All posts by adminsullivan

The Very Idea

I like to hear from writers about how they come up with story ideas. Sometimes something completely out of the blue triggers one.

A second grader told me his favorite author, Dav Pilkey, the creator of the Captain Underpants series, got the idea to write his books when his teacher said the word “underwear” and the whole class burst out laughing. “It was funny and he wrote about it,” the boy told me. (Out of the mouths of babes … ) Pilkey, who is now in his 50’s, dyslexic, and phenomenally successful, has written a slew of graphic novels with characters that now appear on the screen. And it all started with a word and a laugh. One brief scene in an otherwise ordinary day …

I’ve had my moments.

Once I was rummaging through a rack of clothes next to a woman wearing a huge diamond ring. She seemed to be a lovely person—we chatted briefly. But there was something about the way she was loading up the blouses and dresses on sale, like she would buy all of them. She held out a long white linen tunic that had been reduced to $290. “Such a bargain.” This offhand comment, for some reason, made me think of waste and greed, and pretty soon I had a whole story cooked up. Entirely imagined, I wrote “Fat Peanut,” a short story about greed that destroyed our family cabin on the beach. From blouses and dresses to cabin.? I had no idea how I arrived there, but I sat down and wrote it and a literary journal picked it up almost immediately (shocker).

Another time, I overheard a woman talking about the high cost her husband, a dentist, incurred when he opened his own clinic. He was mortgaged to the teeth. I got the idea for “Killa.” It sure was fun writing it, but it hasn’t been published yet. Maybe it’s too bizarre—involving killing off the elderly dental implant patients with a rare South American poison.And maybe it just needs more work. Another shocker.

I’ve been to dozens of meetings and conferences with writers, and it always fascinates me to hear where they develop their ideas. They are, of course, avid readers, but their stories often come from something that happens in real time:

One young writer at a conference, smoothing the white tablecloth, told us how her father-in-law had shot someone, and it provoked a wrenching story of family dysfunction and suicide. Out of normal, predictable lives, some women have told me how they created paranormal romances on made-up planets and in medieval castles. A school teacher invented a detective in the 50’s and his noire-ish story won an award at a crime fiction fan conference; he couldn’t have been less noire-ish–He was upbeat, blond, and teaching kindergarten. Most of these writers came up with their ideas out of bits of conversation, well-spent, idle time on a train or in a cafe, some extension of a character they created in a story and didn’t want to leave. Someone they met, loved, hated. Life.

And then there are the really funny, offbeat, crazy types, such as Carl Hiaasen creates in his fabulous Florida capers. I once went to a luncheon where he spoke and someone asked him where he came up with “Razor Girl” and “Skink” and a raft of characters too funny for words, except his. Hiaasen said he got a lot of ideas off the police blotter. “You just can’t make this stuff up.”

Well, here’s to making stuff up while keeping tuned in to story ideas at every turn.

Most of the time, the story IS right there. In front of us:

  • Really listen. Local conversations contain the nuggets of stories–the drama, pathos, humor, wisdom of everyday life. Elmore Leonard, a master of dialogue, used to sit in bars and record the crazy things people say. I like bars. And sometimes I sub in the local high school. You should hear some of the stuff they say—especially about their mothers! They talk about their mothers a lot, and most of it good. Fortunately.
  • Go to a cafe or park or somewhere and write up that parade of characters, what they wear, what they eat and drink, what they say, and whom they are with. The where, when, why, how. Apply a little imagination and, bueno, a most important person emerges: the action figure, victim, lost love, hero. And then, you must ask yourself: What happens to them when they leave the cafe?
  • Once I sent a manuscript to an editor who wrote me back three words on a postcard: “A writer writes.” This was the directive that I had taped over my typewriter for years. (Yes, I’ve been at it a while.) And these three words still make the most sense.

If the book is not there yet, so what? Write stories, essays, something. My memoir was not accepted by a publisher until my short stories and essays began appearing in journals.

Writing becomes a way of life, of thinking about characters and plots and other devices. Of creating and showing ideas. Someone has to do it. We might as well face it, we’re addicted to type. Applying the rear to the seat and putting something on that great white way is a start. We never get to “the end” unless we start.

I have a contact page on my website … please, tell me where you’ve gotten story ideas …

 

 

Promotion and the Review

As a first-time author, I was the last one to know firsthand the riggers of promotion, and, especially, the way to reviews. Writing the book was one thing, promoting it another. I’d dived in and hit cold, hard reality. No stopping in mid-air to think about it. I had to go all in.

From start to finish, it had taken10 years to bring THE LAST CADILLAC  to market, and by the grace of God, I had to get out there and push that book.

I didn’t have much of a plan. I did have a  good  ideas from my publisher, but I had to do the legwork. With so many avenues of promotion, I didn’t know where to go. So I went everywhere. The first bright (ahem) idea was to take out an ad for my book—four months before publication—in a prestigious writing magazine. It cost $ 750 (what was I thinking?). There are a lot of good ways to spend money on promotion, but this was not one of them.

Shortly after my book was published, I dropped by the neighborhood branch of the Chicago Public Library, and gave the manager a newly minted copy for review. “Here. You’ll love it.” He was gracious. We chatted. “Get more reviews,” he advised, warmly. “Get one of the biggies if you can.”

