One Legendary Evening

By Elizabeth Engstrom

There is a legend that tells of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein sitting down in front of the fireplace one evening with a bottle of brandy, and each of them burning one million unpublished words. To date I’ve been unable to authenticate this legend, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not it is true. I like to think it is, and I choose to think that for many reasons.

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The main reason I like this story is that it tells me that I am not alone with my quirky propensities.

I have a propensity to keep everything I write. I’m not the only writer whose filing cabinet is filling up with unpublished, unpublishable writings. Why do we cling to these things? Because we may look at them some day and discover that they had mutated over the years into something useful?

This lore also tells me that even the great writers—the writers of legend—have dead end ideas, bad books, worthless prose. They don’t consider their every word golden, and neither should I. (Tony Hillerman says he has a whole file cabinet full of first chapters.) They practice their craft, and don’t subject their fans to their practicings. I thank them for that.

I wonder what went into that fire of Heinlein and Bradbury. What brilliant poetry, intriguing concepts from the minds of those two gentlemen will be forever lost to our body of American literature? With Heinlein long dead and Bradbury recently so, what would Christie’s get for those manuscript pages on the auction block?

While I long to read fresh material by these two men, I’m glad they had the courage to reduce those pages to ashes, rather than to let me at their files of rejected prose and aborted projects. Why would I want to lessen my opinion of them by reading their worst, when I have been privileged to read their best?

How was this plan conceived, and how did they go about choosing what went the way of the flames? Were these things unpublished because of the authors’ internal editors or the editors of some publishing house? Did they ball up the pages and toss them in with cavalier bravado, or did they gently, reverently, lay stacks of pages upon the logs? And what did they talk about as they fed the fire? Did they tell bawdy jokes, or gossip about other writers and their work or their love lives, or did they complain about the changing aspects of the publishing industry? Was this an unburdening, cathartic evening, or a memorial service filled with melancholy of stories that could have been?

Two men who wrote with typewriters and carbon paper, pre-computer, pre-Xerox, each burning the equivalent of ten 100,000-word novels. It gives me pause.

Some day, I hope a writer hears about the same ritual as performed by me and one of my contemporaries, and considers it with the same amount of speculation. But to have a million unpublished words is a huge undertaking.

I best get busy.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Write

by Elizabeth Engstrom

When I was young, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer.  I always knew that some day I’d see my name on the spine of a book, but it wasn’t until I had a little life under my belt, a few gray hairs, a few credits from the school of hard knocks, a little life experience and something to say about the hope for mankind, that I was ready to sit down at the keyboard and pour out my mystifications.  The “message” that burdens every writer had finally floated to the top of my psyche.  My message had gelled.  It was time to write.

But everything I wrote sounded pompous or opinionated or biased.  I couldn’t make good fiction out of my message for mankind.

Then science fiction great Theodore Sturgeon came to town to give a workshop.  I had grown up reading his work; his influence on me as a young reader had been enormous.  I paid my fee, mailed in the manuscript he agreed to read as a part of the workshop curriculum, and I sat down to bite my nails and wait for his judgment.

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The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon

During this time of waiting, it occurred to me that over the two-week course of this workshop, he and I could run into each other at the coffee machine or something, and actually speak to each other, one-on-one.  The thought left me star-struck.  What on earth could I possibly say to the great Theodore Sturgeon?

I could ask him a question.  I knew the prospect was not likely; surely there would be thousands of people at the workshop.  Nevertheless, I set out to prepare myself so I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if the opportunity came to speak with my hero privately.  I wracked my brain and spent sleepless nights, torturing myself over this idea.  What would be The Definitive Question to ask Theodore Sturgeon?  In retrospect, I think this was my way of not dwelling on the fact that he was reading my first attempt at novel writing.

My musings came down to one question that seemed to synthesize all that had been troubling me.  The question was: “What do you do when you want to preach?” I had the urge to write, I had a message to disseminate, I had the time, the space, the knowledge, and a teensie bit of talent for the task.  But everything I wrote sounded preachy.  Every time I reread what I had written, it felt as if I ought to be writing Op-Ed pieces, or essays, or how-to books.  At one point, I even talked with my minister about actually preaching.  His response?  “My collar closes the door to 90% of the people in the world.  You, as a writer, have no such boundaries.”  Wow.  A fiction writer has such opportunity.

