When a Writer Stops Writing

What causes a writer to stop writing? Stop. Not quit. Quitting is different. Quitting is walking away with the intention of not going back. Quitting is a decision that something has served its purpose, is futile, is no longer viable or desirable. Quitting is giving up, giving away, giving yourself a better option.

Most writers never quit. Most writers can’t quit. There is always some element–a thought, observation, a scrap of dialogue–that suggests a character, a line of poetry, a sentence, or a paragraph. Writers are like musicians who hear music everywhere (the sound of water flowing over rocks; the beat tires make hitting the pavement on a particular stretch of road).

Writers often wake up with an idea for a poem, story, essay, or book before they’ve had their first cup of morning coffee. Sometimes, a remembered dream gives birth to an idea for a great narrative. Do they bound out of bed and develop their idea, write while the concept is fresh in their memory?

Some do, but not all, and not all the time.

Days, weeks, and months can go by without one word being written–by people who like to write. I don’t think it has much to do with that old catchall, “writer’s block.” I suspect many writers aren’t blocked; they just aren’t writing.

If we identify ourselves as writers, we are frequently asked, “What are you working on now?” Often, we murmur something like, “Oh, I’m in the editing stage.” “Too soon to go public.” “Just finishing my novel, (chapbook, essay collections, etc.).” Rarely do we tell the truth, “I have a lot of half-finished stuff on my computer, but I just haven’t felt like working on it.”

It’s difficult (often guilt inducing) to admit this when we are constantly admonished to climb out of a warm bed at 4 a.m. and write for several hours–before putting in a full day’s work at the job that really pays, or attending to personal or family needs.  We are told to stare at a blank computer page until an idea comes, even if it takes several hours. Why would we want to do that? And why assume we are blocked, heads as empty as a gourds? If there is no desire to write at a particular moment, staring at a computer screen or a blank piece of paper isn’t going to be an attitude changer. Neither is putting in a prescribed number of hours per day at the keyboard (regardless of output) going to make a difference.

Most writers I know, when they are motivated and excited about what they are working on, will spend every available moment writing, forgoing activities, pleasures, and frequently the necessary breaks–barely stopping for lunch or dinner. For them, it’s about being “in the zone,” not enforced writing practices.

I haven’t been writing much lately (this blog site attests to that neglect). No excuses. I just haven’t been in the mood. I’m thinking that isn’t a bad thing, because I’ve gained a new perspective on several projects, thought of some new twists on old projects, and will probably welcome time at the keyboard soon.

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Some People Rescue Dogs

Some people rescue dogs: old, young, abused, abandoned, incorrigible, lost, or otherwise rejected. I admire those rescuers, both for their compassion and for their willingness to dedicate a significant amount of time and resources to restoring an animal’s security.

I’ve rescued a few cats over the years, including the current one, who has never, in her 13 years, been able to decide if she wants in or out. Mainly though, I rescue plants. There is less care involved and, if they totally fail to revive, I don’t have a guilty conscience over tossing them into the trash can.

Summer is the time of year I go into full rescue mode. Although the savings are significant, that’s not the real reason I gather scraggly, wilted plants from clearance tables–preventing them from being thrown out by the garden store or market vendor.

Perhaps I’m influenced by the advice my parents gave me, “Don’t discard anything that’s “still good.” However, I have a more compelling reason for hauling home half-dead plants every year. It’s the challenge. Can I revive this plant? Will it flourish? Surprisingly, nearly all of them do. They are tenacious; I love that about them.

My kitchen window sports a large pot full of blooms. An outdoor container has moss roses spreading their vivid color, and a geranium outside the kitchen door is doing it’s best to produce a flower cluster now and then.

And . . .

I also have a hard drive loaded with short stories, both partial and complete. Add to those the completed manuscript of a novel I’ve decided to revive, numerous essays, some creative-nonfiction pieces, and assorted poems. Some were rejected; some never submitted. A number of them are uneven, rough, or outdated. The question? Are they worth rescuing?

