The Alchemist: Required reading for Writers

“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Take a minute to let these words sink in, aspiring writers, because if you think back on your life, again and again you will find them to be true. That time you swore off dating right before you met your spouse, that time you were so overwhelmed with school work you thought you would have a nervous breakdown before graduation. That time that big work project was kicking your ass and you almost quit your job, but you got through it and rewards were abundant.

I read The Alchemist because I was looking for a spiritual based book to compare with a novel I was struggling with. There was no comparison. Aside from being completely different in subject, it was so incredibly masterful and moving, it was the sort of work I could only aspire to someday. After I devoured it, I quickly shoved it on my brother, who has yet to give it back to me, even  though he also read it and loved it right away.

Hey Adam. Give it back!

Paulo Coelho is full of amazing insights about life and achieving your dreams, having gone his own journey to find his “personal legend” as a writer, but the above quote is the one that has been coming to me in past months and weeks.

A while back I hit a wall with my publishing pursuits. I also went from a steady coast with my peer reviews to a sudden deluge of harsh criticism. Some very helpful and some not at all. I struggled to get my motivation up to do another rewrite of The Silent Apocalypse. I was seeing my dreams move further and further away from me, and the path toward them blowing away in the sand.

Enter The Alchemist. A story about pursuing your dreams, written in a way very different from the Disney standard we are used to.

And that writing, have I mentioned, is beautiful. The writing is not complicated, actually quite simple The story is not long. It never names the main character. It moves all over the place and it is masterful. Coelho manages to created something the sounds like a religious text as well as a phenomenal story, with very little fuss to it.

So, if you have not read this book (it came out in the 90s so it’s very likely you have) I suggest you pick it up. Keep it on you shelf. When you are feeling like maybe it’s time to quit, pick it up and read it. Simple writing. You can do that. Beautiful story. You already have that in you. And inspiration to fly.

We all need that.

 

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I am not a writer

I recently read This Great Article on John Steinbeck, and this quote stuck out to me.

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

He scribbled it in his journal while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Pretty much one of the best books ever written.

We haven’t touched on imposture syndrome here too much (don’t worry we will) but I’d like to actually skip over that conversation for right now because this quote resonated with me for an entirely different reason. Something that occurred to me last week, as I was brooding on my back porch ( a common occupation for me when I’m working on my writing) and Steinbeck’s words brought it all back.

I am not a writer.

I know, I told you I was. I thought I was. I mean I write. I write all the time. But I’m not a writer. Steinbeck wasn’t a writer, King isn’t a writer, no writers are writers.

But it goes further than that.

My brother composes beautiful music. He’s not a composer. My artist friends, they’re not artists. The directors aren’t directors, the filmmakers aren’t filmmakers, the actors aren’t actors and cartoonists aren’t even cartoonists!

Before you get angry, before you click away, please just float with me a little longer on this brooding mind tangent of mine from last week.

What we are, what we all are, us dabblers in the creative, are storytellers. No, not storytellers, translators of stories.

Imagine yourself as Steinbeck, with this beautiful epic, gritty, heartbreaking chunk of America in your head. It’s so poignant you can feel it trembling through your soul and you know, you KNOW it’s powerful enough to change how people think.

But all you have are clunky words to translate it. You might be good with words. You might have the best words even, but are they enough to really convey this masterpiece that has settled in your mind?

This is the challenge, friends. This is the truth. This is why an artist paints and a musician composes. There is a story and it needs to come out and they are only the poor fallible vessels for it, with only their limited skill through which to pour this brilliance that is embedded in their soul.

Translating the story. With these mortal fingers, trying to convey something we don’t quite understand ourselves, we either fold and give up, frustrated that we can never get the image right, the feeling right, the words right. Or we keep practicing. We keep refining our skills. We become writers, artists, musicians so that that next story is translated better. So that someday, when the Grapes of Wrath comes together in our heads, we can torment ourselves long enough to get it out.

When we give up, what happens? The stories stop coming, I think. Or maybe they just don’t ever reach that level they could have reached. I think maybe all of us get those first simple stories and whether we discard them or try to put them down on paper, in the infuriating mangled mess they turn out to be, determines whether we become artists, writers and musicians, developing our creative muscles, or go on to explore other avenues.

It’s just a thought, though. 🙂

Fixing a Climax Chapter

In one of my novels I’m editing there is chapter, a big chapter, an explosive, climactic chapter that is just full of problems. At first I thought it was just the choreography of the final scene. It wasn’t spaced quite right, it didn’t move fluidly, it was confusing and it didn’t possess the punch it needed.

So I set out to rewrite the whole thing, really get in deep and describe every element, every sensation, to really make it hurt.

But something happened in the rewrite. It immediately started veering off in other directions. Every bad thing that could happen in this scene started to happen and I kept trying to steer it back. Only this ONE big bad thing was supposed to happen.

No matter how I tried to steer it, it kept going off the rails. Murphy’s Law wanted to write this climactic chapter.

I kept deleting and starting over. Deleting and starting over. Yes, that really ups the stakes but I don’t know how to fix this if it happens! And if this happens, then all these other dominoes are going to fall.

Last night I saved the chapter with only a paragraph of decent work.

Today I started again, and after grappling with the same problem, I sat back to think for a bit. Or I tried to think, but instead found myself breaking up yet another fight between my kids, who are having a bit of a rough time getting along right now. My house is chaos. It’s hard to find a quiet hour to work. Every five minutes it’s something else with them.

And finally I got it. You can’t avoid the chaos. You just gotta try to swim through it.

I’m being too easy on my characters. This is a climax in the book. The ONE BIG BAD has to happen, but so does everything else. All hell needs to break loose so that we can really feel this Big Bad when it finally comes.

And it will be a relief that we even made it.

So I’m not sure how my characters are going to get out of all the nets that are falling on them. I’m not entirely sure everyone is going to survive. Murphy’s Law wants to write this chapter and I am going to let it. It’s my job as the author to deal with the chaos, not avoid it.

Here’s to hoping I can do it.

A Great Opening Line

L.C.W. Allingham

You’ve probably heard it before, but the opening line of your story can make all the difference when you are in the submission phase of your story.

And yet it eludes many writers. We are too close to the story. We are sure we need to start where we started when we wrote the first draft. We want to establish the scene, the character, the theme.

Often times we just plunk our reader down in a seat and expect them to stay. Sometimes they will if that seat turns out to have a good view, but if they are agents, editors or publishers, they might have more important places to be.

So how to write a great opener?

First lets examine some classic openers that just do not work anymore.

It was a dark and stormy night.Cliche

Jennette awoke to the bright sun streaming in her window.Boring and…

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