Kirk “slingshot around the sun” in the U.S.S. Enterprise, and it’s always a lot of fun. “What ifs” make for great stories, and time travel opens up a vast trove of possibilities.

Still, it’s just fiction. We can’t actually do it, and here’s why.

I’m no physicist, but I know the difference between an object and a unit of measurement. The first is tangible in a very real way; the second is merely a convention. It’s a human construction, entirely artificial and fully dependent on the thing it’s designed to measure.

We create such constructs all the time. They help us make sense of the world.

The words you’re reading right now represent real things. The word “box” represents a real object, but the word is not that object – and apart from the object it refers to, it would be utterly meaningless. We could have just as easily called that object a Heffalump or a Bandersnatch. Whatever we decide to call it, as long as we all agree that the word in question represents a cube-shaped object with a hollow interior, we’ll understand one another just fine … which is the purpose of communication.

The same is true for numbers. Numbers don’t exist in and of themselves; they measure things that exist. We can use Roman numerals, Arabic numerals (our own system). We can use a base-10 system, a base-5 system or whatever. Our choice. The things we’re numbering remain the same regardless of the labels we place on them, and we can’t count anything unless we have something to count.

Say we’re measuring something in space. We can use inches or centimeters or whatever, but the actual thing we’re measuring – its physical length – doesn’t change, no matter what units we devise to quantify it.

So, how does this apply to time?

Like distance, it’s something we measure, using years, centuries, hours, minutes, etc. We can base our system on a sundial or modify it for daylight savings. We can monkey around with the calendar to create a year of 12 or 13 months if we so choose. For centuries, the Western world used the Julian Calendar, devised by Julius Caesar; these days, we use a calendar promoted by Pope Gregory XIII. But whether we use one or the other has absolutely zero effect on the way Earth rotates on its axis or orbits the sun.

In the same way we talk about “distance” and “volume” to measure length or storage capacity, we use the concept of time to measure a specific aspect of our universe: change.

Without change, there would be no time, because there would be no way to tell the difference between one moment and the next. In fact, there wouldn’t be any moments, per se. The concept of time merely gives us a way to understand and document change; without change, “time” is meaningless, just as the word “box” is meaningless without the thing it describes.

You might argue that it’s still possible to travel forward in time by entering a condition of stasis. This is at least theoretically possible – although the idea of “freezing” and “unfreezing” the human body is problematic in a practical sense and has not been achieved outside of science fiction. But think about it: We’re traveling forward in time anyway, so none of this would really change the nature of the way things work: You’d merely be altering a single physical element – the body – by prolonging its viability. Other than that, change would continue in the very same manner it otherwise would have.

(One could even argue that prolonging average human life span to more than 70 years from just over 30 at the start of the 20th century constitutes a form of forward time travel.)

To “go backward in time,” by contrast, would require far more than simply placing one small element of the universe into stasis. It would mean restoring the entire universe, down to the smallest subatomic particle, to the precise state in which it existed in 1776, 1492, 10 million years BC or whenever you wanted to go. To describe such a task as Herculean would be the biggest understatement of all time (pun intended).

So while it might be great fun to talk about slingshotting your way around the sun and finding yourself back in, say, medieval England or Biblical Judea, it ain’t gonna happen, folks. That’s why they call it science fiction.

It’s also why people like authors and poets, screenwriters, musicians and visual artists are so important. They can take us on journeys beyond the limits of this universe, into the only alternate universe any of us has ever really visited: our imagination.

The trip there and back again is no less a journey of discovery than any other adventure you can …

… imagine.

This is a writer's most precious commodity

Stephen H. Provost

A writer’s voice is like his or her soul.

No offense to ghostwriters. I don’t mean to suggest you’re selling your soul by trying to sound like someone else. Everyone’s got to make a living, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Writing is such a difficult way to make a living, that sometimes, it might seem like the best way to do so is to sound like someone else. I’m not just talking about ghostwriters. I’m talking about authors across the spectrum who can't help but feel the pressure to write the "next" Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I have three words of advice: Resist that pressure.

Because ...

  1. Someone’s already done it better than you possibly could, even if you were the best writer in the known universe, because the person who did it first was the original.
  2. Apart from that, another "someone else" out there can probably do it better than you can, too. No offense, but in a world of 7 billion people, there are probably just a few writers who are more gifted than you are.
  3. Most fans of established authors aren’t looking for the “next J.K. Rowling.” They’re looking for the next book from J.K. Rowling.
  4. Trying to emulate another author too closely isn't much more creative than filling in the blanks on a Mad Libs game (remember those?). We all try to emulate successful and talented authors; at a certain point, however, a line is crossed between inspiration and mimicry that's like comparing a bus stop to a bus. To put a finer point on it: Even if it feels like you're spinning your wheels, that's far better than not having any.
  5. And, most importantly, if you’re writing like someone else, you’re not writing like yourself. Which is not only a big loss for your readers (because no one else can write like you can), it’s can also be personally demoralizing. Is there anything that puts a bigger damper on the creative instinct than the feeling that you can only find success by imitating someone else? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one.

