What Travel Taught Me about Writing

Michele and I recently took a three-week trip, and during it, I realized some things about writing that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. They had to do with the nature of space and time, the importance of attention, and the ability of the brainmind to invest imagination with reality. Let me describe what I learned.

“Real” Space & Time vs. “Fictional” Space & Time

Disorientation

At the start of a stay in a new place, I often feel disoriented, even in places I once was familiar with. For a while, the relation of one area to another is hard to grasp. Distances aren’t easy to calculate, and things are either closer together or farther apart than I think (even after using MapQuest). With no familiar mountains to orient me, my directional sense struggles until I create some familiar landmarks. Nothing is “homely.”Heidegger Martin Heidegger used that word, in German, to characterize the nature of being-human—to be human is to be “at home, in place.” (If you’d like to read more, go here.)

I noticed that, without the routines of home, time in a strange place also seems distorted, and for a couple of days, I find it harder to gauge how long events, such as a meal with friends, last without the familiar time-cues I have at home. Where the sun “should be,” as a cue to what time it is, doesn’t work as well until I get my bearings in space. Space and time flow into and out of one another—which of course is the notion behind the word, spacetime.

However, when I opened my laptop to work on my novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I was immediately immersed in familiar spacetime. Nothing in that fictional world of Monastery Valley had changed, the landmarks are familiar, distances are known and stable, time is clear. What’s happening?

 

Attention and Virtual Worlds in the Brainmind

The disorientation we feel in strange places highlights the importance of paying attention to space and time. Not knowing where a destination is in relation to one’s current place forces one to attend to cues (maps, signs, etc.). Not knowing how long a trip will take forces one to pay closer attention to discovering both distances and traveling conditions. To ride ten miles in a car takes a different time than to ride the ten miles in a bus, or to walk them.

When I was working on the novel, though, the fictional spacetime took on all the “reality” of the outer world of my journey. Why is this?

Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that the brain treats imagined events the same as it treats “real” events. For example, on a hike, if I misperceive a large black dog to be a black bear, the brain signals a “fear” response that triggers all the same neurotransmitter and hormonal responses that would happen if it were actually a bear.

Many religious traditions take good advantage of this fact. DaidoLooriWhen a devout practitioner visualizes the deity or a venerable person (saints, bodhisattvas, arhats, etc.), the more deeply he or she attends to the visualization (that is, to the imaginary presence), the more “real” the imagined beings become and the more potent the image becomes for altering consciousness and experience.

 

What This Means for Writers

JohnGardnerJohn Gardner talked often about a writer of fiction must maintain a fictional “dream,” not allowing flaws in the writing, plot, or structure of the book to “awaken” the reader from the fictional dream. That dream can be thought of as the reader’s attention to the fictional world’s space, time, action, character, and so on. Becoming immersed in the fictional dream is possible because of the brain’s ability to treat the imagined as real.

For fiction writers (and this may be true of successful non-fiction as well), this inherent brain-capacity in our readers is an invitation to create absorbing, gripping, and emotionally salient worlds in our books and stories, and to ensure by diligent editing and proofreading that no mistakes wake our readers up from that dream-world.

5 Things I Didn’t Know about Self-Publishing

Ignorance.Knowledge

All right, you’ve written that great manuscript and it’s time to self-publish. When I reached that milestone back in 2014, there were five important things I didn’t know. Well, okay, there are dozens and dozens of things I didn’t know, like the difference between the ISBN-10 and the ISBN-13, but those dozens weren’t quite as significant as the Big Five.Here they are.

  1. No Matter Our Reverence for Words, “Free” Never Means “Free.”

You will either do the tasks that need doing, or you’ll pay somebody to do them. Period. There are almost no “free” publishing services. CreateSpace advertises free set up, and IngramSpark waives its set-up fee ($49.00) if you order 50 books. The set up, though, is like making a dinner reservation at a big-name restaurant—sure, the reservation is free, but it’s the meal that counts, so get out your credit card.

CreateSpace, for instance, has free set up, but a book needs a cover (so people can judge it, right?). Of course, unless you’re a graphic designer, you likely will end up with an ugly cover and a failure of an interior. So, you hire somebody, probably for something in the neighborhood of $500.00. Oh, you’ll also need to design the book’s interior, which is a complex business. You can hire a book designer, or you can buy book interior templates from a variety of sources. For example, you can get very nice templates for the interior of your book for as little as $57.00 at Joel Friedlander’s website. Of course, you probably will need to study Joel’s tutorials in order not to botch the job, unless you’re already good at it.

Cover and interior design are only the start of things you’ll need to buy. You’ll purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for each type of book you’re publishing (one for a print version, another for the e-book) and a barcode for each ISBN. Bowker, the only source for ISBNs in the United States, sells ten ISBNs for $295—if you want only one, the ISBN is $125.00. Buying just one means either you put out a print version, or an e-book, but you can’t do both. Buy ten.

There are numerous other up front costs to get the book produced and distributed (on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and a few other places). That just gets the book out into the world, where, unless you do more—or buy more—no one will even know it’s there.

