For years I doubted whether I’d ever be able to write a book – not for lack of talent or ideas, but because I am an extrovert. All the books I’d ever read about becoming an author said the same thing: be prepared to sit in a room all day long, by yourself. Personally, I can’t think of anything less interesting and more to the point, who wants to read a book by a person who only ever sits in a room by herself?
My take on it is this – if you’re writing a book that you expect someone else to read and publish, you’ve got to go out there and live. Do stuff. Make mistakes. Meet people (interesting ones and dull ones). Be normal. Let’s face it in a profession revered for its eccentrics, in today’s publishing environment eccentricity will only get you so far.
I can hear the purists balking already … what of “literature”? Exploring our national identity? Exposing the ills of society? Starting a book with a tiny hint of an idea and “just goin’ with it man”? Yes, what of it? It’s great stuff and books that focus solely on these themes belong in academia, journalism and diaries – not stuff you typically see flying off the shelves.
People want to read about other people; characters we can identify with one way or another. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a boy wizard learning that life is all about the choices we make, or a Scottish vet learning to adjust to life in Yorkshire. We’ve all made poor choices, and we’ve all been the outsider because we’re all out there living life and not sitting in a room peeking out at the world.
Today, readers want a good story and they want it fast – uncluttered with lots of flowery language and narrative summary. A good author can deliver. A great author will not only deliver, but also keep her readers in suspense and teach them something about being human.
Seclusion has its place. A little quiet time sure does make the physical act of writing a lot easier, but I don’t think it’s a wise lifestyle choice for an author. Far better to sandwich it between inviting a friend to dinner, or taking the kids to the park for a picnic (call it research if you must).
“Extrovert” doesn’t mean “loud mouth”. (Although if you know a loud mouth, study him. They’re fun characters to write.) Being witty and entertaining will help when it comes time to promote the book, but being observant and curious is key to writing it.
When I was a little girl, I’d often spend Saturdays with my father running errands, visiting relatives and generally giving my mother a much-needed break. Dad would always pick people out from the crowd ask questions like “what do you think he does for a living?” or “where do you suppose she’s off to in such a hurry?” We’d make up whole lives for these strangers based on details like a woman wearing heels instead of sneakers, or a man needing a haircut. Little did I know these were my first lessons in character development.
I still do it today. I love to watch the interaction between people – those on a first date v. well-established relationships, for example. Every now and then I spy a couple who’ve just had a fight – great stuff! Their body language screams volumes, even though they’re not saying a word. All fodder for a novelist.
I recently took my kids swimming at a nearby beach and spread my towel on the sand next to a woman with the most incredible red hair. Honestly, beautiful. A young boy, about seven, with the same red hair sat on the other side of me and began shoveling sand into a pail. Nothing unusual so far. Within minutes he began flicking sand at me. At first I thought it was an accident – he was a little boy after all. Then, I figured his mother (for that’s who I assumed she was) would speak to him. Silly me.
It wasn’t until sand flew into my eyes and hair that I spoke (ok, spoke very loudly) to the kid. For sure a mother would say something then, right? If not to her son, then to me (either to apologize or tell me off). Instead she stood, walked to the nearest picnic table (away from us both) and put a towel over her head. Extraordinary! Now, what do you suppose was going on in her life to make her behave in such a manner?
That’s character development. It’s observing what people say and do, and then being curious enough to figure out why they said and did it. Toss the character into a situation that makes them stretch and grow, and you’ve got a story that people will want to read. The more they have to stretch, the better.
For this, an author needs to get out into the world. She needs to meet new people and ask them questions. Where do they work? What do they like to do in their spare time? Why have they chosen to have kids/not have kids, travel/not travel, stay married to the idiot/divorce the gentleman?
You don’t need to live a solitary existence to write a book. In fact, you shouldn’t. All you need is a little discipline so that you carve out the time necessary to infuse your story with the things you’ve experienced outside your writing room.