As we speak, I am doing something most novelists only dream about: I am working with a friend to convert one of my novels into a screenplay. Of course, like one might expect, visions of being on the set while famous people bring your words to life danced through my head (and, rather foolishly, I was already pondering the opening lines to the Academy Award speech I will never give).
I quickly wrote a first draft that closely matched the book, but condensed the key elements like a fine balsamic reduction. I was rather pleased with how easy the process was. Beaming like a proud parent, I sent it off to my screenwriter friend who wanted to partner with me. He took a quick look at it and quickly informed me that, while I was a good writer of books, stories on the screen just are not told the same way. It’s all about the visuals and the pacing is much different.
So, what we have set out to do is create a story inspired by my original work. What I thought was going to be like puppy undergoing a bit of primping to be ready for a dog show has become like a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly. The core elements are the same, but they are displayed in radically different ways.
I am learning how to write all over again and, when I watch a TV show or movie, I am seeing with new eyes and listening with new ears. My critiques are more nuanced, but I also see the things writers and directors do well and I appreciate their genius more than ever before.
So, while I might grumble like J.R.R. Tolkien’s ghost when Peter Jackson took a bit of cinematic license with the Lord of the Rings series, I must admit that the movies were fairly popular and works of cinematic splendor.
I also need to keep in mind books and movies are two separate entities. I have a family member who loves A Prayer for Owen Meany, but does not like the film adaptation Simon Birch at all. I, on the other hand, rather disliked the book but absolutely adore the film.
While it may be hard, it’s important to remember the caterpillar of the written word and the butterfly of the moving picture are both beautiful in their own ways.
I recently launched Running, the third novel in my Jim Mitchell series and the student magazine at the college where I teach evening classes graciously agreed to review the book.
The review was mostly a positive one, for which I was grateful. The critic noted, however, that I should have developed a secondary character more, as she found him interesting.
You know what? She's absolutely right. There definitely was more to tell of his story that was not in the book. As a matter of fact, the character is worthy of a whole separate story, which is what he had a few years ago.
The story of that book, which began as an intense short story that morphed in a powerful novel that never made it across the finish line, is my go-to example of how not every idea is golden. I was able to salvage some of the story and sneak it into Undue Pressure and some of what was left was enough to convert Running from a novella into a full-length (if shorter) novel.
While I was happy with the final result, there was much more of his tale to be told. I was afraid that if I went too far afield with the secondary character, people would get frustrated that I had forgotten about our main guy.
Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong. One thing I do know is that Monday morning quarterbacking is easy to do, but I'm not sure it's a good thing to do.
Sometimes you just have to accept that all work, even after its published, is still a work in progress.
Science Fiction always seems to fall into two camps: an action/love story with scant (and sometimes questionable) sci-fi details thrown in or a jumble of so many technical specs that you forgot the two main characters are locked in a death battle 200 miles above the planet's surface. Thankfully Vera Brook, a scientist-turned-writer does not succumb to these faults. Her older YA novels Sand Runner and Cage Runner are fast-paced action stories with just the right amount of scientific detail for the story to flow and make sense.
When did you first realize you were a storyteller?
Good question. I’ve been a bookworm ever since I was a kid. If you love reading, chances are at some point you will reach for a pen and start writing. I’ve kept journals with story ideas ever since middle school. So that itch to make up stories was always there.
I was also an English major in undergrad and took some creative writing classes where we wrote and critiqued each other’s stories. But I didn’t try to write a novel until years later, after I switched my career path to science. I guess it’s a sign that I’ve always been a storyteller at heart.
What do you love about the writing process?
Writing is an amazing activity. You start with nothing but a blank page and your imagination & life experience, and you can create whole new worlds. I love that creative freedom, and the feeling that there are no limits to what I can imagine and write about.
I also love the surprises that come in the process of writing fiction. For me, writing is half careful, deliberate construction, and half a discovery process. The initial idea for a story or a novel can come from anywhere, and that’s always a thrill. (My advice: Write all the story ideas down. You may think you will remember them, but you won’t.) But after the initial idea, it can take me a good while to figure out the logic of the story and to fill in the details, and the final draft can be completely different from that original spark of inspiration.
