How Do You Put Lipstick On a Pig?

This writing journey has never been a smooth one. I suspect this is the case for most, if not all writers, but we don’t often get to see the road, only the finish line. We see the success stories on the best seller lists and on book tours. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the journey through a film like Eat, Pray, Love (which I liked inspire of it being somewhat Hollywooded in it’s execution) or even better, get to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person. She is amazing, and humble, and real, and inspiring all at once. You could very easily hate her if she wasn’t so genuinely nice.

So, I had a skewed view of how this writing thing was supposed to go. A view which was shattered very soon after I wrote my entirely shitty first, draft. I realized I didn’t know how to write. I could put words on the page (almost a hundred and fifty thousand of them in two months. I definitely had some skills, in the area of verbal diarrhea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing anything to pull my readers in, to paint a picture people wanted to look at, or to make them want to read more. I thought writing was a completely one sided exercise where I told about this happening, then that happened, then something else happened, until the end. So boring. I realized this when I picked my zombie epic up after not looking at it for about a month.

“Who wrote this crap?” I asked myself. The “exciting zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories” I had set out to write was nowhere to be found. I’m a voracious reader of two or three books a week in all genres and all quality levels–although, the more I’m exposed to really great writing and learn what goes into it, the less willing I am to tolerate low quality writing–besides being a shameless zombie aficionado, and even I couldn’t read it. I scoured the NaNoWriMo forums, Googled how to write a novel, and checked out books at the library, read On Writing by Stephen King and generally tried to learn how to look critically at my own writing. It seemed like every Writer’s Digest article or blog post I read added another item to the list of things I was doing wrong but I couldn’t apply it to my book. How the hell was I supposed to take the mass of caca on my computer and turn it into something readable. I knew it was bad and some of the reasons why. But I didn’t know how to fix it.

Lucky for me, at about that time, my brother and his family moved back to Colorado after spending fifteen years working overseas, mostly in Africa, where he and my sister-in-law worked for various NGOs and USAID. My sister in law was interested in writing a memoir of her experiences and took a class on memoir writing from The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver (A wonderful place with amazing teachers and a supportive writing community that I’ll talk more about in a later post). There she met a trio of other writers who hit it off and decided to form a workshop group after the class was over.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or what group members are writing.

One night my wife and I were at my brother’s house for dinner and my sister in law says, “Why don’t you join this writing workshop we’re starting? We need a couple more people and you can work on your book.”

“What’s a writing workshop?” That’s how ignorant I was. “And, aren’t you writing a memoir? What are the other people doing?”

“Oh they’re all doing memoirs too, but it’ll be fine. They’re really nice.”

To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. “Is any of them doing a memoir of their time working in a slaughter house, cuz that’s about how much gore is in your average zombie book? Have any of them actually read a zombie book?”

“Not sure what they read. but this one lady, is writing about how she worked on fishing boats in Alaska.” It turns out that tales of the Alaska fishing industry in the eighties have a lot in common with the zombie apocalypse and the woman, who was a graduate of the Maritime Marine Academy, could curse like the sailor she was, and watched the Walking Dead religiously. I knew none of this the first day when we all introduced ourselves and talked about ground rules for our group. I also didn’t know that this group–we called ourselves “The Quillers”– would endure for almost three years and give me more quality feedback and result in more improvement in my writing than anything else I have done since I started this journey.

All Workshops Are Not Created Equal:

The Quillers met regularly, twice a month, and reviewed a ten to twelve page excerpt from a pair of members at each meeting. Even when only three of us showed up, I got so much out of the session because we all took the time to dig in to each other’s submissions and look critically at where improvement was possible. It’s amazing how much you learn about your own writing by reviewing the writing of other people. The more things I found to improve in the other’s writing, the more I was lerning to see those things in my own writing. One of my teachers at The Lighthouse said, “Writing a critique isn’t for the person who wrote the piece–they can probably throw it in the trash and be ok–it’s for you to learn how to look at your own writing.” It’s true, but I’ll also say that when you have a generous and knowledgable group, the feedback you get can be invaluable.

