"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The sky is dusky and rain is coming down steady as tribal drum beat. I’ve been at my desk for a few hours working on my Bad Guys book—still working on sociopaths and criminals and particularly trying to figure out what I want to say about real criminals such as the female pirates that roamed the seas from the 17th through 19th centuries and one of Diana Gabaldon’s villains, Stephen Bonnet.

Bonnet is likely a sociopath, although at times he’s sympathetically drawn in her series. He’s a smuggler, a rapist, and someone who once sliced a man’s eyes with a sharp sheath, and then twisted the knife so his foe was completely mutilated. He appears in (I believe) three of the books and since Gabaldon’s novel are so long, twisting, and intricate, tracking down this particular bad guy is going to take some sleuthing and time on my part. But he belongs in the chapter because he’s black hearted as they come and it’s helpful to examine how an author of a series brings a character back for repeat performances and added chaos.

Yesterday I taught a writing workshop at Evergreen College in Olympia and it was one of those days when I felt energized and alert and completely happy the whole day. It was pissing rain most of the day, the sky so low and sullen that it looked like dusk all day. The college is set in a grove of tall evergreens (hence the name) and sometimes gazing out the window it looked like we were nestled uneasily among a haunted forest.

The students completed two writing exercises during the class—and you know it’s always hard to write in this impromptu fashion, but there were some amazing pieces that we all heard. Some were essays or stories that needed to be fleshed out and nurtured and launched out into the world for a bigger audience. One woman read a piece about how her mother who was mentally ill, told her of her father’s death. She was 11 when he died and her mother wasn’t stabilized on medication for another thirty years.

And I was reminded of a class I taught years ago at a community college here in Portland. During this 8-week session I would assign the students to write about a particular event in their childhood. It was a class on improving your writing style and each assignment was meant to focus on a particular technique such as using short words (no words over six letters were allowed). Then the students returned to class the following week and read their stories out loud and we’d discuss their techniques.

However, one week will always linger in my memory because almost all the students had tales of such heartbreak and loss that it felt like a therapy session with a large dose of the Jerry Springer thrown in. One woman wrote about a Thanksgiving day when she was so despondent over her family situation that she left the house and stayed outdoors in an attempt to commit suicide. She lived in Denver and when she returned home hours later no one had missed her and there was no turkey baking.

Another student wrote about a playground accident where he received a large gash on his leg. He goes home to find his mother for comfort. However, he’s stopped at the front steps and must sit down because it comes to him that his mother had died recently and in his pain he’d forgotten that crucial loss.

Another man wrote about losing his parents when he was five and being placed on a train alone and shipped to relatives who lived in Eastern Oregon. They were fundamentalist nuts and had hated his parents because they were in league with the devil and the train trip was only the first moments on a journey of pain.

And I can still remember the atmosphere of that class that evening. We were meeting in a high school classroom and those rooms always smelled like chalk and dust and faintly of feet. The pain in that room was palpable and the atmosphere was heavy and sad but also sweet and respectful and holy. Loss, pain, dysfunction, longing, grief—they’re all such rich, rich territory for writers. A landscape that must and should be visited for all the lessons of the raw heart revealed. To be human is to deal with a series of losses. Some of us are unlucky and face them when we’re children and not so well equipped. And these losses with their ringing magnitude, keep clanging over the decades, demanding to be heard.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The morning sky is blanketed in fog, the trees ghostly as if rising up from a dream. Yesterday I wrote the first draft of a chapter on sociopaths and criminals in fiction for my Bad Guys book. In this chapter I’m talking about Thomas Ripley, the sociopath of Patricia Highsmith’s books and have also just finished reading Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle and will be including his villain in the chapter. A writer I know who lives in Eugene has been recommending Boyle to me for a while, and I now understand why.

The story opens with a woman, Dana Halter, hurrying to a dentist appointment because she’s late, when she runs a stopsign. A cop is parked nearby and this small incident turns her life upside down, because once the cop runs her license through the department’s computer, she is arrested on a variety of charges. Problem is, she’s innocent and the victim of identity fraud. If you’re never worried about identity fraud, after reading his book I predict you’ll dash out and buy a document shredder. The identity theft in Talk Talk is a sociopath and Boyle manages to render his personality and thoughts and motives with perfect pitch. Not to mention the writing is taut and beautiful and he creates complex characters with troubles that are not easily answered.

