Below is the speech I didn’t give to the New Jersey Romance Writers last night. Sure, I started the speech as it’s written. I gave parts of the speech verbatim (cough cough–sort of–cough cough) but I ended up going off on tangents and sharing stories that came to me as I started speaking. For example, my story about my morgue tour? I elaborated far beyond what I wrote. But what happened was that I ended up skipping chunks of the speech because the wise and wonderful Madeline Hunter kept making strange hand signals to me and I realized that she was telling me TIME’S UP! It took me awhile to get it :/ . . . but then the light bulb hit: that’s why Roxanne St. Claire told me to practice the speech and time it! So I wouldn’t go over my allotted time.
Though, if I didn’t go off on tangents (that related to the speech) I would have been under time. But honestly? I couldn’t have done it any other way. I was just being me. Which was the theme of my speech.
Warning: There are typos and probably some non-sequiturs and I didn’t actually read this speech in its entirity after I wrote it because I wanted to be conversational and I was nervous that if I edited it too much, it would be stiff and formal. Forgive me. It’s been a busy week.
But not half as busy as Alex driving cross-country with her cats.
Speech to the New Jersey Romance Writers
October 24, 2009
You’re Not Normal
I have a confession to make.
Okay, it’s not much of a confession—it’s not like I’ve kept it a big secret. I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I barely write a synopsis. In fact, I only write the bare minimum required for only two reasons: when it results in a check (some contracts pay part on proposal) or when I have to get something to the copy department so they can, you know, write the back cover copy. Copy that I inevitable have to change because (cough, cough) I only wrote the copy because I had to and never looked at it again and whoops, didn’t I tell you that I changed the heroine’s name to Beatrix and the hero has only one leg? And the story takes place in Denver, not D.C., and it’s not a mass murderer but an identity theft ring?
Plotting is like speaking. I don’t plot, I don’t write speeches. Because writing the speech is like planning what I’m going to say days—or weeks—before I say it. What’s the fun in that? And it’s written—the written word doesn’t always translate well to the spoken word. If you doubt me, go buy my audiobooks. I listened to one chapter on SUDDEN DEATH and scared myself—and realized maybe the audio book deal wasn’t the best idea on the planet.
As Stephen King said, “I don’t think my books would’ve been as successful as they are if the readers didn’t think they were in the hands of a true crazy person. When I start a story, I don’t know where it’s going.”
I get that.
Last year, I was asked to give a speech to the Emerald City Writers Conference. I didn’t think twice about saying yes—this was in Washington, and I love Washington and have been trying to get my husband to agree that fog and gray skies are a good thing, but he thinks I’m insane because I like the rain more than the sun. Anyway, I agreed and didn’t think about writing a damn speech, because what’s the fun in that? But other people—people I adore and love and who mean well—thought I was insane.
“What do you mean you’re going to wing it? You can’t wing it,” said my friend Roxanne St. Claire. “You have to write the speech. Edit the speech. Rehearse the speech. Give the speech six hundred times to your dog until you know it by heart, but still print it out in twenty-four point font double spaced and put it in front of you in case you forget.”
I laughed. But she was serious.
Then Margie Lawson—you all know Margie Lawson, the woman who helped make the guy who invented highlighters a billionaire?—told me that not only did I have to write the speech, I needed a theme.
Theme? What theme? I don’t do themes.
Of course you do, she informed me.
No I don’t, I insisted.
She then told me that all my books had themes and I stared at her like she’d grown horns and she laughed at me (again) and wouldn’t tell me what the themes of my books were after I informed her I had no themes.
I didn’t need to write a speech—I’d simply jot down some bullet points and all would be good.
But between two little demons–Rocki on one shoulder and Margie on the other (where was my angel, dammit?) I began to panic. On the flight to Seattle, I wrote a damn speech on my laptop.
I hated it. I can’t even remember what I wrote, but I revised the so-called speech all weekend until Sunday morning when I had to give it and realized it sounded like crap, and it wasn’t in a conversational order, and I didn’t put down half the stuff I wanted to talk about and it was, ahem, kind of short I realized after beginning, so I winged it, but kept referring to his miserable excuse for a written speech and kept getting lost and forgetting my train of thought.
After that dismal failure, I said never again. I would never agree to speak to another group EVER.
Except . . . I’d already committed to speak here. And there are more people. And my mentor, the brilliant and talented and wise Mariah Stewart is in this chapter. And I hate failure.
So I wrote a speech. See? I figured, writing a speech wasn’t really plotting, because it’s not fiction. It’s like having a conversation with a couple hundred friends, right?