During an NPR interview with Nora Roberts in which Peter Sagal asked her if she ever experienced writer’s block. Did she ever run out of ideas? She told him, “Oh, no. There are 88 keys on the piano, but do you run out of music?” I couldn’t stop thinking about that answer, because why not rescue bits and pieces of our writing and give them a second chance in a different form.

If you are one of those incredibly talented–or just damn lucky–people who haven’t garnered a collection of rejection slips, I applaud (and definitely envy) you. But, if you have, like many writers I know, felt the despair of defeat a few times, then consider my rescue theory. Maybe that novel, story, essay, or poem isn’t dead; it doesn’t need to gather digital dust in your documents folder. Treat it like the dog, cat, or plant that’s been given another chance to thrive.

Your work may fit into a different genre than you thought it did. It may require tweaking to make it age appropriate, or interest a slightly different audience, but that usually doesn’t require an extensive rewrite. Maybe it just need to be condensed to fit current publishing guidelines, or expanded to enhance your overall theme.

Sometimes all it takes is a shift in chronology to appeal to the contemporary reader. A nod to the pervasiveness of social media might suffice. Changing the titles of the songs your characters listen to; upgrading the model of car they drive; modernizing their language, including slang, can make your work seem fresh and new.  Even recognizing current concerns–economics, politics, the environment–can revive a moribund manuscript.

The publishing market for genre changes as well. For a while, memoirs were in demand, then they were glut on the market. With the advent of reality shows, there is still a market for good memoirs that have a universal theme. A former adult novel may now be suitable for YA with few changes. Dystopian fiction, ignored by publishers in the past, may be highly relevant in 2017. I hope you root around in your file drawer, or on your computer, and find something wonderful you forgot you wrote.

Happy salvaging.

Finding Your Tribes

Using the terms tribe or tribal can be risky. To some, these words carry deep meaning, while to others they are simply convenient nomenclature.

On the serious side, tribe can indicate a deeply traditional group sharing a common culture, ethnicity, religion, economy, or circumstance. The term tribe or tribal in this case is not only serious, but often sacred.

In a more casual usage, it can refer to people who form a community (often scattered) because they share a common interest, experience, or goal. In this case, they are usually more ”kindred spirits” than actual “kin.” To say, ‘My tribe,” is a way of aligning oneself with a group: mountain climbers, knitters, survivors, artists, or maybe just the people you went to school with or that lived in your neighborhood.

I live in a border state–not completely southern, but not northern either. April seems to be the month everyone chooses to plan their yearly events, probably because Spring is usually lovely here. This April was no exception: book fairs, receptions, award dinners and cultural events all fell within a two week span. The book fair brought me into contact with my “writing tribe.” I enjoyed seeing old friends and meeting new authors I admired. It was fun; it was comfortable; it was great shop talk.

Near the end of April, I was invited to a potluck luncheon at the college where I’d formerly taught. I left teaching over a decade ago in order to spend time writing, traveling, renovating a dwelling. I almost didn’t go, thinking I’d not have much in common with the current group of profs and instructors. At the last minute, I made a dish and showed up. True to my expectations, I didn’t know most of the people teaching there now. Some of my former colleagues had retired; two had died; several were still teaching, but had skipped the luncheon. What I didn’t anticipate was the benefit of being in touch with people I hadn’t talked to for a dozen years.

The pleasure of connecting to several former colleagues and friends outweighed any awkwardness I’d initially felt. We hugged, we gossiped, we laughed, and of course, we ate. I’d still like to know who brought the great chicken wings, and where they purchased them.

I left the luncheon thinking, “That was great; I was with my tribe.” Tribe is not a term I use; I never even think to use it, but it was the phrase that kept running through my mind. I realized then that we can, and do, belong to more than one tribe, and that for someone interested in writing, it’s a valuable tool.

Although several of the people at the luncheon were writers–and in fact taught English–others taught science, mathematics, computer programming. Our shared teaching background, however, soon established a level of trust, and our casual conversation became more serious, touching on the real concerns, joys, and sorrows we’d all experienced.