I also love creating—or discovering—my characters. They feel very real to me. Sometimes they even refuse to do what I want them to do, and I have to listen to them and change the story accordingly, or it won’t work. It’s a very strange experience, being bossed around by imaginary people you created, but I’m sure many writers can relate to that.
Finally, I continue to be amazed by how mysterious the writing process is. Where do our ideas really come from? How do we put them together to weave a story? How do we switch from the free creative writer that puts the words down on the page, to the logical, critical editor who beats them into shape and fits them into a careful story structure? Language itself is a fascinating phenomenon and very closely tied to our humanity.
I’m trained in neuroscience, and neuroscience tries to understand how everything we do works at the level of brain processes, down to neurons firing and neurotransmitters crossing the synapse. I don’t think we can explain anything as complex as creative writing, or language in general, at the neuronal level yet. Some clues may actually come from computer science and the development of AI that assists writers in either writing or editing their work. So I look forward to the breakthroughs that will come in the near future.
I love writing—but it’s also the hardest and most frustrating activity I’ve ever done. So I wouldn’t mind an AI assistant who would help me get all the stories in my head down on paper faster and with less of a struggle.
What is the hardest part of being a writer?
All of it! The same things that make writing amazing also make it incredibly difficult. You are free to create whole new worlds, and write any story you want—but all of it takes a great deal of work, frustration, and trial and error. There is also no guarantee that your book will resonate with readers, or even be discovered by the readers who might enjoy it.
So every book you write is a huge leap of faith, and you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. All you can do is write the best book you can, keep improving your craft with every book after that, and not let silence or negative reviews discourage you form writing.
I’m an indie writer—meaning, independently published—so discoverability is also a huge challenge. Indie authors are their own publishers. In addition to writing the book, I also format it for print and ebook, create my own covers, distribute the book on different platforms, and market it. (Although I do work with a professional, paid editor, to make sure my books are written to professional standards.)
I actually enjoy all these publishing tasks, and I’m really glad I had to learn them. But marketing my books is difficult, because I have a very small budget to work with, and not much time to spare. (I have a full-time job which pays my bills, and I would rather spend my free time on writing than on marketing.)
Still, this is a very exciting time to be an independently published author, and the difference between indie writers and traditionally published writers blurs a little more every day!
For instance, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has opened its doors to indie writers becoming members, and I’m sure other professional writing organizations are doing the same. And more and more indie writers can make a living on their books, often by developing strong online platforms and turning their books into multiple streams of income, which is great to see and very encouraging. The indie writing community is also very open & supportive, and that makes a huge difference because writing can be pretty lonely otherwise. It’s not a zero-sum game at all. We are all rooting for one another, and celebrating one another’s successes. More writers means more great books to read, and what’s not to love about that?
Where do you find your inspiration?
A story idea can come from anywhere—a dream, a scientific article I read, an experience I had as a kid, an overheard conversation, and, of course, other books.
Also, giving yourself a break from writing to “recharge” helps. Whenever I get stuck in my writing, I go for a walk and just let my mind roam. It’s like you give your conscious mind a rest, but your unconscious brain keeps working on the problem, and I often have a solution by the time I come back from the walk.
A lot of my writing is also inspired by my neuroscience training, and my interest in science and technology in general. I write science fiction, so there is usually some science and technology as the background for the story.
For instance, in the Sand Runner series, one such technology is bionic prosthetics, or the new generation of prosthetic limbs that are directly linked to and controlled by the person’s nervous system. Such prosthetic limbs already exist and people use them every day, and they will get better and better, and make a huge difference to thousands of people. But it’s amazing to think about how much knowledge about the human nervous system went into designing such prostheses. So both the science and the applications are fascinating and a great source of story ideas.
What are you working on right now?
I’m usually juggling several projects. It’s probably not the fastest way to finish anything. But I find that it helps, because if I get stuck on one project, for whatever reason, I can switch to another and work on that.