Your voice is your most precious commodity as a writer. You may feel like, as an author, you're on a leaky lifeboat in the middle of a storm-tossed sea (and what author hasn't felt that way at one point or another?) In such moments, the last thing you should throw overboard is your voice. That's your life-preserver.

Day jobs

The good news is that, contrary to what many readers believe, the vast majority of authors don’t make their living writing books. They’re journalists, science teachers, medical doctors, public relations professionals, website designers … you name it. Even many of those who have won awards use writing to supplement their incomes rather than to pay the rent.

This may not sound like good news, especially to the large number of authors who would love to quit their day jobs and make a living from their writing. But consider this: If you have a day job, it gives you the same kind of freedom authors like Rowling and King and Patterson have the freedom to write whatever the hell you want.

If you’re a mid-range writer on a contract who’s struggling to make ends meet, you might have a lot of people telling you that you need to write specific things that sound like a specific someone else.

How much fun is that?

“I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on,” bestselling author, scriptwriter, etc. Neil Gaiman said in a 2014 interview. “I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Gaiman is, in fact, a novelist, and he’s written some very good fiction. His point is, he isn’t just a novelist. He’s other things, too, and he can afford to be those things because he's "made it."

What those of us with day jobs often fail to realize is that we can do the same thing. We may not be free to write as much as someone at the top of the pyramid, like Gaiman, but we do have the same kind of freedom. So instead of trying to “make it” by writing like someone else — and becoming entrenched in a less-than-creative process of grinding out the next not-quite-so-great fill-in-the-blank title, why not exercise that freedom?

Original spin

I have a day job, and I don't make enough to live off writing books. Would I like to? Sure. But I’m luckier than most because my day job involves writing (I’m a newspaper editor/reporter) and exposes me to plenty of fodder for my off-the-clock writing.

That’s allowed me to, like Gaiman, explore a diverse array of topics and genres. I've written (as Stifyn Emrys) books that are philosophical and inspirational, and (under my own name), I've tackled speculative fiction and historical nonfiction.

As long as I don’t get caught up in worrying about “making it,” the process is a lot of fun. Plus, I get to keep my own voice.

My foremost criterion in writing each of the books I’ve written for Linden Publishing — Fresno Growing Up, Memortality and Highway 99 — has been originality. People had written about Fresno’s pioneer years before, but they hadn’t focused primarily on the Baby Boom generation. There are tons of books out there about Route 66, but Highway 99, which was similarly important out here on the West Coast, had received little such attention. As to Memortality, I have yet to run across another story that pairs the concept of a person’s eidetic (photographic) memory with a supernatural ability to raise the dead.

What fun is it to cover the same old ground, anyway?

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I’ve never been interested in flattering anyone. I’ll stick to plain ol' sincerity and hope someone else likes what I’m putting out there. If so, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll still have had a ton of fun along the way.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Value your voice

A good editor will:

  1. Fix errors in spelling, grammar and usage.
  2. Point out inconsistencies and content gaps.
  3. Suggest ways to tighten and punch up your writing.
  4. Give you ideas about where to take a story.
  5. Suggest changes in style where they may slow down or confuse the reader.

But a good editor will never simply change your voice without consulting with you. Changing your voice without asking or just because it sounds better to the editor’s ear is not OK. (Your ear matters as much as or more than the editor’s — suggestions are fine; wholesale changes without consultation most definitely are not.)

If you come across an editor who wants to significantly change your voice, my advice is to run like hell, don't look back and keep on writing.

How to write a mystery without even knowing it

Stephen H. Provost

Fleetwood Mac released an album in 1973 titled "Mystery to Me." The cover featured a cartoon baboon sampling a cake, having apparently already taken a bite out of a book.

Four months have passed since the release of "Memortality," and readers have taken their first bite (not literally, I hope) out of this, my debut novel on Pace Press. I'm happy to say the reactions have been positive: a series of 4- and 5-star Amazon reviews, along with praise from respected literary magazines such as Amazing Stories and Foreword Reviews.

Many readers don't know how to categorize it. Is it fantasy? Science fiction? Horror? A spy novel? That's because I wrote to the story, not to the genre. I've never liked labels, so when my publisher called the novel "genre-breaking," it made me smile. I'm all about breaking down artificial boundaries, even if it makes things harder for booksellers to find the proper shelf for my novel.

I wasn't even sure whether to call it YA, new adult or adult fiction. Truth is, I wanted it to be all of the above. Hey, if J.K. Rowling could impress my then-octogenarian dad with a series of books written for kids, I figured that was a pretty good role model.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
— Oscar Wilde

But one thing did surprise me most about the readers' reaction: Some classified it as a mystery. I definitely didn't set out to write a mystery. I've even been known to remark that I didn't think I'd ever write a mystery. For one thing, it's been my impression that good mysteries are elaborate exercises, and I'm mostly a "pantser," which is to say I write by the seat of my pants.  I don't create elaborate outlines before sitting down to write a book. I start with a general concept and let the story take me wherever it wants to go.