Everyone was committed to helping each other and very committed to their own writing. We focused on talking about the writing and not making any critique personal. We even had a rule at the beginning that we had to talk about what “the writer” was doing rather than what “you” wrote. We talked about “Opportunities for revision” and “things that worked for me.” All of us had something to contribute and almost always, when something didn’t work for one person it didn’t work for the rest of the group. I learned how to make my story come alive by making my readers feel what my characters were experiencing. And the group learned more than they ever thought they would about zombie’s and how to kill them.

Another thing that made our group work was our commitment to our writing, our willingness to learn, and our generosity with or time and our knowledge. We shared the things we were learning in the classes we took, and the things we had learned on our own and took the time to really understand what each of us was trying to do. We were all there to help each other achieve our goals. And when one of us reached a milestone like finishing a draft or getting a story published somewhere, it felt like a victory for all of us.

I’ve been in a bunch of workshops since, through the lighthouse and on my own, and although I continue to get a lot out of them and continue to learn, I will never forget the Quillers and the growth I experienced along with them. Unfortunately, our little group broke up. One of our members left to take her family on a yearlong trip around the world (check it out at Travels With Paradise) while our sailor got a job teaching at her alma-mater. I have huge hopes we can get back together, but even if we don’t, what they taught me about writing will always stay with me.

Thanks so much for reading. Leave me a comment below and tell me how you like these posts. Also, let me know if you have any questions, or suggestions for future posts.

An Unlikely Beginning:

“Let’s do NaNoWriMo this year,” my wife said, sometime in mid October, 2014.

I looked up from my Kindle, “What’d you call me?”

She had heard the joke too many times to even give a courtesy laugh. “National Novel Writing Month. You’re always talking about writing a book. Here’s your chance.”

“Chance for what?”

“You have to write fifty thousand words during November. We should do it together. It’ll be fun.”

She’d done NaNoWriMo twice before. A friend of ours, a librarian who can be counted on to provide a list of websites related to the subject of any conversation had turned her on to it when Beth mentioned that she too wanted to write a book.

“Hmm,” I said, “sounds interesting.

How Not to Start a Writing Career if you’re in  a hurry:

On paper, this was right up my alley. I had been talking about writing since I read Lawrence Block’s Write For Your Life in 1988. Even before that, I had the idea for a super-awesome spy novel–a cross between The Bourne Identity and Nothing Lasts Forever, the 1979 thriller novel by Roderick Thorp that became the movie Die Hard–in college, but I was too busy partying and getting into trouble to stay home and write. Besides, there was a whole list of things I needed to do before I could even think of calling myself an author. I needed a worn Moleskine notebook in which to scribble ideas and descriptions of people, places, and sensations, maybe some poetry, while traveling to the exotic locations my hero would visit and gathering local insights. I also had to work out a plot and write an outline using the knowledge gained from volumes of supporting research, primary sources, and interviews with people who knew about spycraft, international finance, poisons, firearms, and knives. I would pick up self defense along the way while learning to shoot as many handguns as possible and possibly an M16. If I could manage a few years working at the CIA, acquire some lock picking skills, and develop a tolerance for Iocane powder, that would be even better.

Things Get Postponed a Few Decades:

Who can say why the plan failed? Was it the lack of a burning desire to write or because the plan was unrealistic, or because I got sidetracked by life? Life does get in the way of motivation, and earning a living, especially as a recent college graduate, is always more than a full time gig. My first job out of college was as a Pier Superintendent in the port of New York where I worked sixty to eighty hours a week. Not a lot of time to write in there, although looking back, it’s clear if I had really wanted to, I would have found a way.

I spent a few years as an HMO Operations Manager in New Jersey–I was going to be a CEO someday, but realized the corporate world wasn’t for me–where my literary pursuit was more about reading than writing. Next, I indulged my creative jones as a carpenter and remodeler but needed health insurance, so I ended up going to Paramedic school and getting a job working for a private ambulance service in a city north of Denver.