Right now my main project is book 3 in the Sand Runner series. It’s challenging because the story and the cast have gotten bigger and more complicated, and I have to be careful not to write myself into a corner. But I love these characters, both the “old” ones from book 1, like Kai, Emily, and Neen, and the newer ones, who appear only in book 2 or book 3. So it’s always a thrill to enter this world and to add another chapter to their story. I hope to finish, edit, and publish book 3 by the end of this summer. But I’m not a very fast writer, so we’ll see.
I’m also working on some short stories, some tied into the Sand Runner series, others standalones. And I have, let’s see, four other series in development. Two of them are YA science fiction. The other two are middle grade (MG), and start more in the vein of magical realism but will “grow up” to be science fiction as the characters get older.
To keep up with the Vera's latest adventures, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter or Pintrest.
As a writer, the part of the creative process I like least (after publicity) is proofreading. I realize going through multiple layers of editing is necessary, but the nuclear reactor of energy that drives me to write for eight hours a day for four weeks straight does not take kindly to the constant pruning and polishing required when revising a text.
To me it seems being asked to drive an exotic sports car (a Lamborghini, if you’ve got a spare one in your garage) for a week, with two days spent setting speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats and the remaining five puttering around town to get groceries or go to Target. The first part is fun, but the latter seems like a waste of time and energy.
In writing, however, the best part comes not in the initial creation, but in the refinement. I was very fortunate for Running to have an editor who is good at her job and wanted my work to be the best it could be. It didn’t hurt that she has a great sense of humor to boot.
This time around I also secured a proofreader who has an eye for detail and caught things that were missed in previous rounds of editing. They all were small mistakes, but they added up to the work being less than what it could be. In the process, I have learned to love the end result of editing, so I am willing to work through the monotony of it.
Besides, it’s worth it to avoid the really tragic (and possibly wildly inappropriate) mistakes that can occur when you’re not careful.
"He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being."
— Uncle Jack Finch in Go Set a Watchman
As a child, we have our heroes. Whether they are on the TV or movie screen or a bit closer to home, these deities are set apart from mortal men and women. For many, those heroes are our parents or other adults in our lives. We revel in their positive character traits and are blinded to their foibles. They can do little, if any, wrong.
As we age, the veneer wears off and the faults that were always there readily appear. Sometimes the flaws are minor and common to the lot of humanity. At other points, they are so significant that learning of them rocks us to our very core.
Such is the case with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Many Americans were raised on Lee's first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been taught to teens for decades. I know it a bit better than most because I teach it every year in my freshman English classes. One of the key themes we highlight is the concept of Atticus Finch as ideal father. He always has sage advice, protects his children from harm and defends the rights of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Even when he knows he won't win a case that is clearly stacked against his African American defendant, Atticus still fights the good fight because that's what good people do. His daughter, Scout, remains proud of him even when Tom Robinson loses in court and eventually his own life. At times, Atticus Finch seems like a fabled knight on a one-man crusade.
Well, that myth in dashed in Watchman. It's 20 years later and Scout is no longer a child, having abandoned more than just her childhood nickname. Jean Louise smokes, has no problem kissing boys or cussing and has lived it up a bit in New York City. On a pilgrimage home to see her arthritic father in still mostly rural Macomb, Alabama, she learns things about him that shatter her perception of Atticus Finch, defender of the defenseless.
The storyline aside, there are some technical glitches in the meta-narrative that connects the two stories. Clearly the idea of the Tom Robinson case was firm in Lee's mind when she wrote Watchman, but there are differences between the cases in the two books that will set the teeth of loyal Mockingbird readers on edge. I'm not a big fan of the third person narration, but it's a modified third person, since we really see the world from her point of view. Also, there is some repetition that a good editor would have pruned away. It's like when your favorite TV show has a guest writer and she strays from the accepted canon of the series.
These issues aside, there's a reason her publishers told her to put Watchman aside and write a prequel. Mockingbird is a positive story of one man fighting against an unjust system. It has its complexities to be sure, but at its heart it is a fairy tale. Perhaps with the death and injustice it's more like a Grimm's Fairy Tale than a Disney fable, but morally muddled characters like Mayella Ewell and Walter Cunningham Sr. still pale in comparison to the virtuous Atticus Finch.