  1. Hooray, Your Book is Published! But Who Noticed?

Congratulations, your masterpiece is ensconced on Amazon.com. Your family and friends visit the page and buy a copy. Every day, you visit your page on Amazon.com and admire it. After friends and family are done buying, your sales stop. Cold. Desperate, you search the web, and discover that there’s a whole sub-industry providing services and products to help self-publishers get their book(s) noticed in the marketplace. The operative word in that sentence is “noticed,” not “sold.” Unnoticed means unsold, so noticed is the first step. About that sub-industry, did I mention that “providing services and products” translates as “selling” them? So once again, you can decide to do it all yourself and spend nothing—which means you need substantial savvy in Internet discoverability (that is, SEO—search engine optimization) and social media connectivity. Otherwise, it’s back to the marketplace for help. Naturally, such help, like any kind of professional help, can be dear. Without it, though, your book won’t be noticed, and there’ll be very little chance of getting any return on the investment you made in producing the book. (I thought word-of-mouth would generate sales. Well, it did. Enough to recoup exactly 0.07% of my expenses.)

  1. Getting from “Noticed” to “Sold.”

Between “being noticed” and “selling books” cost me more than getting the book produced and distributed. I knew I’d have to do some marketing, but I had no idea how. So I bought “services and products” from another sub-industry devoted to marketing (not just to “getting noticed”). Some of those services were worse than worthless—the ones I bought from the company that published the book, for instance. Many, if not most, of the larger self-publishing companies sell relatively cheap publishing packages (“Enormous deal! Publish your book for only . . .!”), and then bundle marketing packages for high prices that you can find far less expensively on the Internet. For instance, my company (who shall remain nameless) sold me three professional reviews (Kirkus, Clarion, and BlueInk) for $2400.00. I bought. Then later, online, I found that if I’d purchased them directly from the reviewers, individually, my cost for all three reviews would have been $1300.00.

Another example: For a “mere” $500.00, I purchased from my publisher an email press release that the company promised to send to 1200 media outlets. It was opened eleven times. Although I did sell about twenty books in the ten days after the press release went out, those buyers were book club members who were friends of mine. There were no sales in any of the markets to which the press release was sent. Hmmm. $500.00 wasted.

Then I went to Keokee Creative in Sandpoint, ID (near where I live), a small, four-person marketing shop. For $85.00, they wrote a punchier press release (when I read it, I thought, “I want to buy this book!”), and I sent it to 50 media outlets in Montana, Idaho, and Washington state. It was opened 36 times and from it, I got a radio interview and two newspaper mentions. In the week after the radio interview, I sold 37 books, the biggest week I’ve had. $85.00.

  1. Okay, I’ll Do the Work Myself. I Just Need a Little Coaching.

Even if you do the actual marketing tasks yourself, unless you have solid experience in book marketing, you’ll very likely need tutoring. And tutoring costs can be as high as all the other costs. Some of these costs for tutorials, webinars, manuals, and books on marketing are well worth it; others, not so much. More to the point, in this sub-industry live multitudes of marketing consultants and coaches. How can you tell if a coach’s or consultant’s fee is money well spent? Here is my four-step method, which I learned the hard way, because when I first published, I didn’t even know that all these consultants and coaches and helpers even existed.

Step 1. Scour the Internet for “how to market a book” or similar combinations. Read dozens of web sites. Check out services and prices. Learn the jargon. Alternately, ask your writer friends for references to marketing consultants who have helped them.

Step 2. When you find a site or a consultant that appeals to you, look for their email list-building offer. Nearly always, they’ll offer you something free (a download, most often) in return for your email address. Sign up and get their offering. (Yes, you’ll start getting weekly or even daily emails from them, which at first makes you feel quite important, before making you feel numb. You can always unsubscribe from the useless ones.)

Step 3. Evaluate the free stuff you get in Step 2 to see what works for you. Some of the free information is, ahem, worthless. You’ll know. Discard those, and unsubscribe to that consultant’s email list. Other downloads, though, are packed with useful advice or guidance.

Step 4. When I learn something useful or new from an author’s free stuff, I pay attention to their paid offerings. When I need to learn something they teach for a price, I pay them.

Here’s one example: I was stuck when it came to optimizing my Facebook presence. There’s a ton of free advice about that floating around, but almost all of it is basic common sense (“Don’t post ‘Please buy my book!’ on Facebook!”), not the sophisticated help I needed. One day, I came across Frances Caballo’s site, “Social Media Just for Writers”, brimming with information that I found both useful (and new to me, a rookie). So I got a free download of something in return for giving her my email address. Some time later, when Frances advertised her “social media audit” (she evaluated my blog, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and my web site) for $99.00, I bought it—and her feedback about my “presence” proved to be enormously valuable.

  1. Writing is Half the Job. Marketing is the Second Half.

I love to write. I don’t love to market. Yet, honestly, I now spend about half my time doing the latter. And I’m okay with that. I promised myself I’d devote three years to marketing my books. I’m ten months in at this point, and I’ve gone from begrudging every minute I spend on it to actually liking some aspects of it. I can’t complain (although I do). My book (in my expert opinion) is worth reading, but people aren’t going to read it unless they notice it and are inspired to pick it up. So, writing leads naturally to marketing—because nobody’s going to step in and do it for me!

(You may have noticed that in this whole article I have not marketed my book, Climbing the Coliseum even once, or asked you to visit my web site, www.BillPercyBooks.com, either! I’m proud that I resisted the temptation. Incidentally, today the book is only $17.49 on Amazon.com.)

