Friday, October 19, 2007

When it comes to writing, throw everything in the pot and let it simmer

by guest blogger Donnell Ann Bell

Sadly, my girlfriend broke her hand on the job last week, and after surgery she’s going to be laid up for an entire month. She’s been working and studying hard to be a chef and had recently gained an externship at The Broadmoor, a five-star hotel in the city we live. This externship is a big deal, not only for her, but for her friends and family, who have missed her delightful company over the past two years. What’s equally tragic about her story is that with three adult boys, like many writers out there, she waited until they were grown to fulfill her passion.

So to take her mind off her setback, we toured a bookstore, where she asked me to recommend some books. After all, if she can’t cook, she might as well catch up on her reading. As I excitedly pointed to authors I love, she picked up a few and said, “You know what’s interesting. A lot of these people are your age.”

Since her hand was already broken, I showed my compassionate side and didn’t attack her. But her comment did make me smile and think about what writers and chefs have in common. Because, the way I see it, members of these occupations don’t learn their trades overnight. To make our plots gel, writers often have to let their ideas simmer, and life experience and work are the requisite ingredients needed before they can say, “The End,” or in chef speak, “Dinner is served.”

To prove this point, I became a roving reporter and approached some authors I admire and asked them the following: Did maturity and age help you in your writing career, or do you wish you’d started earlier? Interestingly enough, no one claimed to have properties of fast-rising yeast.

In alphabetical order …

Kylie Brant
(Harlequin/Silhouette author and soon to be Berkley author, introducing her SWAT trilogy, Waking Nightmare, Waking Evil and Waking the Dead.)


After I finished my Master's program at twenty-five, I read a lot of contemporary romance. Theoretically, I could have started my writing career for Silhouette at that time, had it occurred to me then. However, between twenty-six and twenty-nine I had a third baby and then a set of twins, so time might have been an issue! As it turned out, I started writing when my twins turned four. When I sold my first manuscript two years later, I avoided selling on proposal for a few years, simply because I didn't want the demands of my second career to interfere with time spent with my kids.Every person goes through stages in their lives, and every stage brings a different level of insight, different perspectives. There's no doubt that experience brings deeper introspection and that directly impacts our ability to develop characterization. Things tend to appear more black and white to us when we are younger. Age brings an understanding of the shades of gray, and the complexities of human nature. That understanding and our ability to convey them in our plots make us better writers.I know that I couldn't write the edgy suspense I'm writing now while in my twenties. That took years to hone. And I don't think I would have been comfortable tackling some of the gritty elements I include in my stories now. I guess it's good to know that there's at least one thing age and experience are good for!

Allison Brennan (multi-published with Ballantine and New York Times Bestselling Author, What You Can’t See (anthology 12/26/07, Killing Fear 1/29/08)


Being a writer has always been my dream. When I was 13, I wrote to Stephen King and told him I wanted to be a writer when I grew up (after I gushed over THE STAND.) He sent me a postcard that said, "If you want to be a writer, write." It took me nearly twenty years to get serious about my writing. I had over 100 beginnings and no endings. But after a day care scare with Brennan #3 (then 8 months old), I was determined to finish one of my stories. Ignorance IS sometimes bliss: I thought getting to "The End" was the hardest part of getting published. But I've typed "The End" 15 times: on four never-to-be published novels, six published, two in production, two short stories, and a novella. My inspiration is my dream--this is what I've always wanted, the one and only thing I've ever done solely for myself from the beginning.

I don't think I would have sold before I turned 30. My stories were juvenile at best, but even more important than that, I didn't have the discipline to learn how to be a better writer, or the patience to make sacrifices. When I was twenty, television, socializing with friends, going to the movies, weekend trips, all held far more allure to me than sitting at a computer everyday writing. Writing was a hobby. I also think that making friends, getting married, having children, building a career, and becoming immersed in day-to-day living has helped me develop insights into human psychology that are invaluable to my stories.

Ronald Cree (Young Adult author
who writes the Gus Gonzales mystery series, published with Simon Pulse)

After college, I immersed myself in three years of volunteering. Working in the Hispanic community, I began seeing all sorts of possibilities for characters and stories. During a brief stint working as an Occupational Therapist aide in a hospital in Lancaster, California, I met a young boy named Rafael who would later become the basis for my first novel's main character, Gus Gonzalez. Years later, I was assisting a number of Hollywood actor friends with their professional websites--including The OC's Nicholas Gonzalez and Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria--when one of the stories in my head finally gelled and Desert Blood 10pm/9c came to life.