In Watchman, however, Atticus has feet of clay. The moral purity Scout saw in him is peeled away, layer by layer, until we see his view of African Americans is much less enlightened than we previously thought and he has little desire to promote immediate societal change. His approach flies in the face of Dr. King's comments at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
What's brilliant in this book, and what it should be remembered for, is the climatic scene between Jean Loiuse and Atticus. This is where his beliefs are laid bare, and the woman who once idolized her father completely loses faith in him. It would be easy for this moment to be orchestrated solely by Jean Louise herself, but the reader is blown away when Uncle Jack reveals Atticus had arranged the firewood and kindling for his own destruction and all she needed to do was strike the match.
Jean Loiuse struggles, as do we, when we're forced to see Atticus as anything less than the perfect dad. "As she welcomed him to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little." Perhaps you were stung when you discovered your own father was just "a man with a man's heart and a man's failings…." Maybe you revered Atticus because the man who fathered you was bereft of the values and integrity imbued in this simple country lawyer.
In the end, no matter how much our view of Atticus Finch may have been tarnished, Lee offers us a message of hope. She asserts, in a much less grandiose fashion that we had previously believed, that Atticus is fighting for what sees as good. And, in this era of using technology as a weapon to assail those who hold opposing viewpoints, Lee suggests through the words of Uncle Jack that we should always offer the counsel of a friend rather than the venom of an enemy.
"[T]he time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right."
That's something Atticus Finch, and the rest of us, should all stand for.
Being a child of the 80s, I am, at heart, a space buff. I poured over my kids’ science magazine detailing the Space Shuttle's specifications. I was devastated when Challenger exploded in 1986 and Columbia did as well in 2003. Then when Atlantis landed for the final time in July 2011, I was saddened we had lost something as a country. Our collective drive to discover, I suppose.
Although the Apollo 13 failed lunar mission took place before I was born, I watched with fascination many years later the Ron Howard film of the same name. I knew from history that the crew lived, but I was riveted to the screen as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise scrambled to cannibalize their supplies in order to limp back safely to earth. They realized they had to give up on their dream so they could live to fly another day.
As a writer, I have discovered that the writing, pitching, publication and sales of each book seem almost as complex as a space mission. There are so many items on the checklist and if any of them go wrong, the entire project can crash and burn. For full-time writers, such failure might mean less food on the dinner table. Thankfully, that’s not the case with me.
On a recent book project, I realized I had to jettison my plans and disassemble the component parts. The manuscript, which was written as much from my heart as my imagination, was good but not good enough. I was passionate about the tale, but those I trust broke the news to me it wasn’t as well crafted as I thought. After the first person told me this, I dug in my heels and refused to listen to the sage advice for months on end. It took some deep reflection, insight received at a recent writers conference and the counsel of another close adviser before I knew for sure the project needed to be shelved.
Now, all is not lost. Parts of the book may find their way into future projects. They will need to be re-tooled to be sure, but like Lovell, Swigert and Haise, I am not willing to lose sight of the greater mission. Being a writer has never been just a passing fancy for me, so I won't end my career because of one shipwreck. I’m taking what I can from the experience and moving on.
One of the space-related groups I was part of as a teen had the following motto: ad astra per ardua (to the stars, with effort).
With a little effort, I am hoping to soar to reach my own stars.
I was recently reading a novel that takes place partly in Southern California and was put off a bit by a couple of what I, as a native of the region, would consider mistakes. Well, through the magic of the Internet, I was able to contact the author, who shared with me his research of the area and that any issues I might have considered mistakes might be chalked up to artistic license. The reply was quite unexpected considering the fact we met once for a few moments more than a decade ago when he signed one of his books for me.
The more I have thought about this response, the more I can see the validity of his argument. I make a big deal about the geography in my work, but I most often write about fictional places based on real-life locations, so I can bend all kinds of rules. For those who write about real places, we are taking their word for it that they have done the requisite research. The challenge is that it becomes very easy to expect writers to tell great stories and get all the details right according to our exacting standards.
