Wednesday, April 7, 2010

From Reader to Writer

Presented by Joyce DiPastena 
at the Kearny (Arizona) Public Library on April 7, 2010

(Delivered in my new haircut to the right. It's one of the few times you'll catch me with straight hair. I'm washing all the curls back in tomorrow!)

I had an exciting year last year! I did a lot of traveling and visited both new and familiar places.

One stop I made was in England! I saw so many exciting things there, my head still spins when I try to remember them all. As some of you might know from the kind of books I write, I love the Middle Ages. So I was especially thrilled when I got to stand on the battlefield of Hastings (1), where William the Conqueror defeated the Saxons in the year 1066 and united two races that would eventually merge into the people who would become some of my ancestors. From there I visited a cold and drafty medieval castle where a young girl named Catherine once lived. (2)

After my tour of medieval sites, I visited the town of Bath, a popular resort in Regency England. While there, I learned to dance two popular Regency dances called the cotillion and the quadrille. I visited some of the magnificent Regency-style houses in London, watched the fireworks at Covent Gardens (3), and had the privilege of attending the great concert hall where a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, so moved King George II that his excitement drove him to his feet during the Hallelujah Chorus (4), beginning the tradition of standing during that chorus that continues to this day.

I saw some exciting things in America last year, too! I got to follow the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the South to freedom in the North during the American Civil War. From there, I joined a company of covered wagons and crossed the great plains back to the American West. (5)

By now you may have guessed that I did not actually visit any of these places physically. So it probably won’t surprise you that, in addition to the experiences I just mentioned, I also lived life for a week as a dog (6), visited the palace of Sushan in Persia where Queen Esther saved the Jews through her courage and faith as recounted in the Bible (7), and made a stop in Germany where I helped that famous detective, Adrian Monk, solve a murder case (8).

How did I do all these wonderful things? Through the magic of books, of course!

Every writer, before they become a writer, starts out as a reader and lover of books. But every reader does not turn into a writer. Since all of us sitting here tonight love to read (or we wouldn’t be sitting in a library, right?), what, I wondered, tipped the scale for some of us from being contented readers of words to becoming crafters of words?

I knew some of the things that had personally tipped that scale for me, but I wondered what had tipped them for other writers. So I did a mini-survey last week and asked some of my writer friends this very question. The first thing I learned from the responses I received is that fiction and non-fiction writers come at their writing from two very different directions. Since I’m a fiction writer, those were the answers I most related to and the ones I’d like to share with you.

As I read my friends’ responses, I identified two defining quirks in the brain of a fiction writer. I call these the “What If? Syndrome” and “The Dissatisfaction Syndrome”.

Joan Sowards, author of Haunts Haven and Chocolate Roses, said in answer to my survey question: “You can’t write fiction into [an] ancestor’s story, but I kept feeling prompted to sit down and write what she would say if I got a chance to interview her. When I did, it blossomed into a short story, then a novel. That book isn’t published, but through it, I learned that I love to write.”

And Anne Patrick, author of Lethal Dreams and Reservations for Two, said: “I may be strange, but as a kid after I’d read a book, and sometimes even as I was reading it, I would start imagining how I would have done a scene differently. And I still do this often, especially with mysteries/thrillers. It never fails, before I’m done with the book my mind is going haywire with ideas and possibilities.”

Both of these authors suffer from the “What If? Syndrome”.

In Joan’s case, it manifested itself a bit more subtly. Somewhere in her subconscious lay the thought: “What if I were to sit down and interview this ancestor. What might she say to me?” And from that “What if…?” question grew the interview that turned into a short story that turned into a novel.

The “What If? Syndrome” manifested itself much more glaringly in Anne. When her mind goes “haywire” with imagining different twists and turns that a scene she is reading might have taken instead of the way the author wrote it, she is basically asking herself: “What if this happened in this scene, instead of that? How would the characters have reacted? What if the author had thrown in this twist instead, how would the characters have dealt with it? Oooo, wouldn’t it have been fun to see how the story might have ended if such and such had happened instead?”

I understand what Anne is saying and thinking and feeling, because I have said and thought and felt those same things when reading a book. In fact, the first book I ever wrote (still unpublished) is filled with characters and plot points that I consciously took from other books I had read and sought to twist and turn. Keeping in mind that I’m referring to plots that were popular in romances in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s: “Why,” I remember asking myself, “is the hero in romances always portrayed ‘like this’? I hate those kind of heroes! What if I took all those cookie-cutter hero-characteristics and poured them into my villain instead? And why is that, when what stands between a hero and heroine is the humble birth of one vs. the aristocratic birth of the other, the one of humble birth always turns out, in the end, to be as highly born as the other in order for them to have their happy ending? What if the one of humble birth never turned into an aristocrat at all, but remained humbly born from the beginning to the end of the story? How would such a story be resolved?”

