TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

Things I Hate to Admit to Myself

There's nothing that turns me off of a keynote speech at any gathering of writers - be it conferences, workshops, retreats, whatever - more than when the speaker starts out by telling you how impossible it is for you to become a successful writer. When they say that less than 1% of all books submitted get published, and fewer still make any profit, and yet fewer still become best sellers and launch an author's career. Or when they point out such cold hard facts as: it takes sales of 500-1000 books in the first few days of release to even get on most book-lists' radar. I could go on, but I'm guessing you hate these statistics as much as I do.

I finally sat down the other day and asked myself a very hard question: Why? Why do I hate such statistics? They are facts, after all, facts based on very real hard data, and as such they are inescapable. Resenting a fact is like hating a peach pit - you can go on hating it all you want, but every peach you eat is still going to have a pit, no matter how much you hate it. You can have someone remove the pit for you before you eat it, but this is only hiding the pit from you, not changing the fact that every peach has a pit. (Those of you who read last month's post may well wonder what's with this author's obsession with fruit. Well, mind your own business.)

We can hide from facts all we want, but that doesn't make them any less implacably true.

But I still hate these publishing statistics. And after some self-examination I know why, and why you do, too. Such statistics are like the bully who joins a pickup game of stick ball only to hit the ball over the fence and across the highway where no one can retrieve it. They are the arrogant young punk who gets on the light rail train with death metal music booming out of a portable speaker. They are the one spoiled shrimp in an otherwise delightful shrimp cocktail that makes you sick all night. They are...well you get the idea. They are spoil sports, the thorn in your side, the burning vomit that comes out of your nose as well as throat.

We hate these statistics because they ruin our fun. The fun is writing, and having others read our stories. We have been conditioned to think that we are failures if we don't have thousands and thousands of readers, and more often than not it interferes with our ability to continue writing. But is that really true? While we may dream of that, how many of us, realistically, expect to make an independent living on our writing these days? Even writers you consider quite successful continued to work other more conventional jobs during the height of their success. And many others who didn't could hardly have been called wealthy or even well off. Many more died in obscurity.

My point is, why let these statistics and reality spoil the fun? Most of us who started writing didn't do it to become wealthy (and I submit, as has been said many times on this blog, that if you did you're in the wrong business.) Most of us got into writing because we had stories to tell, we love telling stories, and we can't stop. There is nothing wrong with tracking your sales and aspiring to stardom, but for God's sake don't let lagging figures and disappointing ciphers on a page beat up on your muse. It isn't her fault readers are a fickle lot, and there's no telling what may grab their fancy at any given time. Compartmentalize your business aspirations - thousands upon thousands of sales - from the fun you have when you write. I promise you, even if you die tearing tickets at a theater, or pushing rocks with your backhoe, or building submarine sandwiches for hungry briefcase warriors, or even if you're one of those warriors yourself, you'll never regret the stories you told when you could, even if only a small circle of close friends and colleagues were your audience.

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.

The Changing Face of Entertainment

Netflix just premiered a new sitcom (sort of, more of a situation dramedy) from the makers of Two and A Half Men called The Ranch, and the reviews of it set me thinking. I watched the show before I read the reviews and I found it funny, fresh, thought-provoking, and original. The reviewers I read (about seven) didn't like it. I'm not going to get into why (I'll start to rant about political correctness and the new Thought Gestapo and all that, and that's not what this post is about.) The important thing is that the critics, to a one, missed the entire point of the show and why it's good.

Having lived in Colorado, where the show is set, I know a lot of rural people like this. The critics clearly don't. Like most who live on either coast they have no clue who people in the middle states are. There is a segment of the country to be served by a show like this, who have minimal interest in shows by Hollywood scions who assume everyone lives, speaks, and thinks like them.

The Evolution of ManI submit that a show like this is perfect for a new, wet-behind-the-ears, upstart entertainment source like Netflix (new in the sense that they have only been offering original programming for the last few years.) Netflix is more interested, at the moment, in building a viewer base than they are in bowing to convention. So shows that the networks and cable cabals who think they rule the industry would never green-light are getting made and broadcast anyway.

Likewise the recent boom in electronic publishing has allowed for the publication of books that the big New York/Los Angeles publishing houses would never consider. They are getting distributed, read, and enjoyed by thousands. Add POD (print-on-demand) services like Amazon's CreateSpace.com, and suddenly the market is being flooded with books that would otherwise never see the light of day. And I'm surprised to say that as far as I can tell, for the most part the quality remains relatively high, considering how abysmal many predicted it would be.