It was too late for many of the “biggies” now that the book was published. But I could send it around to Kirkus, and I did. The review came back, and it was good. It was great!

And what did the branch manager at the library think of THE LAST CADILLAC? I was still waiting to hear. The days  ticked by. No comment. I called one time, and then again, and I felt like a pest, and that’s what I was. A first-time author, A PEST. Because I had to bug people. Constantly.

I finally reached him. He said he loved the book. It’s now in the Chicago Public Library collection.

Whew. That was good news, but I still needed reviews. It was more likely to sell if someone had read it and liked it, and then said so.

I checked Amazon. Andre Agassi with his autobiography, OPEN, sat next to me on  Amazon with more than 1,000 reviews.

Really?

I had in my possession a list of 800 reviewers, obtained through some research and persistence. How hard could this be, to reach out and request reviews? To sift through 800 reviewers, many of them residing in Scotland or England with a super abundance of interest in the paranormal? But I dove in and heard back, mostly from bloggers, who were courteous and accommodating. Only one declined because we didn’t have “chemistry.” To my surprise, I enjoyed the whole process of reaching other readers and authors who were promoting their own work. We shared ideas. We learned from each other.

I also gave away books, and I asked for reviews. Most readers are more than willing to do that. Thank you!

And now for a shameless pitch–How about a review? From you. On Amazon or BookBub? On your own blog? Facebook?

The promotional route is circuitous, but it does circle back to the main premise: to connect to an audience. It’s what we do when we write and publish. We want to reach readers. We want you.

Writing a Memoir

Everyone has a story. For the writer, all it takes is an event, or a turning point of sorts, to get the story out there. In a memoir or blog post. A graphic non-fiction narrative? I might have started with the summer day a cow stepped on me and broke my collar bone. I was two. This is my earliest memory, and not a bad one, since the cow looked like a big furry doggie…

But I didn’t start there. I started at a point when I got hit from all sides: My mother died, my marriage crashed, and my father announced he was leaving Indiana and coming to live with me and the kids on an island in Florida. It wasn’t an easy time. My siblings accused me of “kidnapping” Dad. He had a number of health problems, and I had no idea how to deal with illnesses of the elderly, particularly cancer and dementia. But my dad and I were close. I couldn’t disappoint him. I wanted to take care of him—and at the same time do the best for my two kids still at home. And so began my memoir: THE LAST CADILLAC …

As a newspaper journalist, I was drawn to writing it all  down. On occasion, I’d written feature articles about the “sándwich generation.” Suddenly, I was in the sándwich—in the middle between caring for my elderly parent on one side and the young ones on the other. I began to see that whether planned or not, most of us end up being caregivers, or being cared for.  Many of these caregivers told me their stories, and I had to tell mine.

There is no manual for this sort of family adventure, and it was not my intention to write one. But I felt strongly I had to write about what I did right and what I did wrong, and there was plenty of the latter.

Even as I was driven to write my book, the effort seemed doomed from the start. For one, I hardly had time to think straight about what was happening one day to the next. Dad would wake up hobbled with leg or back pain; the kids had all sorts of activities: cheer leading, soccer, birthday parties. I tried to keep up and run with it. To Disney World and Ireland. And all along, I jotted down events and bits of dialogue as we went “down life’s path” (Dad).

Soon after we moved to Florida, a hurricane blew through. We weathered that, but then, Florida, the State of Storms, delivered another dooz … Boom!  Lightening took out my computer, and all my pithy observations were burned alive. I had  to start over again, which may have been a good thing. The pith was pretty much the pits. I told myself that lightening burned away the rough part and helped me get to the heart of it.

Getting to the heart was essential.  I trained myself to stay focused on the message—about caregiving while juggling life:

  • I knew where my story would begin—with that announcement from Dad that he was coming to live with us—and I knew it where it would end. With his death. It took me a long time to write that ending. The middle was a never-ending series of mishaps and discoveries about how to stay on my feet. (Loving mostly every minute, as it turned out.)
  • The message kept me going and moved me along in my story. I had a point and I stuck to it. I was writing a warning, of sorts, but I tried to be encouraging, and some of it was pretty funny, at least, that’s what they tell me. And I have to look back on some of it and laugh.

One major thing I realized from all of it was that much of the drama, decisions, disappointment, and sometimes disaster, could have been averted with better planning and communication. I blame all of us for not cooling off, sitting down, and really communicating (especially the listening part).

As a family, we did nothing to prepare for any of it.  My parents didn’t talk about money—“How vulgar!” And my mother never used the word “cáncer” when she got sick. It was “The Big C.” We talked a lot, but we did not communicate very well. With the divorce, and the kids, and then Dad and all my personal problems, I didn’t take into consideration that my siblings had just lost their mother—and now they were going to lose their father to Florida some 1200 miles away.

But we got through it. I wrote the story, which now has been dubbed “a must-read for caregivers” and “a common sense and humorous guide  to surviving family relationships.” I hope it helps some people. Most of us have parents and relatives we are concerned about, and we will need to take care of them. I didn’t see it coming, nor did I do anything to prevent it when the situation presented itself almost overnight. I tried to enjoy it, and learn something from it. I did see, finally, that humor, love, and communication worked in our favor. But I didn’t have to write a book to know that. A lot of love was always there.