Laura Iding (Practicing nurse and Medical Romance Author, published with Mills and Boon)
I think a lot of us wish we were sold earlier in our lives, but I honestly don't think my books would have been nearly as emotionally fulfilling. My career as a nurse has dramatically helped my writing, not just because I write medical romances (although that certainly helps in writing my medical scenes), but because of the insight I've gained into people's thoughts and feelings. Great characters are the mainstay of every story and meeting people, learning about them, is key to writing great characters. When I get stuck with heroes and heroines who aren't doing what they're supposed to do, I feel very lucky to have the ability to go to work, meet some of my patients and their families. This invariably makes me realize exactly what I need to do to help my characters move the story forward.

Madge Walls, (Author of Paying the Price, an award-winning novel of real estate in Hawaii and Hawaii Real Estate Exam Book)

I wanted to write fiction when I was younger, but I didn’t have anything of interest to say. By the time my children were teenagers, I suddenly had lots to say! Not only had I been tempered by my sons and difficult husband, but I began to understand the dynamics of my parents, siblings and friends as well. Then there was my career as a Realtor. I got involved in the lives of so many interesting people, and the stories began to spin in my head. I realized I’d been studying people all my life, trying to understand their motivations, their fears, their passions and more. And I developed the discipline to get up an hour earlier every morning, cuff my ankle to my chair, and spend an hour writing before work. That kind of steady output finally got me published. In my case, writing required an amount of maturity that I just didn’t have in my twenties and thirties.

*~*~*~

Thanks very much to the wonderful authors who shared their insights and for affirming when it comes to writing, age might actually be an asset, and to my friend Fran Gleason who unwittingly provided the impetus for this blog.

As for all of you out there, I’m curious. Has age helped or hindered your careers? Maybe you can provide a different slant. And to Fran, like everything you do in life, you’ll sail over this in your magnificent fashion and emerge even stronger and better.

Donnell Ann Bell is an award-winning aspiring author and a 2007 Golden Heart finalist. Check out her web page at http://donnellannbell.com/

20 comments:

Annette said...

Welcome back, Donnell!

I started writing so long ago that my first writing implement was a crayon. I wrote several "novels" longhand in bound notebooks while I was in school. But then I slipped into a 25 year writer's block when I thought life got in the way. Now, I realize it was a good thing because life gave me the material I needed to write something folks might be interested in reading.

Life experience is what gives our material its soul.

Tory said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Donnell!
What a great blog.

Actually, your stories reminded me of playing violin. When I was in High School, I practiced an hour a day on classical music. In grad. school, I started playing folk music. Once I graduated, I didn't have time to practice much, but I noticed that I could take the simple tunes I played and make them sing. That had never been my strength in High School. While youth sometimes gives us impressive skills, it usually takes maturity to make them into real music!

Donnell B. said...

Good morning, Annette, thanks for having me back.:)) It's early where I'm at so I'm off to get coffee, but you make your point so well. Our life experience and *work* in my opinion is paid research. :)

Donnell B. said...

Tory, what you did to your music was layer. Well done! Have you ever noticed that the best writers take a simple statement and make it their own, leaving their own indelible mark on it? Thanks for the welcome!

Joyce said...

Thanks so much for this, Donnell!

I definitely think age and maturity help my writing. As one of the authors said, you learn to see things in shades of gray instead of black and white.

When I look back at some things I wrote years ago, I cringe when I see how the heroes were ALL good and the villains ALL bad. Real people (or real characters for that matter) aren't one dimensional like that.

You have to experience life before you can write about it.

donnell b. said...

LOL, Joyce, did you have Snidely Whiplash villain? Have you ever heard the remark, your protagonist is too perfect, he/she has no flaws. You gotta make them human, and life and years make us aware of how very human people are.

Joyce said...

Yeah, as much as I love old Snidely, I sure don't want him in my books!

Karin Tabke said...

I'm right on track! Good post, Donnell.

Kristine said...

Welcome back, Donnell!

I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I think it raises an interesting question about age and writing.

I'm a fairly younger writer (early 30's) in relation to my peers and as a result, I have been criticized (not by anyone here or in our group, of course). Usually I'm the first to stand up for my generation when people criticize that writers my age are too young or don't have enough life experience to be a writer. I think we all write from where we are in life and while I may not have a lot of life experience, I write what I know and don't claim to have all the answers.

Having said that, however, I've been writing seriously for six years, and I feel as if I'm still learning where my comfort zone is and where my writing "fits." It's a journey, that's for sure, and maturity plays a BIG part.

Robin said...

What a great blog, Donnell! The wonderful thing about this career is that you're never too old to write! I know that when my youngest (now 10) is grown up and I'm an empty-nester, I'll never be bored or wonder what to do with my life. Writing is something I'll always have and I feel blessed to have found something I'm so passionate about!

donnell b said...

