"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Monday, August 22, 2011

What? I Have to Speak!


I’ve always been a shy person so writing became a natural way for me to express myself. I think it stems from my parents’ philosophy that children should be seen and not heard, and that a child wasn’t supposed to interrupt the adults unless there was fire or blood. (Being the youngest of four children, I was even more unlikely to get a voice.) Anyway, my parents were so successful in instilling this mindset in me that when I finally became an adult and realized I could now voice my opinion, I didn’t know how. I was of the notion that nothing I had to say could possibly be important enough for others to listen to. I mean, if there was no fire or blood, it had to be true, right? But when I sat down to write, I could talk through my characters and they could say exactly what I wanted them to say, and other characters would respond exactly as I wanted them to respond. Such gratification.

I think a lot of writers are shy for whatever reason, and they’d like to just be left alone in their little attic alcoves or their basement cubbyholes and write. But then one day all that writing pays off and they find themselves with a published book in hand. They go forth to promote it, and, to their dismay, the phone starts ringing. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has one question: “Will you come speak to our group?”

That’s when the old heart sinks and you stutter and stammer and finally say yes because it’s so damn hard to say no. You arrive at the meeting and you wish to hell you’d stayed in your attic writing brilliant prose. You struggle your way through a “speech” with shaking hands and dry mouth, and when it’s over you rush back home and say, “I am NEVER going to do that again.”

And then the phone rings. “Will you come speak at our conference?”

Shit.

You seriously consider delisting your phone number.

Of course, there are rewards to public speaking. You sell books and meet a lot of great, like-minded people, and often come away with new friendships. And you might find you actually enjoy it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease). Also, if you make yourself go out and speak every time you’re asked, then eventually you might relax and get the hang of it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease).

Then there are those writers who should have been actors or stand-up comedians. I SO admire them. They love the spotlight. Their audiences love them, and they sell tons of books. They walk into a room and command attention. I love listening to them, and wish I could be like them. They are not just writers. They are entertainers. But I have also listened to speakers who thought they were terrific but who were so self-centered and arrogant, or boring, that I walked away deciding not to buy their books. So sometimes NOT speaking might be the wiser choice.

What I’m getting at here is that you have to know your own personality when it comes to speaking, and you have to try to find the balance that works for you. For me, I can handle small, informal groups of writers and readers, and I love sitting around chatting about books and writing. I don’t mind being on panels because it’s not really a “speech” and I don’t have to wax poetic, dance, or sing. I can answer questions and give opinions until the cows come home. But I hate getting up behind a podium with a room full of people who expect me to be as witty and clever and brilliant as my books! I’d rather go to the dentist and have my teeth drilled without novocaine. Seriously.

Still there’s hope even for us painfully shy people. You might be able to work yourself up to the bigger gigs and find out you really enjoy all the attention and accolades. If you are determined to be a good speaker, take classes in speaking (and acting!) and see if you can overcome your fright. Tell yourself that when you get up in front of people, they are there to learn something from you--they’re not there to watch you shaking in your boots. They truly want you to succeed. If you can convince yourself of this one simple thing, you can oftentimes pull it off and walk away saying, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I might do it again.”

Bottom line: it behooves writers to hone their speaking skills because writing nowadays is all about self-promotion. Publishers love writers who are great speakers because they can go forth and hand-sell tons of their books at conferences and similar venues. So whether you love to be in the spotlight, or whether you hate it, writing isn’t the solitary career you might have thought it was. Some day that phone will ring, and you will be asked to speak.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Use Stereotyping to Your Advantage

We have been told absolutely, under no circumstances, should we ever use stereotypes in our writing. But in life we stereotype people all the time. From the first moment we see or meet someone, we are stereotyping them. We “size” them up by the clothes they wear, the way they talk, the type of job they have, where they live, the car they drive, even the type of dog they pack around in their Gucci bag. And, ironic as it might seem, people really do fall into stereotypes – all of us. Certain “types” look and act and behave in ways that have become so predictable that a stereotype has developed.

But there are times when stereotyping is exactly what the book doctor ordered.

How can that be, you say? That would be breaking the rules.

Enter: a minor character who is there as part of the scene and who is there to interact with the main character to advance the story or give insights into some aspect of our main character. But this “walk on” character will not take a role beyond that scene. If we stereotype this minor character, he will look and act exactly the way we expect. He will say exactly what we expect him to say. We won’t need to be told much about him because the stereotype will draw the picture for us.

Here are some examples of stereotypes: the chatty hairdresser, the waitress with the perky pink uniform chewing on a wad of bubble gum, the old man in the alley with his bottle of wine, the harried mother in the grocery store with her screaming kids, the biker with his leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head, the absent-minded professor with the Einstein hair and bow tie, the gruff rancher walking into the feed store with manure on his boots, the sullen teenage girl ignoring her mother, the jock in the tight T-shirt flirting with the cheerleaders.

We immediately see this people and categorize them into a group that we are comfortable with and understand. There will be no surprises from them. And when the scene is over and they’ve served their purpose, we’ll stash them away to be easily forgotten, which is exactly what we should do.

But stereotyping can be a powerful tool for your main characters too. For example, let’s take the biker with the leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head. Let’s show him parking his Harley in the Walgreen’s parking lot, striding uneasily inside and making his way self-consciously back to the pharmacy. Let’s see him asking the pharmacist for a prescription pain medicine called in by his mother’s doctor. Let’s listen to the pharmacist explain to him the dosage and then caution him that he needs to administer it to his mother himself because she might not be “thinking straight.” He hands the medicine to the biker with sympathy on his face and says, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s cancer. Tell her I said hello.”

Instantly, the biker has stepped out of stereotype. He’s surprised us, piqued our interest, and has become a main player we want to know more about. He’s not the tough guy we might have thought he was. He has a dying mother and he’s out of his element in dealing with it. We immediately want to know everything about him from his childhood to the present.

So, bottom line, if you want to keep a “walk on” character invisible and forgettable, stick to the stereotype. But if you want to hold onto your reader for the long haul, go ahead and stereotype your main characters, then throw a curve ball (or two or three) and make it work to your advantage.