I remember watching episodes of 24 when the series was based in Los Angeles and complaining the characters were getting from one part of the city to another way too quickly. Perhaps considering the fact that the fast-paced nature of the series required a little suspension of reality, I probably should give Jack Bauer a bit of a break, because at least one day a year, he did not eat, sleep or, as far as I could tell, ever use the bathroom.
And, while authors often churn out 1-2 books a year, it is rather unfair for someone who is writing his fourth manuscript in 17 years this summer to judge a person who has to make a living by meeting tight deadlines. I know that some of my reporting as a journalist was at the surface level because I was up against a 5 p.m. deadline every day, so I suppose I should extend a bit of grace to others who do what they need to in order to meet the needs of their agents, editors, publishers and adoring readers.
I suppose it all goes back to the first rule of writing: never let anything get in the way of telling a good story.
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
I recently was invited to deliver a message about the themes in my book to a locally based charitable group. As a teacher, I talk for a living and, armed with a seminary degree, I figured I could prepare my comments without much difficulty on the Saturday before the mid-week event.
Spending several hours on my remarks, I handed them off to my wife for proofreading. With us both being former reporters, I have learned well that not having her look over my work can lead to disaster.
Well, what I thought would be a few recommendations here and there turned out to be an admonition to re-structure the entire message. What she thought was the best part I considered a mere afterthought and what I loved she felt was disjointed.
I wish I could have said I absorbed the advice quickly and went back to work, however it took some time of reflection to realize that, as usual, she was right.
Eventually I returned to the keyboard and spent another half-day rewriting and pruning the 20-minute message. The final product was a couple minutes longer than the original draft but the tone was significantly different.
When the day came, the event went off without a hitch. While my delivery could have been improved, the content was spot on. People expressed their appreciation for the way I presented my ideas in such a concise format.
While it would be easy to take complete credit, I know better. Without my wife’s help, my words would not have been as well organized and their impact not nearly as great.
Through this experience I was reminded again of a lesson I learned long ago but I frequently manage to forget—Always listen to the smart one.
If you have ever written anything from a Post-it Note to a full-length book, you know all composition is fraught with the possibility of error.
We all chuckle when we see a text message or social media post with a typo in it. Such quick communication is prone to error and the mistakes often garner more attention than the original message ever would.
When writing something of greater length and importance, giving it more than a cursory glance is critical. When I wrote Chasing Deception, for example, I went through several rounds of editing for content and grammar. Since it is a self-published work, changes were being made even on the day of submission, making the work that much more prone to mistakes worming themselves on to the pages.
Two months after original publication, I realized I should take advantage of the self-publishing format and correct any typos I could find. Knowing the best way to catch errors is to read your work out loud, my wife and I spent a 3-day weekend taking turns reading through the entire 81,000-word manuscript. I discovered two very important things in this process: 1) about 97% of the book was just fine, 2) but the last 3% requiring improvement was not insignificant. We made changes here and there and brought the work as close to 100% as we could.
Throughout this process, I learned three valuable lessons. First, I am so thankful to my friends and family who purchased a book with errors but have been gracious enough to still say nice things about what I did with the story and characters. I tell them it is like having one of those stamps with the upside-down biplane on it and the errors improve its value. They’re even nice enough to laugh at that one.
Second, I have been reminded of the wellspring of wisdom residing within my lovely wife, who constantly seeks to reign in my enthusiasm with a full measure of patience. She firmly believes if you can find the time to make something good, you should take just a little more time to make it better. She embodies the Lexus slogan of having a “Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”.
Finally, I think I am becoming more sympathetic when I see typos on billboard, fliers or signs as I drive around streets and freeways of Southern California. While I still notice the errors, I might be a little less likely now to comment about them. Something about throwing stones while living in a glass house comes to mind.
And, of course, the next time I am ready to submit a final draft to an agent or publisher, I think I’ll start warming up my reading voice.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.