Monday, April 25, 2011

See how I write

OK, I'm going to try to be very practical here. Many readers have emailed us and asked for more books in the Samurai Detective series. The publisher, as you probably know, doesn't want any more because they didn't sell as well as hoped for, even though two of the six books were nominated for an Edgar and one (In Darkness, Death) actually won an Edgar for best YA book of 2005. The publisher really didn't try to sell the books, never advertised them, and on one memorable occasion when we were invited to appear at the Smithsonian bookstore for a presentation/signing, the editor refused to pay for our trip, saying, "We don't promote books that don't sell." And vice-versa, I might add.
Anyway, I am going to try to write a first draft of a new book in the series, and let you watch, so to speak. I'll try to describe the process, and maybe that will show how I write. Remember, that doesn't mean you should necessarily write that way. I think everybody finds his/her own method. And in fact, when my wife and I write non-fiction, she usually writes the first draft.
OK, then. The first thing I do--you're going to think this is boring--is try to find an idea. In this case, I already have some characters, especially Seikei and his foster father Judge Ooka, who have been the central characters in all the previous books.
Talking it over with my co-author, we decided it might be good to have Seikei meet some of the Westerners who were allowed to trade with Japan at this time (early 1700s). After the shoguns banned Christianity and threw most of the foreigners out, the still permitted some trading ships from the Netherlands to dock at Nagasaki, and store their goods on the man-made island of Deshima, in the harbor there. Sometimes Dutch traders came up to Edo and appeared before the shogun.
I think every story begins with "what if?" and this one begins with "What if there was a crime committed against one of the Dutch traders while he was in the shogun's palace?" That's the starting point, and the next step (or steps) is to write down possibilities.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

how to write

OK, this will be a little bit Zen, but my wife and I wrote six books about a samurai detective and his adopted son. So...
The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu, who originated the "rules" for what is still the tea ceremony today, was asked by a student to explain the mysteries of the tea ceremony. Rikyu replied, "Tea is nothing but this. First you make the water boil. Then you brew the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know."
The student was disappointed by this answer, and said, "I know all that already." Rikyu replied, "Well, if there is anyone who knows it already, I should be glad to become his pupil."
This story reminded me of the time when I enrolled in the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop many years ago. I was expecting that once I got there, somebody would explain to me how to write. We had our choice of five professional writers, and I picked a then little-known science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Let me say that Kurt was very entertaining. But he told us at the very first class, "Nobody can teach you how to write. You have to teach yourself." He had us buy an anthology of short stories by masters of the form, read them all, give them a grade, and then justify the grades in class. Besides that, he had us write our own stories that he mimeographed and distributed to the class, and had the other students comment on them.
As far as I can recall, Kurt never told us anything about writing, although occasionally he approved or disapproved of the grades we gave the master writers in the anthology.
I recall vividly one day when Kurt came into class with some galley proofs. These were long sheets of paper that publishers printed books on before they were divided into pages. They were to be used by proofreaders, and often were sent out to people that the publisher wanted to give a blurb to the book. That's how Kurt came to have them. This particular set of galleys was for an annual anthology of the Best American Short Stories. Kurt had read them the night before and entertained us students by mocking them cruelly. (As you know if you read his books, he could be very cruel when he was funny.) He finally threw the entire set of galleys across the room, where they separated like party streamers, and yelled, "Stories written by English majors for other English majors!"
Can you learn anything useful from Sen no Rikyu and Kurt Vonnegut? I think that Rikyu would want you to write as well as you can, and let the writing flow naturally. Let it become as natural to you as breathing and walking. That doesn't come easily.
And Vonnegut would want you to remember that you have an audience. You are trying to please that audience, in one of a number of ways. You might want to make them feel an emotion, you might want to make them think, you might want to amuse or entertain them--I could go on, but the point is, you want to write something that other people will want to read.
I think I'm going to mention here that your spouse, your mother, your children, your friends, will probably all praise your work. That's not helpful, but they can't do otherwise. Think of a reader who has never known you. What will that person think when they read your writing? How will they feel?
I know this is bragging, but I got an email just a day or two ago from a reader of the Samurai Detective Series. Here's what it said:
"I love these books. I don't like to read much cause when I do it takes a long time. But now I have finished the series and I was wondering if there were any more planed for Seikei? I would really like to keep reading about it. And also are there any spin-off stories I could read?"
So that makes me feel like I'm doing something right. It makes up for the fact that the publisher of these books (Philomel) has never made any effort to sell them, has in fact been hostile to them, and has told our agent they don't want any more. I know--because this was not the only letter that I've received from readers like this--that the publisher is simply wrong. And that's because publishers are generally business-school graduates who don't know much about books.
And that's why, in my opinion, that in the next few years, we will see more and more writers skipping the ink-and-paper publishers and just putting their books online as e-books. I know I'm going to be one of those writers, and I think you should be too. And if you need any other reason to do so, remember that by putting your own books online you get 60 to 70% royalties--far more than any paper-and-ink publisher will give you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writer's Block

My closest advisor tells me that people read blogs to find out how to write. They don't care about my experiences in the publishing business. Actually, it would do them a lot of GOOD to know about the publishing business, especially if they want to make money as a writer. But for this column, anyway, I'll chat about one of the biggest topics among people who think they can write.
Let me say, first of all, that there is a big difference between people who "want to be a writer" and people who want to write. People who want to write, write. People who want to be writers expect inspiration to strike and all of a sudden they'll be a writer.
Doesn't work that way. Writers write, and if they produce anything significant they write almost every day. Nothing stops them.
The would-be writer finds all sorts of excuses for postponing or avoiding writing. When I hear somebody talk about writer's block, I know they're looking for an excuse not to write. Here's how I explain it: If you get on a bus to go somewhere and the driver stops at a red light, you don't mind. But when the light turns green, and he still doesn't move, you wonder why. Then if it goes through another cycle, red light, green light, you or some other passenger might ask the driver: "What's the matter? Why aren't we moving?"
Suppose the driver answers, "I'm sorry. I've got driver's block. I have to wait until it's over." Are you sympathetic? Do you assure him that if he waits long enough the driver's block will go away? Do you give him tips on overcoming driver's block? No, you say, "Get your foot on the accelerator and move the damn bus."
And that's the same as writer's block.
Now there will be days when you find it hard to get started writing. Hemingway said he tried to leave off every day at a point in his writing where he knew what was going to happen next, so he could get a nice start the next day. But what you don't do if you find it hard to get started is get up and see what's in the refrigerator or go see if the mail has come yet or check your stocks on the Internet. And you don't tell yourself, "Oh, I have writer's block. I can't write."
No. You sit there and wait. Pretty soon you'll get bored enough to write something to please yourself.
Or you won't. If you don't, maybe you ought to ask yourself seriously if you're cut out to be a writer. Because writing is work. Don't think it isn't. And if you're not ready to drive the bus, maybe you should take the LSATs or try to make a living selling second-hand goods on eBay.
Not everybody is cut out to be a writer. The life isn't all that great anyway, unless you're lucky enough to write a best-seller. Or unless you like to write. Just wanting to be a writer isn't enough. Think about it.