Why is finding more than one “tribe” valuable to writers? One of the more obvious is that writing is a lonely endeavor, often isolating. We sit at our computers, tablets, or maybe an old IBM and write. It’s not like cooking with friends in the kitchen, cheering us on and refilling our wine glass while tasting our latest dish. Rather, it is a room or corner where we can concentrate–and agonize–alone.

Fiction writers need to create a variety of characters with depth, personality, believable motivation and authentic dialogue. If we are writing a story or novel set in the present day, we need to keep the technology and jargon current. I can’t think of a better way than to connect with a former group with which you shared an interest, even if it seems like a couple of lifetimes ago. The old maxim, “Nothing changes; everything changes,” couldn’t be more true.

While the warmth and shared memories may give you pleasure, your writer’s mind can also file away a lot of useful information and impressions. The next time you create a character, he or she may present as a more authentic personality; speak the current language of their environment, pursue new dreams, and face new challenges appropriate to the times.

Is There a Snowball’s Chance in Hell?

With apologies to my winter-sports loving family and friends, I am happy I haven’t had to deal with snow or snowballs this year–compared to the last two winters when snowstorms  presented multiple headaches.

I’m thinking about another kind of snowball, based on my attempt to shake off winter ennui. First, to give credit where it’s due, I used to occasionally hear a financial advisor on the radio who presented the “snowball” theory of freeing oneself from debt. Starting with paying off the  smallest debt, he then suggested progressing to the next largest, and on up the line. Providing a sense of accomplishment and slow, steady progress, his method was popular and, as far as I know, workable.

I discovered the same general idea works for kicking the procrastination that winter can induce; you know, the urge to wrap up in a warm throw, sip a mug of something hot, and read a great book. Of course, while I was doing this, I wasn’t writing or even (sorry) attending to this blog.

Then, I glanced at a literary newsletter and discovered a play contest. I’ve written nonfiction, novels, short stories and poems, but  I’ve only made one attempt at a play, and that was years ago. Still, if I could pull it off, I might have a chance to see it produced in a western state I love.

I closed my book and sat down at the computer. The first thing I discovered is that formatting a play correctly requires not only learning new rules, but maintaining consistency in their application. There are programs one can purchase to assist the process, but I was experimenting and not ready to invest. After an hour or two of research, I found what seemed to be an acceptable, standard format.

Finally I entered what, to me, was a foreign landscape. I wrote; I edited; I switched entire scenes; I cursed; I enlisted the help of a friend to spot trouble areas. It took a couple of weeks, but I managed to produce a three-act play.

Inspired, I wrote a 10-minute play and sent it to a theatre that was calling for short plays. I doubt if either play has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted, but what I learned was worth the effort.

The first revelation: I have written dialogue; I have taught others how to write dialogue; I thought I knew what I was talking about.  However, when I had to picture actors on stage, not only speaking my lines, but performing appropriate movements to accompany those lines, I had an entirely new perspective on effective dialogue in general.

The second revelation: After putting the book and blanket away, and becoming involved in my writing again, I woke up each day wanting to do it again–and again. That first day’s sense of progress was a strong motivator.  Perhaps it’s a little like breaking a habit: if you can get through that first day, then the second day beckons, and it snowballs from there. Success builds on success and, regardless of what you write or how well it is received, you are writing, building your skills, and getting back into the zone.

How do you get your snowball rolling?

A Writer’s Blueberry Muffin Epiphany

I’ve always disliked blueberry muffins. I thought they had a saccharin, chemical taste. So, I avoided them or, if the cafe had no other variety, did without. The other day, however, after waiting out the winter’s first snow and ice storm in our area, we found ourselves out of basic grocery items, entertaining videos, and a couple of liquid essentials. As soon as our county road was drivable, we started our rounds. It was bitter cold, with a piercing wind; walking to from the car to the stores was miserable.

