Monday, October 12, 2009

Distracted Living

Saturday night, I learned that, Heather Christensen, a woman who had previously been the band director at my children’s school passed away when a bus she was riding back from a band competition in, crashed and rolled over. If you live in Utah, you probably read the story or saw it on the news. When the driver passed out, Heather leaped forward and tried to take the wheel. It was while she was trying to save the children on the bus that she was thrown out the window and killed. Over the last few days hundreds of students, friends, and family have stepped forward to say how much she meant to them, and what a great, friend and teacher she was.

Sunday, a friend of mine was talking about an incident that took place when he was much younger. He was a college student driving down an empty highway on a beautiful day. He had put the car on cruise control and was trying to read a book while driving, since the road was empty and he thought he could do both at the same time. What he didn’t realize was that another driver was also out driving on a road that crossed the highway. Not having cruise control, the other driver had propped a knife against his gas pedal. As he reached the highway, the driver tried to pull out the knife, but it was stuck. My friend was looking at his book when he heard a terrible screech of brakes, and realized what a huge mistake he’d made. It was only sheer luck that the other car and he did not collide directly, killing them both. Instead, the car ripped off the left side of his bumper.

At first blush, these two stories don’t have a lot in common. They both involve car crashes. But in the first case, the driver of the bus appears to have had some kind of medical condition, and Heather was doing all she could to avoid an accident. In the second case, both of the drivers were at fault, doing stupid things that distracted them from safe driving. When I thought about the two of them together, however, it occurred to me how fragile and fleeting life can be. I thought about the dangers of distracted driving and then the phrase “distracted living” came to mind.

Distracted driving involves doing things that take our focus away from what’s important when we are in a car. Changing a radio station, talking on a cell phone, eating, reading, talking, shaving—these are small things, but they can easily take us off course and change what should be a simple trip into a life changing experience. What is distracted living, then? In my mind it is letting small things that are really not important in the long run, take our lives off course.

It occurred to me to ask myself, “If something happened to me today, what would people say about me?” This week, students and families are holding candlelight vigils in honor of Heather. People are saying things like how much Heather enjoyed what she did, how she was a friend to everyone, how much she cared, how much she taught, how much she loved. She focused on what she wanted to do in life and she did it well. From everything I can tell, Heather Christensen didn’t live a distracted life. She did what she loved as well as she could and shared that love with others.

One of the questions I get asked most as an author is how writers find time for writing—especially when they have families, full time jobs, and the rest of life to deal with. The answer isn’t giving up on jobs, families, housework, yard work, etc. (Although I admit, my yard is not Home and Gardens material.) It’s about getting rid of the distractions. There are a ton of reasons people have for not finishing their books,

“I didn’t have time”
“I didn’t know where to go with it”
“My writing was crummy”
“I started something else”
“The idea dried up”
“It didn’t work out”
“My characters weren’t interesting”
“I lost my excitement for it”
“It didn’t go where I wanted it to go”

But in the end, those are all distractions not reasons. If you really want to finish your book, it’s time to put your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and your foot on the gas. The only thing that can keep you from doing what you want to is yourself.

If your goal is writing, start today. Make yourself sit at your desk until you put 1,000 words on paper. If you’ve already written your book, send out ten queries. If you’ve already published your book, contact five stores. And if writing isn’t your thing, ask yourself what you want to be known for when your time finally comes to leave this Earth. Then ask, what kinds of little things are distracting you from doing what you want. There are enough hours in the day to have a family, a job, a yard, a (kind of clean) house, and what you’ve always dreamed of doing IF you just stop getting distracted by the things that don’t matter.

I don’t know how many books I’ll publish in my life, if I’ll hit the New York Times list, or win awards, or even continue to be a full time writer. But I hope that when my life ends, people will be able to say that I lived it fully and that I died doing what I loved. Heather, I know a lot of people will miss you. But I also know that you will continue to live through the lives of those you affected. You did not live a distracted life.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Land Keep is In! & Reading Books as a Writer

This isn’t going to be a hugely long post, but I wanted to say first, that Land Keep copies just arrived at the warehouse! Whoo hoo! Can’t wait to see them. I am going to run up to Salt Lake and grab a box before going over to James Dashner’s launch of Maze Runner at The King’s English tonight. Pics to follow! This means the books should be hitting store in the next week or so. Let me know when you start seeing it.

I also wanted to make a point that came up while I was doing a class recently at the UVU conference. As writers we often read a book and notice the flaws. I can’t tell you how many writers have told me that they started writing because they read one or more books and thought, “I can do better than that.”

Okay. I can buy that. I always tell people that I motivate writers to get published because they say, “If that dweeb can do it, anyone can.” And almost all books do have areas where they could be improved. But let me make a suggestion. Instead of reading a book and saying, “How did that get published?” Ask yourself, “Why did that get published?” I know. It’s a small distinction on the page. But it’s a big one to your future writing success. Because the truth of the matter is, the book did get published. A publisher, and editor, and probably an agent all thought enough of the book to accept it. You’re probably not the only one to see the book’s flaws, but despite those flaws, it was sold.

Of course if you’re already selling all the books you write to the publisher you’ve always wanted, and making more sales than you know what to do with, it doesn’t really matter. But if you are still climbing the mountain like the rest of us, it might pay to realize that something about the book you just read appealed enough to make someone pay the author good money for it. It’s easy to point out what doesn’t work. (And it’s good to avoid those things in your own writing.) But what you really need to look for are the things that do work. Noticing those, and thinking about how you can use that information to make your own work more publishable is far more useful that counting how many “ly” adverbs JK Rowling uses in one sentence or how many times Edward caresses Bella’s jaw.

A few examples. Twilight gets hammered for a bunch of reasons. But something about the writing made millions of readers buy into the characters so much that they agonized over what these fictional people would do. We can only hope to capture a character that well. JK Rowling spent a third (okay maybe not that much, but it felt like it) of book seven sticking Harry and Hermione in a tent wondering what to do. And there wasn’t even any serious snogging to keep things moving. But her world was so fantastic, her characters so real, that we read every word. Stephen King writes tomes that could easily be pared down by at least 1/3rd. He has little old grandmothers use language that would make a sailor’s eyes water. He writes some really gross scenes. But his mastery of the English language is like watching a great artist brush the canvas. His understanding of human character is incredible, and he knows how to get that across.

I know it’s not easy. I can think of a couple of books that I have absolutely no idea how or why they were ever sold. But almost always you can look at even a book you hated and see some of the things that made it stand out to the editor who accepted it. And if you start looking at books that way, you’ll have an easier time of writing those kinds of books yourself.
One last thing. I’ve had a lot of bloggers contacting me about getting ARCs of Land Keep. Unfortunately the schedule was such that we did not have time to print ARCS. But if you run a book review blog and want to request a review copy, you can contact Patrick Muir at Shadow Mountain at this e-mail pmuir at deseretbook dot com. Note that Patrick does not take submissions. He is in the marketing department. So only contact him if you are requesting a review copy or other marketing materials. Thanks and have a great week!