It's the great democratization of the entertainment industry. No longer are a few gatekeepers with a whitewashed point of view about their industry the final say in what the public gets to choose from for their entertainment dollar. And many of these electronically published books have gone on to great commercial success as well (most notably 50 Shades of Grey and The Last Ship.)

So while the sudden opening of the floodgates has many feeling overwhelmed and afraid that their book will never be seen or read amid the cacophony of other books suddenly flooding the world, I submit this is a good thing. The industry is changing (perforce) and change is scary. But another equilibrium will be found eventually, and in the meantime we are witnessing evolution first hand.

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)

A SURPRISING SOURCE OF INSPIRATION YOU MAY NOT HAVE THOUGHT OF

When I define myself, I don't call myself a writer. I call myself a storyteller (in point of fact I like the term raconteur.) The distinction, to me, is an important one. As a writer, my entire world is the written word, fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or short subject. As a storyteller, I embrace all forms of fiction, not just written. I read, yes, but I also watch TV unabashed, enthusiastically rush to the movie theater, and even admire some television commercials. And it doesn't stop there: I love live theater (yes even musical theater, I know and can sing many show tunes from memory,) I get a major kick out of old-timey radio shows, I can even sit for hours watching the extemporaneous play of children. Many of my dreams are cinematic in nature, quite dramatic, with beginning, middle, and end. Some music, notably country music, is an entire master class on tight and concise plotting in a single two-to-three minute song (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, The Coward of The Country, Ode to Billy Joe, etc. ad infinitum.)

As a raconteur I have learned so much from embracing all of these forms of storytelling. But recently I have been exposed to a unique form of storytelling that has absolutely astounded me with it's surprising depth, complexity, and ability to draw one in and thoroughly entertain. Please bear with me, here, I think you might find these insights worthwhile.

XBOX CONTROLLER

When is the last time you played a video game? I'm not talking about Pacman or Super Mario Brothers. Recently I bought myself a top of the line gaming console and a few of the most popular games: Disney Infinity, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V. To be honest I was a little intimidated by modern gaming consoles, assuming as I suspect many adults assume, that they require hours and hours of valuable time to master, and besides are really rather silly and juvenile. I had so many better things to do.

Well, I was not prepared for the experience. First, let me get the misunderstandings about modern gaming out of the way. These games are not difficult to master, for the most part. The controllers are designed in such a way as to make interaction with the games easier, not harder. While you will have to exercise concentration and develop some hand-eye coordination that may have gone rusty, the games give you unlimited tries to get it right, and you will find yourself adapting and mastering the controls much quicker than you think. Second, most games are episodic in nature, broken up into vignettes (in some games referred to as missions), between which you can save your progress and walk away. So you are not obliged to play for hours on end. You might feel compelled to, but with a little self-discipline you can limit yourself to only an hour a day, or a couple of hours a weekend. It need not become the giant time-suck you fear.

You may suspect that modern games have better graphics than the last time you tangled with Donkey Kong and you'd be right. But baby, you have no idea! The detail and realism of the worlds these games open up to you is something beyond anything you could ever imagine. One of the most impressive is Grand Theft Auto V (GTA for short.) This game takes place on a vast island fashioned after Los Angeles, and I cannot express to you the detail of the world they've built, and the realism. It really is every bit as if Los Santos is a real place that you've stepped into. Call of Duty the same. There are still cartoonish games such as Disney Infinity but even these are well rendered and engaging.>/p>

But on to the most compelling part. The storytelling. For many of these games, you follow a plot through the game. These stories are every bit as well written, well-acted as a Hollywood production. Call of Duty centers around a veteran soldier sidelined by the amputation of his arm, who finds new employment with the private security firm owned by the father of his best friend, who was killed in battle. He is given a bionic arm and a chance to fight to defend the defenseless again, but soon he and his new friends begin to suspect a more nefarious motive behind the missions they are being assigned. While these games necessarily involve action, combat, explosions and the like, they are character-driven stories, compelling and engaging, with wonderful build-ups, conflict, and climactic conclusions.

In Grand Theft Auto V you alternate between the POV of three characters: a retired gangster in witness protection contending with boredom and a family who no longer has any respect for him, a street hustler looking to take a step up in the underworld and take part in bigger and more lucrative heists, and a psychopathic killer with anger-management issues. Together these three find themselves athwart some very powerful criminal and law enforcement types and must navigate a dangerous world, to somehow come out alive on the other side. This one is heavy on shooting and crime but the stories are still very well developed, character driven, and enthralling.

