Sunday, November 8, 2009

Barbara DeShong's Extreme Writing


I'm thrilled to have Barbara DeShong as my guest blogger today. Barb is the author of the humorous mystery TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. A psychologist in private practice and consulting in Texas, Barb previously wrote a book on stress that led to speaking engagements both in her home state and across the country. Following the publication of that book, she exchanged the insanity and long hours of the writing world for the insanity and broken bones of showing horses. She credits her current writing style to having unexpectedly dismounted and landed on her head too many times without a helmet.

A blend of doing psychotherapy and writing humorous fiction is a perfect fit for Barb since she loves stories and is constitutionally incapable of staying out of other people’s business. Today she's going to share some thoughts with us on her writing style, or what she calls "Extreme Writing for Publication".

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What kind of crazy person trades in a two hundred dollar an hour indoor profession with all sorts of ego-patting perks for an occupation requiring infinite unpaid work hours and multileveled rejection?

A writer. My spiral into the writing world began when strolling through Old Town in San Diego a few years back, I stuck my head into the lobby of a hotel hosting the Southern California Writers Conference. In the sort of whimsical mood that comes with February sunshine in Southern California, I strolled up to the conference registration table. When the smiling woman asked if I was registered, I laughed, coyly.

“Oh, no. I’ve thought about writing fiction…maybe I will once I retire.”

“Don’t wait. Start now,” the woman said, looking straight into my eyes. (Those Southern Californians are stronger than the rest of us. It’s the freeway experience.)

“Who knows?” I said, slipping a brochure for the next conference in my jeans pocket. Any excuse to come to San Diego in February, right?

I should explain why I was more than naïve about what was required to complete a readable work of fiction and why I was oblivious to the perils of selling a novel. I wrote and sold a successful nonfiction on the heels of graduate school. The process was as follows: After presenting a workshop in New York, an editor from a respectable publishing company asked me to submit a proposal on my workshop topic. I did, they bought it, sent me a fat advance, and I wrote. Every month the editor flew to Texas to consult with me on how it was going. The book came out, the checks came in, and I received invitations to speak around the nation.

Here’s the place where you laugh. I really believed getting a novel published would be the same sort of enterprise. I know, I know. And, perhaps, had I’d kept my coy smile and thoughts of writing until I was too old to actually try, I would be one more professional, like the many you’ve met, who smiles knowingly on hearing of your writing struggles…then says, “I’m thinking I should write a novel…maybe later when I have more time.”

Discovering my view of the profession was, shall we say, a bit off the mark, I set out to learn two things: how to write fiction and how to get published.

Though I’d written many professional pieces, I did not know enough about writing fiction to complete even the most common sort of fictional piece—an auto insurance commercial. I was informed of my deficits by my kind English professor brother-in-law who, bless his heart, actually read every word of my 170,000 confessional manuscript. We met for breakfast and I handed him the four-inch stack of brilliance. Tell you what kind of guy he is, he didn’t even cry. At least not until he was out of eyesight.

I waited, heart-pounding, for return of the manuscript…which I was sure needed a few, tiny corrections and maybe neatening of a couple of chapter endings. Okay, you can laugh here, too. Brother-in-law returned the manuscript at another breakfast meeting and I should have noticed he was staring at his coffee instead of looking me in the eye. On the cover page, he’d summarized his thoughts. The first sentence went thusly: “First, dear sister-in-law of mine, (‘dear’, that means trouble ahead) let me congratulate you on your courage and discipline…”

Yep. You’ve got the picture. That first paragraph ended with a hint that I might want to take a few classes on creative writing. Me? Classes?

Having gone through undergrad as pre-med with a biology major, I hadn’t taken an English course since high school. But, I’d taught psychology and had some neat ideas. I hope you’re giggling here at my folly, because I deserve it.

By the way, I’ve never gone back and re-worked that first manuscript because it just isn’t that good. I’d read over and over, as you have, that the first ‘novel’ written is often never publishable. When you’re writing that first novel, the very thought that the pages you are grinding out with drops of blood oozing out of your forehead…are going to end up on a shelf…is enough to make you want to stalk the author who even suggested such a travesty…that you are sitting there all those hours doing the best you can…and your plans for the work are never to be.

Thus, reality a bit closer, I decided to launch ‘Extreme Writing for Publication’. That is, since I was approaching the retirement I’d talked to the Southern Californian woman so cavalierly about, I knew I did not have time to go back for a creative writing degree or even to play around going to one or two local conferences. I needed to sink myself in the project.

Extreme Writing for Publication had several phases. Phase one was finding an editor I could listen to without threatening to jump out of tall buildings. I presented my plan to the nice lady in San Diego and she agreed to give it a go. I need to say, because I’ve since learned my experience might be unusual, the editor, Jean Jenkins, refused to accept a cent. That’s right. She thought the project sounded like something she’d like to work on and we hit it off.

With an editor who was willing to join my efforts, I launched stage two of Extreme Writing for Publication. I signed up for six Writing Conferences for the following year. I realize not everyone can afford that many trips, but I was seeing the project as consolidating ten years of conference going. I learned a tremendous amount, including that some conferences were more useful than others and that conferences vary in what is offered from ‘boot camps’ focused on hard-nosed all-day writing to ‘overviews of basics’, to conferences with inspiring speakers. If there’s an interest, I’ll make another entry on conference experiences.

The conference going stage of my process also included book-buying and movie elements. I bought around twenty books on fiction writing and studied like crazy. As with conferences, some were more helpful than others. The movie-going aspect had two parts. One, I went to several movies a week, good and bad, to learn how to follow story lines, highs and lows. Second I picked a few movies which I saw multiple times in the same week. Multiple views provided a way to see different elements of the story line. I saw “The Quiet American” daily for six days, taking something new away with each viewing.

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Barb will return on Wednesday with "Phase Two" of "Extreme Writing for Publication". I hope you will join us then for the rest of this delightful blog post and a review of TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Barbara DeShong. Until then, click on the title of this blog to read about TOO RICH AND TOO THIN at Amazon.com.

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