When people say the word "mystery," I tend to thing of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and the like. But mystery, in the broader sense is about keeping the readers guessing; it's about sprinkling enough clues around in the plot to foreshadow a twist without giving it away. And I do love twists. If you haven't read "Memortality," it's got a great twist toward the end, if I do say so myself.

So maybe I did write a mystery, after all, even if, to quote that old album title, it wasn't a mystery to me.

 

Me a workaholic? Give me a break!

Stephen H. Provost

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in "The Princess Bride"

My name is Stephen, and I am not, repeat not, a workaholic.

It might look like I am at times, but these days, it’s easy to mistake someone who’s conscientious, driven and passionate about what he does for a workaholic.

What’s wrong with that, you ask?

If people think you’re doing something because you’re addicted to work, they’re likely to tell you to “take a load off,” “relax” or, my favorite, “Don’t take life too seriously.”

I have an offbeat (some might say warped) sense of humor, but I like a good laugh as much as the next person. If there’s anything I might be addicted to (other than caffeine), it’s puns. But addicted to work? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s like accusing me of being addicted to exhaustion and stress, two of my least favorite things.

Another problem with being mistaken for a workaholic is that people overlook the real reasons you work as hard as you do. Here are a few:

  • You want to make sure a task is done well.
  • You want to meet a deadline.
  • You don’t want to make others do the work that’s your responsibility.
  • You want to succeed. This point is particularly true of the self-employed and small-business owners, who frequently get classified as workaholics. But their motivations aren’t a love of work for its own sake. It requires a tremendous amount of work and dedication to pursue success apart from the established corporate structure, simply because there’s no established support framework. You have to build one from scratch, which requires a lot of work on top of the typical workweek. What most people in this category want is independence. The work is merely a means to that end.
  • You want to feed yourself, contribute to your family’s success and maybe, just maybe, have a little bit left over for (gasp) playtime! (Workaholics don’t have playtime, so if you’re looking for a way to distinguish the conscientious, driven worker from the workaholic, this is a great bullet point to remember.)

All of the above apply to me. As a journalist, I want to make sure my newspaper contains high-quality content and is delivered on time, and I know it’s up to me and my reporter to make that happen.

As an author, I’m trying to establish a support framework (fellow authors and others in the industry; and, most importantly readers) in addition to doing the actual work of writing.

In order to give all this a chance to work, I have to establish clear boundaries. My work as a journalist comes first, because that’s my primary source of income. So, I make sure those goals are met first.

Sometimes, that means working outside the "normal" workday to cover a meeting or respond to breaking news. But that doesn’t mean I go out looking for extra work just for its own sake. I have books to write and market, too. So, on the weekends, I don’t do journalism unless 1) there’s a crisis involving breaking news, 2) my boss asks me to or 3) I need to in order to ensure the aforementioned quality and timeliness standards are met.

I became an author (and a journalist, for that matter) because I love to write. Most of the time, writing isn’t work to me; it’s pleasure. The stuff that goes along with it – the marketing, promotion and the networking – is necessary work. If I were a workaholic, I’d love that stuff. I don’t. Not even close.

Yes, it’s fun to meet other authors and talk to readers, but nine-hour drives to conventions aren’t kind to a 53-year-old body, so they’re not my idea of a good time.

(An aside: I don’t want people contacting me on social media or personal email about their pet peeves regarding the newspaper or telling me that one of my books sucks. Just put yourself in my position. Would you? I don’t think even workaholics enjoy that sort of thing.)

It’s easy to dismiss hardworking, conscientious people who are passionate about what they do as “workaholics,” as though there’s something wrong with them. But is there really? Aren’t hard work, conscientiousness and passion positive traits? They sure were when I was growing up, and I think they still are today.

So, the next time you see someone working hard, don’t assume the person's a masochist or workaholic. Far more likely, it's someone with a goal, a vision, a purpose. And chances are good that, if it's achieved, it will help make the world a little better place.

Active and reactive writing: A journey from journalism to fiction

Stephen H. Provost

With the year drawing to a close, I decided to look back on the blogs I’ve posted in the past 12 months and noticed a theme: A lot of them involve politics.

It wasn’t my intention, when I started blogging, to spend so much time on political matters. An earlier blog I authored (no longer available online, sorry) was meant to do just that, but I wanted to move away from politics with this one.

I haven’t been entirely successful.

I could take the excuse that this election year has been so crazy it would have been hard not to write about it, and I suppose that’s true. In my defense, I’m not the only one who’s done it: A lot of very accomplished author friends have devoted considerable space to the news of the day in articles, blogs and social media posts.

Excuses aside, however, it raised the question of why.