Now of course, as an action/thriller writer, I chose games heavy on action, and those are primarily the games one hears about the most. But there are other sorts of games for those who like more mystery and intrigue than shoot-em-up. For example, <em>Never Alone</em> features a little Inuit  (Eskimo) girl and her little arctic fox friend who must embark on a perilous quest across many dangerous obstacles to save her tribe from extinction. Along the way she encounters spirits, some of which she can enlist to help her, and others who wish to oppose her. The dialog is entirely in authentic Inuit - a soft, almost hypnotic language - with subtitles. This is a visually beautiful game, some of it looking more like an ethereal painting than a video game.

Look, I'm no gamer. But as a storyteller, these and other games I have played have caught my imagination every bit as much as reading Harry Potter or attending a performance of The Mikado, with the added dynamic of being interactive. No, I would not put them in the same category as Dickens or Hemingway, but in their own way they deal with very similar human dramas in an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining way. I would encourage those of you who embrace storytelling in all its forms to make these games a part of your research and inspiration. I think you will be blown away by just how satisfying they can be.

SO MUCH TIME AND SO LITTLE TO DO!

Willie Wonka

"Wait...strike that...reverse it...okay." - Willie Wonka

So many of my friends have asked me how I stay so laid-back, easy-going, and calm all the time. One friend even described me once as having a perpetual island attitude, referring to the relaxation one experiences on vacation in the Caribbean or some such place. Well, first of all, those who know me best know that isn't always me - I can sometimes get tweaked, just like everyone else. Usually what sets me off is when I feel as if I'm being mischaracterized to others by someone who has no real clue who I am or what I'm like. I know, ultimately it says more about them than it does me, but we all have our triggers.

But it is true that most days it takes a lot to stir me up. It isn't that I don't have overwhelming demands on my time, like everyone else, which is the primary cause of stress and mood swings. It's that I've learned - for the most part - to compartmentalize stress and manage the many chores and deadlines and expectations pressing down on me. I'd like to share with you some thoughts on this, see if it helps you, the reader, to manage stress in your own life.

OVERWHELMING PILE OF @#%&*

The most common way in which people get overwhelmed is by trying to look at the entire pile of things they have to do all at once. Think of it this way - there is never going to be a time in your life when you don't have tasks ahead of you that need doing sooner or later, and who would want a life that didn't? How boring. So trying to wrap your arms around everything all at once is going to overwhelm you, it just is, there's no way around it. But you can manage that feeling of standing at the bottom of an avalanche waiting for it all to come crashing down on you.

This is going to be profound....are you ready for it? Make lists. All right, rather less profound than, well, boring, but I swear it works. Put the things you have to do in lists, and add to or rewrite these lists often. This not only helps you feel as if you've at least got a handle on the things you have to do, it even gives you a small feeling of control, just identifying the things that you have to do.

DO THINGS

The next thing is, do the things that need doing. Again, this sounds stupidly simple, but I've known people who get so wrapped up in making lists and buying colored pens and bulletin boards and bins and shelves, etc. all to organize their "things to do," that they spend more time getting ready to do the things that need to be done than actually doing them. Your list should be a very informal thing jotted down on the nearest thing to hand - a piece of paper, a paper sack, an old grocery receipt, whatever. Then go do the things that need to be done. Do them. With each task you complete and put behind you you'll feel a growing sense of accomplishment and control, and there is nothing better than this naturally earned feeling to combat stress and especially depression.

WHAT TO DO, WHEN?

The other thing I hear a lot from people who feel overwhelmed by everything they have to do, is that they don't know where to begin. My answer is simple, and it comes from the canon of slogans shared by attendees of 12 step programs: Do the next indicated action. In other words, do whatever needs to be done next, then after that, do the next thing, then the next. Again, deceptively simple, but it's a great way to undercut that feeling of being overwhelmed. Just do one thing at a time, in order. If it's dinner time, cook dinner. When dinner is cooked, eat it. When dinner is eaten, do the dishes and clean the kitchen. When cleaning a room, pick up the top-most item on the floor, then the next, then the next, and put them where they belong. Prioritizing those things that need to be done doesn't take much thought, you generally know what needs doing, and what must be done first, or next. Do the most pressing or important thing first, then do the next. You'll be surprised how intuitive that is.