I complained that I couldn’t go another minute without something hot (preferably caffeine) to ward off the chill. I’d also missed lunch and was starving. We stopped at a local coffee shop, and I ordered cappuccino and a muffin. I thought the sign said “breakfast muffin.”  I bit into it and was dismayed. It was blueberry. Okay, I didn’t have my glasses on so it was my fault for mistaking breakfast with blueberry. But here’s the epiphany; it was delicious! Wonderful in fact. It was made with fresh blueberries; I didn’t know they would make such a difference. I’m clearly not a baker.

Two days later, I was still thinking of that muffin. It wasn’t large; it wasn’t overly sweet; it was, in fact, quite simple. I decided the person who supplied the coffee shop was a baker who bucked the trends, used a recipe from an earlier time, and produced a muffin that wasn’t oversized and loaded with sugar, fat, and a calorie count that pushed the 500 mark. I also determined I could duplicate it if I dug out an old cook book I’d inherited from my mother. And it worked: flour, an egg, baking powder, milk, and a minimum amount of oil and sugar. And, of course, an overflowing cup of fresh blueberries. I have been enjoying one with my afternoon coffee for the past four days.

I’d also been struggling with several writing projects, wanting to try all of them, but stymied at how to begin any of them. Then I had my second epiphany and developed a few rules I need to follow. I resolved to:

Recognize the beauty in simplicity. Avoid overloading content. Resist trying to make the work bigger, better than that of anyone else. Avoid competing with everything I’ve read–or read hype about. Refrain from including gratuitous material in an effort to “pump it up.” Tell my stories with a  minimum of flourish or tricks. Ignore the latest trends if they don’t apply to my material. In other words, stay true to the theme, execute the plot, and keep it fresh. Like chemically enhanced blueberries, artificially contrived fiction (and nonfiction) usually leaves a bad aftertaste.

I realize that, as writers, we are constantly hearing of the big advance, the big contract, the newcomer that’s taking the publishing world by storm, the million dollar sale. It’s normal to aspire to success in our work. Some writers are content with recognition and critical acclaim; others seek the fame and fortune accorded to the celebrity author. It all sounds appealing, but I am also aware that padding one’s work,  or serving the market instead of what the story demands, is not a formula that can hold up in the long run. Perhaps, like opening an old cookbook to find a simple treat, we might find the story, essay, or book idea–that we didn’t think was viable–surprising us.

The Writer’s Rabbit Hole

Like incoming missiles, the events of the last month have left many people disoriented and disquieted. And why not?  People of all persuasions have experienced the fallout of a bitter, divisive political climate, national upheaval, and  a dark view of America’s underbelly. And that’s the short list. Add to that the death of a beloved songwriter (“Hallelujah”) and an equally admired journalist and the distraction is intensified. In the midst of all this, writers are trying to focus, concentrate, and produce thoughtful, insightful prose or poetry. That’s a tall order.

I first learned that writing was an outlet for emotion, confusion, and uncertainty when I was ten years old and agonizing over a fight with a best friend. I stayed up all night, writing  a long (and probably ill-conceived) poem about a female martyr. I was no doubt the real martyr in this case, but writing my epic poem so captured my attention that I got over my hurt feeling and made a conciliatory gesture to my friend.

We write to understand the world around us; to delve into our own emotions; to come to terms with reality. We write to find the universal spark that unites us. It follows, then, that we should be writing now. I haven’t been, but I know what it will take to get back into the routine.

Mainly, it’s simple: resist the temptation to check the news, social media, or my email every hour in case “something important” has happened. After all, family and close friends have my phone number; they would call if they needed me. If a tornado is approaching, I’ll hear the siren. If I think I need a cute cat fix or a meme that makes me laugh, I can scroll my Facebook feed after I’ve added a few pages to my novella, or finished an essay that has been languishing too long.

I often think about Scott and Helen Nearing, who chose–and wrote about–what they called “living the good life.” They managed to be self-sufficient for around 60 years. What I most remember, though, is that they divided their day into increments: four hours for physical labor; four for intellectual pursuits; four for pleasure (usually music or reading). I assume the other twelve hours in the day involved sleeping, preparing and eating meals, everyday chores. I’m seldom that disciplined, but I’m impressed with how much they were able to accomplish.