Such responsibility.

So what do you do when you want to preach?

Satisfied that I would not only find out the answer to that question, but that I would have something intelligent to talk over with Ted Sturgeon, I set about to wait with calmer heart.

The first night of the seminar, I was astonished that there were only about ten students.  This was going to be an intimate setting.  I would probably get to know him over the course of the two weeks.

And I did.  He and I became friends in the limited time he had left on this planet, but I never had the opportunity to ask him that question, because the first words out of his mouth on the first night of class were these: “It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.”

I was stunned.

I’m not sure I heard anything else Ted said that night, because this was so clearly the answer to many of my questions, and it was so simple, and tasted so strongly of the truth that I was awash with the possibilities for my future career.

Did he mean that I could write a vampire book and my message would come through?  I could write a romance novel?  A western, science fiction, horror, a comedy about dogs?  A blog? And still, that which had been shown to me, that which had been given to me, the life-saving philosophy that I had developed (and that surely would save the world) could still be served?

Of course.  I have only one story to tell, and that’s my story.  I can’t tell yours.  But mine is large and encompasses much, and it can be sliced into myriad tales of truth and fantasy.

I realized that it was the message showing through in the writing of my favorite authors that attracted me to their work.  Singly, a book may not contain impressive spiritual insights; but over the entire body of work of a certain author, a reader cannot help but get to know the writer’s heart.

When I realized the truth of what Ted Sturgeon said to me that night, not only did my career spread before me like a vast playground, but I was filled with confidence and questions.  Before he died, Ted Sturgeon and I spent a lot of time together, and in fact he wrote the introduction to that first book, When Darkness Loves Us, which went on to be well published.  But more importantly, I could relax.  My job as a novelist needn’t be unnecessarily complicated; it is difficult enough to tell the truth within the fiction; I don’t have to consciously worry about what message the reader is receiving.  That isn’t my job.  I don’t have to save the world.  I only have to ensure that the reader enjoys reading what I’ve written.

It has been my fortune to have a challenging career as a writer, teacher, editor and publisher.  Through my relatively brief association with Theodore Sturgeon, I learned that the surest way to make my own dreams come true is to help others achieve theirs.  The fate of empires does not hinge upon my work or upon any one piece of work.  But those of us to whom this gift has been given have a responsibility to be persistent about writing and publishing our work until a sufficient body of work has been assembled.  Our message is important.  The world needs it.   That’s our job.

Never forget: It doesn’t matter what you write.  What you believe will show through.

(Note: An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul.)

Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.

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On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?

The Creative Compost File – or Where do You Get Your Ideas?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the most valuable items at my desk is in my file drawer. It is a folder entitled “Creative Compost.” This is my gold mine and it is thick with odds and ends.

When I’m doing my daily ten-minute keep-the-pen-moving practice exercises, and I happen onto something tasty, at the end of the ten minute exercise, I rewrite the good idea, or the good passage, and slip it into the compost file. When I have an unusual dream, or meet someone with a great name, or hear a story that could evolve into wonderful fiction, or encounter someone with a distinctive speech pattern, I waste no time in writing it down and putting it into my compost file. A song lyric. A weird news item. The intriguing juxtaposition of words. A spiritual concept presented by a friend. Any number of things that captivate, confound or amuse me find a home in that file.

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Do I ever refer to it? No. Just like I never refer to the coffee grounds, once they’re thrown into the garden compost pile in my back yard. I just leave them there to work.

And work they do.

I have come to believe that it is the act of cutting the item out, or writing it down and putting it into the compost file that cements it in my mind. Just like the elusive dream that evaporates before noon unless I relate it to someone or write it down, so does the Great Idea unless I actively do something with it. Or like the discarded banana peel—it isn’t much all by itself. But throw it onto the soil, rich with micro-organisms, the roots of a nearby rosebush to encourage the decomposition, and hungry worms to digest it properly, and voila! That old banana peel becomes something worthwhile.