I’ve been researching sociopaths for this chapter and highly recommend psychologist Martha Stout’s book, The Sociopath Next Door. In it she explains that about four percent of the population are sociopaths and if you have one in your life, you’d better run. She writes: Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.

Sociopaths add lots of juice and tension to a fictional story because they are bound to exploit and manipulate others and are adept at rationalizing all their creepy behaviors. There have been a number of studies and books written about the antisocial personality, most notably Hervey Chleckley’s The Mask of Sanity, and here are some of the characteristics: superficial charm, intelligence, lack of personal responsibility, self-centered, manipulativeness, lying, insincerity, poor judgment and failure to learn from mistakes, unable to establish lasting or close relationships, and lack of insight into personal motivations. You can see how the glib and sometimes charming Hannibal Lecter fits into this personality type.

Of course sociopaths will have these characteristics in varying degrees and are often hot tempered and also thrill seekers, but one thing you can count on: they have ice in their veins. About twenty percent of the prison population are sociopaths but what is more difficult is to identify sociopaths in the general population. But they’re everywhere, or as Stout asserts, next door.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I am looking for strangeness and beauty and mysteriousness and excitement. I sometimes find those ingredients in works widely recognized as important milestones of great literature, and I else times find it in works others would dismiss as rubbish. Jessica Salmonson

Last night I was driving home from teaching a workshop and watching the clouds. It was near dusk and the sky had a yellow cast and clouds dark as whales crowded the sky as if gathering for a rumble. I was thinking about the workshop, but I was mostly thinking about the movie I’d seen the night before. It was Notes on a Scandal, starring Judy Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy. It was directed by Richard Eyre and is so gripping, or shall we say riveting, that you don’t dare leave your seat or blink. It begins with a tried-and-true concept: stranger comes to town and shakes up the world and the characters’ lives. In this case, it’s the luminous Sheba Hart, played by Cate Blanchett joining the staff of St. George's school as the new art teacher. Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) a cynical teacher who is near retirement, senses that Hart is a possible friend, a kindred spirit. But Barbara is not the only one who is interested in the lovely Hart. The art teacher begins a highly improper affair with a talented student and Barbara, although horrified by it, promises to keep her secret if she’ll end it. But can Barbara keep a secret? And what is the price for her silence?

Amazing performances by all the actors shape what is a tawdry tale into a deep exploration of the human heart. What is particularly amazing is Dench’s performance as a lonely sociopath. In fact, she embodies loneliness and tilts us into all the rage this state can bring. The film also has a voice-over by Dench as she writes in her journal, a wasp nest of delusions. The novel was written by Zoe Heller and I am going to step out and buy it because I’m curious about how the author embodies Barbara Covett on the page. Dench’s performance contains so much intimacy and nuance and subtext, so that a fleeting expression speaks volumes of emotion or a withering glance quells the most volatile students.

There are varying statistics about how much of human communication is nonverbal. Facial expression, posture, eye contact, mannerisms, gestures, all convey so many cues, so many wordless messages. Then there is also voice tone and clothing and hairstyles and handshakes, touch, both intimate and casual, and how much personal space a person needs that also communicate meaning. But taking this reality into our writing is no easy matter, especially since nonverbal communications vary from culture to culture and also because a smile can communicate joy or malice.

So here’s a suggestion—when you’re out in the world, particularly at a party or gathering, when you’re at a mall, or watching a movie or play, pay special attention to what is unspoken yet still communicated. Be on the alert for subtext –the river of emotion that flows beneath human encounters—whenever you’re with another person, whenever you’re presented with the opportunity to watch humans unaware. .

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The sky has dawned a sullen pale gray and rain is falling steadily. Last night I was listening to the NPR evening broadcast when they ran a story about Jennifer Harris. Harris was 28 and a Marine Captain when her helicopter was shot down north of Baghdad on February 7. Her 6 crewmen were also killed and an Al Qaeda-linked grouped claimed responsibility and released a video of the crash.

Her helicopter was the sixth that was shot down in the past few weeks. We have entered a new era in our occupation of Iraq. Helicopters were once the only safe means of travel in the country, but now with people on the ground equipped with shoulder-launched missiles, helicopters are now vulnerable to attack. In case you have forgotten, these weapons were the reason the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan.