But I still needed a theme. Margie told me I needed a theme. What is a damn theme, anyway? I write to entertain people, not to educate them.
But before a theme, I needed an idea of what to talk about, right? Something smart and witty and motivational.
When all hope was lost and I thought bullet points might still be a good idea, I read a message from someone on one of the RWA loops that said something like:
“I’m so glad to find people who think like me, who also hear voices in their heads. I’m normal after all.”
Hmmm. Normal. Right.
I have news for you. For that woman and every person in this room.
You’re not normal.
And why in the world would you want to be normal anyway?
Suddenly, there was my theme! “You’re Not Normal!”
Do not tell me that this isn’t a theme, because it’s the backbone of my entire speech and Margie said I had to have a theme. So it’s my theme and I’m sticking to it.
This woman who unwittingly gave me the entire idea for this speech is not the first writer I’ve heard who said something equally stupid. Ok, maybe stupid is harsh. How about immature? Really, you think it’s normal to hear voices? I’m sure that if we were all in the psych word together we’d think it’s normal too.
But honestly, why would any of us want to be normal? Normal is boring. And who decides what normal is anyway? Some government agency? No thank you. I’m not normal. And neither are you.
As they sing in my church, “Rejoice and be glad!”
Alleluia. Rejoice and be glad that you are different! That you stand out! That you’re strange and beautiful and unique.
I realized how . . . . um, unique . . . I was when I went to dinner with my husband about a year ago.
It was a private dinner, with his boss and bosses wife and a couple other people. Nine of us I think. Lori, the boss’s wife, is a fan of mine and we’ve chatted on line a couple times. She asked about my research, and I’d recently toured the morgue. So I told her about the autopsy I viewed, and then about the bodies lined up in the crypt—and about why maintaining good pedicures is so important because when you’re lying, dead, in that cold room the only thing anyone can see is your feet—and all the feet there were ugly as sin. I know, that’s mean to say, but it’s true.
I also shared what a body looks like when it’s been underwater for twenty-four hours. It’s not pretty.
I think my husband kicked me under the table a couple times before I realized that maybe my trip to the morgue wasn’t appropriate dinner table conversation.
But she’d asked.
Maybe it was more like the question, “How are you?” No one really wants all the details, more a general, “I’m fine, took the kids to the park yesterday and we had fun.”
When they ask, “So, what did you do today honey?” They don’t really want to know how you sat in Starbucks for two hours discreetly watching men and women who met online having their first “date.” I swear, I stopped going to one of my favorite Starbucks because it became a meeting place for MySpace dates and I was so distracted watching the body language and trying to figure out their backstories.
Being unique—i.e. not normal—runs in families. One late afternoon, I’d picked my oldest daughter up from practice. We were driving along a country highway and spotted a large dark green garbage bag in the gulley next to the vineyards. The way it was lying, with the shadows of the vines and trees that formed a windbreak, I thought, That looks like a body.
Just then, my daughter says, “Mom, did you see that garbage bag? It looks like dead body.” Then she adds, “Do you want to go check?”
Writers will often say they hear voices in their heads. Okay, there is something just not right about that. I don’t hear voices, and I’m sticking to that story.
I read an anonymous quote that hit home: “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they pretty much do the same thing.”
On the other hand, I’m a talker. When I’m in the shower or the car I verbally run through scenarios and plot points and sometimes I forget when someone’s in the car. My son has been known to say, “Mom, stop talking to yourself.” Just the other week, my oldest daughter asked, “Are you talking to yourself again?” And ironically . . . I wasn’t. Not really. I was sort of thinking out loud about stupid drivers. But the fact that she mentioned it like it was commonplace had me wondering how much I talk to myself and don’t notice . . .
Thank God for hands free phones. Other drivers will just think I’m talking to a friend!
And who are our characters anyway? We know them, right? Sometimes I talk out plot problems with my two older daughters. One of them will suggest a solution, and I’ll say, “But Moira wouldn’t do that.” Or, “Well, Robin is scared of the dark. She wouldn’t check it out.” My daughter tells me I talk like my characters are real people. Well, I know they’re not. I don’t expect them to walk down the street and say hello. Most of them wouldn’t anyway, they’re too busy J . . . but I do feel like I know them. I know how they’ll react in different situations. I know how they think. I get into their heads, walk in their shoes, and so when my daughter suggests something I have to consider not what I would do, but what they would do. And as I verbalize it, I use shorthand so yeah, it sounds like I think they’re real.
And sometimes I even run dialogue outloud. Now that’s fun!