Why Do I Write?

A number of people have asked me why I write fiction, after a long career writing academic and training materials in psychology. Superficially, my answer is that I love to tell stories.

 

Once upon a time

 

Forty years of practicing psychotherapy and teaching grad students provided a rich storehouse of stories, from all kinds of people. In some ways, telling these stories is a way of honoring my former clients and students, who taught me so much about the suffering and exhilaration of being human. Of course, such stories are never exact retellings—all are disguised, altered, a detail plucked from here, an outcome from there. None of my former clients could see themselves in any character or in what happens to the characters. But I was telling stories I had heard from people who deserved to have their stories honored.

However, the more I work in fiction, the more I realize that something else is at work as well. At first, when I wrote, I thought like a psychologist. There is a necessary separation between therapist and client, and looking back, I see that unconsciously I kept that distance from my characters. That early writing was not so hot, obviously. Now, as the years—and the books—multiply, I find that I am thinking increasingly as a human being, not as a shrink. To some of my characters, I have grown attached; others I am angry with; but I’m no longer detached.

In my writing now, I see a hunger to enter into the lived experience of my characters, not as an analyst or a therapist, but as a compatriot in this beautiful and troubled world. TroubledWorld BeautifulWorld It seems to me that I am finding my way, paragraph by paragraph, into old age and the final chapters of my own life. I’m learning what it means to change, to accept but never to give in, to let go without letting up. Although my characters include teens, middle-agers, and the elderly, each of them offers me insights into what it means to be alive in a world stocked with challenges at every age. And as these insights accumulate within me, again without my conscious intent, I find myself occasionally content being just who I am, which is a novel experience for me.

There is also a deeper level to why I write, of which I’m only dimly becoming aware. To write fiction is to create a world and to people it. Other writers have spoken of this. Writing fiction is, in that sense, being God. I don’t intend blasphemy, but rather to convey the amazing dignity inherent in creating. According to the Genesis story, you and I are made in God’s image; in creating, we stumble into what must be, except perhaps for compassion and love, our highest nature. What humbles me as I write is the glimpse I’m given of a genuine sense of responsibility for those characters I create. I’ve discovered an obligation to do well by them, to be honest about them—and with them—and to create situations that not only test their mettle, but contain, no matter how deeply hidden, a chance for the best in them to come forth. As in real life, of course, some do not find the best in themselves, but as their creator, I find myself compelled to give them their chance, to allow them their crossroads.

Crossroads

This is an odd sensation, and as I say, I’m only becoming aware of it and what it might mean. To be responsible for and to one’s creatures—what an enormous delight.

The Average Person Isn’t

Alongside highway 200 entering Sandpoint, Idaho, sits the Hoot Owl Café, a venerable diner beloved for its abundant breakfasts and tasty lunches. Outside the Hoot Owl is a sign on which they post witty sayings. These days, the sign reads “The Average Person Thinks She Isn’t.” Avg Person Isn't When I saw it the first time, I laughed, and thought how accurate that sounded.

Since that first sighting, I’ve driven by the sign dozens of times, and each time, I’ve thought about the message. Though it still makes me smile, I now think it’s wrong.

First, a little background.

Several sources credit the quip to Father Larry Lorenzoni, LLorenzonia priest of the Salesian Order in San Francisco. Father Lorenzoni, however, does not appear to be the originator of the saying. In fact, its earliest use appears to be in the New York humor magazine, The Judge, in 1927. Since that time, one website lists at least four additional published appearances of the saying between 1934 and 1987, none of which are attributed to Father Lorenzoni.

There is something ironic about Father Lorenzoni’s use of the quote. Average people (if there are any such) don’t pretend to be the author of something they did not originate. In her book, How to Work a Room, Susan RoAne writes, “I met a significant person in my life on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Father Larry Lorenzoni and I spent an hour chatting, laughing, comparing publications . . .” SRoAneUnfortunately, a fairly deep Google search revealed that Father Lorenzoni has no publications to his credit—except a few letters to the editor—despite “comparing” them with Ms. RoAne’s publications. But there’s more: A further Google search reveals that the good Father also stands accused of sexually molesting young boys in his charge.

Father Lorenzoni is not your average person, obviously, and it appears he doesn’t think he is, either. Not only does he permit his name to be associated, on multiple websites and in books of quotations, with a quote he did not author, not only does he talk of his nonexistent publications with a young woman who is an author, he is accused of sexually abusing children. The average person does none of those things.

Father Lorenzoni’s apparent duplicity is one example of why I think the saying is wrong. My argument is with the notion of an “average person.” An average is a pure mathematical abstraction that cannot be said to describe accurately any real human being. Forty years practicing psychotherapy and teaching psychology to graduate students has taught me that no matter how ordinary a person might seem, that person’s story—or stories—make her unique. And while many people experience similar incidents, and respond in similar ways, always the nuances of their experience and their response are distinctly their own.

Unique? One of a kind? Yes.

When I write fiction, my aim is to tell stories of ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges—challenges that mystify them (and sometimes me!) and demand solutions that reflect the uniqueness of their character. Novelists, like psychologists, look for the patterns in a person’s behavior that define him or her. Some characters could be considered ordinary, average people. But as their challenges mount and their sufferings mount with it, and as their desire and action to change or remove the challenge grows, the complexities of their characters reveal themselves. It isn’t that these average people think they aren’t: These average people aren’t average.