Harris’ childhood friend, high school principal, and others spoke about her in the story. By all accounts she was amazing with a future as bright as a mountain of new copper pennies. She was scheduled to return home from her second tour of duty next week. Although Harris died doing what she loved, piloting a helicopter, maybe it’s time we listened to our dead.

I’m spending my mornings working on my Bad Guys book and am reading young adult novels as research for a chapter on writing for children. Yesterday I finished reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke and it’s such a well written story and intriguing concept that it’s worth talking about. Funke is German and currently lives in Los Angeles and the English titles are published by Scholastic. Inkheart is the first in a series and she has also written The Thief Lord, Dragon Rider, When Santa Fell to Earth and other titles including books for younger readers. I recommend that writers look into her life because she’s a big-hearted woman who channels her compassion for humanity into innovative good works along with her marvelous stories.

The protagonist in Inkheart is 12-year-old Meggie who lives with her father Mo, a book binder and book restorer. But Mo has a most unusual talent—when he reads, the characters in the books leave the pages and enter our world, but also, sometimes people from the real world leave and enter the story world. These appearances and disappearances wreck havoc and as the story begins Mo never reads out loud anymore. Funke writes: “I think that some people have a special talent for reading aloud and if the reading is done well, it can put the listener under a spell.”

The story is about the reverence for books and about how authors create characters and stories and it’s also about evil. Funke has three major villains in her story along with several minor villains and although the worst of the lot, Shadow, never makes an appearance, our fear of him still pervades most of the final chapters. It seems to me that this trick of layering and ranking evil is a great one to replicate. Here is our first acquaintance with Capricorn, a villain who has left the story world and is living in a village in Italy:

. “How can I explain what he’s like? If you were to see a cat eating a young bird I expect you’d cry, wouldn’t you? Or try to help the bird. Capricorn would feel the bird to the cat on purpose, just to watch it being torn apart, and the little creature’s screeching and struggling would be as sweet as honey to him.”

Meggie took another step backward, but Dustfinger kept advancing toward her.

“I don’t suppose you’d get any fun from terrifying people until their knees were so weak they could hardly stand?” he asked. “Nothing gives Capricorn more pleasure. And I don’t suppose you think you can just help yourself to anything you want, never mind what or where. Capricorn does. Unfortunately, your father has something Capricorn has set his heart on.”

Meggie glanced at Mo, but he just stood there looking at her.

“Capricorn can’t bind books like your father,” Dustfinger went on. “In fact, he’s not much good at anything except terrifying people. But he’s a master of that art. It’s his whole life. I doubt if he himself has any idea what it’s like to be so paralyzed by fear that you feel small and insignificant. But he knows just how to arouse that fear and spread it, in people’s homes and their beds, in their heads and their hearts. His men spread fear abroad like the Black Death, they push it under doors and through mailboxes, they paint it on walls and stable doors until it infects everything around it of its own accord, silent and stinking like a plague.” Dustfinger was very close to Meggie now. “Capricorn has many men,” he said softly.” Most have been with him since they were children, and if Capricorn were to order one of them to cut off your nose or one of your ears he’d do it without batting an eyelash. They like to dress in black like crows—only their leader wears a white shirt under his black jacket—and should you ever meet any of them make yourself small, very small, and they notice you. Understand?”

Meggie nodded. Her heart was pounding so hard she could scarcely breathe.

Funke also does a great job of creating a world of unease and darkness. The setting creates a mood of danger and malevolence and even the moon can cause fright.

Although Funke’s books are embedded with themes she writes: “I don`t like to send messages. I do not think that most of us read a book to find a message there. Maybe questions to ask, yes, maybe something to think about, but a message doesn`t allow the reader to think, and this is disrespectful. I hope that The Thief Lord expresses my love for children, my deep respect for them, and my anger about the way adults so often treat the smaller, younger ones. And I always wanted to fulfill Scipio`s wish to become an adult: That was our deal from the beginning.”

And her advice for writers: “Read – and be curious. And if somebody says to you: "Things are this way. You can`t change it" - don`t believe a word.”

Monday, February 12, 2007

The sky is the palest shade of gray, almost pearl, layered in clouds like rolling mountain ranges. I slept in this morning after a hectic weekend. After I taught the Final Edit workshop for the first time on Saturday I dashed home and entertained family (four kids, four adults) in my small space. Now my older brother is back in Korea, my younger brother and his boys are back on their farm in Washington, and I’m back at my desk, trying to figure out which chapter of my Bad Guys book to tackle next.