Embrace what’s unique about you. Because you don’t want to be normal. Like a friend of mine, a bestselling author, tried to quit smoking, but quitting destroyed her creativity. Maybe it’s subliminal that she doesn’t think she can write without a cigarette, therefore she can’t write without a cigarette, but I totally get why she didn’t end up quitting. Your creativity is what makes you unique. Special. Not normal. It makes you shine. It doesn’t matter whether you’re published or not, whether you have twenty million books in print or ten thousand, whether you’re a mega-bestseller or a debut author or a struggling midlist author. Your creativity is different than every other writer on the planet. The way you look at the world—from big brush strokes of color and feelings and human interaction to the fine details of individual motivation and personality traits.
Ok, who in this room HASN’T had someone tell them, “If I only had the time, I too could write a book.”
I swear, I want to shoot the next person who tells me that. I’ll bet it’ll happen by the end of the week. I hear it all the time, and I’m tired of being gracious and saying something like, “I’m sure you could,” or even something a little snide like, “Well, you have to make the time.” Because honestly? They can’t write a book. If they could they would have already tried. Because that’s what writers do—we write. We can’t not write. That makes us different in the eyes of the world, those who think they can, but really can’t. Those who don’t understand the fun of the “What if” game. Those who look at a man with a briefcase and see a man with a briefcase, instead of what we see. A terrorist with a bomb. An undercover cop with a wire waiting to pay a ransom. A lawyer with divorce papers in the briefcase on his way to get his client’s wife to sign, only to realize when he gets there that he was the other man who caused the break-up in the first place. An unemployed salesman on his way to a job interview, desperate because his sister is dying and he has agreed to provide for her three children, but he has no job . . .
So when people tell me they, too could write a book, if only they had the time, I just give a half-smile and nod and mentally think, what a dumbass.
I didn’t promise I wouldn’t swear in this speech. Apologies. Ok, I’m not really sorry. When I wrote this speech I wrote it stream of consciousness. It was a good compromise—no plotting, just write out a speech as if I was talking to a small group of people and let it just come out.
For writers, we are different from everyone else out there, but we’re also different from each other. When we see a man with a briefcase, we all come up with different scenarios for him. We play it through in our head. We tell different stories with different voices.
If we all had the same voice, books would be boring. If every story sounded the same, why not just figure out the formula and have a computer write it?
Your writing voice is truly unique, and you should celebrate it.
Henry Miller said writers have antennas who are tuned into the cosmos and draw out ideas. Natalie Goldberg said our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience and make stories from the decomposition of food. Claude Bristol said undoubtedly, we become what we envisage.
Does that make Henry a space alien or Natalie a pile of decomposing trash? What are you?
I sold my fifth complete manuscript. I had hundreds I’d begun and never finished, but I did type THE END five times before I sold. The first four books will never see the light of day, and that’s a good thing. But I needed to write them. I was discovering my voice.
Few of us write our first book and sell. Oh, yeah, sure, some of you out there have sold or will sell your first book. Well, blech. Most of us aren’t that good out of the gate. I sure as hell wasn’t. I needed to practice. I learned something with each of those stories, things I couldn’t really put into words, except one: voice. I was finding my voice. Strengthening it.
Some of us start writing what we think we should, only to discover that our natural voice is lighter or darker; we write a historical but realize we shine in the contemporary world. We write romantic suspense but discover we’re actually funnier on paper than we are in real life and end up with a romantic comedy.
Too often our voice is stifled by well-meaning people who want to mold us into what they think we should be. Parents, spouses, children may tell us what we want to hear, or be passive-aggressive, or downright ornery about what we write. Crit groups can be jewels that help you find your weaknesses and fix them; sometimes they can be stumbling blocks.
But honestly? We—you and me—are our worst enemy in discovering voice. We tell ourselves we have to write this—and we have a long list of reasons to justify it. We tell ourselves we can’t do something, or shouldn’t, or should. We limit ourselves, we reign in our creativity because we don’t want to go over the top or too far.
But when you’re discovering your voice, that’s the time you should never stifle your exuberance. You should let the story run away with you and take you places you’d never go on your own. Does it matter if that particular book gets published? Or does it matter more that you discover what works and doesn’t work for YOU?
Editing is your friend. But that first draft—as Morpheus said to Neo, “Free your mind.” Let go. Let the story pour out naturally, and then you will find your voice. Then your talent will help you hone it, shape it into an enjoyable story.