And so it is with the bits and pieces within my file folder. It adds to the fertility of the mind. It combines its nutrients with others in the mental digestive process. Just like the backyard stuff, good stories stem from a combination of nutrients. It is the blending of character, setting, and conflict. What comes out of the compost pile is pure gold for the garden and what comes out of the compost file is pure gold for my writing.

I went through my compost file about two years ago for the first time in maybe ten years, because it had become so thick it was taking over my file drawer, and discovered that I had used probably eighty percent of the things in it. I cleaned it out and began again.

That was a simple act of turning the compost. I’ll do it a little more often now, but not too often. Some of those ideas are kind of woody and fibrous and need time to break down and blend in.

So I just keep on adding to that file and keep my trust in the process.

What I learned about fictional characters by watching Downton Abbey

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Spoiler alert: If you have not watched this series and intend to, do not read this.

I binge-watched Downton Abbey. Six seasons in two weeks, give or take, while my husband was fishing. As most of you know, this is a completely different experience from watching one hour a week for six years. I was immersed, and could therefore follow storylines very closely. Perhaps too closely.

These are some of the things I learned about a television series that captured the imaginations of pretty much everybody who watched it. We want to learn from the winners.

  1. The Upstairs people had ridiculous problems, and many of the characters were annoying in their lack of self-awareness. When Mary was on the screen, I went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, or leafed through a magazine. She grated on me.
  2. The opposite of Mary was the Dowager Countess. Loved her. Love Maggie Smith in anything, but in this series, she had the best lines and the best facial expressions.
  3. The Upstairs men were all stupid, and the women surreptitiously controlled everything. I kind of enjoyed this subplot, as His Lordship Earl of Grantham was the big cheese, but never did anything productive in his life except lose his wife’s fortune and love his dog. Her Ladyship the Countess of Grantham knew what was what and took care of business, at least as much as her headstrong daughters would allow.
  4. The Downstairs people were fascinating. I loved every one of them, even the sinister Thomas Barrow, who became not only sympathetic, but eventually redeemed himself. This was a plot line that worked very well for me through the entire series.
  5. The relationship between the Housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes and the Butler, Mr. Carson (he was fantastic!) charmed me. Ditto the relationship between the Cook, Mrs. Patmore, and her assistant Daisy.
  6. My heart was really with the poor Mr. Bates and his darling wife. They were adorable individually and together, and the genius of the show (their storyline was really what kept me interested) is that they were the absolute picture of truth, goodness, and beauty, and injustice kept falling on their heads. First, he’s in prison, then she’s in prison, for offenses they didn’t commit. Then they couldn’t marry. Then they could marry but couldn’t inherit his dead wife’s ill-gotten estate. Then they couldn’t have a baby, the only thing they really wanted. For some reason, the fact that the Upstairs people were fertile and ashamed of it while these sweet people kept miscarrying invoked an interesting series of emotions.
  7. The series lasted one year too long. The writers were reaching for storylines by the end.

So, what did I learn about fiction from this marathon binge?

  1. Visit continual and horrific injustices on the nicest people.
  2. Let evil people run their evil almost to the breaking point, and then make them pay with whatever is dearest to them.
  3. Reward good people for their good works, but do it with a light touch. Let the reader/viewer fill in the happy ending details. Remember, fiction is about conflict.
  4. Let those who are their own worst enemy reap the rewards of their own making.
  5. Let the wily old ladies steal the scene. And
  6. Don’t keep writing just because you love the characters. Know when to quit, put in a period and write “The End.”

I know, these are not new insights, nor are they earth-shattering revelations. But it’s always good to pick apart something that works and see what makes it tick.

And now a question for you: What did you learn about fictional characters by watching the series finale of The Good Wife?

Populating Fiction

By Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s stating the obvious to say that the characters are the most important element of a story. But most writers, particularly beginners, don’t spend enough time designing the population of their book, and the result is lukewarm fiction.