Restating the obvious

First off, it occurred to me that outrage can be one of a writer’s greatest motivations. It’s also one of the easiest things to write about because it’s so obvious. If you’re irate about something, it’s often because the answer is so obvious (at least to you) that it might as well be screaming at you from a couple of inches in front of your nose … so you want to scream it at other people.

Obvious things are easy to write about, and we writers aren’t immune to the temptation of taking the easy way out. In some ways, we might be more susceptible to it than most: Writing – especially creative writing – can be laborious, so it can feel damned good to see the words just pouring out from your fingertips onto the screen in front of you.

Add to that the feel-good nature of a nice long rant – or a short, Twitter-pated one – and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of political posts, especially in a year such as this one.

There’s a second issue at play, however, that’s related to the first but is more fundamental. It involves the distinction between active (or creative) and reactive writing.

I’ve spent most of my career doing the latter, because it’s what a reporter or columnist does: He or she reacts to the news. This transitioned nicely for me into historical nonfiction (my books Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99), because writing about history is another sort of reactive writing.  This is fairly easy, because the ingredients for a story are right in front of you. All you have to do is put it on the page.

That’s not to diminish the importance of telling the story well. In some ways, nonfiction is a bigger challenge: You can easily fall into the trap of parading events before the reader in a predictable chronology (“and then, and then, and then”) that will put a reader to sleep. This is how you get dry textbooks and newspaper articles full of jargon, wherein police “respond to the scene” and victims “sustain multiple contusions, lacerations and blunt-force trauma to the head.” Are you still awake? Me, neither.

Next stop: Novel Land

That’s a challenge to a writer’s skill set, but not to his or her creativity, which is what comes into play with active writing.

A couple of years ago, I set about writing my first novel, Identity Break, and I remember being very excited about it. I had what I thought (and still think) was a great concept, and all I had to do was put it down on paper. I was still reacting to my own idea, but there was more work involved because I had to keep drawing on my own creativity to fill in the blanks. The novel, which I self-published, got some good reviews but didn’t create enough buzz to really take off, and what I had planned as a trilogy wound up truncated into a single book and a prequel novella called Artifice.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I decided to give novel-writing another go. Memortality started out as a “fun breather from non-fiction” after I’d finished Highway 99. Once again, I had a great concept – even better than Identity Break, and a lot more complex. It was that complexity, though, that exposed me to the real challenge of writing fiction: keeping the creative juices flowing while ensuring iy all made sense.

I told myself I never finished the sequel to Identity Break because I didn’t want to spend time on a project that wasn’t taking hold with readers, and that’s mostly true. But I also wasn’t as comfortable about active (fiction) writing as I was with (reactive) non-fiction, so it was easier to tap that well again for my next big project, which turned out to be Fresno Growing Up. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I did. It has turned out to be far and away my most successful book to date.

That led me to the idea for Highway 99, and after I’d finished writing that, I plowed ahead with a similar work on U.S. Highway 101, thinking I’d found my niche. That was before I asked my publisher: “How would you prefer me to spend my time, working on 101 or putting together a sequel to Memortality?” I expected him to say the former, because Linden had always focused heavily on California history books and Memortality was its first fiction release. When he suggested I focus on the sequel, it threw me right back out of my comfort zone.

Yes, this is work

I finished writing that sequel last week, and I’m very pleased with the result (sorry, no title yet – I have one, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now). But it may be the most difficult book I’ve ever written. The more I wrote, the more I had to delve into my own creative space; the longer I had to rely on active, rather than reactive writing. In the end, I think the struggle paid off with a story that’s pretty damned inventive, if I do say so myself, and one I hope readers will find engaging.

But it was work. I’m used to having everything just flow, the way it has since I started writing in high school. Most of that writing, I now realize, was reactive. As a journalist, that’s what I’ve done for 30-plus years, so I’ve all but tamed that beast. Active writing is a different animal – one you don’t want to tame. You want to let it run loose and see where it takes you. I’ll need every one of the skills I learned as a journalist to keep up with it, but I’ll also need that little extra something known as inspiration.

It’s easy to react to the events of the day, especially if you’ve worked yourself up into a lather about them, so I don’t blame myself or my fellow writers for focusing so much on politics. I will admit, though, that seeing the same posts on the same subjects from the same people on social media day after day can get tedious, especially when I know the people making those posts are gifted, creative writers.

None of this is to say they should never write about politics again – or that I never will myself. My father was a political science professor, and I’m supposedly a distant relative of Alexander Hamilton, so it’s a family tradition. Nor am I going to stop writing about history: It’s just too damned much fun (go ahead, call me weird). What I will say is I have a lot of respect for writers to delve into their creative reservoirs and have the guts to engage in active writing, and I can understand why George R.R. Martin might take a while to produce the next “Song of Ice and Fire” novel.

This stuff ain’t easy, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding.

Note: I'll be speaking periodically about a related topic, "Making History With Your Writing: The Past as Every Author's Inspiration," at various presentations. Check the Events page for details.