MANAGING CRISES

I want to write a few words about urgency and crises. With very few exceptions, if you look at your most recent crisis, it didn't really come without warning. Much as we will deny it, in most cases crises occur as a result of us neglecting our responsibilities in one area or another. For example, when you don't pay your electric bill in a timely manner, your electricity gets turned off. If you don't take care of your health, you get sick, sometimes quite critically. And crises caused by neglect have a way of cascading. If you don't write that chapter while the family is out shopping, you fall behind on word-count, you are forced to cut into family time to write, pissing off your spouse, forcing you to write during working hours at your mundane job, pissing off your boss, who doesn't give you that raise you need, money you might have been able to spend on a much nicer anniversary gift than you end up affording, and the cheapness of your gift hurts the feelings of the person you love, bringing you yet another inexorable step closer to divorce...

7HHEP

Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People shares a great image of four squares. The first are crises; the second are urgent things; the third are just things that need doing; and the fourth is leisure activities. He talks about how neglecting items in the third square, the things that need doing, sooner or later they move into the second square, the urgent things that need doing. By neglecting things in the second square, you allow them to eventually moved into the first square, crises. By focusing on the things that need doing, you can reduce the number of urgent things, and of course by concentrating on the urgent things, you prevent them from becoming crises.

Stay ahead of crises by doing the next indicated action - the most important and urgent thing that needs doing at the moment, then the next, and the next. You'll find the emergencies and crises in your life occurring less and less often. I promise.

GREAT NEWS

And now for the great news, if you've stuck around long enough to read this far. I know all of the above makes it sound as if all you'll ever be doing is trying to keep ahead of all of the things you need to do, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact quite the opposite. By following these guidelines you'll actually find yourself getting ahead of the stuff pressing down on you. As impossible as it sounds, you'll actually start getting out from under that mountain of chores. Referring back to the four squares, as you spend time in the second and third squares, you'll find you suddenly have more in your fourth square: FUN! You'll find that not only does your leisure time expand, but because you've done the things that needed doing, that leisure time will be so much more relaxing and stress free.

(With some edits, this is a reprint of a blog I wrote about a year ago, but I think it applies to writers as much if not more than anyone, since we have to self-motivate most of the time.)

GET YOUR HEAD RIGHT

I struggle most with writing when my head isn't in the right place. What is the right place? For each person it's different. For me, it's when I feel good physically and when I feel good about myself, emotionally. Physically, it's just hard to write when you're not feeling well, when you're coughing or blowing your nose every five minutes, or making frequent trips to the bathroom...nuff said.

Stair MazeBut emotionally is where I'm most fragile. It's very easy for me to get down on myself. A very negative and mentally abusive father, though long dead now, still "lives rent free in my head," as they say. He's in there moving furniture around, leaving fingerprints on the glasses, changing all the presets on the remote. He knows where all my buttons are hidden, where all the worst things I can think about myself are stashed.

In truth, as is always the case, it's really not him, it's me. When alive he convinced me I'm not good enough, and even if I were, I don't deserve any success, because I am only bound to f--k it up eventually anyway. In what I'm told is a common psychological twist I still don't quite understand, after I moved out, instead of leaving all that behind, I've taken up his mantel and now do all those things to myself. That guy in my head is just an avatar of him - it's really me.

I've gotten to the point where I've managed to lock him in a basement room and, for the most part, ignore him. There are even times when I've had the pleasure of going down there and gloating over some success or triumph. Those are the good days. But it also doesn't take much for him to pick the lock and get out, running around up there wreaking havoc yet again.

A careless or off-hand hurtful word from a loved one or even a stranger; a moment of carelessness on my part, hurting someone else and making me ashamed of myself; even putting effort into a project and failing. All of these are the skeleton keys, not only to letting him out of his cell, but giving him access to all the past things I've tried to forget, dragging them out and parading them in front of me, making me feel even lower.

How do I write on days when outside events have shaken my confidence? I have to be honest with you, I haven't found a sure way yet. For me, the only thing that works is just to force myself to write. Sure, the first few paragraphs I put on the page at a moment like this are, in the vernacular of my ancestors, pure shite! But if I can stick with it, sooner or later it smooths out and suddenly I'm in my other world, the world of my making, where I control all outcomes, where the good guys eventually win and the bad guys get paid back for all their evil. I can always go back later, after I'm feeling good again, and fix the bad parts.

Meanwhile, this doesn't just make me feel better while I'm writing. When I come up for air it's with a fresher perspective on all my problems, a realization that no problem is so great it can't me handled, somehow, and compared to some, my life hardly sucks. My writing isn't just a job for me, or even a hobby.

My writing is essential therapy!

Interview: Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko TatsumotoThis month I had the great privilege to interview author Mariko Tatsumoto, author of thelovely and wonderfully heartwarming middle-grade novel Ayumi's Violin.

