Category Archives: On writing

Respecting the Reader

Hello, is anybody there?

Some writers write to write; it’s a compulsion, like singing along to Mama Mia or reading Fifty Shades of Grey on your Kindle.

Other writers write to remember, anticipating the day when they will have to leave sticky notes around the house to remind themselves to let the cat out.

Me, I write to be read.  If I didn’t, I’d just cavort with my fantasies all day and save myself a lot of grief.

When I was an advertising writer, there wasn’t a word I wrote that ever ended up the same way it started out.  Even the minimalist words in a television commercial were scrubbed up one side and down the other, from colleagues to creative directors to clients—and, oh, yes, the lawyers, who never met a fun word they couldn’t find some reason to kill.

But as a novelist, objectivity is a choice rather than an imposition.  Personally, I’ve found it easy to get sucked in by my own words, basking in how wonderful they were to write rather than how relevant they might be to read.

So I try to keep one goal always in mind:  Respect the reader.

If someone is going to spend actual money to buy my book, then invest hours or days of their time to read it, my principal obligation, I think, is to make that investment worthwhile.  Money may come and go, but time only moves in one direction, and there’s nothing worse than getting through a book and thinking you should have spent your time washing the car or watching reruns of Friends.

Personally, I think books should be fun to read, should be engaging, involving, challenging, enthralling.  Elmore Leonard said if it sounded like writing, he took it out.  For me, it’s just the opposite:  I think reading is all about the writing. 

Words matter—not just in the mouths of the characters but in the minds of the readers.  I don’t just want to be told a story, I want to get lost in a story.  I want poetry and imagery and sensory experiences.  I want to do things and think things and even be things I could never do on my own.  I want the book to be a guide to open up a whole new world for me, so I feel enriched for having read it rather than depleted for having wasting my time with it.  In the end, I want to put down the book and be flabbergasted and exhausted and utterly alive and say, “Wow, that was great!  When can we do it again?!”

Is that easy to achieve?  Nope.  But it’s worth striving for, don’t you think?

It’s Never Too Late Unless You’re Dead

Worse than not succeeding is not trying at all.

I’m sixty-six years old and trying to launch a career as a writer.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

I am sixty-six years old, but I’ve been a professional writer my whole career.  I was an advertising copywriter and creative director at several global agencies for twenty-five years and I’ve been an independent marketing and communications writer for ten.

But I’m launching a career as a novel writer now because of Mike Koelker.

Mike was the creative director on the Levi’s account at Foote, Cone & Belding in the 70s and 80s.  That was the hottest account in town and Mike was the hottest creative director.  As the VP of Worldwide Marketing at Levi’s once told me – and it was after several drinks at Reno’s, so I know it was true – “If Mike Koelker leaves FCB, Levi’s leaves FCB.”

Mike also gave me my first break.  He referred me to Ron Berman, who was creative director of the office, and Ron eventually hired me.  I was lucky.

But what I still remember vividly was sitting in Mike’s office one day, talking about creative stuff like we always did, and some account executive, trying to kiss up I figured, asked, “Mike, you’re such a great writer, why haven’t you written a novel?”

Without hesitating he responded, “Because I guess I have nothing to say.”

That was sad, I thought, even at the time, because I bet Mike had plenty to say.  He’s gone now, so we’ll never know.

But that stuck with me and made me wonder throughout my own career if I was similarly afflicted, that I had nothing to say.  Even before I got into advertising, I wrote a novel.  I sent it around to agents and publishers.  And they all sent it back.  Years later I reread it and realized they were right:  It was bad.

That’s actually what propelled me into advertising.  Having failed at my first novel – so easily dissuaded! – and then having written a play and a screenplay, both of which suffered the same fate – I pitched myself to the ad world.  And I got in.  And I loved it!  So I didn’t worry about whether I had anything to say — I was getting paid to write.

But I’m older now than Mike was when he died, and I think I finally have something to say.

So with that as a basis, I’m “starting over” at sixty-six.

Actually, that’s not quite true either.

I actually started over about three years ago.  I wrote a screenplay called Cenote.  I pitched it to Kerry McCluggage, I pitched it to Tony Bill, I pitched it to Charlie Meeker.  No, no, no.

So I rewrote it as a novel.  And I queried agents about it.  And they all rejected it.  So I rewrote it.  More queries.  More rejections.  More rewrites.  Queries-rejections-rewrite.  It was a nice dependable pattern in my life.

And in the process of writing Cenote, I discovered that the story is actually a trilogy.  So I’ve already written the second book in the series, called Primrose, and I’m working on the third, called Eden.

But while these books bubble to the surface, I thought I’d start this blog.

Because I think I have something to say.

Maybe you do, too.  Post a reply, ask a question, let me know what you think.  Maybe you write, maybe you paint or sculpt or take photographs or do music or weave baskets — whatever you do, just as a joy shared is twice a joy and a sorrow shared is half a sorrow, a dream shared has a better chance of becoming more than a dream.

Because I think a dream, any dream – even if it seems distant and unreachable and unrealistic – I think that dream deserves a chance to struggle and squirm and fight its way into existence.

Because a dream is a gift.  It’s a fragile, magical thing that can carry us away and let us soar.

I don’t care how old you are, if you have a dream, it’s worth the effort to try to see it come to life.  Because it’s never too late.  Unless you’re dead.  Mike taught me that.