Father Larry Lorenzoni is not your average priest, or even your ordinary priest. If he were a character in a novel, we would learn why, in his uniqueness, he takes credit for things he did not do and conceals the evil that he is said to have done. But we do not know the story. In my lifetime, I have known personally nearly one hundred priests of the Roman church. I am confident that all but two of those have never molested a child. Even those two, living public lives that concealed their private crimes, manifested a powerful commitment to, even love for, the people whom they served. No one is average. Everyone has a story. And nobody’s story is simple. Not even Father Larry Lorenzoni’s.

Write What You Fear!

In last week’s article, I wrote about a cliché that writers hear all the time: “Write what you know.” This week, I’d like to think about another cliché for writers—and for people seeking to live well—namely, “Write [or face] what you fear.”

I first came across this idea in Natalie Goldberg’s masterpiece, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. She wrote, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”NatalieG She has followed her own advice through many books on writing and spirituality (primarily Zen), including her recent heart-breaking memoir centered around her sorrow that the two men she loved the most in her life—her father and her Zen master Katagiri Roshi—had both betrayed her trust. In this book, she lets us see her journey from grief and anger through sorrow to forgiveness and compassion. But on every page, I heard the echo of her words: “Be willing to be split open.”

Natalie’s version of “write what you fear” keeps the focus on the issue that disturbs the writer. To learn about and then write about her discovery of her master’s secret life was a blow to everything she held dear, and she wrote about it after many years of suffering silently with it. But there are other meanings to the phrase.

On the blog “Men with Pens,” “Agent X” wrote about the “7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” (Actually, there are seven separate articles, one for each deadly fear; the link I’ve included takes you to a summary page from which you can link to the individual articles.) Agent X’s list included:

  • fear of rejection,
  • fear of being inadequate,
  • fear of success,
  • fear of exposing oneself,
  • fear that one only has one book inside and that sequels will flop,
  • fear of being too old to write, and
  • fear of research.

Agent X’s advice about overcoming those seven deadly fears might be summed up as, “Just do the work.” Although it’s a bit simplistic, its kernel has merit. The characters in most successful novels must face fear in one form or another, and they “do the work” that they’re afraid of in one way or another—and if they don’t overcome the fear, they are changed by it.

In my forthcoming novel, Nobody’s Savior, for instance, one of the minor characters, a fellow in his sixties, is dying of cancer. Since his early 20s, Art has lived with a secret guilt he has been afraid to face. As he nears the end, he enlists Ed Northrup’s (the main character, a psychologist) help in sorting out that fear, acknowledging it, and telling the story behind it. He dies at peace. I’m sure you know many stories in which characters hide from their fears and suffer for it, or look their fear in the face and somehow bungle their way through.

There is another kind of fear—and facing fear—that is a powerful source of personal and spiritual growth, and an equally powerful driver of narrative story. Think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned 27 years by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Think of his moral stature when he was released and later became president of the country and a world leader. He wrote, in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more Nelson Mandelatimes than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Mandela says he hid his fear “behind a mask of boldness.” The source of his fear was not internal, like Goldberg’s. Mandela was afraid of his world, his environment, his captors, his government. He donned a “mask of boldness” to proclaim to his enemy that he would not be broken.

Does “donning a mask of boldness” against an external threat resemble Agent X’s suggestion that one “just write”? After all, some of the seven deadly fears of writing, like fear of rejection, are fears of what the outer world can do to us. Perhaps just writing is a small version of “donning the mask of boldness.”

Recovering addicts like the saying, “Fake it till you make it.” Write till it’s all right. Don the mask of boldness. I’m not proposing that the writer’s fear compares in moral stature to the fear felt by Natalie Goldberg to expose the great tragedy in her life, nor that the lonely writer at her desk faces the same degree of fear that Mandela felt in a country organized to destroy him and his people.

I do mean to suggest, though, that human beings, including writers, have fears that are real and oppressive, fears that stunt our growth when we don’t address them. The advice to “write what you fear” points directly at that. But it goes far beyond writing. All of us, whatever we do, die a little when we hide from our fear, and all of us grow a little when we face it, when we don the mask of boldness, when we write.

Should I Write What I Know?

The world of writing is littered with clichés about writing for young writers (and to old guys who are young writers, like me). One of the most famous is that I should “write what I know.” I’ve been wondering what that really means?

I read something by Wallace Stegner, who ought to know a thing or two about writing. He said, “If you have to urge a writing student to ‘gain experience with life,’ he is probably never going to be a writer. Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.” Any life—that is, my life, your life—is enough. Don’t wait, in other words, to gain experience of life; just live and pay attention and write from there.

Carl Jung seems to say something similar. C.G.JungIn his book Psychology of the Unconscious, he spoke about how young psychologists should go about learning their craft. What he says—making allowance for his old fashioned male-centered language—applies to writers as well:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.

Ernest Hemingway seems at times to agree, then at others, to disagree. Hemingway WritingFor instance, in a Paris Review interview, the incomparable George Plimpton asked Hemingway, “What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?”

