A Writer’s Dilemma

I re-read a review I did of a book I bought used in 2013 called How To Write: Advice and Reflections by Richard Rhodes. Published in 1995, Rhodes takes a newbie through the process of being a writer and imparts these pithy gems of advice:

Writing takes work.
It takes planning.
It takes thought.
It takes dedication.
It takes talent.
It takes imagination.
It takes creativity.
It takes courage.

I don’t quibble with any of these. In fact, I think he’s right on the money if you’re thinking about being a writer. I consider myself a writer who blogs, has contributed pieces to sites like Popdose, Ultimate Classic Rock, Decider (now defunct), countless copywriting jobs for radio ads, TV scripts, banner ads, white papers and all the other things a writer can lend his or her talents to. However, one of the big accomplishments was a recently published paper in an academic journal.

So yes, I think I can safely call myself a writer. When I first had the ambition to be a writer, it was to be a writer for TV shows or movies. In my senior year of high school, I decided the creative arts (TV or film) were my thing. I enrolled at a local community college that had a film and TV program and set out to learn what I could and then transfer to a film school in L.A. (UCLA or USC). Well, that didn’t work out, but I did go to SF State and did a couple of years in their film program and worked as a video editor for a defense contractor during what they now call a “gap year” — but what I call “dropping out of college.” After a course correction (i.e., I changed my major and re-enrolled at SF State), my career ambitions veered away from the creative arts toward academic pursuits. Well, that didn’t work out, and after a several years of working in radio, I found myself reconnecting with my youthful ambition: writing. That’s where most of the writing jobs I listed above came into play.

And while I still write critical reviews of film, TV, music, and books, I’ve ventured back into fiction writing. So, what’s the dilemma you ask? The dilemma is whether this is a fool’s errand or not. I have some stories written in various draft stages, but I’m starting to doubt if this is even worth it. Doubt, as many of you know, is a powerful thing. It’s that voice that used to tell me “You’re going to break your neck” when I was in competitive gymnastics as a teenager — which kept me from advancing in my skills and abilities. It’s that same voice that also used to tell me “You’re not smart enough to be in grad school” when I felt like I was faking my way through an Ivy League education. And now it’s that same voice that tells me “Give up writing. You’re not good at it.”

While going over opening lines of stories the other day, that voice of doubt came back in the form of these questions: “Is this crap? Would anyone be interested in this?”


Last November, in addition to it being National Blog Post Month, it was also National Novel Writing Month. I bought a book on a whim (No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days), and it was pretty helpful. Mostly, what the author was encouraging writers to do was to get a workable first draft down in 30 days — and then take the rest of the year re-writing the book. Good strategy, but I didn’t make it. I did get 12 pages written of a historical novel called Kuli that’s loosely (very loosely) based on family lore. Here’s the opening:

Against her better judgment, her role in her family as the good daughter, the good wife, and the good mother, Alima Tripathi unwittingly did something very bad.

She and her two children Suraj and Nisha were on their way home from what had been a carefully planned visit to her parent’s home in Varanasi. Suraj was nine and Nisha was seven and Alima was twenty-three and feeling like her whole life up to now had been one where her family, village, and caste anchored who she was and who she would ever be. Alima’s husband Manu was what the British called a “Coolie,” but despite is status as a cheap laborer, he was protective of his family, and only reluctantly agreed to let Alima and the children travel to Varanasi to see her parents — who had barely survived the Great Famine of the late 1870s.

And then there’s a collection of short stories I’m writing under the title Latter-Day Saints. Based on fragments of things I heard as a kid when we lived in Utah for about five years. I thought I would take those slivers and fashion some dark stories.

Now, there’s a thing in books, movies, and TV called an elevator pitch. It means you have to be able to generate interest in your story on a ride up an elevator with some editor or producer who’s going to greenlight your project (if they like it). So, in crafting your pitch, you have to ask yourself: “Does it feel new?” “Does it have an edge? Or does it seem undercooked?” Mostly, you want the editor or agent to say: “Tell me more!”

Here’s what I came up with for Latter-Day Saints:

Gothic tales of devout Mormons leading lives of deviance, racial and sexual confusion, and hypocrisy.

So, are these stories really macabre, mysterious, or violent narratives? That’s where I’m getting stuck. I think that’s what they are, but looking over the drafts they seem to be missing something compelling. Maybe I’m just painting myself into a corner by over thinking this. Maybe I should just take the advice in the book about writing a novel in 30 days. Just finish workable drafts, and then begin the long slog of rewriting. Or as Ernest Hemingway once said after finishing the first draft of a novel (and I’m paraphrasing here): now the real writing begins.

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