"Miss Peregrine" didn't lack diversity. It was about diversity.

Stephen H. Provost

Do people pay attention to books anymore, or do they wait for the Hollywood adaptation to care? Do they understand the power of allegory, or are they content to go looking for something on the surface that might offend, and then use that something the basis for dismissing a story entirely?

Three years ago, Ransom Riggs released a fabulous book called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” This story held particular fascination for me, not only because it was deftly told, but because it was based on old photos the author had collected at flea markets, swap meets, antique shops, etc.

I’ve never met Riggs, but I like to think of him something of a kindred spirit. The old photos he collected inspired his fiction in much the same way that my own historical research provided the inspiration for my novel “Memortality.”

But despite the book’s quality and popularity, the story didn’t make its way into the nation’s collective consciousness until it was adapted into a Tim Burton movie. And now, much of the attention is focused not on the story, but on a controversy over whether the film’s cast was diverse enough.

I think that’s a shame – not because diversity isn’t worthy of attention (I wrote a book about it titled “Undefeated”) – but because the furor seems to be overshadowing a fantastic story.

Before I go any further, a few personal thoughts: In addition to being a fan of Riggs’ book, I found the movie enjoyable. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Burton’s, but I’m not a detractor, either. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies over the years, while others I found to be so heavy on style that they overwhelmed the substance.

I’m also well aware that Hollywood has far too often ignored clear opportunities for diverse casting, particularly (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Edward James Olmos have been rare exceptions) in lead roles.

But here are two questions worth asking:

  1. Do moviemakers have a responsibility to “diversify” a film based on a book that apparently lacked that diversity to begin with? And
  2. Are authors responsible to champion diversity in their stories and, if so, how?

The first question leads to the second because, as far as I could tell, the characters in Riggs’ book weren’t particularly diverse … in the conventional sense. I don’t recall reading explicit references to characters who were identified as racial minorities, and the vintage photos the author included in the book depicted, by and large, white children.

CRITICS MISS THE POINT

So Burton’s casting was based largely on Riggs’ writing, which, in turn, was based largely on those photos he found at flea markets and swap meets. Does that make Riggs somehow tone-deaf to the issue of diversity?

No, it doesn’t. For one thing, the story includes strong female characters, such as Miss Peregrine and Emma, who appear to be more formidable than any of the male characters. For another, some of the characters are Jewish, and the story takes place in the midst of World War II, when people of Jewish ancestry were the most persecuted individuals on the planet. The explicit comparison the author makes between the Nazis (human monsters) and the hollowghasts (paranormal monsters) couldn’t be clearer.

Even more to the point, the “peculiar” children are depicted as having to hide in a time loop to escape the cruelty of those who would persecute them for being different. And on top of that, each child is different in his or her own unique way: One floats unless she’s held down by heavy shoes; another spits out bees; another transplants hearts into robotic models.

The cast of characters is, in fact, nothing if not diverse. It’s not about skin color or ethnic background; the point is made allegorically, and very effectively.

I applaud J.K. Rowling for suggesting that Dumbledore was gay and saying that “white skin was never specified” when she created the character of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. But the story doesn’t live or die by the sexual orientation of its characters or their skin color. It stands on its own. So does Riggs’.

And that’s the point here. Would there have been a salad bowl of Asian, black, Native American and people of other ethnic backgrounds in 1942 on a remote island off the coast of Wales, where much of the book is set? My hunch is there wouldn’t have been.

In fact, it's more than just a hunch: According to one estimate, there were around 7,000 blacks in the United Kingdom as of 1940, out of a total population of 48 million. That pencils out to 1.4 one-hundredth of one percent.

So most likely, the town depicted in Riggs' book have been populated almost entirely - if not exclusively - by people with pale skin and Welsh ancestry. Ethnic minorities within this group would have been (following Riggs’ World War II allegory) children at the home with Jewish names such as Jacob Portman – whose grandfather, in a biblical parallel, is named Abraham – and Emma Bloom.

The first responsibility of any author or filmmaker is to remain true to the world you’ve created, not the world your audience is living in. If you create a less-believable story to placate potential critics, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of your audience.

Riggs recognized this, and he understood the power of allegory to make an important point about diversity and human nature. Both of these things helped make “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” the success it has become. And I, for one, wouldn't change a thing.

Note: Creative freedom is no less important than and, indeed, is a vital element of free expression. It cannot and should not be compromised to those who would burn books on either the altar of bigotry or its equally tainted counterpart, the shrine of political correctness. For more on this subject, see my blog titled "Micromanaging creativity in the name of diversity undermines them both."

Impostor Syndrome: The Writer Behind the Curtain

Stephen H. Provost

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

So said Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (aka the Wizard of Oz) in the 1939 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy.

The wizard, of course, wasn’t really a wizard at all. He was nothing more than a charlatan – a con man. 

In writing this piece, I wondered to myself: Did Baum, in some sense, see himself as the wizard – an impostor hiding behind a curtain, performing marvelous feats that were really nothing more than tricks or sleight of hand? 