Hemingway answered,

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Now that’s a stringent version of “write what you know”! On the other hand, at the end of the same interview, Hemingway said,

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive . . .

The invention of “a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive”—that’s what matters, not what I already know. Like many of Hemingway’s pithy statements, though, there is a time bomb hidden in those little words, “. . . and all those [things] you cannot know . . .” How do you take things you cannot know and “make something through your invention”? Hemingway won’t say. Plimpton asked him how he had developed this style. He said, “That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write.”

Harrumph.

Bret Anthony Johnson wrote a provocative piece for The Atlantic’s 2011 Fiction Issue titled “Don’t Write What You Know.”BretAnthonyJohnston It’s well worth taking the time to read—if you’re interested in the topic, which if you’ve gotten this far in my post, you probably are! His point, though, to sum it up, is contained in this fairly long quote:

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.

Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.

What do I think? I think the same thing that all these writers think: The real-world facts don’t count as much as how closely I have observed and attended to them. It’s out of that close attention that my imagination can bring fire to the fuel of the factual. Mary Oliver used to write about this (you can read my blog article about this if you’d like).

This may well be a principle about spiritual living: To attend to one’s life, to one’s experience, to one’s internal and behavioral movements, is the heart of the spiritual life. Thomas Merton wrote,

We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us.

And Thomas Merton should know.

“What if . . .?” How I Built the Plot of “Climbing the Coliseum”

At readings and book signings, folks often ask how I came up with the idea for my novel, Climbing the Coliseum. I don’t have any secret method. In fact, I’ve heard the process I use at many writers’ conferences and read about it in a number of places. ClimbCover-252pxFor example, Darcy Pattison, an author of children’s fiction, has written a blog article discussing the two questions thousands of fiction writers use to develop their plots: “What if . . .?” and “Why?” I’m going to show the process I go through, using the plotting of my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, as an example.

I usually start with the evening news. I did that with Climbing, with my second novel Nobody’s Savior (coming later this year), and with my third (I’m unsure of the title, but it’ll be out next year). For Climbing, the news item that started me thinking was a 2009 story about the violent anti-government group, the Posse Comitatus.  (The Bundy family, who led armed standoffs in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016, have been linked to the Posse Comitatus.) In 2009, an armed member of the group had died in a shootout with the FBI. That grabbed my attention, and since I care a lot about issues of violence in our communities, I sensed it could be an interesting premise for a story. At the same time, I had encountered a psychotherapy case (I was not the therapist, but was consulted about the case) of a fourteen-year-old teenage girl. One afternoon, her mother had dropped her off for her session—and failed to pick her up. Ultimately, we learned that the mother had a serious drug problem, and for her protection, the girl entered foster care.

These two items, unrelated and hardly alike, intrigued me. My main character was a psychologist (of course—write what you know, right?), so I wondered, what if those two stories happened to his patients? It made sense, but at this point, neither story was strong enough to carry a whole novel, and aside from linking them through the psychologist, why would they work together?

Novels require conflict and tension. The characters must experience the frustration of their goals, obstacles to their desires. Novelists search for ways to generate those obstacles and to ramp up the tension. I needed to make the basic situations more difficult, more tense, more conflicted. Here’s where “What if . . .?” and “Why?” questions come in. A requirement is that each answer had to make things worse for one or more of the characters. Let’s begin with the extremist group story.

What if an otherwise innocent guy, whom I named Victor, got caught up in a group like the Posse? Well, why would he do that? What if he was in tax trouble and mistakenly thought the meetings were about solving tax problems, not about evading taxes and revolting against the government? What if Vic isn’t the psychologist’s patient, but his wife Maggie is? Okay, but why is Maggie in therapy? What if she believes her husband’s having an affaire—when in fact he’s sneaking off to his meetings, which he refuses to talk about? What if her fear of Vic’s affaire causes depression and brings her into therapy?

Fine, but I needed more tension, more conflict!

What if, to earn the group’s help with his tax problem, Vic is coerced into performing illegal acts? Why would he go along with that? Well, what if Vic is the sort of man whose pride forbids him from admitting weakness or failure (such as losing his ranch because of the back taxes), so he “goes along to get along”—and thus does the illegal acts? What if, when he finally faces his basic values and tries to leave the group, the ensuing violence affects his wife, Maggie, which brings Vic’s activities to the attention both of the psychologist, Ed Northrup, and of the sheriff’s department—which creates a whole new level of trouble for Vic and Maggie–and therefore, for Ed.

I “what-iffed” the girl’s story as well. What if her mother turns out to be Ed Northrup’s ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in almost thirty years? That raised a big “why,” which drove the plot! What if the mother literally cannot be found? Again, why would she disappear like that? The answer to those two “whys”—her motivations—created a powerful plot twist, which I won’t give away here (in case you want to read the book). Suffice it to say that the mother’s motivation creates a profound challenge for Ed Northrup. What if, while the search for the mother is going on, he’s started to care about Grace? What if this forces him to realize that he must find a way to prevent the Montana Child Protection Department from taking her into its custody. Why would they do that? Ed is required to report child neglect–which is the case here. What if he fails in his legal duty? As his attachment to Grace grows, what if Ed realizes that this situation re-enacts a tragedy that drove him from Minnesota so long ago, and thus forces him to deal with the suppressed guilt and depression that stem from it?