A few years ago, while researching and developing a nonfiction book, I was able to keep to a similar schedule. I wrote for four hours (give or take) every morning. It worked for me, mainly for two reasons: I balanced my time, and I wrote early in the day before the real world diverted my attention away from my work. My creative capacity was much like a container that was full in the morning, slowly drained by noon, but refilled overnight. When I gave myself time between writing sessions to generate new ideas, I was eager to sit down at my desk. Then, after a generally productive morning, I was ready to face the rest of the day and any problems or pleasures it might bring.

Remembering that, it seems that if, like me, you’ve had trouble concentrating lately, the best plan may be to write before going down the media rabbit hole. If we can carve out time to write when our minds are more at peace, and less troubled by the tumultuous world in which we find ourselves, we can be more productive and–just maybe–do some good.

Elroy and the Haints

Happy Halloween. May all your haints be benevolent.

Elroy and the Haints

Rumor had it the house was haunted. The city people bought it anyway. Elroy, who lived across the way,  scoffed at the stories that went around. He didn’t believe in ghosts and, as far as he was concerned, it was just a rundown place on a hill that got too much wind.

At the Community Hall’s pancake breakfast, to benefit the volunteer fire department, his neighbor, Albert, cornered him.

“Hey there, Elroy. I been wondering about the folks who bought Liz’s old house? Think they’ll see any of them spirits?”

Elroy slathered more sorghum on his pancakes and shook his head.

“I think that spook business is a bunch of hooey. The only problem they’re gonna have is fixing up that place. It’s been hard used.”

“Liz used to swear there was haints up there,” Albert said.

Elroy laid down his fork. “The only haint up there was Liz, but she was a good one while she lasted.”

Later that week, when Elroy stole the new owners’ chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; they acted like people who wouldn’t notice such a little thing. When they’d first bought the house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating. They were polite, but made it clear they didn’t want to stop what they were doing to visit with him–or offer him a cold, sweet tea. It was then he realized how much he missed jawing with Liz, missed her full-hipped body.

Besides, he figured it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that piddling chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away, but when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.

That should have been the end of it, but when he saw the big, shiny, new lock on Richard’s garage door, he was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. He stopped answering his own door. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner.

He accepted the first offer he got, and turned over his house, furniture and all. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time. Just before he got to the main highway, he flung Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff.

“Some things ain’t for keeping,” he said to his dog. “I’m glad to put the whole disagreeable business behind me.”

Years later, in a cold, northern city, a police officer shook his head.

“This is the damnedest suicide note I’ve read in a long time. What do you think that poor slob meant by “The haints followed me.”

 Jennie L. Brown ©2016

The Emotional Shock of Memory on a Sunday Morning

I didn’t see it coming: the shock; the rawness of loss; my father’s voice; the connection to a long-dead songwriter; my recall of lyrics from old country songs.

My father was much older than my mother; their cultural influences were a generation apart. My father died in 1985. He was many things in his life: rancher; explosives expert; orderly in a military hospital; Bureau of Reclamation employee; refinery security guard. He did whatever was necessary to pay the bills.

He was a self-taught, talented harmonica player. He could play a few songs on a piano, and he could sing–not great, but in key. He sang lustily or mournfully, depending on the song.

When I was a child, we would take road trips throughout Wyoming and South Dakota. To pass the miles–often on poorly maintained roads where we moved at a snail’s pace–he would sing to us. At home, in the evenings, he’d play his harmonica.

I remembered two songs he sang often, “Red River Valley,” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.” I was moved by the latter, probably because I was a child, and it was about a child’s death. Although those songs remind me of him, so do hundreds of others things.

