Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Permission To Keep Your Day Job

The other day, I was listening to a popular psychologist's radio show. I often agree with her, but that day, she gave a female caller what I thought was bad advice.

The caller was a single woman who was between jobs and living off savings. She was about to look for another job in sales, which she hates but it pays well. She felt stuck. She'd always done the safe thing career-wise and had never pursued her true passions: writing and photography. She was afraid of failure but more importantly, she was afraid of running out of money.

The radio host pronounced, "You're an artist. You will never be happy unless you fulfill your destiny." She advised the caller to immediately start writing and taking pictures and sending them around. "Sell your house, get a small apartment, and eventually you'll earn enough money to live." The shrink poo-pooed the caller's concerns about running out of money again imploring, "You're an artist."

I agree that the caller should follow her muse, but worrying about keeping a roof over my head never did much for my creativity. Earning a wage and pursuing your creative aspirations are not mutually exclusive.

The lifestyle of a full-time writer is very appealing. It was many years after I published my first book before I was able to make that transition. True, there are writers who rolled the dice and quit their day jobs when that first book was just a crazy glimmer in their eyes, but the vast majority started by balancing working for a living and building a writing career, book by book, reader by reader.

Some of the “roll the dice” tales have back stories. Some writers have gainfully employed spouses, or maybe cashed out of highly successful other careers, or perhaps don’t mind living like the Unabomber.

It takes months and even years to knock out that book that finally gets published.  If you earn a six figure advance for it, my hat's off.  The advance will probably be much less, tough to live on, and who knows if this new career's going to stick?

In the early years of my writing career, I was single without a spouse to fall back on. My modest investment portfolio would have been blown through in a few years if I had to live on it. When I was younger, I spent many years scraping by. I didn't like it then. I sure as hell wouldn't like it now.

Here's the great thing about writing. You can write books even if you can set aside just an hour a day as long as you write consistently.

Which is what I did. I rose at 4:30 a.m. and wrote before I went to work. At night, I took creative writing classes. I wrote on weekends. I was inspired by the book: Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, by Marsha Sinetar.

I wrote and published three novels while working full-time. I was able to pare my job back to part-time and then published another four novels. It took me fifteen years to finally let go of the last of my day job.

Here’s a secret: I often found that day job to be a comfort when the writing wasn’t going well. Facing long stretches of time with just you and that blank page can be daunting. There’s a lot of pressure in trying to make a decent living as a writer.

So, my advice to the female caller who pines to be a writer/photographer is to find another job and carve out consistent time to follow your muse. Being able to work in your pajamas is fun, but no wine before its time. Until then, paychecks are good and compatible with creativity.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conference Schedule with Palm Trees

Have no time to write something pithy, meaningful, yada yada... So, here's my schedule for Left Coast Crime and the Tuscon Festival of Books both happening this week and a cool photo I took of my favorite palm trees in Pasadena.

The palms are arranged in two groups along the side of the wonderfully renovated Pasadena Convention Center. I took the photo after the rain had stopped on a stormy late afternoon.  It was snapped on my BlackBerry Storm cell phone, which I usually have in hand. I think it takes great photos.

If you love crime fiction and non-fiction, come out to the Left Coast Crime conference, which this year is being held at the Omni Hotel in downtown L.A.  I'm moderating a panel this Thursday, March 11, at 3:30 called, "Your Roots are Showing."  It's a discussion between two crime writers who are native Los Angelenos (me and my friend Eric Stone) and two who are from elsewhere but who have lived in and written about the city (P.A. Brown  and Robert Ellis).

On Saturday, March 13, at 8:30 a.m. (I know, yikes!), come see me discuss "Love and Death" with a fabu group of women writers including: Susan Slater, Erica Spindler, Linda O. Johnson, and Sophie Littlefield.

Sunday, March 14, I'll be at the Tucson Festival of Books. At 1:00, I'm delighted to be on a panel with Richard Lange and Thomas Perry discussing "L.A. Noir." I'll have a signing at the festival at 2:30. Then I'll be signing at the festival booth of the wonderful Clues Unlimited bookstore in Tucson at 3:30.

If you're going to be around any of these events, please stop by and say hi!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's All About The S-T-O-R-Y

It happened again. I was at a social event, chatting with an aquaintance, a woman who knows I write crime novels, and she began, "I have a great idea for your next book."

I said, "I'm intrigued. Tell me more."

She said, "I was at my hairdresser and she has women in her shop as old as ninety and as young as her little four-year-old granddaughter. All the stories they tell and the wonderful lives they've led... I thought that would be just perfect for your next book."

I'm thinking, She's never read one of my rather gritty crime thrillers. I've discussed writing with this woman before and I know she'd like to write fiction. So, I said, "I think that's a great topic for you to write about. Think up a ticking time bomb. Something that happens to a couple of the women. Something life-altering. A story."

She gave me a blank look.  Story.  That's the rub, isn't it?

I have a rather crusty friend, a former law enforcement guy who's been around the writing biz, putting out novels and screenplays, for decades. He loves to give advice. More than once over lunch, he's turned his steely gaze on me and said, "Never forget, it's all about the S-T-O-R-Y."

I've been around this block a few times myself and have to agree. And this is especially true when it comes to writing mystery and suspense fiction. Of course characters count. Of course the quality of the writing counts. But what really keeps readers turning the pages is the story.

But, you counter, if I don't care about the characters, I don't care about finishing the book. True. But those characters have to be doing something that reveals their essence that propels the reader to care about them. They don't exist in a vacuum, or just in a beauty shop.

Think about the authors who are accused of having wooden characters and flat prose but who can tell a rip-roaring page-turner. Tom Clancy and John Grisham come to mind. Contrast them with authors who pen gorgeous character studies, as perfect as tiny jeweled boxes, such as... Hmm... I can't think of any . Can you?

Yes, we must love the characters, above all, but they must do something, act out some sort of drama to interest us, to move us, even to scare us, on the page as in life, no?