Last night I came home and was cleaning up, watching television, and reading a bit. 60 Minutes was at its best running a segment about how Timothy Souders, who suffered from bipolar disorder died of dehydration in a Michigan prison. That segment, much of it taken from actual prison videos of Souder’s death, also reported that 300,000 mentally ill people are incarcerated in the U.S. Surely as a country we’re ready for better policies for our mentally ill population so that they’re not jailed or roaming city streets where they’ll die from exposure and other causes?

Then I starting watching the Grammys which launched with The Police reunited and Sting, hot as ever in a leather vest. There were some tacky moments as when Tony Bennett started extolling his sponsor, Target and Mary Blige’s tattoos just not jiving with her evening gowns (she had the most wardrobe changes of the evening) but mostly the show was fast-paced and fun and awash with great music. When I fell asleep the Dixie Chicks had won three Grammys, but when I woke up they’d won five for their song Not Ready to Make Nice from their album Taking the Long Way. They’d worked with the talented Rick Rubin on this project and I hope all the crazed let’s burn the Chick’s CDs and ban them from our country station types (after Natalie criticized Dubya for invading Iraq) are taking note that artists throughout time have commented on culture and politics. That the human condition is expressed in every art form, and every artist is allowed his or her opinions. I don’t think Dubya, with his approval ratings in the twenties, also called the toilet, could manage such a sweeping comeback.

But let’s get back to writing. I taught a workshop on Saturday called The Final Edit. Now, Mark Henry one of the participants who drove in from Washington has posted a shoutout for me and the workshop on his blog at http://theburlesqueofthedamned.blogspotcom. Henry has just garnered a three-book deal from Kensington and seems to be bubbling with ideas and fun and is the sort of person who I want to hear stories from. The other participants had manuscripts in various states of completion, some having worked on them for years.

I was puzzled about how I could take my process of editing clients’ manuscripts and translate this process into their own work. You see, I have a big advantage when I work on a manuscript because although I approach it with a lot of empathy for the writer knowing what it takes to churn out a 300-page story, I also tackle the pages with a frigid heart and a colder eye.

Here are some of my recommendations. Start each writing session with light editing and revising so that by the time you finish the first draft it’s actually a second draft. Once this draft is completed, let it rest a few weeks. You need the distance so that you can be surprised by your own writing on the page when you approach it. Then, format the manuscript in a font different from the one you wrote it in because you’re more likely to spot errors in an unfamiliar font. Print it out and go someplace other than where you wrote it, and then read it while taking notes. In this first run through, you’re looking at the story from the macro level. You’re looking for plot holes, inconsistencies, viewpoint problems and you’re ruthlessly judging the effectiveness of the beginning and end.

I told my students in this draft you’re using a backhoe, bulldozer, or other heavy equipment to excavate and relocate. Make all these big corrections on your computer and print it out again. (Alas, writers need to use a lot of paper in the editing process. If your conscious is bothering you, perhaps recycled paper might salvage it). In this draft you’re using a hammer and saw and perhaps a few chisels. Now, at this point it might be helpful to create a chart or scene cards or both if you haven’t done so already, so you have a method of tracking what happens when and who is in each scene. In your second major edit you’re especially analyzing pacing and whether individual scenes contain a mission and obstacle. You want to make certain that you zip past less interesting stuff and slow down for the more intriguing and dramatic moments. You are also working on setting, exposition, introspection, noting the proportions and appropriateness in individual scenes. Your aim now is to create a story world that’s so authentic that the page disappears and interesting lives will rise into existence in its place

You keep hammering and sawing, perhaps trimming dialogue or amping it up. Once this edit is done, you make the changes on the computer and you let it rest again and then print it out. The last revision is for honing in on language, adding music, and making certain that you’re writing for the ear. Your tools are feather light pens and perhaps you’re also striving to replicate the heart-twisting sounds of oboe and cello in this draft. This is the draft for stripping excess language, polishing, and adding nuance. Perhaps you’ll want to examine the opening and closing paragraphs and asking yourself if they might echo each other somehow. You’re slashing excess modifiers, tossing out wimpy verbs and exchanging them for their more muscular cousins, and hacking out clich├ęs and trite expressions. Then you’re also adding comparisons and figurative language so that ideas and images resonate. By the time this draft is completed you can justify every word on every page.