Many of us authors do.

No small number of us are prone to viewing ourselves as men and women behind a curtain. Our books serve as our magical veil, which both connects us to and protects us from the outside world.

Many of us are loners who never quite fathomed the social games played by our more outgoing peers – even though we studied them scrupulously in the hope, perhaps, of imitating them. Of pretending to be a series of someones we’re not.

There’s a name for this: It's called “impostor syndrome.”

Those of us afflicted by it become so accustomed to playing roles that we wind up thinking it’s the only way to succeed.

But then, if someone happens to catch a glimpse of that “man behind the curtain,” we feel certain we’ve been found out. We aren’t real authors, after all. We’re just play-acting, and worst of all, we’ve failed in the one thing we believe we just might be good at: putting one over on the public at large through some elaborate ruse.

When we do venture out of our literary cocoon for book signings, presentations, conventions and the like, we often take great care to avoid any possible missteps. We don’t want to give off even the slightest hint that we might be something less than the larger-than-life image we’ve projected onto that curtain. It’s called keeping up appearances … or, to our way of thinking, maintaining the illusion.

Two sides of the curtain

Writing is both the perfect and absolute worst profession for those of us suffering from impostor syndrome. It’s perfect because it allows us to relate to the world in a very intimate way, scrawling or typing out insights and details that other, less observant sorts, are wont to miss. Yet in the same moment, it denies us the very intimacy we crave because it separates the real “us” from the world we’ve been so carefully observing.

We can create worlds of our own in which to find refuge from the real one, wherein reside all manner of critics ready to expose us as the frauds we’re certain we really are.

Our writing is our curtain.

But that veil of protection can’t shield us from our own desire for acceptance … which we’ve merely transferred from ourselves to our writing. Our baby. And, lo and behold, those critics out there are just as eager to bully and ridicule that baby as they were to assail us.

So we’re right back where we started.

Scathing reviews confirm that we are not now, nor were we ever, “real” writers. So do those rejection slips and emails, which bombard us as long as we keep sending out query letters.

Are you seeking affirmation? Adulation? If so, you might want to think twice about becoming a writer. Fame isn’t part of the job description unless your name is Rowling or King or Patterson. Achieving even a cult following is a major accomplishment.

And job security? Forget it – your chances of making a cushy living as a writer are akin to your chances of making it in the NBA.

Being a writer will most likely make you appreciate the day job you’ve held for the past 10 years a lot more. (Most of us have to keep our day jobs, by the way.) Think for a moment about that 8-to-5 job. Now imagine having to reapply for that position every time you completed a project. Imagine sending out another resume, going through another series of interviews, enduring another background check every six months or so just to keep doing the same job you were already hired to do.

Unless you have a contract that covers more than one book, that’s part of what it means to be a writer.

Rending the veil

Repeated rejections are the last thing you need if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome. At best, they’ll reinforce the feeling that you’re just not “worthy” (whatever that means); at worst, they’ll make you feel like even more of a pretender. “I knew I was never any good in the first place, and this just confirms it.”

Even successes are often rationalized away as flukes.

  • “I may have sold one novel, but who knows if I’ll ever sell another!”
  • “Yes, I sold a few thousand copies, but it’s not enough to pay the bills, so I’m obviously a failure.”
  • “I didn’t win that award I was up for. Those readers who bought my book? Sure fooled them!”
  • Or, conversely: “I won some award? Big deal. People still aren’t buying my book. I must have done a real snow job on those judges!”

See what you’re doing here? Not only are you denigrating your own work, you’re insulting your audience – whether it be the people who’ve bought your book or the judges who thought it merited an award. Nobody wins here. You’re only accomplishing one thing: perpetuating the singularly pernicious illusion that your talent is all just an illusion.

The curtain is suffocating you.

This is the challenge authors face when they find themselves enmeshed in impostor syndrome, and it’s why you’ll hear so many of us encouraging one another to ignore the bad reviews, wear rejection letters like a badge of honor and, above all, keep writing, even if no one seems to care or even notice.

But perhaps most important piece of encouragement anyone can offer is the reminder that the writing is its own reward. When it comes right down to it, our writing isn’t really a curtain at all. It’s more like a prism that allows us to fashion our “inner light” into an array of colors that we can send forth in unique patterns at impossible angles to illumine the world around us. We get to discover ourselves and, in the process, offer the world at large a ticket on its own voyage of discovery.

What could be more exciting than that?

Despite what we might tell ourselves in moments of self-doubt and frustration, we writers aren’t impostors at all. We’re explorers.

An impostor can only mimic what’s come before. It’s an explorer’s unique privilege is to go forth in search of something new – and, upon finding it, to unveil it for the rest of the world do see.

Then, suddenly, curtain is gone. And the wonders we've hidden behind it are unveiled in all their glory.