After those simple questions, the two story lines came together through their link to the main character, Ed Northrup, the psychologist.

Initially, I had thought of the book as being about Ed Northrup, sort of an Alex Delaware in Montana. But why Montana? Time for more “What if . . .?” questions. Why did Ed move to Montana twenty-some years ago? Well, what if he had moved to Montana to start over after a tragedy back in Minnesota? What if that tragedy had actually cost the life of another patient, another fourteen-year-old girl, whom Ed was treating? What if his ex-wife—Grace’s vanished mother—had divorced him because of that tragedy and its aftermath? What if her appearance in Montana and his sudden responsibility for Grace gave him a “second chance” to save a kid—would he take that chance? Why would he? Why would he not?

But a psychologist cannot carry on a search for a missing mother. That’s the job of the police. Voilá, I needed cops, both to search for the mother and to investigate the violence Vic and Maggie got caught up in. So two new important characters entered the story—Ben Stewart, the county sheriff, and his deputy, Andrea Pelton. What if Ben and Andi were already investigating Vic’s illegal activity? What if, after Ed reports the missing mother, he and deputy Andi Pelton collaborate on both cases. And what if they develop an attraction for one another?

At this point, I hadn’t actually figured out what happened to the mother, Mara. This goes back to the unanswered questions earlier: Why did Mara come to Montana, and why did she abandon Grace? But when those answers fell into place, a new tension emerged: What if there was no one to take care of Grace? Why not Ed? Mountain townWhat if that is impossible—in small-town Montana, a single man bringing an underage girl would be unacceptable. This led to another what if: What if a recently widowed older woman took her in? What if, after doing so, the older woman falls seriously ill and Grace has nowhere to stay?

These questions did not exhaust the plot building, but they gave me the bones of a story big enough to sustain a novel (a book that was named a Finalist in the Foreword Review’s 2014 Book of the Year competition, IndieFab). All I needed was a few days’ work and a relentless commitment to keep cranking up the conflict and tension. Every answer to the “what if” and “why” questions had to lead to a worsened situation, something that backs the character(s) against a harder wall.

After outlining the skeleton, as I wrote and as the book grew flesh around those bones, new opportunities to make things worse for the characters emerged, calling for more rounds of “what if . . .?” and “why?” It’s a fun way to get started on the project, because it stimulates that most valuable asset a writer has, one’s imagination.

What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson

It’s a hard day when a writer encounters two others whose books are so good that he is forced to decide never to write another word. And that day gets harder when one of those wonderful writers creates stories that, in characters, setting, and overall tenor, remind the poor writer of his own. And the second excellent writer? She writes an entirely different kind of novel so well and so intimately that the poor guy has no choice but to give up writing altogether and take ukulele lessons.

Uke Lesson

That poor writer is me, and the two great ones are Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series (both the books and the Netflix series), and Marilynne Robinson, author of the Gilead trilogy, and most recently, Lila. It was Lila that nudged me over the edge toward the ukulele, and it was Johnson’s Walt Longmire books that first made me mutter, “I’m not writing another word.”

What is it about their writing that so affects me? To put it better, if I’m going to stay in the game and not learn the uke, what can I learn from these two very different masters? Let me start with Death Without CompanyCraig Johnson.

Johnson never departs from the story he is telling: no detours or digressions, no long soliloquies, just story. But in telling the story, he will add a phrase, or sometimes only a word, that captures a character’s enormous but almost hidden emotion, or the breathtaking beauty of a setting he barely takes time to describe. Here’s an example from Death without Company, the second Longmire book.

It’s on page three. It’s winter. Sheriff Walt Longmire has paced a path in the snow along the cemetery fence, impatiently listening to the gravedigger’s chatter. The ground being frozen, the gravedigger launches into a long riff on burial customs around the world. It’s funny, because Jules, the gravedigger, is driving Walt crazy. Underneath, though, there’s a tightening of some unspoken tension: Who died? Why is the sheriff out here pacing in the cold? What happened?

Then we read this, written in Walt’s first person point of view:

You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations [with Jules], I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones flat, but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a week since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.

When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still (pp. 2-3).

After two-and-a-half pages of near comedy tinged with premonition of something not fun, we get that paragraph describing frozen grave mounds waiting to be tamped down when the earth thaws, and then it’s “as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes.” And before the almost Homeric power of that can sink in—the earth refusing to accept a dead woman!—Johnson brings us inside Walt Longmire, where his “world inside is still.”

Throughout his books, Johnson does that: After a long focusing on the external action (in the excerpt, the comedic chatter of Jules—remember the two joking gravediggers in Hamlet?—and the setting (the frozen mounds awaiting spring), Johnson in a short sentence or two will give us a glimpse (and often only a glimpse) into Walt Longmire’s emotional response. But not too deeply or long. “Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.” By setting things up this way, when the moment comes for Sheriff Longmire to have a profound emotional experience (and in Johnson’s novels, that moment always comes), we’ve had so many fleeting glimpses that we are as deeply moved as Walt Longmire is.

