The title says it all. The writer has no brain this morning. I’m a week away from the release of Light Magic, the next book in the Eerie Side of the Tracks series. That means I’m living on lots of coffee, not enough food (because I forget to eat) and a brain turned to mush by editing. Add in the fact I’m also writing on the next project for a couple of hours at night because, as usual, Myrtle the Evil Muse is evil. It is so bad that I haven’t taken time to read a book I’d been looking forward to that was released yesterday. Sniffle.
So figuring out what to blog about has had me staring at my computer screen without inspiration coming. Well, that’s not exactly true. Myrtle, laughing maniacally, reminds me that I didn’t finish a certain scene I’d been writing last night. She oh-so-subtly reminds me I could post it here, let you see a scene in progress. Not only no, but hell no. For one, the scene isn’t finished — do you have any idea how difficult it is to write a sex scene with your mother sitting across the room from you?
Yes, that’s right. Myrtle the Evil Muse is that evil. She had me trying to write sex — SEX — with my 86-year-old mother sitting in the same room with me. I don’t know about the rest of you but, dayum, that’s a sure way to shut down the writing. As I told a friend last night, there are a lot of [put action here] comments in the scene that I have to go back and insert today.
Stop laughing! It’s not funny. You try writing a sex scene with your mother in the room — and wanting to talk to you about what she’s watching on TV.
So the writer’s brain is not braining this morning.
Even so, there’s something I want those of you who write or who are creators of any sort to think about. Think about those who have helped you over the years, who encouraged you in your love of your craft. I’m not necessarily talking about your parents or siblings, your best friend or significant other. No, I’m talking about those teachers and others who gave of their time and support, who weren’t afraid to give the hard advice or tell you what you just did wasn’t the best you were capable of. Those who pushed you to strive to improve your craft and who understood you did this because it was part of you, something not to be denied.
What started me thinking about this was seeing an obituary in one of our local papers several days ago. Dorothy Estes was a legend on the University of Texas at Arlington campus for her work with the school newspaper and as an instructor. I didn’t have Dorothy as an instructor during my time at UTA, either as an under grad or while doing some post-grad work. I knew her through her husband, Dr. Emory Estes, chair of the English Department. The first time I saw them together, I was struck by how they “fit” together. They really were two halves of a single whole. As I got to know them better, I began to understand what excellent instructors they were.
I had the pleasure of being one of Dr. E’s students. He pushed each of us to be our best, just as Dorothy did with her students. As a writer, they both taught me the importance of listening to my readers. It’s important to write what I want to write — after all, if I don’t enjoy the genre or the characters, my writing will show it — but I have to keep in mind what the readers want. Even when breaking genre rules, as a writer it is important to remember certain expectations have to be met. Not every romance has to have a happily ever after, but it does have to have romance and there has to be a reason the readers can accept — even if they don’t like it — for not having that HEA. But to be able to break the rules, you have to know what they are first. Most of all, they stressed having the courage to take that first step and show someone what you’re writing, someone who will give you an honest opinion of both what you did well but what you need to improve upon.
Something else Dr. E taught me in a post-grad course was something I’ve held close to me since then. A good writer can and will have at least one message in her work. But that message isn’t presented as an in-your-face part of the book. It is subtly woven into the various parts, not hidden but not shouting “Hey! Look at me!”. Fiction is, for the vast majority of readers, a means of entertainment. It is a way of escaping the trials and tribulations of every day life. It is a way for them to take a vacation from the stress and worry of the moment for a few minutes or hours and we have to remember that.
Note, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a message. I’m saying it should be part of the story, subtle but there. Something that a developed just as carefully and creatively as we develop the plot and our characters.It isn’t a missive nailed to the church doors. If the message is such that it removes the enjoyment from the story, or interferes with it, readers will put the book down and rarely come back.
But, Amanda, what about those who say writers have a duty to educate their readers?
First of all, I say bullshit. That’s not our job. It isn’t what the readers are paying us for. They pay to be entertained, at least if they are buying fiction. Second, most readers who want to be “educated” will buy a non-fiction title. But that doesn’t mean we can’t write books that entertain and make them think. We just have to be smart about how we do it. Don’t preach. Don’t make it obvious there is a checklist of types of characters or themes we are trying to cover. Be crafty and creative.
Okay, maybe the brain isn’t as dead as I thought. As I lift my cup of coffee to the memory of Dr. E and Dorothy, I remember and thank all the others who helped push me to follow my dream. My cousin Clarice who told me stories about her grandfather, my great-grandfather, who ran a newspaper in Colorado before moving the family to Kansas. My grandmother who told me about her brother, my Great-Uncle Jack, who was the youngest linotype operator in the country at one point. Again, my cousin Clarice who urged me not to make the mistake her father, Herb, did. He wanted to be a playwright but who gave in to family pressure to be “respectable”. He was that and more, but he always regretted not giving his dreams a chance to fly.
There are others as well. Mrs. Winslow, my seventh grade English teacher, the first person to catch me writing fiction and demand to read it. Okay, I should have been working on my assignment at the time. the next day, she gave me back my notebook, along with a critique of what she’d read. Yes, there were a lot of red marks on the pages but at the end was a note of encouragement. The story was there. I just needed to learn the conventions of the genre and the technical aspects of writing.
As writers — heck, as creators of any sort — we need people like this. So consider this your chance to thank those who helped you develop your craft and follow your muse. For those who don’t consider yourselves creators, do me a favor. Tell us what you think about message in fiction and the way you most enjoy seeing it in a story.
And now, back to work for me. Until later!