This morning was typical: I was watching the Sunday Morning show, sipping coffee and chatting with the resident musician. When Charles Osgood announced his retirement and signed off, he sang a bit of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” As often happens, that led to a conversation which resulted in my dragging out my iPad. This time, I was looking up Woody Guthrie and the original lyrics to “Dusty Old Dust.”

In the midst of my research, I found a link to a singer and songwriter of the early 1930s–Carson Robison. From there,  I discovered an archive of some of the songs he performed (singing and playing harmonica).

That was when the emotional shock occurred. As I read down the list, and began to listen to the old recordings, I realized that I already knew the lyrics to many of the songs. Amazingly, from deep in buried memory, the words emerged. I felt a bit like people must when they get a knock on the head and, allegedly, wake up proficient in a language other than their native language. It wasn’t only the surprise of knowing the lyrics, but the feelings they engendered. I was in tears and couldn’t figure out why until I made the connection.

My father grew up during a time, and in an area of the West, where country music was popular, and old-time lyrics were appreciated and revived. He must have followed the music (radio or records) of Robison. He must have emulated the harmonica virtuoso of Robison and sung those lyrics to me. I’d only consciously remembered the “Red River” and” Little Shoes” ones, but the others were there, and they carried all the emotional impact of seeing my father again.

As writers, we often mine our memories to find inspiration–the muse that lives in our mind (As opposed to a Muse that reportedly hovered over the shoulders of poets in previous centuries–although I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well). Often these memories carry emotional force, but we are somewhat prepared, having consciously dredged up the memory to form or enliven our prose or poetry.

It is the memories that surface when we least expect them that shake us. And, maybe, those are the ones that deserve the most attention. Think what passion those memories triggered, and write while you are still feeling the joy or the sorrow, the pleasure or the sting.

Have you had a similar experience? Did it motivate you? Did you write about it?

Naked I Write

This morning, I had the house to myself. This doesn’t often happen, since we both work at home. After a second cup of coffee, I stripped to get into the shower, then remembered I’d planned to clean the kitchen floor and vacuum a few throw rugs. My choices were limited: I could go to the trouble of getting dressed again before doing the housework, or I could just get out my electric broom and whip through the cleaning au naturel.  I was alone after all. I won’t furnish details-suffice it to say my final decision was extremely liberating.

As I worked, I thought about the self-imposed restrictions we place on our writing. What should be limited? What should be exempt? In fiction, we have considerable latitude in making decisions about language, nudity, sex, and violence. Other than plagiarism or defaming a living person, we only have to consider what kind of book or story we want to write, and what is needed to make it authentic. When we determine our target audience, the boundaries are fairly clear. We have a framework within a particular genre, and aimed at a particular group of readers. Assuming we have good judgment, we usually can rein in our writing to conform.

It’s often said that all writing is autobiographical, and to an extent I believe that is true, at least in a general sense. Science fiction and fantasy might be the exception, but writers frequently include their experiences, preferences, and attitude into the development of both character and plot. Again, not a problem in fiction.

Nonfiction is where the dilemma often occurs. Should the writer be free to write the facts–and their opinion–without restraint, or should he or she consider who might be offended, hurt, or shocked by the revelations? Can our prose be naked, or must it be clothed?

Consider a memoir. Usually, memoir will involve some family history. While the family history in itself might not be a problem, it becomes controversial when other family members are disturbed by the material. Sometimes it is only a matter of different perspectives; at other times, the distress is because unpleasant facts or secrets are revealed.

When publishing a memoir, we also have to consider the danger of breaching our own privacy limits. It’s not always easy to achieve a balance between what makes engaging reading (and, hopefully, book sales) and personal risk.

How do we set those limits?  Do we protect ourselves from humiliation and criticism, or do we simply state unvarnished facts?

I wrestle with this every time I add a line to my memoir, or write a scene that draws on my own experience. I am coming around to the notion that I need to develop my own literary litmus test. I still working on it, but I have a few points in mind.

1.    Follow the “need to know” rule. Will the information, if included, enhance either the readability or the interest level of the work?

2.    Is it self-indulgent? Is it motivated by vanity, justification, rationalization, sensationalism, drama? Confession as a means to expiate guilt?