Now let’s turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Unlike the sheriff of Absaroka County, Lila is a nobody. Abandoned as a toddler and rescued by a woman drifter who taught her the life of itinerant workers, Lila eventually became a prostitute, then a homeless wanderer. Lila CoverDuring her travels, she meets and marries an old preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead (the title of the first book in this series). They love each other in their own way, but each fears the other will find him or her unsatisfactory. The preacher, John Ames, can tell her, haltingly, of his love and need for her, but she cannot believe it will last, nor can she voice her own fear that he will learn about her past and banish her. She tells him almost nothing about herself. And the context of this agonized reticence for both is the knowledge that the old man will die long before Lila gets old. Then Lila becomes pregnant, delivers a son, and . . . that’s it. In Lilathat’s all the action there is.

All the action on the outside, that is. But inside Lila’s and John’s minds, the characters’ rich, evocative, and poignant musing and rejoicing and fearing and longing are complex—and complete—worlds in themselves. We view scenes of intense external action nearly always through Lila’s remembering and pondering them. Page after page of inner monolog carry us back to Lila’s earliest days, or show us the formative, dreadful experiences she endured, or project us out into the futures she imagines so entirely plausibly that we feel with her the same shiver of fear or despair (or occasionally, hope) that she feels about the life she imagines she will end up living.

Listen: Lila is pregnant, has spent the morning rocking and thinking and trying to understand the Book of Job, since her husband is a preacher and she wishes to understand him. It is 11 o’clock, and she’s waiting for the Reverend, as she calls him, to come home for lunch. We join her thoughts, which she will never share with John Ames, for fear he’d find her shallow:

She felt good, and the baby was moving around more than ever, elbows and knees. The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were. She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is pp. 171-172).

It’s in this stream of her consciousness (not stream of consciousness in the technique sense, but in the real-life sense, thoughts weaving together one by one into a skein of meaning) that we come to know Lila. Through her thinking about her husband, we know him too. Remember that sentence about his searching her face for a sign of sadness: Lila’s thoughts show us, more poignantly and fleetingly than any words John might say, his fragile fearful love.

After that, she thinks about dying when the baby comes, and how “here’s my body, dying on me, when I almost promised him I wouldn’t let it happen.” This makes her wonder if perhaps her concern for her husband meant that . . .

. . . she was something besides her body, but what was the good of that when she’d be gone anyway and there’d be nothing in the world that could comfort him. She guessed she really was married to him, the way she hated the thought of him grieving for her (p. 172).

We stay inside Lila’s mind (and heart) like this for long stretches throughout the novel, and I never found a moment of it dry or slow or boring. All the scenes in which action takes place are filtered and formed by her inner perceptions of them. Thought by thought, desire by desire, Lila grew on me, grew into me. All of us have been abandoned, have grown hard and scarred over, have secret escape plans and doubts about the ones who love us most. And like Lila, most of us rise up and through those to a higher place, or at least a glimpse of one. To live with Lila over the span of her life and 260 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, measured, thoughtful, and simple prose was, for me, to become alive again to all the contradictions that fill my loves and eventually are healed by them.

Read with me the closing lines, remembering that these are the musings of a woman on whom life had scraped the thickest scars and hardened the most tender heart of any deeply wounded character in literature I know.

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d know forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean that he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew (p. 260-261).

Geraniums

I imagine you can see, now, why after reading Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson, I wondered if I should write another word. They tell me, yes.

How I’ve Learned to Value Marketing my Books.

My second novel, Nobody’s Savior, is getting it’s final edit and proofreading, after which I’ll make the necessary last corrections and improvements, and then it will be ready to publish. Those of you who write know what comes next: getting out to sell it! In the past, marketing has been an unpleasant chore for me. Green MonarchsI much prefer sitting at my desk, gazing at the lake and the mountains outside my window and immersing myself in my fictional creations. Solo, quiet, perfect job for a part-time introvert, right? (I’m a “part-time introvert” in the sense that I score right at the mid-point of the scale of introversion-extroversion.)

Yes, but being an introvert-who-doesn’t-sell-his-books isn’t so cool. (Disclaimer: I’m retired, and have a good income, so I don’t really need to live on book sales—but recouping the costs of editing and publishing would be swell!) So over the years since my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, came out, I’ve been learning about marketing books.

Now, learning is something I’m good at, and I learn best in one of two ways: reading and talking to people. Being a part-time introvert, I usually pick reading first. So, I’ve pored over maybe twenty-five fine volumes of book-marketing advice and theory. Those books taught me a lot, and I’m still lerning, and not just about marketing—I have come to know better the discomforts I feel about self-promotion; more on that in a moment.

Another smart step was to hire a creative marketing team in Sandpoint, ID, Keokee Creative,Keokee Creative [INSERT logo] who helped me overcome my reluctance to get involved with social media. I had a web site, and they improved it. Thanks to Chris and his team, my author platform took it up a couple of notches.

I made a huge mistake when Climbing the Coliseum first came out: failing to set up any expectations for it—no one but my wife knew the book was coming! Release day on Amazon, B&N, and other places, was like the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest—not a sound! Not a soul knew it was out! Well, I won’t make that mistake again. If you’ve liked my Facebook author page (or if you haven’t, please visit and Like it!), or my LinkedIn page (and if you haven’t been there, perhaps you’d be kind enough to go and connect with me), you’ll get notices now and then about the progress of Nobody’s Savior.