Your voice is unique to you. Being unique is good—if you write like everyone else, what’s going to make your story stand out when an agent is rushing through the fifty-seven partials she had that month? What’s going to make an editor sit up and read more? Yes, you need talent. That’s a given. You need to know how to write. But lots of people know how to write. Not everyone has discovered their voice.
It’s not easy. Who said it would be? Honestly, anything worth having isn’t easily achieved. You need to work for it, want it, sacrifice for it. Look into your muse and figure out what you really should be writing. Free your mind. Let the story flow. Don’t worry about the damn rules that someone else made up—you can address the ones you want to in editing. Too many times we second guess ourselves as we write.
Stephen King once said, “No, it’s not a very good story. Its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”
You have to listen to your voice, your own voice, because that’s the only way you’ll know for certain that what you write is YOU. When you die deep, write with the doors closed, listen to yourself, and write your passion, you will have discovered your voice.
But it’s not easy. There are times I sit there and doubt myself. Okay, every day I sit down at the computer I doubt myself. But when the muse hits, when I’m in the zone, I don’t think about whether the word is right, the sentence make sense, the scene is ultimately necessary. I simply write what I see and hear and feel in my head. I put myself in a characters shoes and become part of the story. I put aside the doubts temporarily. They never leave forever, but I can bury them enough to let the story tell itself.
Doubts are bad news—doubts make us do stupid things. For example, writing to the market. Yeah, I know, you always hear: don’t write to the market. Don’t do this, don’t do that, you have to do this, whatever. But the market thing kinda sticks with us because we’re thinking, well, maybe we’re doing something wrong, maybe we’re not writing what will sell, so we have one eye on the market and the other on our manuscript and honestly? You can’t write like that.
Case in point: me. I write pretty dark. Even my humor is on the dark side, and that’s my voice. It took me five books before I discovered my voice—practice is important, and I’m a slow learner. But I honestly believe that no one can tell you how to write or what to write, that the only way you can write what’s in your heart, write your passion, is through trial and error.
But that dang market—remember 2003? Chick lit. It was big. It was hot. It was selling. And here I was, writing romantic suspense and I thought, well, maybe I should write a chick lit mystery. My voice . . . mystery . . . with chick lit. Think: first person, humor, murder. I liked the story. My critique partners liked it. Then, I found an agent with my romantic suspense—my fifth book—and after we sold I asked if she’d read some of my other material. Sure, she says. I sent her what I had of Fish or Cut Bait about 200 pages—about a slightly overweight teacher who had a doctor husband and as they celebrated their five year anniversary on a cruise ship, Gemma, my heroine, doesn’t tell her husband that if he doesn’t rekindle their romance, she’s getting a divorce that she doesn’t want. She’s insecure and thinks he’s flirting with a blonde bimbo and then the blonde turns up dead, and Charlie is on the run as her killer—but he didn’t do it. Gemma is almost positive. That’s where my 200 pages ended . . . my agent emails me a couple weeks later and essentially says, while she really liked my heroine, I wasn’t funny and stick to suspense.
Voice is something that is unique. It’s not normal—it’s special. It’s all you. You can’t fake it, though some people think you can. When you discover your voice, the angels sing and you dance around the computer or pour yourself a glass of champagne. But discovering it isn’t easy. Would you want it to be? If it was easy, everyone would do it. If it were easy, you’d be bored. Achievement, the sense of accomplishment, comes because you’ve done something you couldn’t before, something you weren’t positive you could do. Discovering your voice, honing your voice, making it stronger, comes from practice and it’s all you.
If I can impart any advice, it would be this:
Write. And write some more. No one is so good that they can’t learn. I still take classes when I have time, I still edit and revise, and even now, though I know my voice, I’m comfortable with my voice, I know I can do better.
Write for yourself first. As Stephen King says, write with the doors closed and edit with the windows open. Or something like that J . . . essentially, don’t listen to everyone when you’re writing your rough draft. It needs to be you, all you, warts and all. Then you edit and revise and send it out to your trusted critique partners, you trusted editor or agent or ideal reader. Someone or several someone’s who will give you quality advice based on your voice and not theirs, your vision and not their dreams.
Don’t write to the market. Write with passion what fits your voice and your vision and then, and only then, when it’s done, when it’s you, then look to the market and see where it fits or how you can position it to fit. The market isn’t evil—it’s there! But it’s changing all the time. And honestly? Good books that transcend the market sell all the time. The passion that comes through when you discover and hone your voice will make your work shine, whether you’re writing what’s currently popular or not.
Anne Lamott said, “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longer which is one reason why they write so little.”
Don’t be sheep lice. Go forth and write!