Remember that your protagonist can only be as strong as your antagonist, and that plot is conflict.

Remember that if you don’t spend time designing your characters, they will all sound and act like you.

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Remember that fictional characters are all a little bit larger than life. By this I mean that your protagonist will have his good qualities exaggerated a little bit, and your antagonist will have his evil qualities exaggerated a little bit. But nobody is all good or all bad, except cartoon characters, so every one of those you choose to act out your message must be well-rounded personalities.

One handy tool for character development is the list of the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, greed, gluttony, envy, pride, lust and sloth. On the other side of this are the Seven Principal Virtues: prudence, courage, justice, self-control, faith, hope and charity. Mix and match these qualities in every one of your characters.

Pay attention to their names. Don’t burden your book with nondescript names like Bill, Bob, Joe, Tim, Stan, Debbie, Jane, Betty and Linda. Think Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Think Jim Nightshade, Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Count Dracula, Major Major, Victor Frankenstein, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan.

Take every opportunity to reveal your characters’ insides. Show their hands. Hands tell a lot about a person. Show your readers how your characters react to children and animals. Show your readers the inside of your character’s refrigerator. Is his house filled with lush, thriving houseplants or is there one dead cactus on the windowsill? Give your characters guilts, pet peeves, irritants, quirks and physical oddities. Know their backgrounds and their (hopefully quirky and memorable) families in great detail. If you believe in astrology, know your characters’ signs, and their siblings’ signs and how they relate with each other.

But most importantly, reveal your characters’ emotions, for it is through their emotions that your message is conveyed to the reader. Remember that your protagonists are usually unlikely heroes. Fiction is about people in trouble. We all react strongly when trouble is visited upon us. When you think about “writing what you know,” instead of thinking about your mundane life, think love, hate, anger, joy, grief, disappointment and triumph. Your characters may live in a different time or be of an alien race, but they will have human emotions, and your readers will resonate with that.

For an extraordinary trip through a character’s development and emotional content, read Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. There’s a reason this book is a classic, and if it’s been over ten years since you’ve read it, it’s time to revisit it. Read Watership Down by Richard Adams for an example of superb writing with non-humans as the characters. Invest in a good book of names and their meanings. And for a great reference tool for fictional relationships, Linda Goodman’s Love Signs can’t be beat.

The Faith of the Character

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the first things I do when I’m designing a character for a book is to distinguish that character from me. If I don’t pay particular attention to this detail, the characters all tend to sound like me. Middle age, middle class, average everything. But that, for the most part, does not make a memorable character.

A perfect example of this is in our current political climate. Look at Donald Trump and look at Jeb Bush. Which is more memorable? Which is bigger than life? Which would make a better fictional character?

So I exaggerate certain aspects of my characters’ personalities. I tend to use the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) and the Seven Principal Virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope, charity, and love), knowing, of course, that no bad guy is all bad and no good guy is all good. We’re all a mix of those things. Pick a few from column A and a few from column B and you have the start of a character.

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Today I’m thinking about one character’s faith. He’s not a church going guy. If he were, that would be easy. He’s Catholic. Or Mormon. Or Muslim. Or something else that’s easy to identify. And if you have a character who goes to mass every morning or to the Synagogue once a week or goes to meditation class once a month, you need say little more about the faith that grounds their moral character.

But some of us are more difficult to define than that.  Even if you never speak of your characters’ faith, you—as Creator of that character—need to know their heart. Their faith, no matter how flimsy, still underpins the foundation of their actions.

A violent character can feel violent recriminations for his/her actions, based on his or her faith. Or a violent character can feel great justifications for those same actions, depending. And that can be the same character.

Again, we can look to the current group of presidential candidates and see how their faith informs their actions. Or fails to inform their actions.  Is a candidate’s actions consistent with how he or she proclaims their faith?

And your characters? Do they toe the line, or do they find justifications for veering off?

Either way, when you know the depth of their faith, you know the depth of their character.

Designing a character is time well spent. Don’t overlook this very basic ingredient.