Why did I fail to build “book buzz” when I was starting out? Sheer, outright discomfort with talking about myself. When I would go into a bookstore or get in a conversation with someone, before making my pitch I’d invariably make an uncomfortable joke about “shameless self-promotion.” Though I framed it as humor, I actually did feel embarrassed to ask people to buy my book; sometimes I even hemmed and hawed rather than simply telling them it was available. AuntiesBooks logoThen, at a reading in Spokane at Auntie’s Bookstore, I had a revelation: I really liked sharing my book, my words, and my writing experience with those people. Standing in front of the little audience (five people came, including my wife Michele, two friends, and the book store events manager. In other words, I had one new fan!), I realized I was having a good time. Talking about myself! From that point on, I’ve been learning to think differently about “marketing.” Let me share how that is.

Actually, that’s the word: “Share.” I love my novels, I enjoy writing them, revising them, editing them, packaging them, and reading from them. Heck, I like looking at them on bookstore shelves and in their tidy piles beside my dresser. The truth is, I think they offer people something valuable. Less and less do I think of the transaction as a commercial one, and more and more as sharing with people something of value.

And what is that value? My novels—like those of so many authors—tell stories of psychological and investigative work among empathetic and engaging people, who grow and change through their experiences doing their work and solving their problems. From forty years as a psychologist and family therapist, I have lots of stories to build on, and I’ve learned that the work of good psychotherapy can sometimes be a lot like detective work. When I write, I keep two values in the foreground: creating sound psychological stories that are also intriguing and entertaining; and complicating them with investigation into hard-to-understand, but ultimately human, mysteries, often crimes. To support that dual structure, one main character, Ed Northrup, is a psychologist; to support the second part, sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (also Ed’s love) is the other main character. And I write secondary characters designed to engage readers’ empathy and emotion (both positive and negative), and sometimes to make them laugh.

So what’s the value I offer in my books? You like to see how other human beings deal with their problems, right? I think we all enjoy learning what baggage others bring to their challenges, what baser motives and what nobler instincts, what courage and what fear, what intelligence and what blindness. We like to read about what others are up against and how they deal with it, because such stories enrich us, gives us at least the pleasure of a good read and, at most, a deepened sense of our common humanity.

Reading novels like mine opens another corner of the human world to our gaze and our understanding, and I think that’s valuable in a day and age when demonizing others rather than struggling to understand them—and yes, to have sympathy with them—is too common in the public arena. So I have come to think that “marketing” activities are the activities I can engage in to share what I offer to my readers.

I hope you’ll join with me on Facebook or LinkedIn, or follow this blog and visit my web site at www.billpercybooks.com—I believe you’ll be glad you did.

See? Shameless self-promotion!

How to Write a Novel

Edited page.1

No doubt, the title is a bit grand, isn’t it? I’m not really going to tell you how to write a novel. Instead, I’m going to share with you a “progress note” about my second book, Nobody’s Savior. Those of you who’ve read the first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, will recognize the characters–Ed Northrup (the psychologist), Andi Pelton (the deputy sheriff and now Ed’s lover), Grace (Ed’s sixteen-year-old adopted daughter), Sheriff Ben Stewart, gay bartender Ted Coldry, rancher Magnus Anderssen, and assorted others. And you’ll recognize the setting, the (fictional) town of Jefferson, set in the (equally fictional) Monastery Valley in southwest Montana.

Nobody’s Savior started life, actually, as part of Climbing the Coliseum. It was a subplot about Magnus Anderssen’s mysterious psychological breakdown and Ed’s efforts to help him figure out the cause. But my editor, Lorna Lynch, pointed out what should have been obvious to me, even as a rookie: That book was too long. Way too long. Most editors and agents say a first novel should be around 80- to 90-thousand words; that first version of Climbing clocked in at 180,000! So Magnus’s story had to go: Now, it’s the backbone of Nobody’s Savior.

Unfortunately, the Magnus material, taken out of Climbing, was only 48,000 words, not really enough for a full novel. Besides, I’d fallen in love with Grace and there was nothing for Grace to do in Magnus’s story! Nor was there anything for Andi Pelton, who at the end of Climbing had taken up a more intimate relationship with Ed. As a psychologist, Ed couldn’t violate Magnus’s privacy by discussing the case with Andi, so what was she going to do?

waseca3n-3-web

Back in 2014, I read about a 17-year-old high school junior who’d been arrested in Waseca, Minnesota for amassing an arsenal of guns and bombs, with which he planned to kill as many of his fellow students as he could. Bingo! I had a job for Andi Pelton and the Sheriff’s Department! That story–of Jared Hansen (not the real plotter’s name), the good boy who turned terrorist without explanation–became the backbone of Andi’s role in the novel, and naturally, since Jared appeared to have become paranoid (again, without any obvious explanation), Ed could work with her and the other deputies to solve the case. And given Jared’s popularity at school, Grace too could weigh in, because she knew and liked Jared. Whew! The old gang rides again.

Of course, having a story to tell doesn’t amount to having a novel to sell! So since mixing the Jared story into the Magnus story, I’ve written five drafts, gotten a developmental edit, revised yet another draft, and sent the manuscript off for the final copy edit and proofreading. One more revision when it comes back, and Nobody’s Savior should be ready for me to launch and for you to read. Stay tuned, and watch this space!