Of course I had lots more to say with lots more details in my workshop, but that’s the big picture. Just imagine that your veins run with ice when you edit your manuscripts, I swear it helps.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Better that you should take the chance of trying something that is close to your heart, you think is what you want to write, and if they do not publish it, put it in your drawer. But maybe another day will come and you will find a place to put that. Gay Talese

A powdery sky laced with low clouds is emerging this morning. The news is broadcasting that another transport helicopter has gone down in Iraq—the fifth in a recent flurry of crashes and losses.

It is also the 75th birthday of Gay Talese, journalist, author and essayist. When Robert Altman died last year he was making a movie and I started thinking about how artists of all types are fortunate in being able to carry on with their craft throughout their days. Talese is currently working on a new book and penned one of my favorite quotes about writing: Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places. Gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.

Talese, along with Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailor, Joan Didion and other writers is often cited as one of the founders of the 1960s "New Journalism". This type of writing is also called creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction and narrative nonfiction and means that writers are using narrative techniques to tell a true story. Most of these early new journalism pieces were essays written for Esquire—the magazine most responsible for launching this writing genre. Talese has always evaded labels, insisting that his "stories with real names" don’t represent a reformist movement, but rather his own response to the world as an Italian-American "outsider."

In fact, despite his well-earned celebrity, Talese has always identified with losers, underdogs, and outsiders, chronicling their stories and struggles. He began his writing career at fifteen when he began reporting on sports. He went on to become a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965. Since then he has written for Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and other national publications. He is the author of eleven books. One of his most famous pieces is Frank Sinatra Has a Cold written for Esquire: “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it not only affects his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.”

During Talese’s career he has collected odd facts, kept his ear to the pavement especially in New York, and tailed subjects so faithfully and often that he feels confident writing their interior monologues. He was one of the first writers to break the code of silence and write about the Mafia and has written about bridges and boxers, statues, immigration, family legacies, sexual mores, the civil rights movement, the inner workings of a writer’s life, Frank Sinatra, and Joe DiMaggio. A writer who is endlessly curious, passionate, persistent, obsessive, a relentless fact checker, fascinated and fascinating he has a flair and ear for language, and is an impeccable researcher. In other words, we can all learn from him.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The morning sky is tinged with a pale rose. Rain is not in the forecast. We all need to remember an important writer, Molly Ivins, who died on Wednesday because the world will be a quieter place without her. We’ll certainly laugh less, but I hope we won’t think less even though we’ll miss her keen political insights.

A journalist, columnist, author, hell raiser, and wit you gotta love a woman who named Dubya “Shrub” from the title of one her laugh-out-loud books. She was rascally and wise and brave and rare. If you heard her speak, you’ll never forget her gravelly voice delivering Texan witticisms or her delight in life. She was a powerful presence, especially after the 2000 election when she believed it was her job to travel around the country and cheer up liberals. And did. I’ll never forget her advice to drink beer, eat pizza and carry on despite the sorry state of the union.

Her deadpan humor and calm seemed to come from her many years of up-close observing Texas politics which are so scandal-ridden and inept and corrupt that she knew the world of politics was also absurd theater. Once I saw her in a smack-down debate with conservative William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and I ended up feeling sorry for him.

Molly Ivins was passionate about politics, about fun, about truth. She knew how to communicate her ideas coherently and often skewered her opponents with their own words and logic. She could make us laugh and cry at the same time. She believed that people in this country and especially the press needed to be involved and needed to invest in truth because after all, “The president of the United States does not have the sense God gave a duck.”

She had been fighting breast cancer since 1999 and wrote until the end, dictating her last two columns. Her final column was called Stand Up Against the Surge in which she reminded her readers that the American people are overwhelming against escalation in Iraq and only 38 percent of active military troops want more troops sent. She wrote: We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush's proposed surge. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington on Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, "Stop it, now!"