Curiosity: The Writer's Muse

Stephen H. Provost

Writers are born, not made … or is it the other way around? The nature-versus-nurture debate has baffled philosophers for millennia, as though there were some definitive answer to be had.

But is there really?

We’re keen on labeling and compartmentalizing things for our own convenience, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s helpful in determining whether the leftovers in the fridge are beef stroganoff or Fancy Feast.

But we creative types don’t tend to like leftovers. We’re all about cooking up something new (even if it is a new perspective on something old, like highway history, for instance). I’ve written about everything from my hometown’s history to ancient religion; I’ve penned a children’s fairy tale and a paranormal adventure. There’s no formula to any of it, but there’s common thread: It all stems from the kind of curiosity that might prompt our cat Tyrion to forgo the Fancy Feast for the stroganoff if he happened to discover it lying on out on the kitchen counter.

“Ooooooooh! Something newwwwwwww! Imma gonna try it!”

Curiosity is that singular trait that sets writers (and other creative types) apart from the crowd. It’s also the one thing that ties nature and nurture together in a package – even if that package is anything but neat. It’s a swirling, seething ever-shifting sea of endless discovery and transformation. What comes next? What’s over there? How did we get here?

When it’s not killing the cat (and most of the time, it’s not), curiosity is like a perfectly sustainable engine of renewal and reimagining. It’s a natural part of who we are, but it leads us to seek out new information, refine our craft and take the next step in our artistic development. It’s the part of our nature that nurtures us. Can we all start singing “The Circle of Life” now?

Seriously, instead of trying to figure out whether a good writer is born or made, follow in the footsteps of Puss in Boots and Pangur Bán. Get curious. Explore, discover and write about what you find, whether it be in the recesses of the past, the pages of some forgotten tome or the back alleys of your own imagination.

The more you nurture your own creative nature, the more accomplished you’ll become – and the more fun you’ll have.  

Hakuna matata.

Note: The accompanying photo does not constitute evidence concerning Schrödinger's cat. It's our own tuxedo-attired Tyrion, who's very much alive and, despite his innate curiosity, often likes to think inside the box.

Writing: The Great Escape

Stephen H. Provost

Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly a dozen freestanding books of various lengths, a couple of short stories, dozens of newspaper columns and more blog entries than I can count.

Why do I do it? Why pursue an occupation that many find daunting to consider and grueling to pursue?

Because I can? No, because I must.

I don’t have any choice. “Writer’s block” to me is nothing more than an excuse not to get started (most often) or not to continue (occasionally). It’s a phantom menace, the voice of the wolf inside my head that I don’t feed very often because the other wolf is a lot hungrier.

George Orwell posited that, putting aside the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing prose:

Sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”

Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”

Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Political purpose: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Guilty on all counts. Orwell’s “1984” left a lasting impression on me as a young adult, both for its creativity in fashioning an alternate universe and for its insights into the human condition.

I share each of the four motives he mentioned, but all of them together aren’t what keeps me writing. One thing does: Like Orwell, I’m able to create an alternate universe. And, to be blunt, I like it better there.

New worlds, old worlds

Novelists create new worlds; writers of non-fiction revisit old ones. I’ve had the privilege of doing both. As an author of paranormal fantasy/science fiction, I get to imagine what life would be like if the rules were different, if the world were more vibrant, if the challenges less mundane and the means of answering them more noble. Who wants to worry about paying bills, going to the doctor or attending some pointless meeting when you can imagine yourself slaying a dragon – or, far better yet, befriending one?

As an author of historical nonfiction, I get to travel back in time and visit worlds that have passed into memory. I wrote a book about my hometown as it was during my childhood and another about the history of a long-traveled highway. Sorry, H.G. Wells, but I don’t need your time machine. I can research and write my way back into a world that might otherwise have passed to oblivion. Talk about power. Talk about responsibility.

It’s not that I don’t like this world. I have a wonderful wife, two stepsons who are maturing into proverbial “fine young men,” a father who loves me and two cats who provide unconditional affection (they do demand a bowl of kibble and a rub behind the ears, but that’s beside the point). I live in a beautiful town where I don’t have to choose between the beach and the forest and the foothills, because it’s got all three. What’s not to like?

In response, I refer you back to the earlier reference to bills, health concerns, meetings … you get the picture.

I write because, in doing so, I can escape such mundane concerns. I write because I have the audacity to believe that I can create a world more exciting, more honorable, less bitter and less tragic than the one in which I live. A world where whimsy and nostalgia vanquish bigotry and heartache and disease – maybe not every time (a good story has to have conflict, after all), but enough to keep hope alive that I’m headed for a happy ending.

Writer's Paradox

There have been times in this life when I’ve lacked that hope, and it was then that I started writing, first in the angst of teenage isolation, then in the aftermath of job loss and divorce. I suppose that means there’s something to the old cliché about affliction stoking the fires of creativity, which makes this musing something of a paradox: Torment set my pen in motion, a chariot upon which I can escape that self-same torment.

