Saturday, May 10, 2008

Guest Blogger Tamara Siler Jones

Award-winning writer, Tamara Siler Jones, mixes magic, fantasy and forensics in the Dubric Byerly mysteries – Ghosts in the Snow, Threads of Malice, and Valley of the Soul. Tamara is currently working on the fourth book in the series. Visit her website at www.tamarasilerjones.com

Black Feathers

Many, many years ago, a man named Walt Disney made a movie about an elephant. Most everyone has seen it - I hope - and most folks know that Dumbo was an elephant that could fly because he had these REALLY BIG ears. And, well, he could just fly. How cool is that?

Anyway, some well meaning blackbirds and a mouse convinced Dumbo that, in order to fly, he needed a black feather. He didn't. He just needed to believe in himself.

Sometimes writers, both working and aspiring, cling to their black feathers, often when they're faced with failure. They brandish their feather and lay blame somewhere else. It's difficult to believe in yourself, it's a lot easier to believe in the feather, or fault things that render the feather impotent.


My critique group sucks!
I can't find a critique group!
I write perfectly! Don't need a critique group!
I write too big for genre!
I write too niche for genre!
I'm too original for these small minds!
I write too cozy for these highbrows!
They're all crooks anyway!
My book's worth a million dollars!
My cover art sucks!
My cover art doesn't fit my story!
How-to-write books are all wrong!
How-to-write books say this is the way!
How-to-write books disagree!
My agent dropped the ball!
My editor doesn't give me enough time!
Writing well is all about following the rules!
Writing has nothing to do with the rules!
I had shitty distribution!
I hate first person but that's all they buy!
I hate third person but that's all they buy!
Marketing didn't advertise it!
No one understands my brilliance!
I deserve to be published!
Reviewers get paid to write hatchet jobs!
XXX has it in for me!
My story's got plenty of plot!
It's literary! I don't need a plot!

And on and on and on. We've all heard them, we've probably all said them. I have too, on occasion.

The truth of the matter is, there are no black feathers, no tricks, no gimmicks, no sure things. It's up to us to fly. It's also up to us to make sure that we write things other people want to read. If you've submitted your story to every publisher and agent on the planet and they've all said "No", toss the feather away and admit it's probably not them.

It's the writer's job, their responsibility, to tell a compelling story that people want to read, in fact they'll want to read it so much that they'll pay money for it. It's the writer's job to fly, not the feather's fault when they don't.

"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild -- timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline -- a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample -- that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that, Dumbo didn't need the feather: the magic was in him."
-- Stephen King,

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Gotta love The Steve. :)

54 comments:

Paul Lamb said...

Gee whiz, I must be the only person in the world who doesn't revere Stephen King. I think his extreme commercial success has given him an unwarranted reputation as a writing oracle. Sure, some of his short stories are very good, and sure he can create a character and a mood, but just as often his writing is cumbersome and obvious. His pedantic tone about adverbs has become cliche. In fact, his writing instructions in On Writing has been dismissed by some critics as no more than high school English composition 101.

I'll give him credit for his success, but I'm not holding him up as a standard simply because of that. He's an anomaly, just as J.K. Rowling is. Good for them. But I think only a fool or a hack would hold them up as a writing role model.

Okay, I feel better now.

Darlene Ryan said...

Okay, Paul, I'm putting you on the hot seat. Come back and tell us who you would consider a "writing oracle." I may have to arm wrestle you over Stephen King and I'm stronger than I look. :)

Anonymous said...

Tamara, I love your series. I can't wait for the next book.

Lori said...

Will there be more Lars and Jess in the next book?

And will there be video of Paul and Darlene arm wrestling?

Tina said...

I kind of turned my family into my black feather. They were the excuse I used because I wasn't where I wanted to be in my writing. It was easier to say I had too many family responsibilities than to admit I wasn't sure I could write an entire book.

Darlene Ryan said...

Tina, I don't think you're alone in using your family as a black feather. Good luck with your book.

Paul Lamb said...

Okay, Darlene, I can never say no to a beautiful woman (especially one who is stronger than she looks).

First of all, I don't begrudge Mr. King any of his success. The more writers like him succeed, the better it is for the rest of us.

My point is that I think too many writers are using his success as some sort of barometer by which to measure their own work. Stephen King is so far outside the norm in terms of commercial success that he is completely useless as a comparator.

That being said, I think writers continue to revere him in ways that just aren't appropriate. I said before that I find his writing to be cumbersome and obvious much of the time, and I stick by it. But I think so many people are dazzled by his success that they automatically and uncritically consider him the standard for all things related to writing. I wonder how many people have analyzed his sentence structure or word choice frequency, for example.

I read his book On Writing and while he was railing against adverbs (the -ly variety), he was using adverbial phrases left and right. I think it was the New York Times that said his writing advice was high school level stuff. I think any serious writer had better be shooting a lot higher than high school level composition, be it fiction or nonfiction.

But to answer your fair question, I continue to come back to Philip Roth as perhaps the very best living writer we have. When I read his work (especially The Ghost Writer) I can feel that every single word is exactly chosen and hard at work. He can mix the sublime and the mundane in a single sentence perfectly.

With so many writers I read, I am often rephrasing their work, seeing ways I think it could be done better. I don't ever find that when I'm reading Roth.

Sandra Parshall said...

Actually, Paul, the very best living writers are Louise Erdrich, Ruth Rendell, and Thomas H. Cook.

In other words, opinions differ. :-)

I think King is very talented. I don't care much for horror stories, but the writing itself is good.

Darlene Ryan said...

I will scurry to the library and look for Louise Erdrich whom I have never read because I almost always like books and authors Sandy suggests. And I will look for Philip Roth as well because I'm a sucker for flattery. :)

And maybe you two will try Tamara's books which are terrific.

Tamara Siler Jones said...

Lori,

Lars and Jess will definitely be in the next Dubric book. Whether things between them will go smoothly is yet to be determined, though. ;)

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