If Molly was able to continue writing just days before her death, think about what we can do with our lives. How we too can use our passions and rage and outrage to fuel words on the page. I think she would advise writers to write, write, write and ask questions and don’t swallow the pabulum of our times. She wanted us to see through the smoke and mirrors of the Neocon Chicken Hawks, and be informed, get involved. She’d remind us that expression is our heritage and that we shouldn’t allow this administration to steal our rights that have existed 800 years with the Magna Carta. So never be silenced, never stop caring, and laugh when you can. As Molly once wrote, "Politics is not a picture on a wall or a television sitcom that you can decide you don't much care for." To read more of Ivins syndicated columns go to www.creators.com.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The sky has dawned a sweet, soft blue. Twelve days without rain. It’s my favorite winter weather, since when you return home from a walk your cheeks are pink with the cold, but you’re not numb. Today is my birthday and since lately my back has been bothering me a lot, I feel like I could tack another ten years onto my age.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can turn off the television for six months at a time, since I figured out long ago that to be a writer you need to give up certain activities to make time for writing. In fact, I’ve missed whole decades of television programming and have never watched Friends or Desperate Housewives or House or even Seinfeld. I have never watched a program with a laugh track because I’d rather sit and pull my eyelashes one by one than listen to canned laughter. I also don’t spend a whole lot of time on the phone, rarely read newspapers, and hardly ever volunteer. I don’t make appointments for my writing hours (6 a.m.-2 p.m.),and try to avoid get-togethers that waste my time and steal my energy

But my guilty pleasure besides several incredible HBO series (which I usually watch on DVD) is American Idol. I know it’s trashy and shallow and way too much hype. I know it’s the friggin Fox network, which I normally ignore since their programs often present the worst of humanity; and their news department is the propaganda arm of the Republican party; and they if their talking heads’ lips are moving, they’re lying. But American Idol is such a train wreck of neurosis and delusion and glitz, that I cannot resist, particularly in the opening months as they’re searching for contestants so they can say, “You’re going to Hollywood, baby!” or “No way, dawg.”

In case you’re unaware, it’s a talent contest with millions of viewers phoning in votes for their favorite singers. The winner is chosen in late spring and is awarded a recording contract. Usually the best singers and most engaging personalities don’t win and often are voted off the air early in the season or booted off in the finals, similar to the Academy Awards, now that I think of it. So you’re often disappointed at the outcome. The judges, Simon, Paula and Randy, are fascinating, particularly Paula who seems to have chameleon-like mood changes and odd behaviors. If she’s straight, perhaps she needs some chemical help. But I digress.

In the early months the judges travel around the country and audition thousands of wannabes. And the results are strange and wet-your pants hilarious, but what really gets me is the number of people who are simply delusional about their talent or the lack thereof. Lately the auditions have been held in Memphis and Hollywood and the people that the judges turned down have become hysterical, desperate, and down-on-your knees pitiful.

But what I want to return to is the delusion factor and the drama inherent in these sort of contests. Last night Simon remarked that one of the hopefuls sounded like Cher after a trip to the dentist. Some of them sounded like a cat meowing, some could not carry a tune, or hit a high note, some were just not singing. Voices that hurt your ears to listen, like sitting through really bad karaoke.

So apparently some humans lie to themselves a lot and a good portion cannot judge things fairly. I’ve met writers like this—have heard more than one person of mediocre or little talent claim she deserved a major book contract and representation from a top agency. I’ve read stories that are incoherent, sloppy, and awful. I’ve read memoirs that were so mean-spirited or self-aggrandizing they made my right eye twitch for days. And luckily I also get to read stories that contain grace and magic and hilarity to make up for all this.

So somehow we must develop discernment and the ability to judge our own work fairly and critically. So that this task doesn’t fall to people like me. Because I hate feeling like Simon Cowell in a bad mood with a hangover. I think it helps to have a smart reader or two in the beginning of your career (preferably not a family member). I think it helps to hire a book doctor—if they’re good at what they do and not a hack that preys on writers. It also helps to line up your opening chapter or essay, or whatever you’re writing, side-by-side next to an author you want to emulate. Compare opening paragraphs, level of detail, metaphors, dialogue, verbs. Notice how quickly published authors jump in and out of scenes. Notice how and when they weave in backstory and that it arrives after the front story is off and running.

So compare and analyze and set high standards. In fact, be ruthless when you edit and revise. A lot of the people who try out for Idol have no standards, and worse, don’t have people who are honest with them about their dreadful lack of vocal ability. Along with story people with secrets or lies or give your characters delusions. In real life these types are a misery and so we avoid them. In fiction they bring a lot of tension into a story. And when it comes to your level of craft, keep it real and keep improving.