There are a lot of misconceptions out there about Emily Dickinson — that she was reclusive, a crazy woman in the attic who wrote thousands of poems, stuffed them all in drawers, and was never published in her lifetime.
In fact, she was published — several of her poems saw print in local newspapers. Also, she wrote thousands of letters to many other writers and intellectuals of her day, looking for advice about writing, sharing thoughts, asking questions. She might have been physically reclusive, but she was intellectually expansive and craved contact with others. If she were alive today, she’d be one of our most prolific and celebrated bloggers, I’m sure. Also, while you might have thought that she’d be a cat person, in fact she had a dog, a big black Newfie who was her constant companion for sixteen years.
I’ve had this poem by Dickinson pinned to my wall for years now:
Luck is not chance –
It’s Toil –
Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned –
The Father of the Mine
Is that old fashioned Coin
We spurned –
Last week I touched a horse. This horse right here, as it happens. I put my hand on his nose and patted him. No big deal; it’s something people who live around horses do all the time, especially where I live, as there are more horses than people in my town. Only I haven’t touched or gone within five feet of a horse in 40 years, not since I was thrown off a big black nightmare some adults thought it would be cute to put me on.
I think horses are beautiful creatures (at a distance.) I take photos of them all the time (from my car or while standing behind a nice, strong, safe fence.) My daughter loves horses and has become an accomplished rider, and I take her to her lessons . . . and stay far, far away from her while she saddles and climbs on while I watch and sweat and silently pray Please God don’t let that evil beast from Hell eat my baby. Then I have to leave before I throw up.
I have a very real, very solid case of equinophobia. The last time some well-intentioned friend try to “cure” me of it by taking me into a stable, I passed out cold. And the horses know how frightened I am of them; they see me coming and their heads go up and they watch me. I can almost hear what they’re thinking: Hey, check out the fraidy-cat. Let’s mess with her.
I don’t like my phobia. I want to stop being afraid of horses. It’s stupid. But the last time my daughter’s trainer tried to lead me up to one just to stand close to it, I started shaking so much she had to hold me up with one arm or I would have fallen like old timber.
So why would someone as terrified of horses as I am touch one? Because I wasn’t thinking about it. I stopped to take a picture of a horse with unusual coloring, looked down to check my camera settings because I was shooting toward the sun, and when I looked up the horse had come over to have a look at me.
Time seemed to freeze. I didn’t think OmiGod and freak. I didn’t twitch. There was just this horse, right there, in my face, and it was about to bump me with his nose. I reached out instinctively to stop that, I think, then I just petted him like I would our dog. He made that snorty sound and turned his head so he could take a good look at me. Maybe he heard about my wimp ass from all the other horses, but he didn’t seem too impressed. That was the moment I snapped this pictue (and honestly, I don’t remember doing that at all.)
I’m pretty sure I said “Nice horsey” while I backed away a few steps, whirled around and ran back to my car. Once I jumped in and locked all the doors, then I silently freaked out. The horse watched me for a minute, got bored and went back to grazing.
It was a huge moment for me, and once I’d let myself have quiet hysterics, an important one. I hadn’t fainted. I hadn’t thrown up. I hadn’t even punched the horse (which I’ve always been horribly afraid I’d do in a situation like this.) I’d survived an up-close and personal encounter with one of my giants, and neither of us had thrown a single stone.
The first person I told was my daughter, of course. “You’ll never believe what I did today.” I didn’t even wait for her to guess. “I touched a horse.”
Just like that horse, she gave me the eye. “Are you on drugs?”
“No, and I didn’t faint or anything.” I decided not to mention my subsequent in-car freak out. “I just petted him very gently on the nose.” Then I made her swear not to tell her trainer, who is still determined to get me on a horse if it’s the last thing she ever does in this life.
The thing that is so great about this accidental aversion therapy — other than the fact that the horse didn’t bite my hand off — is that I did it on my own. Maybe not on purpose, maybe just out of reflex, but the end result was that I had a good personal experience with a horse. Unlike every other tactic other, horse-loving people have tried, this one experience has convinced me that I’m not a total wuss after all, and maybe not all horses are evil beasts from Hell who want to eat me.
This is also fortuitous in another sense. I have about six months of research to do for three books I’m writing that prominently feature horses. No, I’m not insane. One of my goals in writing these novels (other than pleasing my horse-crazy daughter) is to personally discover all the amazing and wonderful things about horses. I do think they’re beautiful, elegant creatures who add greatly to the lives of people who love them. I see how much my daughter has blossomed since she began riding, and how much confidence it’s given her.