3.     Who is the absolute last person I would want to read the story, book, essay? What would their reaction be if they read it? How would it affect our relationship?

4.    Would the general reader care one way or the other; that is, could the material cause harm with no benefit, thus not be worth the risk?

5.    How do I want to be remembered? As a writer? A person?

“A memoir is an invitation into another person’s privacy.”
Isabel Allende

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
Virginia Woolf

Premature Explanation

Anticipation fosters satisfaction: a cold drink at the end of a hot workday; the next episode in a series you enjoy; the aroma of fresh coffee brewing, or your favorite meal sizzling on the grill. Meeting a loved one at the airport; attending a wedding of close friends; a first kiss or new adventure. Often the pleasure is heightened because we have to wait, and during that waiting period, our imagination is aroused, engendering it’s own type of pleasure.

The same process applies when I open a book that promises to please me, perhaps because it’s an author I admire, or a subject that intrigues. I want to be drawn in slowly–call it literary foreplay–and have time to savor the plot as it unfolds. I want to gradually get to know the characters, understand the conflicts, and discover details of the setting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.

There is an author and producer whose work I admire. This person created one of the most memorable television mini-series of the last twenty years (my opinion). Throw in a brilliant actor, a skilled director, and you have the quintessential unbeatable combination.

I brought home several of her novels, expecting to be entertained. I also wanted to learn from this accomplished individual. I was disappointed; the first book didn’t engage me like I’d hoped it would. But why? The characters were believable; the plot was plausible; the setting was authentic; the editing was reasonable; the resolution was sound. Still, something was off.

I opened the second book and read the first thirty pages, then realized why the first one hadn’t made the grade with me. Because, in spite of the good things about it, it had seemed overlong and overworked. The anticipation was lacking. I had been “told” too much, too soon.

Most writer’s have heard a dozen times, “Show, don’t tell.” Most of us try to follow that, but it isn’t easy. Perhaps because we live in a world where so much communication is misunderstood and criticized, we are on guard. Maybe because we forget the written word is different from the visual media. For whatever reason, we tend to sometimes over-explain, rather than trusting the reader’s intuition.

Reading is an active endeavor in which readers must supply details from their own imagination. For example, a character has long blonde hair. What you see in your mind can be 180 out from what I see. Straight and stringy or full and wavy? Natural or bleached? Clean and fragrant or dirty and tangled? Depending on what we visualize from hints the author has planted about the character, we draw a conclusion about that character’s attitude and personality: angelic or bawdy; meticulous or slovenly; conservative or nonconforming.

When the author feeds us information slowly, throughout the book, the characters emerge along with the plot. If we are a little unsure at the beginning of just who they are, and how they will react, then the author has created anticipatory anxiety. The “Oh my god, she isn’t really going to let them into her house, is she?” kind of nail-biting tension that moves a story along and builds toward the climax and resolution.

On the other hand, when we are told, prematurely, exactly who the characters are, what their relationship is to others, and what they are thinking, there’s not much left for our imaginations to supply. Action and dialogue become inevitable because we know how the characters will react. They have been individually stereotyped and locked into predictable patterns.

As writers, when we create a character, we usually have imagined the character’s background, values, and temperament. We want the reader to know our characters as well as we do. Memorable characters, are, after all, why many readers follow an author and look forward to a sequel or series. However, in trying to accomplish this, sometimes we rush it and reveal too much, too quickly, and negate the element of surprise.

It helps to remember that, as readers, we form pictures in our mind: we visualize the characters; we see the setting; we experience the atmosphere; we find our emotions sparked by both action and dialogue. We cringe, cheer, laugh or mourn. We hold our breath, or exhale in relief. We are able to do this because our own emotions and experiences have supplied the cinematographic details. We see the characters and, by extension, ourselves in the fictional world.

Much like a treasure hunt, uncovering clues to the characters and the plot, as one turns the pages, heightens anticipation. And, sometimes, anticipation is the best part.