These are the kinds of questions—What if? questions—that dig and nag and finally burn themselves through a writers brain until the writer finds herself compelled to sit down and try to answer those questions with pen and paper or computer keyboard and screen.

The second syndrome—the “Dissatisfaction Syndrome”—is described by two other friends of mine.

Carmen Ferreiro Esteban, author of Two Moon Princess, said: “For me [what tipped the scale] was that nobody seemed to get it right. So I decided to write it myself, the book I would like to read.”

Rachael Renee Anderson, author of the novel, Divinely Designed, said: “For me it was because I couldn’t find enough books written in the style I liked to read (that were clean, that is). I was a voracious reader and the authors I enjoyed reading couldn’t keep up!”

Again, I remember a time in my life when I haunted the bookstores, desperate to find a book already written that told the story I had swirling around in my mind at the time. I was certain the characters and plot I was thinking of couldn’t be that unique, and that surely someone else had thought up the same characters and plot and published it in a book. But every time I thought I’d found a book that was at least close, I’d buy it and take it home and read it, only to be disappointed, not only because it didn’t quite tell the story that I was looking for, but because it was filled with graphic sex scenes that I didn’t want to read. And so, just as my friend Carmen said, I finally came to the conclusion that if I were ever going to get to read that story I had in my head (without the graphic sex scenes), I was simply going to have to sit down and write it myself. Which is what I finally did.

For one reason or another, Carmen and Rachael and I were all dissatisfied with what we found on the bookshelves. Not that there aren’t a lot of wonderful books to read! There are and we still read them. But none of them quite tell the stories we envision in our own, unique heads, and for that, each of us has learned that if we ever want to read that story, we are simply going to have to write it ourselves.

There is one last syndrome that I just remembered that every author suffers from. I’m not quite sure what to call this one. It may sound like pride or arrogance, but it really isn’t, and without it, there would be precious few books to read in the world.

Marsha Ward, author of The Man from Shenandoah and two sequels that make up her Owen’s Family Western series, put it this way:

“Back in the 80s, I enrolled my children in a library summer reading program. Since we spent a lot of time there, I naturally increased my reading list. For some reason, I picked up a couple of Western novels. One was poorly written [NOTE: SHE ONLY SAID “ONE”!], leading me to say to myself, ‘I can write better than that!’

“The truth is, for years I had dabbled in writing for my own pleasure. This occasion spurred me to get serious and study the craft.”

Whether they will admit it out loud or not, every writer has read at least one book that has lead them to shout, “I can write better than that!”

As I said, this may sound like arrogance, but if it weren’t for such moments of cockiness, self-confidence, whatever you want to call it, writers might write until they were blue in the face, but none of us would have the courage to ever send our writing out to those all-powerful people called “PUBLISHERS”, and without Publishers, readers, as I said, would have precious little to read.

So the next time you pick up a book, remember that behind the words you are reading stands a human being who is badly smitten with three diseases:

The “What-If? Syndrome”. The “Dissatisfaction Syndrome”. And the “I Can Write Better Than That! Syndrome”.

And if you love books and reading, then just smile and say, “Thank you.”

Thank you for coming and listening tonight.


1. The Conqueror, by Georgette Heyer

2. Catherine, Called Birdie, by Karen Cushman

3. Various Regency romances by Georgette Heyer, Heidi Ashworth, Jaimey Grant, and Donna Hatch

4. Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio, by Tim Slover

5. Martha’s Freedom Train, by C. LaRene Hall; Trail of Storms, by Marsha Ward

6. Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones

7. Esther, by Norah Lofts

8. Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, by Lee Goldburg


Marsha Ward said...

Joyce, that's a very good presentation. I hope you had fun. Thanks for the mention!

Unknown said...

Great presentation, Joyce. I bet it was a fantastic experience for you.

Anna del C. Dye said...

I love that presentation. It has given me ideas of how to make my own. Thanks, you are a great teacher.
Anna del C.
Author of "The Silent Warrior Trilogy"

Valerie Ipson said...

I love your presentation. It seriously gave me goosebumps. I love being a reader and a writer.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Goosebumps? Wow, Valerie! I wish you'd been in my audience that night, instead of all those wiggly kids and bored parents.

Suzanne Barker said...

Sounds like you did a fantastic job as usual Joyce!