What made you aspire to be a published writer?

I accidentally took a children’s writing class. I thought I was signing up for a creative writing class. Our “final” was to write a picture book. The instructor praised my work and encouraged me to get it published. I later took a creative writing class from the same instructor.

How long have you been a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

About ten years. I learned so much at the Gold Conferences. I always attended a session every hour, I never skipped. I also bought CDs of sessions I couldn’t attend. I relished in listening to stories speakers told. By attending conferences, I made writing friends whom have become vital in my writing life. I joined online critique groups set up by RMFW. The writers in those groups have taught me so much and have given me so much support, I could never thank them enough.

Who are some of your own favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, J.K. Rowling. I used to own hundreds of books, many of them first editions or signed, but I decided to pare down only to those I really care about. Now I own about a hundred print books. I only have about a dozen ebooks. Some that I could never give away are: Tom Sawyer, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Falling on Cedar, October Sky, The Wave, and all the James Bond books by Ian Fleming because they were my father’s.

What are you currently reading?

Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

Ayumi's ViolinWhy was it important to you to tell Ayumi’s story?

I think the hardships we endure in our lives never leave us, and we want others to understand what we’ve gone through. Immigrating to a foreign country is a difficult transition. Many people don’t understand how tough it is to make a new life in a new country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture.

In some ways Ayumi’s father is subjected to the same mistrust and racism as Ayumi, and yet his experience with these things differs from Ayumi’s in fundamental ways.

Especially in 1959, being white allowed many privileges, such as traveling unrestricted and not being judged by his looks by strangers. As the book progresses, he learns to stand up for Ayumi more, but he doesn’t carry racism and resentment from his childhood like Ayumi. Father can get another job and speak up for racism.

While to Ayumi the violin represents her connection to her mother, from her death bed mother said, “I will always be in the music.” Not in the violin itself. Why is this distinction important to what happens later?

To Ayumi, when Mother tells her to take care of her violin, the violin embodies her mother. But Ayumi’s mother knew that music is what is important to Ayumi. The violin is only how Ayumi expresses her music. Even when she can't play her violin, wherever there is music, her mother is there.

While Brenda resents sharing her parents with Ayumi, it isn't the same as the racism of those who hate Ayumi but do not know her.

Brenda is jealous of a new sister in the house, not because Ayumi is biracial. Brenda is pretty much color blind, which children are if they are not taught to be racist. Jealously of other siblings is normal and natural, racism is learned.

Diego’s presence in the story is critical to show how his experiences with intolerance differs from Ayumi’s.

People stereotype depending on the race: Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are lazy, Blacks are thieves, Asians are smart. Of course in 1959, Asians were not attributed with any positive stereotyping, but I threw that in to show that not all stereotyping is bad, such as Blacks have rhythm, Blacks are great athletes. Because different races are thought of differently, Diego, being Mexican, is thought of as being dishonest, prone to stealing. Thus, he’s fingered whenever there might be a burglary. Ayumi, on the other hand, isn’t regarded automatically as a thief.

If there is one message you wish families to take away from the story of Ayumi and her violin, what would it be?

Never let go of your passion, it will carry you through your darkest times.

What are some of your own personal writing habits?

I think about my book, such as plot, dialogue, scenery or whatever away from my computer. I think about those things while I’m hiking, driving, or lying in bed. When I’m at my computer, I’m putting words on the screen. I don’t allow myself writer’s block. I don’t have that kind of time to spare. If the next scene isn’t coming or I can’t figure out how C gets to D, I work on something else. Maybe I work on a scene or a dialogue that’s way beyond where I’m currently working on. Maybe I rewrite a previous scene. I keep going, not always chronologically, but that doesn’t matter.

The ages old question for writers: to outline or not to outline?

A flexible outline. If I don’t know where the story is going or don’t know what the theme is, I don’t know what scenes to write, what words to put into characters’ mouths. But if a character says something unexpectedly or a scene twists a different way than planned, I go with it. In those times, the story often takes an unusual curve that turns out to change the book for the better.

What can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects you have in the works?

I have two manuscripts that are ready to publish, which I plan to release in the next 6 -7 months: Accidental Samurai Spy and Kenji's Power. I’m currently working on a book with a working title of The Messanger about twelve-year-old Lilly in an internment camp during World War II.

Thank you so much, Mariko, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure all of our members are grateful to you for sharing your insights into writing with us, as well as some details about Ayumi's Violin. Good luck! Or as they say in Japan, work hard and persevere!