But that paradox no longer matters. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and now that life is good again, I’m not about to quit. This is one of those “till death do us part” things, with one singularly fascinating caveat: My writing will survive me, and will carry a portion of me into the afterlife of the printed page.

That’s something Orwell touched upon in his nod to egoism: Writing offers a taste of immortality achieved through memory preserved – of "memortality," if you will. (I like how that sounds.) And though it’s a taste and nothing more, it’s enough to whet the appetite for what lies beyond. In the next line, on the next page, in the next chapter.

To visit worlds where I’d like to live – and worlds that will outlive me.

This is why I write.

This is why I’ll never stop.

7 Tips for Becoming a Successful Author

Stephen H. Provost

What does it take to be a successful author? First, you might want to ask yourself what it means to be a successful author. Since writing's about communication, Job One is to communicate with your reader. If you can do that, everything else is likely to follow: good reviews, a publisher and yes, maybe a few extra dollars. But ignore those things when you're writing or you'll never get there. To get you started, here are seven tips on how to go about it. 

1. Know your craft.

You can't write a book if you don't know how to write a sentence. Don't tell yourself, "The editor will fix that." Two simple facts: No editor will know or care as much about your work as you do. If you use your editor as a crutch, it means you're limping along, and you need to be in the best shape of your life to do this. If your editor is anything but a last line of defense, you're using him/her wrong. You are the expert on your story, so act like it. Care enough to understand language and how to use it. This doesn't mean following your eighth-grade English teacher's rules religiously. Dialogue, for example, should be true to your characters - the rules of grammar be damned. But here's Tip A1: You need to know the rules so you can know when to break them. 

2. Think like a journalist.

Yes, some journalists get lazy and rely on a "paint by numbers" approach to writing. Too often, they fall into the habit of relying on the same clichés passed along to them by police chiefs and public information officers. But they have one advantage most other writers don't: a hard deadline. They can't take the day off because they have "writer's block" or feel like sleeping in. They can't tell their editors they "don't feel like writing today." I asked bestselling author John Scalzi how his background in journalism helped him in his career as an author. This was his answer: The deadlines he faced gave him the discipline to write consistently.

3. Inhabit your world.

Remember when Chevy Chase blindfolded himself in "Caddyshack" and hit the golf ball onto the green? Maybe you don't. (After all, the movie came out in 1980.) His character's advice was to "be the ball." This doesn't mean you should blindfold yourself while you're writing. That probably won't work too well. But it is a good idea to block out distractions and put yourself in the middle of the action. Imagine you're the protagonist or, if you're writing nonfiction, one of the people affected by the events you're describing. The more you're a part of the story, the more invested you are; the better you can describe what's happening and, even more important, the what the characters are feeling. If you like living in your world enough to stay there for eight hours straight writing about it, chances are your readers will, too.

4. Write conversationally.

This is not the same as "writing the way you speak." If you were to do that, the result might not even be coherent. You're a storyteller, so tell a story. Spin a yarn. Don't write a thesis or a form letter. You're not trying to impress people with your vocabulary or talk down to them like a second-grade teacher. You're trying to grab and keep their attention. If you start writing like a bureaucrat or a textbook writer, no one's going to want to read your stuff. Even other bureaucrats fall asleep reading small print, and students have to read textbooks, but they don't want to, do they? Reading should be fun, so have fun with your writing. Your attitude will come through.

5. Don't write a memoir.

Seriously. Is your name Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, Kennedy or Reagan? If not, most people probably aren't going to want to read about your life. Even if you're the best writer since Stephen King, few people outside your immediate family will want to read about the time your Aunt Mabel fell asleep in her mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner when you were 7. Nothing against you or your Aunt Mabel, but subject matter matters. Readers want something they can relate to (yes, that's a dangling modifier, but see Tip 1A). Too many writers use the tired admonition to "write what you know" as an excuse to write about their own lives. The trick is to infuse your writing with what you've learned from your experiences, not relate those experiences verbatim and call them a story.

6. Write like an explorer.

What's around the next bend, over the next hill? Write like you can't wait to find out, and you'll give your readers that same passion for your story. You've heard the advice to "write like a reader," which is good as far as it goes. But go further. If you're reading a good story, you'll want to be an explorer, too. The writing will pull you along, and you'll be eager to turn the page to find out what happens next. Write with that same desire, with a passion to learn about your characters and the world you're describing; your readers will pick up on that and go along for the roller-coaster ride.

7. Write with abandon.

Be fearless. Don't worry about what happens if your manuscript doesn't sell. There aren't agents or publishers, queries or rejection letters in the world you're creating for your readers. You can be whoever you want to be, and that's the beauty of it. Your last book didn't catch on? So start the next one (you should have started it already). Stop thinking about your boss' demands, your favorite video game, the dirty dishes, your Facebook friends or the big game on TV. The minute you pause to let the "real world" intrude upon your creative process, you'll lose the flow and find yourself out of the zone. That zone is your gateway to success.