Then there’s me — I not only hate my phobia, I resent it. Living with this kind of self-inflicted fear is not what I’m about. I may never get to the point where I can actually ride a horse (that’s the phobia talking right there) but I refuse to spend the rest of my life being this afraid of them. The only way I know to do that is to learn as much about them as I can, and keep pushing myself to familiarize myself with them and be exposed to them until I can build up enough positive, healthy experiences to overcome that one rotten experience from childhood.
I’m pretty sure this will work for me because it’s how I overcame my fear of public speaking (I went to open mike night at B&N every week for three months and read my poetry out loud. First time it was like being skinned alive. The twelfth time I felt like I could address Congress) and my aversion to spiders (wrote a SF book prominently featuring three-foot-high spiders as characters who were not villains; the research included spending time with and eventually handling a tarantula.) Neither of those dreads were as severe as my equinophobia, but I beat them, and that gives me hope.
Not every person chooses to confront their own phobias alone, nor do I recommend my existential approach as the ideal way to cope with a phobia (to get the best treatment options for any phobia, mental trauma or condition, you should always first consult with your family doctor or therapist.)
Writing about the things we fear isn’t something I think we should avoid, though. In as much as we like to write about things we love, I think it can be just as important to explore on the page things we hate or fear or dislike. Those emotions are just as valid, and expressing them in a constructive venue like writing can be the first step toward a healthy resolution. Even if that means taking a long, close look at something we’d rather avoid, I think it also helps the quality of the work to present the shadows as well as the light. That way we don’t end up writing nothing but fairytales that take place in the Village of Smiling People to whom nothing bad ever happens.
People keep asking me where I get my ideas for books. The truth is, I have no idea. One day I’m driving along, taking a shower, pulling my luggage of a carousel at an airport or sitting at my desk, and then boom some person is talking in my head and having a conversation. And it’s not me, or my subconscious, I know us both well. No, these are strangers who want to tell me a story.
Don’t send in the guys with the white coats just yet.
I’ve learned through the years that this is my creative process – part of the magic that helps me when I have no idea what to write next. My books begin with the characters and then I wrap the story around them. I don’t usually know much about them in the beginning, but I love discovering what they are about as we go along.
I learn these things on a need to know basis. As the story reveals itself, so do these characters and many times in the most interesting ways. I was so surprised when I learned the heroine, Gillian, of “The Demon King and I” was the CEO of her family’s company, as well as the owner of several art galleries around the world. She found such pleasure in art and it was something she was incredibly passionate about. It carried over into other parts of her life whether she was dealing with demons, or trying to solve a murder mystery. Art is a big part of who she is.
The art parts (that’s so much fun to say) are small tidbits throughout the book, but they help define who Gillian is. They show a softer more vulnerable side of her. I was also surprised to see how she interacts with her sisters. I never had siblings growing up and she had this bond with the women in her family that absolutely fascinated me. The little nuances, pet names, rivalries, Gillian shared these things as her story revealed itself.
The funny thing is, not every conversation these characters have in my head ends up in the book. I’ll be driving along listening to my favorite tunes, and Arath (that’s Gillian’s love interesting in the book, and he’s the Demon King) starts talking to Gillian about his brother and those familial ties. For the two hours I was stuck in traffic they had this discussion about family. None of that ended up in the book, but Arath revealed something to me that did. I can’t tell you because it’s a major plot point in the book. I had no idea he felt that way, and it made him more human to me.
There are people who sit down and must know everything about their characters before they begin writing. They even make note cards. I’ve nothing against anyone else’s process, but that would drive me crazy. I usually know their names, but even that can change. But there is one thing in the beginning that I know, and it might help others to do the same. I know why I want to take this journey with this character. There’s a reason I’m climbing on board the Gillian train, so to speak, and she usually tells me right up front what that is.
When I finish that first draft I really do feel like I’ve been on an amazing journey. As I go back do my fluff and puff (revisions) I learn even more about the characters I’ve written and they continue to have conversations in my head. Sometimes I wish they’d go to sleep, and leave me alone. But then that’s part of the magic, and I really can’t wait to see what they do next.
This is my first post on GenReality and I notice I am already late as it should be up at 10am EST, and it’s 7:30 am, Pacific. Mea Culpa.
I thought I’d introduce myself and make a few comments before diving into things next week. I just returned from teaching a pair of workshop sin Boise, ID, which is partly why I am late. 550 mile drive each way and for some reason there was snow in the pass in the Cascade Mountains.