Twenty five years flew by while I searched for a creative outlet. I played piano, experimented with Watercolors and drawing, built remote control gliders, and even started making custom furniture, but nothing made me want to get up in the morning and start right in. I still wanted to write but my misconceptions about the way legitimate writers did it still held me back. Besides, I had completely failed at scribbling in the Moleskine notebook, although I bought one every time I took a trip, and therefore didn’t have any great locations for plot points, or character ideas. NOr had I aquired mad self defense skills, or spycraft–Shockingly, the CIA was not interested in a guy with mediocre grades from Arizona State who was marginally proficient in English but lacking any of the prerequisites for intelligence gathering–and no plot.

My wife who had heard all my excuses before, along with the whining, nodded her head. “Have you heard the term pantser?”

A Pantser Is Born:

That word changed everything. The idea that I could just sit down and figure it out as I went was a game changer. A path to becoming a writer that went nowhere near the route I had imagined but one where I could start whenever I wanted. Today. Or in two weeks. “OK,” I blurted and instantly regretted it. “What am I going to write about?” I had no research or information about exotic locations. Even with Google and YouTube providing all the local flavor I could want–this will be the subject of an upcoming blog post–the international thriller seemed beyond my reach. Besides a voice in the back of my head was still whispering that this pantsing thing wasn’t the way a legitimate writer would do it.

No More Excuses:

“Why not write about zombies?” My wife smiled. I’m pretty sure she was just trying to get under my skin. “You guys are so obsessed, I bet you could write three books about that.”

As it turns out, I was in the midst of a serious zombie obsession. I was working as a paramedic in a city at the edge of Denver called Commerce City. EMS attracts a lot of guys in the eighteen to twenty four demographic, and discussions of zombies became a pretty regular subject when we met for breakfast at the beginning of our shifts. It was season two of The Walking Dead, and I was reading Rhiannon Frater’s As The World Dies series (I can’t say enough good things about it. Maybe I’ll do a review in one of these posts). So, in the spirit of writing what you know, I started a zombie apocalypse novel about a paramedic in Denver who, along with his coworkers, predicts the coming zombie apocalypse. The first chapter was an almost word for word compilation of the conversations with my coworkers. The title was easy: Zombies For Breakfast.

A Writer Is Born (or at least, conceived):

So, NaNoWriMo was an absolute blast. My wife and I watched barely any TV the whole month. Instead, we would sit at the kitchen table, or on the couch, or in a coffee shop, always together, and we would write our fifteen to seventeen-hundred words. Every day (most days I had no trouble with the goal, even surpassed it more often than not). Each night, we would take our dogs for their final walk, share what we wrote and discuss ideas for the next day. I was like being in one of those interactive games where you make choices and the story follows your instructions. It was a revelation like none other in my life. I finally understood what people meant when they said they had to do something creative.

Once I started, I had to write. The story just bubbled out of me. I finished November with seventy thousand words and kept going through December. By the time I decided I was finished in mid January, I had a story of over one-hundred-fifty thousand words. This writing thing was so easy. Think of an idea, type it into my computer, and repeat. I was so excited, I told everyone I knew about how I was writing a book and, yes, as a matter of fact, it would be ready soon. All I had to do was spend a month or two cleaning up the typos and the parts where things weren’t quite crystal clear, then bam, I would be an author, and everyone would read my story and be very impressed, and they would tell their friends and sometime in the next year or so there would be a movie contract. Those of you who have written anything know what happened next.

After leaving it alone for a couple of weeks, I discovered that my fabulous book had a number of ‘opportunities’ (a word I learned in my first writing class) for revision. Anne Lamott talks about the need to get through the “shitty first draft.” I had finally done something real writers did, executed an amazingly shitty first draft. The good news is that before I had subjected more than one or two people to what I had in my computer, I realized that, even at the age of forty-five, with an extensive education, experience writing memos, letters, advertising for my construction company, and countless emails, I had no idea how to write. It was time to go back to school. Again.

Now What?:

I’ve since written a thriller–not international and no spies–which I’m working very hard on, and revised ZFB (Zombies For Breakfast takes a really long time to type) and learned a lot about writing. I’ll be getting into all of that in future posts. For now, check out my next post, in which I join a group of super smart writers who met in a personal memoir class. They took pity on me and let me join their group and start workshopping my zombie novel.