Kristine, great comment! If you look back on the authors and bloggers who commented today, I suspect you'll see they've always had a story to tell. Annette said she wrote stories with crayons, Kylie Brant said she could have started writing earlier but put her kids first, Allison Brennan said she wrote Stephen King when she was 13! Writers aren't made they're born. As for criticism, I judge a lot of contests. I can't begin to tell you how many high school and college students I've judged where their voice just sings. I gave you a list of people who used life experience as a tool, I can think of two people off the top of my head, Lisa Gardner and Lisa Keyplas, who were published in their twenties. (they obviously had a story(s) to tell ;) You mentioned something important, you're not only writing, you're learning. Listen to criticism only if it is well intended. If it is hurtful, consider the source and toss it. Thanks for writing. :)

onethousandwords said...

Donnell:

Thanks for the enlighted article. Writers come in all ages and trying to convince schoolkids of this is like pulling taffy, some stick, others puddle, and the rest get it just right. But all end up with the sweet taste of victory for trying.
Writing is a vocation that an individual can do whenever she wants, whether she's 1, 8, 18 or 81. The best thing is every person's life's experiences are unique to that person at that point in the person's time, and as they mature, their experiences change, broadening, and expanding.
Thus, your point about having more ingredients to use in various ways as an adult is valid. Likewise, the enthusiam of a young cook beaming with success when serving her first cake to her family.
Writing is an individual activity that lasts a lifetime.
Don't believe me? Pick up a pen and try it for yourself.

donnell b. said...

Wow, Sue, I don't think I could have said it better than that!

Thank you!

Jean said...

What a wonderful blog, Donnell! Each one of us has a unique perspective on life. That perspective is what makes storytelling so wonderful.
Thanks for sharing!
Jean

Edie said...

Great blog, Donnell! I'll be seeing Laura Iding tomorrow at my chapter meeting, I hope. She's amazing!

I agree what so many of the others said. That my life experience goes into my books. I have more to write about now. My books have more depth, and my characters and plots come from what I feel deeply about.

Laura Iding said...

Great post Donnell. I was a nurse when I was 20 and my patients used to ring their call light and when I came in, they asked me if they could get their nurse. The look of horror on their face when I told them I was their nurse was priceless.

Just goes to show that any career at any age has their ups and downs, but overall it's very much how we approach the situation. I think I was still a good nurse, just a young one. I do think though, that I got a little better with experience.

As writers, our experience can come from contests, rejections and of course hopefully getting published. For all the writers out there, it's the experience of the process that really counts!

donnell b. said...

Hi, everyone, I enjoyed being here with you today. Thanks to all the wonderful authors who shared their comments, young or old, whatever your passion, never give up on it. Thank you for blogging with me. Stay safe out there. ~ Donnell

allison said...

Love the entire article, Donnell! Thanks for including me :)

Christopher Paolini was 17 when he wrote Eragon. I think age and experience is important, but not absolutely essential. George Lucas apparently was a difficult student, struggled through school, because he daydreamed all the time. And look where he is!

But someone like me . . . I chose a career and family and treated writing as a hobby until I realized that writing was part of ME. It took a lot of time and growing up to accept that and make the sacrifices to achieve my goals.

(Love your story, Laura! Especially about your patients being so shocked at your age . . . ;)

Cheryl Norman said...

Hi Donnell! Enjoyed the post. I wish I could answer your question about age and maturity. I guess the longer I live, the more experiences I have from which to draw.

If I ever mature, I'll let you know. *LOL*

Cheryl

F. P. Dorchak said...

As I read through all these responses, it occurred to me that that the question of “age” is more of a byproduct of the answer than the answer itself. As some noted, it’s a maturity level that grew. The accumulation of life experiences that contributed to better writing. If age were purely the answer than we’d all be experts and gurus after hitting the 40/50/60+ milestones. The fact is some (dare I say “many”?) do not persist in their endeavors like the GOOD writers do (and this can pretty much be applied to anything). And, yes, “luck” (however defined) does play a role in success. But, persistence, it is said, is the key to success. If you do anything long enough, you’re bound to get good at it. Perhaps. I’m still trying to prove that point, myself. But like being good at anything, short of the few phenoms in the world, it takes time. Like Donnell said, things have to simmer--again, barring the geniuses in the world, cause there’s always someone out there who likes to throw off the Bell Curve (pardon the pun!). I also think that there are quality, not to mention metaphysical reasons why some make it and others don’t, and it has nothing to do with age.

I always like to think of what Diane Mott Davidson said, years ago, when she just got her big break into the biz, when speaking at a writers conference I attended. She ignored any of the things that would or could hinder her success, she just did what she did and took a positive approach. Some may consider this Pollyanna and overly simplistic, but I think that could well serve all of us, be it relating to age, gender, genre, or anything else!