My first book came out in 1991—a military thriller. Wrote six of those, then began writing a series for Random House under my pen name Robert Doherty called Area 51 that is still in print. Various other books in various genre, including non-fiction (The Novel Writers Toolkit from Writers Digest) and romantic adventure co-writing with Jennifer Crusie.
I have a very practical take on the art and business of writing. Note I say art and business. A successful author must be very good at both. To become an artist, one must learn the craft of writing. To be successful as an artist one must learn the business in which the art is sold.
One of my largest focuses as you will see in the coming weeks and months is the lack of “author training”. That is one of the reason this blog exists. If you believe your publisher or agent will help train you in the business, well, that’s like believing your ob-gyn will raise your child. Odds are kind of slim. So writers help each other out.
The latest stink being raised is Harlequin starting a self-publishing line. I call ‘em as I see ‘em. Not good. It’s a way for Harlequin to make money. But in essence, they’re saying: “Hey, we rejected you for our paid slots, we’ll let you pay us to get published. And who knows, maybe if it works, we’ll pull you up and publish you.” There’s an inherent contradiction in that logic flow. I’ll leave it up to you to figure it out.
I’ve been doing this business for 20 years, which is a long time. I’ve made many mistakes. I will share them with you in hopes of helping you avoid making the same.
So, just for fun, I’ll leave you with a link to a YouTube clip featuring Harlan Ellison, entitled, Pay The Writer. If profanity offends you, well, it’s Harlan.
I spent most of the day yesterday out at my local coffee shop, trying to put the finishing touches on the second book in the Jeremiah Hunt trilogy. It was a tough day – one of those days where the words don’t want to cooperate and your thoughts are easily sidetracked. Definitely one of those days when you throw up your hands in the middle of it all and wonder why you ever got into this crazy business in the first place.
I finally called it a day and went home. I spent some time with my wife and kids and after dinner realized that I hadn’t looked at the day’s mail. A package had arrived in the afternoon while I was out and I discovered that it contained several books. I got myself a cup of post-dinner coffee, grabbed a book out of the box, and settled down in the living room to read with my six dogs lounging around my feet. (Yes, I said six, and no, they aren’t little dogs by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s a post for another day.)
I read for about an hour, which at my reading speed was enough to get through about half of the paperback in my hand and by the end of it, I remembered why I suffered through work days like the one I’d had earlier.
See, the books in the box were the author copies for my first Rogue Angel novel, The Spirit Banner. I’d written it more than a year ago and in between I’d written three other novels, so the story wasn’t so fresh in my mind and I came to it almost like an outsider picking it up for the first time. Even though I knew what was going to happen, the time between finishing the work and having it arrive in my mailbox had been long enough to allow me to appreciate it from a perspective different than the one I’d had the day I’d mailed it off to my editor.
I’ll be the first to say it isn’t perfect. Nor is it going to win any awards. Truth be told its nothing more than a cinematic popcorn style adventure with lots of action and a beautiful sword wielding heroine getting into trouble time and again.
But reading it again for the first time in more than a year, I was transported from the confines of my living room to the distant plains of the Mongolian Steppes, racing along with Annja Creed and her companions as they searched for Genghis Khan’s long lost tomb. Simply put, I was entertained.
And isn’t that what it’s all about? Entertaining our readers? Taking them away, if only for a little while, to somewhere else? Letting them experience life through a different filter or set of circumstances?
Opening that box made my day and the enthusiasm I felt after spending time in Annja’s world made getting up this morning and wrestling with my manuscript again just that much easier.
Last week I talked about my daily routine, in which my dog Lily figures rather prominently. I know writers are traditionally supposed to be cat people, but I’ve never lived with cats because when we were young my brother was horribly allergic to them. I never really learned to speak “cat.” We did, however, have a hypo-allergenic poodle, and I learned “dog.” (I had a horse before I had a dog — writers are also horse people, and bird people, and fish people, etc.)
Here is Lily: she’s a miniature American Eskimo dog, and a rescue dog with a sad story (abandoned twice before coming home with me). Sometimes when I’m really stuck on a plot point or revision, we’ll go for a walk and I’ll turn the problem over, and I’ll usually have a solution by the time we get back home. I tried to see if I could deduct her as a business expense for helping me with my writing, but no dice there.
Joe Nassise is happy to announce that Four years after the first book in the Templar Chronicles trilogy hit the bookstore shelves, a deal had been finalized to bring the final two volumes to fans here in the US in the language they were originally written in – English!
Keep an eye here on Sundays for more News updates.